The Curious Bicycle Race Between Homer Fairmon and John Lawson ‘The Terrible Swede’: Or, the race that never really was
Written By: Eric Hart
In 1896, the bicycle boom of the 1890s was well underway. Bicycles were a popular form of recreation for both men and women of the middle and upper classes. Racing was also a popular spectator sport. Some dedicated facilities like cycle tracks were constructed but races were also held in existing facilities like horse racing tracks and baseball fields.
From 1888-1896 and 1901-02 Longfellow had its own horse racing park, Minnehaha Driving Park, at 36th and Minnehaha Avenue. By 1896, the track had fallen on hard times and was being run by Robert ‘Fish’ Jones, an entertainment entrepreneur of sorts who would later open an amusement park and zoo called Longfellow Gardens adjacent to Minnehaha Park.
For the annual horse racing event in 1896 which ran from June 30-July 4, Jones scheduled bicycle events among the horse races. Amateur racing events were scheduled during the 6 days of the event and a number of them were featured on July 1st and billed as a “Bicycle Derby”.
The bicycle event that got the most attention was a race between professional racers Homer Fairmon and John Lawson ‘The Terrible Swede’. The race, run in three 15 mile heats over three days, was according the Tribune “… the most talked of cycle event to occur in America this year.” Apparently several US cities competed to get the event and Minneapolis won out. The purse was $3,000 – a substantial sum for the time.
The first two heats were hotly contested with each contestant winning one heat. The final heat, held on July 4 in front of a full grandstand of 3,500 spectators, was a fiasco and the race results were contested. Little of the fierce competition of the previous two heats was evident and the overall time was considerably slower than the first two heats. Some suspected collusion between the two contestants to fix the winner. Lawson came in ahead of Fairmon but when it came time for the judges to announce the winner of the race, Jones refused to accept the race which was protested by Fairmon’s manager (again arousing suspicions since the loser should welcome the race not being accepted).
The official running the race took the protest under advisement and held off on declaring a winner and the prize money remained with the men who had put it up. Over a year later, in August 1897, a ruling was finally handed down by the national bicycle racing board. The ruling reads: “… I am of the opinion that the alleged race was not a race in fact, but a fraud.” and “… and the so-called race is held in fact to have been no race.” The ruling did not find evidence of overt fraud or misconduct so they didn’t fine any of the participants but the declaration of it not being a race meant that no winner was declared and the $3,000 purse was never paid out.
So the biggest bicycle race of 1896 was a bust!
Minneapolis Tribune “Cycling” March 21, 1896, p. 14
Minneapolis Tribune “Wheels” June 21, 1896, p. 3
Minneapolis Tribune “Derby Postponed” July 2, 1896, p. 3
Minneapolis Tribune “Horse and Horse” July 3, 1896, p. 7
Minneapolis Tribune “Sort of a Fiasco” July 5, 1896, p. 7
Minneapolis Tribune “Wheels” August 22, 1897, p. 2
Hart, Eric “Races at the ‘Ha-Ha Track: The Minnehaha Driving Park” Hennepin History, Winter 2010, p. 16-23.
For more Longfellow history, check out the Longfellow History Book!