Monday, February 11, 2013

Fort Wayne Driving Park

by Mark Meyer

Entrance to Forest Park Addition
In November of 1892 Frederick J. Hayden sold a portion of his property that lay on the northern outskirts of Fort Wayne to a newly formed organization known as The Fort Wayne Driving Association. This sale laid the groundwork for several years of civic pride and inadvertently established the boundaries of two major neighborhood developments of the early 1900s: Driving Park and Forest Hills.

The 100 acres involved in the sale were originally a portion of the vast land holdings amassed by pioneer entrepreneur Samuel Hanna. In the late 1860s the property passed to his descendants after a long court battle over the distribution of Hanna’s estate. By virtue of marriage, F.H. Hayden came into possession of the property that contained the tract sold to the FW Driving Association in 1892.
Map showing where Fort Wayne Driving Club was located

The FW Driving Association included the wealthiest of Fort Wayne residents with  names now familiar to us as park, street, and building names. Among them were D.N. and S.M. Foster, Louis and Charles Centlivre, H.C. Rockhill, and Willis Bash. The Association purchased the property to build a first-class trotting track that would become a point of pride for the city as well as a home for the organization. By 1894 the track lived up to the hopes of its founders when a successful trotter by the name of Star Pointer set a world record mark of 2:04 flat. Although the record was eclipsed within a few days by the same horse on a different track, the event remained a source of pride for years to come.

Throughout the “Gay 90s” Driving Park was a popular gathering spot for the society-conscious and those with a fondness for wagering. In 1902, the Fort Wayne Trotting Association passed control of the grounds to the Fort Wayne Fair Association, a group assembled to create the city’s first fair. Reports in the local newspapers suggest that a sense of nervousness preceded the city’s inaugural fair in October of that year. Civic pride was a driving force in this day and a failed fair would reflect badly on the city. They need not have worried. The 5-day event (10/7-11), drew more than 10,000 spectators a day who marveled at the wares displayed by local businesses, admired the produce and stock shown by area farmers, and wagered on races featuring the best trotters the area had to offer. Among the many special events of the week one new and exciting use for the Driving Park track stands out: automobile racing.

On Thursday, October 9, more than 16,000 were on hand for the festivities which included Fort Wayne’s first auto race. Seven drivers and vehicles were signed up but two no-shows and one withdrawal due to mechanical failure reduced the historic field to just four. Harry Meyers completed the two-mile circuit in 3:21 to claim a comfortable victory over A.L. Randall, Harry Klippinger, and A.C. Alter respectively. This was but the first of many contests involving motorized vehicles on the one-mile oval of the Driving Park. In the following years, auto and motorcycle races were frequently held on the grounds and were a highlight of the annual fairs that took place through 1913.

In 1910, a new motorized vehicle was the star of Fort Wayne’s first aviation extravaganza. Glenn H. Curtiss, who had recently made an historic non-stop flight from New York City to Albany, New York, assembled a group of daring men who barnstormed the country giving many their first-ever glimpse of the new flying machines. Although labeled “The Man Birds who Fly”, perhaps the most notable member of the group was a woman. Miss Blanche Stuart Scott had earned acclaim in 1909 for her cross-country New York to Mexico automobile trek but now proclaimed the ground to tame. She had her eyes set on the clouds and becoming America’s first woman of the air. On Saturday, October 22, in the air above Driving Park, Miss Scott realized her plan and became the first woman in America to make a solo public flight by airplane.

By 1913 interest in the annual county fair had diminished and housing for a burgeoning city was in demand. The F.W. Fair Association was in debt following an unsuccessful fair the previous year. As a result, the board elected to sell the property to a local development company. The Driving Park Improvement Company, spearheaded by Louis F. Curdes (the successful developer of Forest Park and the iconic Forest Park Boulevard) designed a grand addition extending Forest Park Boulevard north of State Boulevard. The new housing development was given the aptly but less-than-creative name of The Driving Park Addition.  Before ground could be broken however, a legal disagreement involving a long-term lease had to be resolved. The solution included an agreement that allowed for one grand-finale fair to be held in September of that year.
Among the many attractions that final year perhaps the most notable was the final day’s main event which featured world land-speed record holder Bob Burman and the car he drove to victory in that year’s 3rd annual Indianapolis 500. Burman would attempt to set a new and final speed record for the track in addition to staging gimmick races between auto, motorcycle, and horse-drawn chariot. This would follow an exhibition of the new sport of Auto Polo melodramatically nicknamed “The Game of Undertaker’s Delight”. Burman did indeed set a new track record of fifty seconds flat to end the track’s history in fitting style.

Within days of the conclusion of the final fair, developers were grading streets in the western half of the property which was to become Driving Park Addition. The property was bounded on the west by the alley for Florida Drive, on the south by State Boulevard, to the east by Anthony Boulevard, and on the north by the new Curdes Avenue, named in honor of the developer. By the end of that October, 67 of the addition’s 231 lots were sold and the track and fairgrounds were fast on their way to becoming a foggy memory in the bustling, growing, successful city of Fort Wayne.

Sidenote:  The eastern portion of the fairgrounds (east of Anthony Blvd.) was later developed as Driving Park Extended but was re-titled Forest Hill before plot sales began in earnest. For reasons not clear, original plans for ornamental “Forest Hill” steel arches at Kensington and State, and Curdes and Anthony were not completed. If they had, we’d all know Forest Hill today.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this post! Our family resides in Driving Park and couldn't be more pleased with it. I, for one, am glad the fair went under!