Melissa Keith

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Parrsboro is sometimes described as “Nova Scotia’s best kept secret.” Harness racing could be considered a secret within a secret in the Cumberland County community, which ceased to be a town after 2016. Susan Clarke is manager/curator of the Ottawa House Museum, which is owned and operated by the Parrsborough Shore Historical Society. She says that there was a Parrsboro harness track at one time, although anyone hoping to find it will be disappointed. “No sign of it today, but most people in the area know is was towards the end of Western Avenue and is just a field now,” notes Clarke.

An historic emergency landing took place at the Parrsboro track on July 5, 1919. The Handley-Page Atlantic bomber aircraft flying from Newfoundland to the United States ran low on fuel flying south, and ended up crash-landing at the racetrack. The New York Times reported that the four-engine airplane hit a tree and was badly damaged by a barbed wire fence, but the crew were unhurt. The pilot, Major Herbert E. Brackley, described the event in the May 4, 1938 issue of The Aeroplane: “The misty dawn showed the country around Parrsboro very uninviting for our big machine. The only spot we could find was a small race-track. […] We landed very gently on the oval track but I could not keep on it because of the sharp left turn.” It took three months to repair the airplane, which was then used to transport the first-ever shipment of Nova Scotia-U.S. air mail. Its destination, Greenport, New York, was afterwards declared a sister community to Parrsboro.

Besides the ghost track itself, the former town’s sulky manufacturer might be its best kept secret. There is no prominent landmark indicating its existence, yet there are traces of proof in print, such as a classified advertisement in the March 28, 1953 Guardian of the Gulf P.E.I. newspaper: “RACING SULKIES AND TRAINING CARTS, Canadian. Made of best material. Standard measure. C. L. Johnson, Parrsboro, N.S.”

Google the name, and you will find nothing about the man or his company, but Clair Leonard Johnson led a remarkable life. The son of Parrsboro blacksmith Clarence Johnson was born in 1894 and learned his father’s craft, developing a love for racehorses along the way. At age 19, Clair enlisted to serve in World War I and was tasked with helping get 5,000 horses from New Brunswick to France for the war effort. He went overseas himself and assisted a veterinarian with battlefield mules and horses. When he returned to Parrsboro, he found employment in the town office, but remained fascinated by horses. He helped locals with their animals because there was no Cumberland County veterinarian at the time.

In a 1977 article in the Atlantic Advocate, the 83-year-old Johnson described ice racing on the Parrsboro aboiteau in 1923 for a top purse of $15. “He’s a neat, zesty little gentleman who glows with good health and enjoys talking about trotters and pacers and the men who own and train them,” wrote Rosemary Chiasson. “He has raced around the oval tracks himself, and against top competitors.” Unfortunately, because her article was written for a general audience, the “top competitors” are not listed.

Johnson’s made-in-Nova Scotia wooden-shaft race bikes wouldn’t be permitted in races here today—in 2011, the Atlantic Provinces Harness Racing Commission banned their use in races. But there are likely some still around, which would make excellent additions to a provincial museum when they have outlived their usefulness. Clair Johnson died in 1980, and is buried in the Parrsboro Trinity United Church Cemetery with his wife Nettie and son Ronald. If you’re familiar with the old Parrsboro racetrack and/or Clair Johnson’s involvement in racing and sulky manufacturing, please drop me a line at mkeith71@gmail.com.

Notes:

Two companies with longstanding connections to Nova Scotia harness racing have taken a leading role in the battle against COVID-19. Last month, Stanfield’s Limited of Truro signed contracts with the federal and provincial governments to manufacture Health Canada-approved protective medical gowns locally. Company president and CEO Jon Stanfield told the Chronicle Herald that he was able to enlist Truro’s Intertape Polymer location to make the fabric for the 30,000 gowns per week. The historic Stanfield name is well-known in Maritime racing and annually represented in Truro Raceway’s Stanfield Stake for 3-year-old filly pacers. Intertape Polymer’s Ian Banks and past VP of Human Resources Sue Karrel are racehorse owners and familiar faces in the grandstand. Intertape Polymer has sponsored cooler presentations at the track.

The socially-distanced viewing of horses training and jogging at Truro Raceway has become a popular pastime in the lead-up to the May qualifiers as racing gears up to return. There were no crowds clustering together against the advice of Dr. Robert Strang, just people being respectful and watching from inside their cars, trackside. Brewsters OTB has a sign in the window reminding patrons it’s closed until further notice.

Hopefully a protocol for safe attendance at live races can be worked out before summer, although harness horseplayers have been moving their action online in droves—Scioto Downs, the first North American track to reopen post-virus, has already recorded its second, third and fourth-highest handles ever (over $1-Million a night on May 22, 23, and 25).

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