By TOM DICKAU
This is the first of 10 articles to be written by Tom Dickau, president of the Bristol Historical Society and member of the Muzzy Field Anniversary Committee. Each article will be written to follow the history and activities of Muzzy Field through the decades.
As Bristol celebrates the 10th anniversary of Muzzy Field, it seems appropriate to look back in history to understand what was situated on this site prior to the creation of this historic sports icon.
Nestled in a picturesque valley between the Pequabuck River on the north and Park Street to its south were several groves of natural forest trees representing a wide variety including hickory, white oak, tulip, hemlock, pine, chestnut, sycamore, poplar, maple, and birch. Several streets in this area were originally named after these specimens but as development transpired these street names now have been dispersed throughout the city.
Situated near the lines of the New York and New England Railroad, this setting, known as Hickory Park, with its protection from the winds by its forest and valley location, provided a natural and convenient setting for development as a recreational area. The Bristol and Plainville Tramway route, when extended to Terryville, would also enhance transportation accessibility to this park via Park Street.
As early as 1872, perhaps earlier, the Pequabuck Agricultural Association utilized this area as a fairground. Acquired from them by the Bristol Park Agricultural Society in 1887, the fairgrounds were doubled in size with the addition of 25 acres. This new organization constructed a half-mile race track for trotters with sulkies, racing horses, and bicyclists. Racing events were becoming popular at all fairs in the area. A large grandstand measuring 110 feet and smaller display buildings were erected. A rudimentary baseball field was also laid out in 1889 with Bristol squaring off against a Plainville squad in the first contest. In another game later that year two local teams would be featured with Bristol luminaries such as Adrian J. and Franklin Muzzy, John J. Jennings, Edson M. Peck, Edward Ingraham, Dr. George S. Hull, and Miles Lewis Peck as participants. Yes! Baseball was played on these premises long before it became Muzzy Field.
Wallace Barnes, who for many years worked with the previous owners, served as president of this new organization. Edward Ingraham (vice-president), Miles Lewis Peck (treasurer), and Carlyle F. Barnes (secretary) completed the executive committee of this stock company known as the Bristol Park Corporation. Four out-of-town gentlemen joined Bristolites Edward B. Dunbar, George W. Fenn, George S. Hull, William R. Hurd, D.B. Judd, and George Mitchell on the Board of Directors.
The first state-wide fair sponsored by this organization was held in 1887. Considering the short duration of time for preparation, this endeavor in its first year became a premier agricultural event ranking 12th in attendance amongst 37 Connecticut State Fairs. The next year with the attendance rising to over 10,000, it ranked sixth within the state and fourth in premium money dispersed.
Buoyed by the optimism of this success, the corporation petitioned the state legislature for an increase in capital stock from $10,000 to $40,000. The legislature granted this request. Stock would sell for $25 a share.
The rapid success of these fairs was due to excellent accessibility by participants and spectators, the diversity of activities provided and the willingness of the investors, especially Wallace Barnes, to provide a quality event. Construction of a temporary railroad station near the grounds, Park Fair Ground Station, provided excellent unloading and loading conveniences for animals, equipment, and supplies utilized at the fair. It also assured excellent access for spectators with frequent trains running to and from the area. These trains also connected with intersecting lines, which enhanced statewide participation.
Similar to today’s country fairs these events, held at the end of September, varied from two to five days in duration. They normally opened with a grand parade or cavalcade of participants including working oxen, decorated sulkies and bicycles, grange floats, and other colorful attractions.
Numerous displays were housed in a large exhibition hall, smaller buildings or tents. The arrays included but were not limited to the following: animals(cattle, horses, sheep, mules, swine, dogs and cats); poultry and fowl (chickens, turkeys, pheasants, and other birds); crops (fruits, vegetables, melons, herbs, seeds, root crops and tobacco); household industries (embroidery, needlepoint, crocheting, sewing, quilts, and rugs); culinary arts (cakes, pies, breads, pastries, and jellies); machinery (agricultural and dairy implements and mechanical devices), and hobbies (art, music, photography, clocks, and other collections). Each of these categories was subdivided into numerous classifications before judging. First and second cash prizes were awarded for each subdivision.
Auction of livestock was included within the schedule, as well as, display of wares by local merchants. Entertainment such as bands, tightrope walkers, dancing girls, and wheelbarrow and potato sack races were common. One account states that the police needed to restrict the activity of the dancing girls. The fair generally closed with a major firework display.
