The Lost Story of Jacksonville's Moncrief Park
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.
Published December 30, 2015 in History - MetroJacksonville.com
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
The track was also known for its Ladies Day events where admission for women was free when accompanied by an escort. Six of these events were planned for the 1909-10 season. For March 15, 1910's Ladies Day, six races were held for four-year olds and upward with winning purses ranging between $300 and $500. Joseph A. Murphey of New Orleans was the Presiding Judge. Murphy had agreed to serve as judge at Moncrief Park until racing had resumed at Hot Springs, Arkansas. P.A. Brady served as the associate judge.
During its operation, the track proved to be an economic asset for Jacksonville. It's promoters estimated that the economic benefit for Jacksonville merchants was over $4 million in trade during the 110 day racing seasons. By 1910, New Yorkers were calling Moncrief the "Belmont of the South" and Jacksonville was being sold as the place to go on vacation. For comparison's sake, a horse racing track opened in Tampa the same season as Moncrief Park. However, by the second season, the horses that had little or no chance to win in Jacksonville were being shipped to Tampa in hopes of winning feed money at that track.
After the closure of Moncrief Park, Harry D. "Curly" Brown went on to establish Arlington Park in suburban Chicago in 1927. That park operates today as the Arlington International Racecourse and is owned by Churchill Downs, Inc. The American Derby, once held at Moncrief Park, remains one of the Arlington's major events.
In addition, the historic American Derby, now held annually at Arlington Park near Chicago, was held at Moncrief Park. The American Derby of 1911 was won by a horse named Governor Gray and ridden by Roscoe Goose, one of the outstanding Jockies of the era. The purse for the American Derby was about $5,000 while daily program purses ranged from $300 to $500.
The last race was held on April 1, 1911, just a few years after Cashen, and a man named Jere Smith, had founded the Gentlemen's Driving Club, a state-chartered organization that was the nucleus for the race track which was developed in 1909. Thirteen days after the last race, newspaper editorials denounced horseracing as events that only attracted one class of people who lived off the residents as parasites. They also claimed the races did not support the local economy.
Moncrief Park Band. Image courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
Shortly after the track opened in 1909, an anti-racing group had been established to abolish gambling and the wrong types of people from coming to Jacksonville. According to Historian T. Frederick Davis, the races had a bad effect on the city by attracting the wrong element and shipping profits out of town. However, this position was flawed considering the Jax Brewing Company was one of the economic spinoffs of the track at Moncrief. One of the track's spectators was William Ostner of St. Louis. From a family with breweries in St. Louis, New Orleans, Memphis, Louisville, Illinois and Wisconsin, Ostner returned to open the last American brewery before Prohibition adjacent to Moncrief Park. By Prohibition, the brewery, which overlooked Moncrief Park, employed over 240 Jacksonville residents.
Nevertheless, in Spring 1911, the Florida State Senate passed a bill prohibiting all racetrack gambling by an overwhelming vote of 62 to 1. It was said that many legislators had been pressured by their constituents to prove their moral values. Signed by Governor Albert Waller Gilchrist, the bill became effective May 1, 1911. After the race track closed, Thomas V. Cashen sold the property and a few years later, the site was redeveloped into the Moncrief neighborhood that remains today.
Baker, Charlie. "Moncrief Park Has Historic Place on Horse Racing Scene." Florida Times Union. 3 November 1957.
Brumley, Jayne. "Briton's Letter, Old Program Recall Race Track Here Half Century Ago." Florida Times Union. 17 August 1958.
Hamburger, Susan. "And They're Off!: Horse Racing in the Sunshine State Jacksonville and Tampa in the Early 1900s." Florida Historical Society annual meeting. 25 May 2001.
Article by Ennis Davis and Stephen Dare
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