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Terrapin Derby

Terrapin Derby Attracted Thousands to Miller's 101 Ranch

In addition to its roundups and the wild west shows, the 101 Ranch was famous for the terrapin derby, the turtle race fad originated by Col. Joe C. Miller and spread to other parts of the world over 30 years ago.

Although they have since been ruled as a lottery and thus illegal, back in the 1920's they proved to be fascinating entertainment for thousands of spectators.

To the winners, the derby with its large cash prizes oftimes was considered as a "gift from heaven".

It is said that Colonel Joe thought of the idea while watching two or three of the land terrapins crawling to get out of the sun at the ranch. Thinking it would be a good drawing card for their annual Labor Day roundups, the Miller brothers immediately arranged for the first race. This was in 1924 and the derby continued to be a big attraction each year through 1931.

Prizes Grew Large

An entry fee of $2 was charged for each turtle entered in the race. Of this $1 from each turtle went to the first place winner and the remainder to the second and third place winners.

With entries numbering in the thousands as the fad reached its peak, prize money almost made the derby a business enterprise.

Beginning with the $114 warded to the 1924 winner, the first place money eventually rose to a high of $7,100 in 1930-quite a sum for any race during those depression days. First-place winners during those eight years collected a total of $29,722, with an equal amount given to the other places.

Preliminary races were held to narrow the long list of entries down to 40 or 50 for the finals. The finalists were then placed in a circular pen which could be raised off the ground from the top. The turtles left the confines of the pen and crawled to a circular finish located 75 feet from the pen.

All Terrapins Numbered

The turtles were identified by numbers painted on their backs by numerous judges who watched close to the finish line to spot the winners and places. These same numbers were clearly visible on the turtles crawling in the area years later.

Official starter each year was the late Fred Olmstead, whose wife Emma still resides at 101 N. Seventh, Ponca City.

Many people caught their own terrapins for the race, but others borrowed turtles from the ranch. A large "herd" of turtles was kept in a huge pen at the ranch and fed watermelons.

Just like horse races, the terrapin derby had racing forms and listed the colorful names of the turtles, their number and the name of their owners.

With only 114entries in the first race in 1924, the first place winner "Shingles" owned by the late Harry Cragin, former mayor of Ponca City, received only $114.

Winners Used Money Well

Additional advertising and interest increased entries considerably the next year and the winner "Pepper" and its owner Roy E. Stephenson Jr., eight year old Ponca Citian received $1,679. After using part of it to purchase a saddle pony, the remainder was put on deposit for education in later years. Barton Carter Jr., Pawhuska boy whose entry placed second also used his share of the money for educational purposes.

Other winners through the years also put their money to good use. In 1926, Ed Briggs, Fairfax clerk used his $2,378 winnings to pay off debts. The second place winner Tom Johnson, Wichita oil man, countersigned his check for $594 to Lew Wentz to be used in crippled children work.

Mayor Dale Beaver, Fairfax drug store clerk, bought a drug store with the $3,780 he was awarded in 1927. The second place winner of $750 was Bobby Barger, a crippled lad of Fairfax. The money was used in efforts to make the boy walk.

Paid Off Mortgage, Wed

M.W. (Bill) Caffey, gatekeeper of the Marland Oil Refining Company, was the owner of "Sunday" who placed first in 1928. He used the $4,500 prize money to pay off a mortgage on his home and to get married.

A postmaster and a banker won in 1929 with "Bobby Jones" which they owned jointly. They split the $6,500 purse and each was able to use the money "beneficially" they said. Second place went to Cecil Henline, a young Bluff City, Kansas farmer who used the $1,250 for making farm improvements. In 1930 the winner "Goober Dust" raced home to bring Mrs. Clara M. Day, Ponca City community farm woman, $7,100. She said the diminutive terrapin was named inaccurately-the name should have been "Gold Dust". She paid the mortgage on her farm, bought a new automobile and had money left in the bank. Second place went to "Farm Relief", a terrapin owned by another Bluff City, Kansas farmer, F.V. Huddleston, who declared the crawler's name was very appropriate. T.F. Boettcher of Hollis won the last race in 1931 which was hurt considerably by the depression. Nevertheless, he collected $3,501. second place and $800 went to Frank Gillock of Pawnee.

The Post Office Department ruled that the derby constituted a lottery and banned advertising of the event through the mail. That action, and hard times of the depression years, put an end to the races.

Ponca City News, September 16, 1960