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  • Dale C. Maley

Horses lost in 1981 fire

Many Fairbury residents remember the concrete block horse barns that ran parallel to South First Street and across the road from Westview Grade School. In 1981, these horse barns burned, and 16 horses were lost in the tragic fire.


Horse racing at the Fairbury Fair likely dates back to the first year of the Fairbury Fair, 1876. Automobiles only appeared in large numbers in Fairbury after 1908, when Henry Ford introduced his Model T. Before automobile racing, one of the significant events at the annual fair was horse racing.


The Sanborn Insurance Company made maps of Fairbury from 1885 to 1924. The earliest Sanborn map showing the fairground is the 1911 map. This map shows a small horse barn with 30 stalls south of the Third Street fairground entrance.


The 1911 Sanborn map also shows three horse barns in the northwest corner of the fairgrounds. These stalls ran north-south, and each barn had 40 stalls. The 1911 map does not show any horse barns parallel to First Street.


The 1924 Sanborn map shows the same horse barns as the 1911 map, except a long row of 332-foot-long racehorse stalls was added parallel to First Street. This long horse barn was built sometime between 1911 and 1924.


Around 3 AM on Tuesday, June 30, 1981, the long row of horse barns parallel to First Street burned to the ground. A total of 16 horses were lost in this fire. Seven different parties owned the 16 horses that were lost. The Livingston County Sheriff's Office estimated the total financial loss exceeded $1 million.


In financial terms, Howard Wilden "Bill" Harris (1916-2013) experienced the most significant loss in this fire. Although Harris only lost three horses, one of them, Scot Dancer, was a precious horse. This horse was the best three-year-old pacer in the State of Illinois.


Scot Dancer, the Harris standard-bearer, earned $206,000 in lifetime earnings, equaling $701,000 in today's dollars. This horse won the Governor's Cup for two-year-old Illinois-bred pacers at the 1980 Hambletonian program at DuQuoin. In 1981, Scot Dancer was on the path to collecting another $300,00 in race purses. The projected earnings for Scot Dancer in 1981 would equal $1.02 million in today's dollars.


Frank Vaughan and his son, Mark Vaughan, lost eight active racing horses in the fire. Their best horse was Flash Magoo, a three-year-old trotter who held the track record for two-year-olds at Chicago's Maywood Park.


Si Schmidtgall lost a pair of standardbred colts in the fire. John Leonard owned the final standardbred lost in the blaze. She was a mare who had just returned to training after raising a colt. Two saddle horses owned by Mary Schmidtgall and Phil Tetley rounded out the inventory of lost animals.


The Fairbury horse barns started to burn around 3 AM on Tuesday, June 30, 1981. At about 1 AM the same night, another fire started at the Balmoral Race Track in Crete, south of Chicago. Thirty-three horses were killed in the Balmoral fire. Six people received minor injuries, including four firefighters. The firefighters were treated for minor burns and smoke inhalation.


The State of Illinois arson investigators inspected the Fairbury and Balmoral horse barns but found no evidence of arson. A total of 49 horses were lost in these two tragic fires.


Howard Wilden "Bill" Harris was born in Wayne County, Illinois, in 1916. Wayne County is in Southern Illinois, about 100 miles east of St. Louis. Bill's parents were Charles Bryan "Charlie" or "Blackie" Harris (1896-1988) and Lelah Smith (1896-1964).


Bill Harris had a daughter, Nancy N. Harris, born in 1936 in Cropsey. Nancy's mother is not known at this time. Bill then married Maxine Audrey Stillwell (1920-1993) in 1941. Maxine was born in Minnesota. Bill and Maxine Harris had no children.


Bill worked as an electrical lineman. He was involved with horse racing for many years. Bill and Maxine lived in Henry County, Elgin, Cropsey, and Fairbury. When Bill and Maxine Harris lived in Fairbury, their home was at 504 South Webster Street. Maxine Harris died in 1993 at the age of 72. After Maxine died, Bill Harris married Emily Popejoy, the former Postmaster of Cropsey. Emily Harris died in 1998 at the age of 65. Bill Harris lived the last few years of his life with his daughter in Odenton, Maryland. Bill Harris died in 2013 at the age of 96.


Bill Harris's father, Blackie Harris, was one of the most notorious criminals in Southern Illinois. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the consumption and sale of alcohol from 1920 until it was repealed in 1933. In the Chicago area, Al Capone was the leader of a criminal enterprise that provided thirsty Americans with illegal alcohol during Prohibition.


In St. Louis, Peoria, and Southern Illinois, the Shelton Gang ran a bootlegging operation for illegal alcohol. The Shelton Gang was initially formed by three brothers from Wayne County, Illinois: Carl, Earl, and Bernie "Red" Shelton. The Shelton Gang were the main rivals of the famous bootlegger Charles Birger and his gang. In 1950, the Saturday Evening Post described the Sheltons as "America's Bloodiest Gang."


Blackie Harris grew up in the same county as the Shelton brothers. Blackie joined the gang, and they sent him to Detroit to help smuggle Canadian-made alcohol into the United States. Blackie was arrested and convicted of bootlegging and distribution of counterfeit money. He served nine years in Leavenworth federal prison.


After Blackie finished his prison sentence, there was speculation that he was unhappy with the Shelton brothers. One by one, the Shelton brothers were shot. Blackie Harris was suspected of murdering some of the Shelton brothers, but he was never convicted for these crimes.


Although Blackie Harris was married, authorities believed he had a romantic relationship with 32-year-old Mrs. Charles Newton, a neighbor to his farm. Shortly after the woman began a romantic relationship with 28-year-old Jerry Merritt, these two people were shot and killed in a house in 1964. The house was then burned to the ground.


An arrest warrant for these two murders was issued, but Blackie Harris went on the run. He was added to the FBI's most wanted list of fugitives. He eventually turned himself in to authorities and was convicted of both murders. Blackie Harris received a sentence of 75 years, but he only served 15 years. Blackie then retired and lived with a niece in Kansas until he died in 1988 at the age of 91.


Author Taylor Pensoneau has written two books about the Shelton Gang and Blackie Harris. In 2002, he wrote his first book, Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons - Southern Illinois' Legendary Gangsters. In 2010, he wrote his second book, Dapper & Deadly: The True Story of Black Charlie Harris.


In the years after the 1981 fire, attendance at the Fairbury Fair's harness races gradually declined. The last harness races were at the 2006 Fairbury Fair. Many citizens have fond memories of watching the horse races and wish they were still part of the annual Fairbury Fair.

(Dale Maley's weekly history feature is sponsored by Dr. Charlene Aaron and Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury)






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Dale Maley
Dale Maley
Apr 08

Here is the book about the Black Charlie Harris, the father of Bill Harris.

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