Archdeacon: Montgomery County Fairgrounds has a fascinating sporting history

Editor’s Note: This story first published in 2017 as a celebration of the sporting history of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds.

It happens when he comes out of downtown Dayton on South Main.

“When I’m driving by now — whether I’m going to Miami Valley Hospital or on out Main Street — I always look over there and find myself smiling,” Bing Davis said. “I remember all the wonderful experiences I had playing over in that arena.

“That’s a shrine to us.”

The nationally-acclaimed artist, educator and once-trumpeted athlete was talking about the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and, more specifically, the Fairgrounds Coliseum, where he first played basketball games with his Wilbur Wright High School team and later — after a college career at DePauw University — returned to the old wooden court and played for more than a decade with some of this town’s fabled AAU teams, including Jones Brothers Mortuaries and then Inland Manufacturing.

It was during those years that he teamed up with the legendary Roger Brown, the star-crossed University of Dayton basketball great, who was a hero like no other Flyer ever in Dayton’s black community, an unparalleled box office draw for whites and blacks across town and, years later, a four-time ABA All-Star who would end up in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

And yet Brown was not the fairgrounds’ biggest sporting headliner. That distinction is held by a harness horse, as well as a race car driver competing against a daredevil aviator and also a couple of fabled hometown heroes who put on a show there.

Talk about a shrine:

When it comes to athletic events and sporting spectacle at the Fairgrounds — be it in the Coliseum or on the half-mile race track that’s overlooked by that old wooden grandstand — the place is hallowed ground around here.

Over the 161 years of its existence, the Fairgrounds — whose dismantling begins soon after this year’s Montgomery County Fair, which runs Monday through next Sunday — has been the most popular, most colorful, most all-encompassing and by far the most longstanding sporting venue in the Miami Valley.

In that time it has had all-time attendance records set there, been home to historical milestones of race and gender and was the launching pad for the phenomenon that is UD basketball.

So many moments

Back on Oct. 2, 1874, the newly-enlarged Fairgrounds hosted the greatest single-day sporting spectacle in the history of Dayton.

That’s when Goldsmith Maid, the barnstorming “Queen of the Trotters” who was considered the nation’s most famous athlete — four legs or two — was the star attraction at what was then called the Southern Ohio Fair.

People from all across the Midwest descended on Dayton to see the spectacle. Boats on the Miami and Erie Canal were overloaded. Incoming trains were packed, so much so that 1,000 people were left stranded on the station platform at Miamisburg because the train from Cincinnati couldn’t get anyone else through its doors.

There was so much buggy traffic going to the Fairgrounds that the Dayton mayor made South Main Street one way going out of town. To return to downtown, all traffic had to come back up Warren Street, which also had been designated one way.

When Goldsmith Maid arrived in Dayton on her own private railroad car, she was paraded down the streets that were lined with cheering fans. Over 75,000 people — some 2 ½ times the population of the city then — jammed into the Fairgrounds to watch the bay mare set a world record.

Vying for a view, many people crawled atop the nearby livestock barns only to have the roofs cave in from their weight. The crowd spilled out onto the track forcing baton-wielding constables to move people back so the Maid had a path to run. A Currier and Ives print of the scene now hangs in the Hickory Bar-B-Q on Brown Street.

In 1908, five years after their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers put on an exhibition at the Fairgrounds that drew around 70,000 people.

And six years later over 30,000 showed up to watch Barney Oldfield, then the most popular race car driver, challenge Lincoln Beachey, the most famed aviator of the time, in what was billed as “The Championship of the Universe.”

Oldfield had set world speed records, found fame at the Indy 500 and later would star in movies. Beachey was the inventor of aerobatics, a daredevil who even buzzed the White House and Capitol in Washington D.C. that year in a mock attack that showed how the government was unprepared for the new age ahead.

“An aeroplane in the hands of Lincoln Beachey is poetry,” Orville Wright told reporters. “He is the most wonderful flyer of all.”

