Recently I was researching what I felt would be my next CC article when I fell into a couple of rabbit holes. These resulted in stuff too good not to make into their own post. Stuff that makes me think about how different the world has grown, and at the same time how some stuff that we now take for granted and never expect existed in the past was in fact there and appreciated by the masses. They say that history flows like a river. I say that traffic is a better analogy…ever present, but frustratingly operating at its own organic pace and logic.
So let’s get started.
As some of us contemplate the end of summer, maybe we’re thinking of squeezing in one more family road trip around Labor Day. With such a trip comes the inevitable frustration from traffic or worse yet, bad drivers. Well, should you encounter any bad drivers, I offer you this to consider.
It seems that it’s hard to find any automotive topic not covered by one CC article or another, but a search for “monkey speedway” draws a big fat “No Results” on our search engine (Right there to the right of this post under the banner…See? Maybe that’s useful information too.). How could that be? Well regardless, that situation is now corrected.
A search of non-CC-specific web pages does indeed pull up info on this early-to-mid 20th Century phenomenon. Apparently it wasn’t a one-off attraction, but rather a somewhat common feature of carnival midways. It seems that the Monkey Speedway was something of a carnival constant from close to the turn of the century through the 1950s. It’s hard to say what exactly inspired the advent of the Monkey Speedway attraction, but a search of newspaper ads from the times casts some light on the history of the attraction.
Here are the race results from the 1916 Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport. Lots of interesting stuff, some of which we’ll come back to in a bit, but for now notice the wrap announcement at the bottom.
Yes, 1916 fair visitors could choose between the Monkey Speedway or a viewing of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film (a film and cultural icon that is highly problematic to our modern sensibilities). In Louisiana in 1916, that was probably a very hard choice to make and likely many folks chose to view both. We’re still living with the tensions and problems that Birth of a Nation inflamed. I’ll posit that we might have been better off if more people had chosen the Monkey Speedway and then just went home before viewing Griffith’s film. That’s what 106 years of hindsight gets you.
Jumping ahead a few years to 1924, an article in the Wichita Falls (TX) Times describes the Monkey Speedway attraction at that year’s Texas-Oklahoma Fair.
A fascinating, and “weird” story indeed. I mean, replacing his motorcycle attraction with monkeys as drivers is a somewhat novel response to the whole “the show must go on” thing. Then again, who am I to say…I’m no carney.
The 1924 article does provide some insight into how the Speedway actually worked, and that is through electrically operated cars. There are some references in the literature (Yes, that would be the MONKEY SPEEDWAY literature. I know of these things. I didn’t get a graduate degree in history for nothing!) to some of the vehicles being gasoline powered, but I would guess that putting monkeys in gasoline-powered vehicles that are not attached to control lines just might have been a failed technology. It makes much more sense that the little fellers would be riding in something that works essentially like a large slot car. In some of the old photos (such as the first one herein and this one below) you can just make out the electrical pickups.
You can also see how the cars are in fact on rails and the monkeys are therefore pretty much just along for the ride.
This clip from 1941 supports the electric car theory. I think that the 45 mph speed may be somewhat optimistic. I also think that fortune telling is a bit far-fetched. After all, everyone knows that chickens are the best fortune tellers.
It seems clear that at the height of carnival midway shows – basically the decades surrounding WWII – the Monkey Speedway was a common attraction. The decline seems to have come with the overall collapse of sideshows by the 1960s and 70s and an increasing public sensitivity to forcing animals to engage in activities – oh, like driving – that is not in their nature. Then again, shows where animals only do what is in their nature are generally either very boring or deeply disturbing to children and the general public. This is the world we live in, for better or worse. Hence, fewer monkeys in the show…much like fewer elephants in circuses in our time.
What I find particularly fascinating when thinking about the Monkey Speedway is how hard it is to find nowadays even the cars. I’ve yet to find more than two pictures of ex-Monkey Speedway cars.
This one is featured on a page that discusses some of the Speedway history. There are more excellent photos of the simian racers on that page, by the way…so definitely click on the link. This seems to be the photo that turns up in just about all searches for Monkey Speedway cars. You can see that the flanged wheels of this example look just like those in my previous pictures. Unfortunately, there’s no mention or indication of how this car is/was powered.
This car, which appeared on one of those antique picking/valuing TV shows, seems almost identical in construction to the one above. It’s hard to make out in the photo, but this has an electric motor mounted just forward of the rear axle. It’s also decorated with a slogan that I’m thinking of painting on my own car.
This travel down the Monkey Speedway rabbit hole has introduced me to a place I now know that I need to visit in Gibsonton, FL. ROAD TRIP!!! Gibsonton is the historic winter home of the traveling showmen’s (aka carneys) profession. In addition to an annual carnival operators trade show, Gibsonton is home to the International Independent Showmen’s Museum.
This place looks like a blast and holds a large collection of carnival and sideshow memorabilia. Seems like the perfect destination for a Monkey Speedway research expedition.
One other thing that the Showmen’s museum archives might hold is more information about human racers and some of the fair-oriented racing circuits that were popular in the early decades of the last century; which brings us back to the “other interesting stuff” comment I made above in relation to the 1916 article about the Louisiana State Fair.
Hummm. A “woman driver of fame” in 1916? One who was obviously on some kind of show/racing (kind of the same thing in 1916) circuit that carried her from IL to LA and who knows where else? Why didn’t I know about this? Well, it turns out that info on Ora Holben is pretty scant, but it seems like that shouldn’t be the case. So, let me toss out what I’ve learned about the “half mile dirt track woman champion of the world” from over 100 years ago. Maybe other CC readers will know more and we can populate the Googles (that’s a thing, right?) with enough info to satisfy other monkey hole divers in the future.
The mention that Ora “owns and operates” her own garage is fascinating to me. A bit of digging in the Springfield, IL city register finds Ora listed as a “stenographer” (aka secretary or administrative assistant in our modern parlance) for a local advertising company in 1915. Maybe she operated the garage as a side gig. Maybe it was just a bit of media hype for her career on the dirt track racing circuit.
More information on Ora is found in a single article on a site devoted to Sangamon County IL history. Here it’s mentioned that she ultimately married and went by the name Ora DeLaugauldt. This article talks about her activities as one of Springfield’s “Good Will Girls”, and in particular the car caravans that this group organized (seemingly under Ora’s oversight) to promote Springfield businesses to the neighboring area. Given what we know about her work in advertising and her interest in cars, this seems like a natural match.
I want to know more about Ora’s racing career. There must be some good stories, hopefully not entirely lost, about what it was like to be a female itinerant dirt track racer 106 years ago. Unfortunately the trail on Ora’s racing career goes cold after that mention of her being on the same bill as the Monkey Speedway. What we do know is that she lived until 1964 (reaching the age of 77) and during the later 1920s, as Ora DeLaugauldt, she’s listed in city directories as being a secretary for some place called the American Magnetstone Corporation…a company that made stucco and which went bankrupt at the start of the Great Depression. There seems to be nothing else to say about her racing career.
Maybe researching Ora Holben DeLaugauldt can be your end of summer, prior to starting the new school year, project. I think we’d all benefit from knowing more about her.
As you hit the road for perhaps one last trip of the summer, look out for the crazy drivers and rabbit holes, and appreciate all that has come before you as well as that which will come after. And just know “that which will come after” does not include a repopularization of the Monkey Speedway.
That last bit is at least something you can almost certainly count upon.