Sheila Hickman: How harness racing created the Bethel Hotel

·4 min read
Bethel House Hotel in Columbia circa 1920.
Bethel House Hotel in Columbia circa 1920.

The connection between harness racing and Maury County is clearly documented through newspapers of the time. The Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, New York is another repository for the history of the sport.

The walls of the library at the Museum and Hall of Fame are lined with bound volumes containing publications featuring information and advertisements about Maury County’s race tracks, famous horses, and drivers such as Pop Geers.

After working with my daughter doing research for her Master’s thesis about Geers, I am always looking for more information.

The kite-shaped track was built in 1881 by W.C. (Buck) Jones, who also owned it. The track was located on Hampshire Pike near where Baker Elementary and Ladue Manor are today.
The kite-shaped track was built in 1881 by W.C. (Buck) Jones, who also owned it. The track was located on Hampshire Pike near where Baker Elementary and Ladue Manor are today.

A great local resource is the Maury County Archives. In their vertical files there is a large collection of newspaper articles, pictures, and booklets on almost every topic related to Maury County. I never grow tired of searching those files especially those related to harness racing.

Last week, I discovered the reprint of an article by W. D. Hastings, famous Herald editor. As I read, I recognized how much horses and harness racing contributed to our county, including the famous Bethel Hotel.

Mr. Hastings begins, “Realizing the need for a first-class hotel for the City of Columbia since the kite-shaped track was being built where horse racing would take place, some enterprising citizens organized a company for the purpose of building a hotel for the accommodation of the thousands of people that pass through Columbia to and from Nashville, Memphis, and other cities.”

The builders of the Bethel House were P. C. and W. D. Bethell, Lucius Frierson, Eugene Pillow, J. M. Mayes and L. W. Black. Their corporation purchased the lot on the corner of West Seventh and Garden Streets. On this lot formerly had been Polk’s law office and later Congressman James Houston Thomas’ home.

In 1880, the three story hotel, costing $125,000, which in today’s currency would be about $3.5 million, was built with 60 guest rooms with balconies.

The entire building measured 170 feet on West Seventh and 200 feet on Garden Street.

The lobby ceiling measured 40 feet. The first floor had a billiard hall and a bar with a “fine mixologist.” The exterior had fancy red brick work and arched windows providing a view of West Seventh. Inside the three floors were attractive with well-appointed rooms, an elevator, electric bells and gas.

The cost for staying at the Bethel was $2 per day. 

On the first floor, there were 18 businesses, including Sullivan’s Flowers, the telegraph office, and Frakes’ Electric. Today, in the basement of First Horizon Bank that stands where the Bethel once stood is the hotel’s vault.

Travelers came by train from Louisville, Nashville, Florence, Decatur, and even Florida.  Two horse-drawn omnibuses brought passengers from the depot to the hotel. The famous trotters and pacers came by rail and had to be transported to their stables.  Union Station must have been a very bustling place.

Visitors from all over the nation were staying at the Bethel in 1883 and 1884 to see the great harness races. The prospect of seeing a grand race on a kite-shaped race track with two of the most famous horses competing brought hundreds of those who followed harness racing to Columbia.

The design of racing tracks continued to evolve during this time.

The regulation track’s surface required firmness, elasticity, and proper drainage. The inspiration for the kite-shaped track came from a notion of limiting turns and increasing the length of straightaways. The kite-shaped track was to be faster than the oval. There were several kite-shaped tracks built in the U.S., and one was built in Columbia.

The kite-shaped track was built in 1881 by W.C. (Buck) Jones, who also owned it. The track was located on Hampshire Pike near where Baker Elementary and Ladue Manor are today.

At the kite-shaped track there was a grandstand, a dining hall, and boxed stalls for horses. To race on a kite-shaped track a driver, horse and sulky started out racing a third of a mile then turned and raced another third of a mile, and the final stretch was a third of a mile.

Before one of the big races at the track, John Trotwood Moore, a promoter and lover of the harness racing industry wrote in Great Meeting of the Columbia Driving Association, “The Kite-Shaped Track will resound with flying hooves and the humming of sulky wheels will revolve with a velocity marvelous.”

One of the most famous races ever held there was between Hal Pointer and Direct, a black stallion from California.

Those who had come to Columbia stayed at the Bethel. These fans of harness racing were about to see magnificent horses and drivers race on the kite-shaped track.

The track and grandstand were packed. Hal Pointer held the current record at the track of 2:11 with Geers at the reins. But that day Direct beat Hal Pointer in every heat and lowered the track record by six seconds. In the end, Hal Pointer would go on to beat Direct in later races. During those heated races, Geers decided that he needed to cross the bloodlines of Hal Pointer and Direct creating one of the most famous bloodlines in harness racing.

Sheila Hickman, Columbia
Sheila Hickman, Columbia

Note: This information came from the Archives vertical file which contained many newspaper clippings and pictures.

Sheila Hickman is a product of the Maury County Schools. She has a Bachelor's degree in English from Lipscomb and a Master's from Peabody Vanderbilt. She returned to teach English at Columbia Central High School, her alma mater. 

This article originally appeared on The Daily Herald: Sheila Hickman: How harness racing created the Bethel Hotel