Flying a kite is one of the treasured rituals of childhood.
But what about “driving a kite”?
That’s what Kankakee horse and buggy owners were urged to do in June 1890. The Kankakee Driving Park Association asked them to help prepare the surface of a unique, “kite-shaped” racetrack for its first racing season. “Our citizens are especially urged to drive upon it, as this will pack the surface more effectually than rolling and dragging,” noted an article in the Kankakee Weekly Gazette.
Kankakee’s newly built driving park would be devoted to harness racing, in which the horses were hitched to light, two-wheeled carts called sulkies. A driver was seated on the sulky and guided the horse with taps from a long, light whip. The association’s first race meeting, from July 1-4, 1890, attracted a large number of horses from across the Midwest.
The track was located on what was then the east edge of Kankakee, north of Court Street between the Big Four railroad tracks and Fairmont Avenue. Instead of the usual oval racetrack shape, it was built to a revolutionary design created by William B. Fasig, a prominent horseman from Cleveland, Ohio. Although a number of such tracks opened across the country in the 1890s, Kankakee’s is believed to be the first to actually hold races.
Shaped like a stretched-out figure eight, the track designed by Fasig had one large loop and one small loop. The large loop was a one-mile track consisting of two one-third-mile-long straightaways connected by a curved section that provided a wide turn. Start and finish lines were located at the ends of the straightaways, just before the crossover point where the small loop began. The small loop provided room for horses to decelerate after crossing the finish line.
In newspaper advertisements, the Driving Park Association described its track as “the fastest mile track in the world.” Fasig claimed his design, with its two long straight stretches and only one turn, would produce faster times than conventional oval tracks with their two turns. In a letter thanking the association for an invitation to the first races, Fasig wrote that the “first meeting ever held on the kite-shaped track in the world” would prove that “the kite-shaped track is the fastest possible form of a track.”
Results seemed to bear out the claims: The Chicago Tribune, reporting on the first day of racing, noted that “Horsemen from all over the West are in attendance and are enthusiastic over the fast qualities of the track, and all claim that as built it is from four to five seconds faster than any track in America. In addition to being fast from its shape it is also from condition.”
In its July 10 edition, Kankakee’s Weekly Gazette echoed the Tribune’s assessment of the track’s quality. Noting that the association’s first race meeting “was one of the most successful sporting events that Northern Illinois has ever witnessed,” the newspaper account continued, “The claim of the new ... track to being the fastest in the world seems to be fully justified. The exhibitions of speed were remarkable. ... The drivers and experienced racing men say that the track is a great success and that first-class sport is permanently assured.”
That initial meeting drew crowds of spectators (about 3,000 on July 4) that filled its large grandstand at the finish line on the west side of the track. Additional visitors watched the races from carriages lined up alongside the track.
Local interest was particularly strong on the first day of racing, when a Kankakee horse was among the competitors. Clara Wilkes, a 6-year-old mare owned by Kankakee business and political figure Daniel C. Taylor, ran well in the day’s third race, but finished third behind Senator Conklin, owned by A.C. Redfield, of Gilman; and the winner, Magna Wilkes, owned by E.H. Broadhead, of Milwaukee. Taylor later sold his horse to prominent farm implement manufacturer and horseman J.I. Case, of Racine, Wis. Purchase price was $3,500, which a newspaper report noted was “said by horsemen to be cheap for so fine an animal.”
Despite its promising beginning, the unique Kankakee track never was really successful. It struggled along for seven years, until Sept. 16, 1897, when the Kankakee Weekly Gazette recorded its demise under the headline, “The Poor Old Park.”
The newspaper reported that a spark from a locomotive on the Big Four line had ignited a field fire, “and the flames, urged by a strong wind, swept across an oat field ... and attacked the row of horse stalls on the west side of the driving park ... forty or forty-five stalls were consumed. ... The park has not been occupied for several weeks, and there were no horses or track paraphernalia to be endangered or destroyed.” The report concluded with the words, “It is more than probable that the park will never again be used for sporting purposes.”