Sadly, just a year after he performed here, the 28-year-old Beachey crashed into San Francisco Bay while doing a stunt and drowned.

As for historical moments at the Fairgrounds, there’s Dec. 19, 1948, when the Dayton Rens played their first game at the Coliseum.

A member of the National Basketball League (NBL), which in a year would merge with the rival Basketball Association of America to form the now-so-popular NBA, the Rens were the first all-black team to play in white league in America. Their efforts, not always fully embraced here, helped integrate the NBA a season after it was formed.

And two years before the Rens played here, local promoter Elwood Parsons, who was black, took over a team that had played at Wright Field during World War II, found a sponsor in the Metropolitan Clothing store, signed black players Sweetwater Clifton and Duke Cumberland, promptly saw three white players quit rather than play with blacks and forged ahead to put the Dayton Metropolitans in the Coliseum.

They were the first integrated team in the city.

As for the pioneering efforts of women athletes, the Coliseum hosted women’s industrial league teams like the Bosch Radio Girls and the Purol Pep Girls, who featured players like Carmelita “Topsy” Rumpke and Ruby Wise.

The Coliseum was also the home of the Dayton Flyers men’s basketball team for some 25 seasons, from 1923 (with a break for World War II) to the opening of UD Fieldhouse in 1950.

And for nearly a dozen years after that, until the NCAA placed sanctions on the program for playing too many freshman games in a season, the Flyers’ first-year players continued to play in the AAU League at the Coliseum and used the success there as a springboard to their entry into the state and national AAU tournaments.

One such tournament got the Flyers and the women skaters of the Ice Capades traveling together by train to Denver.

“They were lovely young ladies,” dead-panned Flyers Hall of Famer Bucky Bockhorn, who was on the 1954-55 team. “We had a lot of fun.”

High school and industrial league teams regularly played at the Coliseum, which also hosted everything from pro wrestling and Golden Gloves boxing shows to the annual Shrine circus and, in 1951, even the national dog show.

Meanwhile the Fairgrounds track was regularly used for horse, auto and motorcycle races, including the Old Time Newsies event that was an annual charity staple for 39 years.

The track was also the landing spot for parachutists and the take-off spot for hot-air balloons. Baseball teams practiced and played in the infield, the annual Box 21 Rodeo was held in front of the grandstands and the Dayton Horse Show — which runs this year from Aug. 2-5 — was begun in 1867.

This year’s fair will wrap up its sports competition Saturday night with a demotion derby, an event that seems apropos.

Soon after, once the Dayton Horse Show ends and the focus turns to next year’s fair at the new Jefferson Township site, the old track will be done away with and the horse barns will come down as the new owners — the University of Dayton and Premier Health — begin to develop the property.

The Coliseum is scheduled to stay up until next April and the Roundhouse will remain part of the new venture.

As he was helping set up this year’s fair, Dale Spencer, the longtime maintenance director at the Fairgrounds and also a memorabilia collector, took a few minutes the other afternoon to look back.

“I know you’ve got to have progress,” he said quietly, “but you hate to leave a place like this with all the history that has gone on here.”

Roots of UD glory

Several months ago when Fairgrounds personnel began cleaning out the basement of the Coliseum, they sifted through a long-crammed “store room” that had once served as the Flyers dressing room.

They found old lockers with wire mesh fronts, wooden benches and a clothes rack with brass hooks. Down the way was the cramped shower room with the original plumbing and a few remaining shower heads.

Spencer contacted the Dayton History folks at Carillon Park and soon History President and CEO Brady Kress came over with Chris Taylor, the director of facilities at Carillon Park. They took some of the items back to the Park and they’ll be added to the rescued dressing room of the Dayton Triangles, who played the first NFL game at Triangle Park in 1920.

Eventually those dressing quarters will be part of a sports museum at Carillon.

When the Coliseum was built in 1922, UD collaborated on the installation of the floor because the place was going to be its new basketball home.

