Today, Moncrief is an area that most Jaxsons avoid or know little about outside of the local media's crime coverage. However, a century ago it was the site of one of the nation's most popular horse racing tracks.
In early 1909, led by lumber mill owner Thomas V. Cashen, a group of Jacksonville businessmen established the Florida Live Stock & State Fair Association with $150,000. Their intention was to construct a horse racing facility that would make Jacksonville the winter racing center of the South at the site where former Jacksonville mayor Peter Jones stated the following quote decades earlier in 1874.
"A wonder spring! Not 20 men in Duval County have ever seen or heard of it! Why, it is wonderful! I intend to buy it, and Jacksonville shall reap the benefit of the purchase. In less than 12 months I will have a shell road running from Jacksonville, a toll gate, bathing houses, restaurant, nine pin alley, race course, baseball ground, and this will be the most fashionable drive and resort in the state."
An early 20th century street map of Jacksonville showing the location of the Moncrief Park race track.
Cashen served as president of the Association. Other officers included H. D. "Curly" Brown, first vice-president, J. H. Patterson, second vice-president, Jere S. Smith, third vice-president, Francis J. Pons, secretary-treasurer, and F. P. Lord, Ben S. Catlett, Leopold Furchgott, and C. C. Butler, directors. Brown had previously been involved with establishing racetracks in Chicago (Arlington Park), Maryland (Laurel), New Orleans (City Park), Montana (Clear Lodge) and Havana (Oriental Park). Furchgott was the founder of Furchgott's Department Store. Featuring rows of stables, two grandstands (one for African-American patrons) and a mile track, the 125-acre park was completed within one month of its groundbreaking. The main grandstand was described to be decorated with American colors and miniature flags.
A Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department postcard of a race at Moncrief Park.
When the facility opened, it was the first race track in this part of the country and considered one of the best in the United States at the time. Located four miles north of Jacksonville, it was reached by either automobile or streetcar. A drive by car was a 45 minute one way trip from downtown Jacksonville to Moncrief Park. In addition, the Georgia Southern and Florida railroad ran a spur to provide access to the track's grandstand. In downtown Jacksonville, David Myerson Jr's men's furnishings store at the corner of Bay and Hogan Streets, became sports center at the time. There, the streetcars carrying people to the track from Jacksonville originated. The Myers store eventually became Levy's Department Store. Admission to the grandstand cost men seventy-five cents and ladies fifty cents.
Races were held every day except for Sunday during the season, which was during the winter months. The first racing event was held for nineteen days from March 27 to April 17, 1909. An estimated 6,000 men and women racegoers were in attendance on opening day. Foods served included hot dogs and hot roast beef sandwiches.
The official starter, Curly Brown, also vice president of the Association, had a reputation for betting and carrying a loaded .45 to back up his short temper. According to Cashen's son T.V. in a 1958 interview, at the first event "there were 25 to 50 bookies and each had his own clerk with him to keep track of the business he was doing. They posted the odds on blackboards in their stalls." At the height of the track's popularity, all of the famous horses of the era raced at the track, which allowed betting to be done through as much as 110 bookies who had their own individual stalls to accept bets. Bookies such as Harry "Fisco" Gardner, Edward "Snapper" Garrison, and handicapper Frank Rathan were frequent visitors at Moncrief Park.
Left: New York Congressman Charles Rodgers was a special guest at Moncrief Park's 1910 New Year's night event. Right: Edward "Snapper" Garrison was a frequent Moncrief Park visitor. Snapper was known for the "Garrison finish", a whip-slashing, come-from-behind ride in which he won by a small margin. It was a heart-stopping technique that worked. He was inducted in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955.
After the first season, the Association planned for their golden egg to develop into one of the largest interstate fairs and expositions in the country. To achieve this vision, plans were developed that included reconditioning the track, tripling the size of the grandstand and landscaping the lawns with flowers and tropical plants. By November 1909, the grandstand had been enlarged, a modern paddock added and a new secretaries' building constructed.
When the gates opened on Thanksgiving Day 1909, between 9,000 to 10,000 people attended, paying increased admissions prices of $1.50 for men and $1.00 for women. Admission prices were significantly increased to "deter people who cannot afford the luxury of racing from going." For 1910's New Year's night, the Association organized the invitation only Jockeys' Ball. Special guest included ex-Senator A.J. Alfred of Carrabelle and Congressman Charles Rodgers of Brewerton, New York.
Moncrief track with grandstand in background. Image courtesy of Cardcow.com