Early pioneers played a part in the naming of the venerable horse racing track that came to be a part of Salem’s State Fair lineup. The Savage family, instrumental in settling areas of the Northwest, counted among their members a Mr. Savage who purchased a house with a Rev. J.L. Parrish. The house sat on land that was later designated to be used for another purpose, so in 1846 the two men cut the house in half and Mr. Savage moved his portion beyond the Salem city limits of the day. In doing so, he had to pass by an old oak tree, which subsequently gave inspiration to the naming of the local horse racing track.
In 1893 the state legislature appropriated $11,000 for Fairgrounds improvements, including a new race track and grandstand. In today’s dollars, this would amount to $263,463. A horse stadium was built in 1911 and restored in 1919. By 1927 the Oregon State Fair was occurring on a Sunday, but horse racing was not allowed on that day, so vaudeville acts and preachers kept the attending crowds occupied. 1929 saw the Grandstand built.
The race track was used as an airport before a more permanent facility could be built in 1930. Salem residents witnessed the first flight over the city in June of 1910.
In 1933 the pari-mutual Betting Act was passed by Legislature, which allowed bets on race horses to fund the fairs and special shows such as the Pendleton Round-up. Fair admission was reduced from 50 cents to 25 cents due to the Depression. In 1939 a “seeing eye” was added to the race track to settle any disputes on close finishes. In 1947 the racing stables were added to the facility. After World War II ended, midget car racing at the track was added to the program at the Fair.
1957 saw capital improvements include extending the track ½ mile to be 5 furlongs, new thoroughbred stables, additional parking lots, house stables area, new roads and other track/grandstand improvements, and the Lone Oak program. Additional racing stables were added in 1958 and a horse barn in 1962.
July 31, 1967 was a day of devastation when a fire ravaged the Fairgrounds just as preparations were underway for the year’s opening. In 1983 the Fair Director recommended discontinuing the rodeo due to low attendance and declining revenues. In 1987 $6.5 million in capital improvements were earmarked for the Fairgrounds and the cost of admission subsequently rose to $5.
According to Lonnie Craig, Lone Oak’s final Race Track Director, the Fair Board decided to detach the Fair business from the racing business. Mr. Craig formed a business to handle the race meets under a lease agreement with the Fairgrounds. He managed a successful business for the Fair but this arrangement didn’t last long as the Board determined to tear down the Stadium and build a multi-purpose Pavilion in its place, thus displacing horse racing to points outside of Salem around 2001. The demise of Salem’s horse track pushed the business of horse racing north and south to Portland and Grants Pass as well as into California. Mr. Craig worked most recently in Grants Pass at their race track to build it into a successful operation before retiring for a second time in in 2012.
The Lone Oak Race Track was the second largest track in Oregon and the Fair has not been as profitable since the demise of the track, according to Mr. Craig. Portland Meadows will gladly take your bets if you’re still into the ponies!
Blog material was used from the following web sites: http://www.salempioneercemetery.org/records/pf_display_record.php?id=5803 http://www.oregonstatefair.org/about-the-fair/fair-history http://www.cityofsalem.net/visitors/Airport/Pages/HistoryofMcNaryField.aspx http://www.salemhistory.net/transportation/airport.htm http://www.motorsportslegislation.com/Articles/article.php?id=279