Over the years the Flyers had limited success there — seven winning seasons in 22 years — but then Tom Blackburn took over the program in 1947. UD played in the Coliseum his first three seasons and in that final 1949-50 campaign, the Flyers — who featured Monk Meineke, Chuck Grigsby and Junior Norris — went 24-9 and were undefeated in their 15 home games at the Coliseum.

Once in the Fieldhouse, UD basketball began to take off.

But with freshmen not eligible to play varsity, their team played the preliminary games in the Fieldhouse and then on Sundays they went over to the Coliseum to play in one of the AAU league’s double-headers.

“Every Sunday Herbie Dintaman (freshman coach) would drive one car full over and somebody else would take another,” said Chuck Izor, an early 1960s standout from Eaton. “Afterwards we’d go to Dominic’s (restaurant), but that’s gone now, too.”

As a UD freshman in 1950, Don Donoher played games at the Coliseum, too.

“It was a pretty good atmosphere,” said the legendary Flyers coach. “The crowd was right up on you. To me, I’d have loved to have had a tape measure and check out the dimensions. It always seemed like you were playing on a bowling alley. The court seemed long and narrow.”

Bucky Bockhorn said he liked the place:

“I thought it was pretty neat, better than the high school gyms a lot of us came from. And it was a damned good league. We played against guys who had graduated from Cincinnati, Xavier, wherever.”

For decades the Coliseum was home to some very good industrial league and AAU teams.

Donoher brought out the extensively-researched book “Chicago’s Showcase of Basketball: The World Tournament of Basketball and the College All-Star Game,” written by John Schleppi, a longtime UD professor.

It tells about the annual Chicago tournaments that featured top national teams. Several in the 1940s were from Dayton — the Sucher Wonders, Bombers, Acme Aviators, Acmes, Mickeys — and some had considerable success. The Bombers upset the Harlem Globetrotters in 1943. The Acmes made it to the AAU finals and Dayton’s John Mahnken was the tournament’s high scorer.

But nobody was more of a standout at the Coliseum than Roger Brown, who, as a freshman was the centerpiece of the greatest collection of new talent — Bill Chmielewski, Gordie Hatton, Jimmy Powers, Izor — the Flyers ever assembled.

“We were unbeaten in the Coliseum that season,” said Izor. “Dayton had never seen anything like Roger Brown.”

After the season Brown was controversially splashed by a gambling scandal that rocked the college game and UD — unfairly many think — and cast him adrift. He stayed in Dayton, lived with Azariah and Arlena Smith and worked a factory job.

For six years he played on AAU teams until the ABA signed him. While here, he packed the Coliseum.

“I get into arguments now,” Bing Davis said with a laugh. “I put Roger up there with the Big O, with Michael and with LeBron. He was that good.”

‘A special place’

Dale Spencer slipped into his office in the small cement block maintenance building at the south end of the Fairgrounds and began rummaging through his desk until he pulled out a folder with some old photos.

There was a shot of an old race car roaring past the grandstand and several of harness horses in the winner’s circle. There were pictures of the Dayton Mickeys, the team sponsored by West Side tavern owner Mickey McCrossan. There was another image of the Shrine Circus playing to an overflow crowd in the Coliseum.

But the Mickeys are no more. The Shrine Circus now plays UD Arena. The harness horsemen who stabled at the Fairgrounds year round were all moved out of their barns last summer.

That leaves John Drake, who runs Drake’s Downtown Gym. He’s put on well-attended amateur boxing shows in the Coliseum the past two years and he hopes to do one more next March, a month before the Coliseum is vacated for good.

“It’s sad to see it go because it’s just a classic old venue,” he said. “What’s really interesting is that we get a lot of people to the shows who weren’t really aware of the Coliseum. They’d never been there and they say, ‘This is so cool!’

“And when you think of all the events that have happened there over the years, it just adds to it. When you walk in, it just feels right. It feels like a special place.”

As Bing Davis said:

“That’s a shrine to us.”

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