A day at the races

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:58

    MONROE-Nestled in an isolated location behind Maple Avenue in the Village of Monroe is a tranquil and picturesque stretch of open land that in the first quarter of the 20th century bustled with activity during the summer harness racing season. From 1907 through 1927, the Monroe racetrack was one of four tracks comprising what was called the Orange County Circuit. The track hosted some of the top harness racers in the country. The other circuit members consisted of tracks in Endicott, Middletown and Goshen. The Monroe track was fast and it attracted some of the best horses and best riders. In an article in the Orange County Historical Society Journal, James A. Nelson, the town of Monroe historian, wrote that on Aug. 13, 1913, a horse named Directum I set a track record for a one mile pace: "The time of 2:04 ¼ was also a world's record, erasing the previous record of 2:04 ½ established by George Ganoe, in 1911, at Allentown, Pennsylvania." The half-mile track was constructed on a 21 -acre site and was managed by the Monroe Driving Park Association. Numbered among the associations' presidents were Max O. Schaefer, general manager of the Monroe Cheese Company, who later became president of the Velveeta Cheese Company of Monroe, and Pierre Lorillard, Jr., tobacco magnate and founder of Tuxedo Park. Race-goers enjoyed a 1,500 seat grandstand with dedicated box seats and stables to accommodate 150 horses. There also were horse stalls, judge's stand, infield gazebo and various equipment sheds. A ball field was even constructed for use by local residents. On race days, visitors would find refreshments, hotdogs and a 20-piece band from Goshen. The racing at the Monroe track was such that the Erie Railroad ran a round-trip race day train from Jersey City to Monroe. The track, faced with financial problems and competition from a newer and larger track in Elmira, closed in 1927. Roscoe W. Smith, founder of the Orange and Rockland Electric Company and the Old Museum Village of Smith's Clove, bought the property, with an eye toward retaining the site for local athletic events. Later, the Smith family sold the property to Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Dupcak. In 1998, the former racetrack, located in the central business district of Monroe Village, was included along with other sites by the National Register of Historic Places as the "Village of Monroe Historic District." In October 2001 the village purchased the land from Georgina Dupcak. Last month, the site was finally acquired for $500,000. Half of the purchase price is being provided by a state matching grant. A conservation easement provided as a deed restriction will ensure the land will not be subject to any development. The tract of land is currently devoid of any structures except for parts of the old bandstand foundation. The location of the former racetrack oval is periodically mowed with the remaining land being both wooded and overgrown wetland. Mayor Joseph Mancuso said he would like to retain the land as open space for nature viewing and possibly with walking trails.