Summertime in Morris County means longer days and warmer weather, signaling a shift in residents’ recreational activities. Over the years some ventured to the fairgrounds to enjoy the thrill of horse racing, tried their hand riding a newfangled bicycle, or set out on a road trip. Whatever their speed, New Jerseyans have long enjoyed travelling under the summer sun.
Horse Racing and the County Fair
When the Morris County Agricultural Association purchased Seaton Hackney Stables in the 1860s to be used as fairgrounds, it ushered in an era of horse racing in Morris County. Many residents and pastors decried the corrupting influence of horse racing, nevertheless it was given a place at the fairgrounds, most likely, to prevent competitive locals from racing their horses along the Township’s otherwise tranquil roads (one of the earliest forms of drag racing).
The best known race took place on Independence Day in 1867 between two celebrity thoroughbreds, Ethan Allen and Dexter. Over 2,500 spectators crowded the field to witness Ethan Allen’s victory over Dexter, and the day’s purse delivered $3,500 (about $60,000 today) to lucky bettors. The fairgrounds passed to private owners during the latter part of the 19th century, until becoming the site of a horse dealer. Today a large portion of the former racetrack is the site of Seaton Hackney Stables.
County fairs played an important role in 19th and 20th century New Jersey communities, giving merchants a venue to display their products and equipment to local residents and farmers, as visitors sampled refreshments and perused displays set up by civic groups.
A variety of baked goods, locally grown farm produce, and homemade textiles and woven products displayed by county residents tempted the pocketbooks of fairgoers strolling past rows of display booths.
Held in late summer into early fall, the County Fair included livestock competitions designed to encourage excellence in animal husbandry by awarding cash prizes for best pig, cow, and poultry.
Similarly, farmers showed off their best agricultural products, while the makers of state-of-the-art farm equipment promised better crop yields to those with the cash and technical savvy to use it.
Unlike the dangerous “penny farthing” high wheeler, the invention of the safety bicycle in the late 1880s created newfound freedom for men, women, and children to traverse long distances without the need of expensive horses.
As bicycling gained popularity, the county’s elite formed cycling clubs, which they operated according to military guidelines to organize rides throughout the region. The “Captain” issued riding instructions to a “Bugler” who, in military fashion, blew the appropriate signal command.
Uniformed cyclists were a popular presence at town parades and racing events. Clubs also advocated for better local roads and were successful in convincing officials to pave and better maintain thoroughfares within the county.
As the twentieth-century brought automobiles to New Jersey’s affluent citizens, the invention of the road trip wasn’t too far behind.
For the price of a tank of gas, drivers headed west to the Delaware Water Gap, East to the Newark’s grand department stores, or north to upstate New York for a leisurely drive along the Hudson Valley.
And for those without the means to travel during the summer months, the Library’s bookmobile offered the chance to “visit” distant corners of the country and around the globe, at two to four-week increments. Readers imaginations let them ride, drive, and even fly to far off destinations, and dream about a time when they could see these sites in person.