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Harford County

Rain holds off for 6th annual Graw Days Festival in Havre de Grace

The rain which left Harford County a sodden mess in recent days held off long enough for organizers to hold a successful sixth annual Graw Days Festival to celebrate Havre de Grace's time as a major destination for horse racing.

"I thought it went surprisingly well, considering the weather was so threatening," Bill Price, co-chairman of Graw Days, said.


Havre de Grace Main Street Inc., the nonprofit organization charged with maintaining and promoting downtown Havre de Grace's character as a destination, was the main sponsor of Saturday's event.

Price is a member of the Main Street group's board; he co-chaired the event with Victoria Tanner.


He estimated 2,000 to 3,000 attended, a crowd he called "modest" compared to prior years, but considering the weather, said "I'm a happy man."

Saturday was cloudy with mild temperatures, and a golden sunset could be seen through the clouds looking west on Pennington Avenue, a block of which was closed off for the "Speakeasy," the main stage where patrons could take in period music, see re-enactors in 1920s costumes and purchase beer, wine and food from downtown Havre de Grace vendors.

The Great Paboo of India and his assistant, Pabette, also offered palm readings in the Speakasy.

Price noted more than 1,000 people took in "History @ The Bank," displays on local horse racing history and artifacts from racing in the early 20th century that were available at La Banque de Fleuve, the restored 1904 building on St. John Street, the former home of First National Bank.

"For that history area to get that many people is pretty significant," Price said.

John and Linda Jensen of the Grace Harbor subdivision walked up to the gates of the Speakeasy area in anticipation of evening musical entertainment from the Swingin' Swamis.

"Whenever there's something going on in town, like First Fridays or Graw Days, we try to come out and support local business," Linda Jensen said.

Visitors could also stroll along Washington Street, several blocks of which were closed, and patronize the downtown shops, and check out children's activities in the "Little Rascals Roundup" on Congress Avenue such as a "Pumpkin Chucking," where adults and children competed to see who could throw a ripe pumpkin the farthest.


Matt Sober of Carlisle, Pa., won a small golden thumbs-up trophy in the adult category, and his 6-year-old son, Nathan, won in his age group.

He, his wife Rebecca and their children were in Havre de Grace to visit Rebecca's sister, Lisa Barber, who lives in town.

"It's actually pretty cool," Barber said of Graw Days.

She said the family would typically be at a soccer tournament, but the games were canceled because of the rain.

Roslyn Tillman, who lives on Aberdeen Proving Ground, made her way along Washington Street, her 13-year-old daughter, Kayla Scott ,by her side, and pushing her 22-month-old son, Isaiah Evans, in a stroller.

The toddler played with a toy truck his mother had purchased for him as part of their shopping excursion through downtown.


Tillman said she came to Havre de Grace Saturday for her regular appointment at a downtown hair salon, and then she and the children took the afternoon to visit shops and the attractions of Graw Days.

She said downtown was a "free environment, the streets were closed so we had the ability to roam about unrestricted, if you will.

"It kind of brought me into the stores that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise," she said.

Tillman said the shops, street vendors and Graw Days attractions "gave my son something to do; he's been entertained all day, my daughter as well."

Kayla said she enjoyed that some stores offered discounts.

"The band gives it a rich feel, a classical downtown era kind of feel," Tillman said of the musicians playing in the nearby Speakeasy.


Trolley rides were also available throughout the city Saturday.

'Born to Ride'

Havre de Grace's history as a horse racing center was the main attraction of Saturday's event. The name Graw Days came from the nickname of the city's horse track, "The Graw."

The track, officially known as the Havre de Grace Racetrack, turned 101 years old this year. It was active from 1912 until the early 1950s.

The track and its supporting buildings off Old Bay Lane are still in existence, on property used by the Maryland National Guard.

Visitors to Graw Days got a glimpse into that life, however, through the production "Born to Ride," a short play put on at St. John's Episcopal Church that told the story of black jockeys in the early 1900s.


The play was written by Havre de Grace resident Camay Calloway Murphy, directed by Randolph Smith and brought to life by the members of the Arena Players of Baltimore.

"As you can see, I'm a very Christian and God-fearing lady, but today, honey, I'm off to the races," Murphy said while introducing the play.

Harford Community College is hosting an exhibit this month on the black jockeys, who like their counterparts of other races, were small, yet athletic men who could ride the large horses to victory.

Black men also worked as grooms, caring for the horses who were housed at Harford County's many horse farms.

The late Joshua Eugene Fischer Jr. was known for working with Saggy, who was born at Country Life Farm in Bel Air and defeated Citation at the Graw in 1948. Citation won the Triple Crown that year.

"Born to Ride" took place in 1915, and was the story of a fictional teenage Harford County farm boy, Tyke Barnes, played by Jabari Adeleye.

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Tyke works on the farm owned by his parents Sadie (Sandra Meekins) and Abraham Barnes (James A. Brown).

They are approached by Matthew Wilford (Richard Peck), who thinks young Tyke has what it takes to be a jockey and offers to teach him to care for and ride horses.

His parents agree and the audience sees footage of a horse race from New York's Sheepshead Bay Race Track in 1904, meant to double for The Graw. Wilford and the Barneses sit and watch the race, which takes place off-stage.

Peter Brooks, who also helped research the jockeys, played a race announcer, leading the crowd through Tyke's victory.

"Who would have thought a horse with a Negro jockey and 30-to-1 odds would be in this race?" Brooks cried out.

The exhibit on black jockeys, "Beauty in Sport: Celebrating Black Jockeys in Harford County, Maryland and Beyond" is open through Nov. 8 at the Hays-Heighe House at Harford Community College. The exhibit is open Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m., Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and Saturday, Nov. 2, from 10 a.m. to noon. Call 443-412-2495 for more information.


"Black jockeys were the first professional athletes in the United States of America," Brooks said after the play.