Jerry Summers: Plug Horse Derby

Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Although our local area has never been able to develop the thoroughbred racehorse reputation of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky a local humorous horse event has benefitted charity.

            The Sertoma Civic Club of Chattanooga in the 1950s-1960s put on a fundraising event titled the “Plug Horse Derby” that closely followed the non-parallel fundraising paths of the Cotton and Kudzu Balls in the history of the Chattanooga community.  Both achieved the goals of raising money for good purposes through different routes.

            The Chattanooga event was part of the Sertoma Club’s nationwide charity programs with a similar occurrence taking place in Hamilton County, Ohio, which had started in 1949.

            Whereas the Cincinnati race featured stars such as Bonanza’s Michael (Little Joe) Landon, the local star-studded attraction featured dignitaries such as Criminal Court Judge Raulston Schoolfield, attorney Harold L. Brown, and future state of Tennessee probation officer Frank Barker as members of the new Sertoma Club.

            The trio also were members of the club’s slow pitch softball team playing at Warner Parker with Schoolfield as pitcher and Brown and Barker in the outfield.

            As a new civic club, the Sertoma Club membership had to initiate an unusual charitable event to raise money.

            Thus the “Plughorse Derby” was born and took place on the Dave L. Brown Farm at what is now the city of Chattanooga’s public golf course known as Brown Acres Golf Club.

            No pedigree Arabian horse or famous jockeys such as Eddie Arcaro or Willie Shoemaker participated.

            Local riders would mount their personal steeds and engage in several races to raise money for the Sertoma Club charities.

            Although betting on horse races was illegal in Tennessee (and still is), it has been alleged that wagers were placed on various entries to encourage more financial interest in the event.

            At an early age future Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Muecke Barker recalls selling soft drinks and cleaning up horse residue from the Brown family racetrack at the conclusion of the derby as an unpaid family member of his dad’s civic organization.

            Although the historical significance of the Chattanooga Plug Horse Derby has mostly been obliterated from local history it did provide humorous entertainment and charitable benefits to the less fortunate.

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)


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