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REMEMBER THIS: Main Street soap box derby a Newmarket rite of passage

In this week's column, the History Hound shares memories of an annual event that captivated the entire community and challenged the engineering creativity of the town's boys — and later, girls, too

The Newmarket Legion’s annual Soap Box Derby was an event that captured the heart of the whole community for generations and in which many of us participated in our youth.

The derby was a hosted by the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 426 from the end of the 1940s to the 1980s and typically featured participants building and racing homemade, non-motorized vehicles down the Main Street hill in Newmarket. It was a fun but competitive competition that drew large crowds of spectators, with the participants designing and constructing their own vehicles. I think we all remember rumours of how some participants were alleged to have received outside help, or so the stories went.

These soap boxes were often creative works of design and theme, offering the participants an opportunity to showcase their engineering skills and creativity, and have some childhood fun.

A few weeks ago, I solicited your stories of either participating in the race or witnessing those you knew participating in the competition and I received several responses. Over the years, I have shared a couple of stories about entering the contest myself.

I was about 12 years old and, sadly, I did not realize I did not have, and I suspect still do not have, any engineering or construction skills. I can truly state the car I produced was the product of my work alone as my dad was extremely ill (soon to pass) and unable to help, and my uncles were not available. My uncle, George Luesby, could and would have built me a winning entry, but I was reluctant to ask.

There were four contestants in my heat and, as I recall, each of them had a much better design and finished product than me. A neighbourhood friend was one of those lined up beside me, and a quick assessment told me he was the favourite.

The prize was a fistfull of silver dollars, a virtual fortune to me at that time.

Well, the sad ending to my story is my wheels fell off halfway down the hill and I escaped unscathed and proud of my attempt. I remember Mr. Hollingsworth telling me I would “get them next year,” which, I must admit, helped. There was no ‘next year’ for me, though.

As I look back, I remember I felt a real sense of accomplishment and pride even though the result was not what I wished for. I had tried my best, stood with my peers, and competed hard. I learned a valuable lesson: The act of attempting anything, regardless of whether you win, is the key to life. One of those in the race had a cart constructed of aluminum, which was obviously a family product unless that 12-year-old was a master welder.

My neighbour won our heat and, deep down, I was pleased ‘Mr. Aluminum’ had not won. He would not prevail in the end, but he, too, had stepped forward and competed hard, which is a victory.

I should mention it was not until the 1970s that girls were allowed to compete. Good thing for the boys as we did not need additional competition.

Terry Fish was kind enough to send me his remembrances, which I share below. Terry remembers the silver dollars, although he was not clear whether each entrant got one or just the winners, or if one won a heat. I know I did not get one at the time.

Terry remembers the feelings of creativeness the derby conjured for him. Like many local boys, he would rummage through the garage and the town for parts. He recalls using baby stroller wheels, upgrading the back wheels to that of a tricycle, along with axles. He was smart enough to put a cotter pin on the axle to stop the wheels from falling off, a detail I missed.

It is interesting that Terry mentions his lack of a proper ‘machine shop’ and suggests other entrees did. He used skipping rope attached by nails to either side of the board that held on the front wheels for steering. I do not remember if I even had steering capability.

The key, of course, was to design a method to keep the cart going in a straight line. As I think about it, I used my feet to do the steering. I think, for most people, the only brakes were their running shoes.

The key was to find a place to practise. For Terry, it was the Beechwood Crescent hill. For me, it was Niagara Street hill heading down to Davis Drive. It is a wonder I did not kill myself, and it seems both Terry and I share knee scars from wiping out.

Kudos to Terry as he kept trying, getting increasingly serious in his future attempts. He remembers the rules stating all registrants’ entries had to be self-built.

Finally, Terry mentions a feeling of the derby making him feel like Steve McQueen, who was a famous race driver and actor of the day.

My friend and mentor, Jack West, shared his memories of participating in the derby and the participation of his son, Mark, and daughter Ida Mae in the 1980s. Mr. West won the title in 1953 and I have included with this column a photo of his victory from the Newmarket Era. He remembered getting some silver dollars and being “king for a day.”

In one of the oral history interviews I was lucky enough to conduct with Mr. West, he joked he must have cheated, but he has been a skilled craftsman his whole life, so I am sure his victory was on the up and up.

I received many comments from people indicating they, too, had memories of participating in the derby, the wins and losses and just the thrill of competition. Clearly, I would be justified in saying participation in the derby was a rite of passage for many local youths and produced bragging rights for those who were lucky enough to win. Alas, for those of us who lost our wheels or crashed, there were no bragging rights to be had.

So, why did it end? Like many of the activities we enjoyed as youth, it was deemed a risky endeavour, and the risk of being sued was always there. The last few years, it was necessary for the sponsors to purchase insurance. So, like many of the so-called risky activities of our youth, it slowly died out. It was replaced by a plastic duck race. I presume ducks do not sue.

In past columns, I have spoken of the variety of all-season activities we engaged in as youth that have passed and, in my opinion, youth is far less fun than when I was young. Then again, that was what my Grandpa used to say, so maybe I am now my grandpa.

I hope I have brought back some memories for you, whether you participated in the derby or were a spectator.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town’s history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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