The highlights of these agricultural fairs were the horse and bicycle races. Sulky competition, regular horse racing and hurtling races were held on the half-mile track. Each of these obliged the rules of the National Trotting Association. Distances varied from one-half to three miles with open events for all riders and other events restricted to “Bristol only” participants. Significant monetary purses were awarded to each winner. The bicycle races were open only to amateur participants and followed the established rules of the League of American Wheelmen. These events ranged from one to three miles with the winners receiving impressive cash prizes, or premiums. The bicycle races to begin with were conducted the day after the horse races. The scheduling was reversed after the wheelmen complained about having difficulty navigating the ruts and the” debris” left by the horses.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Under the auspices of the Bristol Park Agricultural Society from 1887 – 1889 the fairgrounds saw major renovation and development while the fairs themselves garnered statewide recognition and strong local public appeal. However, the fair of 1889 suffered a $400 deficit after being expected to develop into a profit making endeavor. Things began to unravel very quickly for the Bristol Park Corporation. Finger pointing at overzealous planning and lavish spending; difficulty with the leadership style of Barnes; and claims of apathy and lack of participation by the stockholders and Board of Directors were cited as contributing causes.
The Annual Stockholder Meeting of the corporation held in December was poorly attended. All discussion and election of officers were held behind closed doors. After the meeting a disgruntled Wallace Barnes refused to discuss the proceedings with the reporter covering the story. He was urged by his colleagues to share the information, as this was the customary arrangement. He became more indignant and refused. Whatever the reason this certainly was the beginning point of the demise of the organization. It was later learned that all the former officers had refused re-election and that major changes had taken place within the Board of Directors. This may have been due to many circumstances including stockholder discontent! After several subsequent meetings, poorly attended by the new goard, the newly elected president refused to serve. Many people had invested in this endeavor emotionally and financially and the committee was urged to continue the great effort and not to squander the progress made. Unfortunately, “the table had been set” and on New Year’s Day of 1891 the Bristol Savings Bank foreclosed the mortgage of the Bristol Park Corporation thus ending any hopes that this organization would be further involved. After several years of inactivity the state legislature annulled the corporation.
After the “grand experiment” of Wallace Barnes and the Bristol Park Agricultural Society, Hickory Park continued to be utilized as a fairground and race track. Allen Risk, former manager and caretaker of the facility, took over management of the raceway for the next two years. Utilizing it as a training track he maintained it at the same high standard as previous years. The Bristol Grange assumed fair responsibilities in1890 and in conjunction with other area granges conducted agricultural fairs from 1890 through 1897. Although these fairs were successful they never achieved the standard of excellence demonstrated in the late 1880s. After 1897, the fairs ceased to exist at Hickory Park and the premises were allowed to deteriorate.
MUZZY PURCHASES HICKORY PARK
Adrian J. Muzzy of the A.J. Muzzy Company bought Hickory Park and the adjoining fairground land from the estate of Wallace Barnes on Aug. 23, 1900. This land extending along Park Street from the intersection of Divinity Street to Tulip Street was bordered on the north by the Pequabuck River. The easterly most section near Tulip Street included Hickory Park. There was much speculation regarding whether he would utilize this for public or private purposes. People holding the public view, pointed to the picturesque setting with its beautiful walks, drives and picnic grounds that could easily be developed into a recreational park especially if a large lake was created by damming the Pequabuck River. The opposition looked at this area as a perfect setting for constructing housing as Bristol continued on its path towards becoming a major industrial city.
A former state legislator (1891-1897) and senator (1899), Adrian Muzzy was a person who deeply loved his community. He did not publicly endorse either position. Muzzy, however, knew that Wallace Barnes had invested over $25,000 of his personal fortunes into the development of Hickory Park and he wanted to continue the legacy. History shows that he was working behind the scene attempting to build support for development of a public park.
Muzzy was disappointed to find a lack of commitment to the park development concept and ultimately engaged a Boston firm in 1905 to divide the land into building lots to be sold at public auction. A high-powered sales campaign was initiated in the summer with a three-day auction scheduled Aug. 10 to 12. People were implored to get involved on the ground floor as Bristol developed industrially. Real estate was proving to be the best possible investment and “increased in value as you slept.” All lots would be sold to the highest bidder. It was promised that streets would be laid out and that these lots would be accessible to both public water and sewer services. Free transportation to the auction would be provided. A band concert would be held each day and an upright piano and $1,000 of prizes would be awarded. It appears, however, that the auction never took place. Perhaps, Muzzy had a change of heart when a movement was developed to refurbish the race track and to once again lay out a ball field in front of the grandstands with races and sports contests being scheduled for the end of September. He donated the free use of the land with the requirement the horsemen be responsible for the cleaning and leveling of the rejuvenated track. Plans were developed for an “Oats Race”, which meant that in addition to monetary purses 300 bushels of oats would be distributed as prizes.
Although the event appeared to be successful, times were changing and interest in the trotting races had waned. With its continued industrial expansion Bristol was changing as a community. The need for more housing was apparent. In 1907,Adrian J. Muzzy, now involved in the insurance and real estate business, decided the time had come to sell 18 acres of the former Hickory Park.
In 1911, he was appointed as a Park Commissioner when Bristol transitioned from a town to city form of government. He had maintained ownership of what he considered a prime portion of Hickory Park. In 1912, he conveyed nearly five acres of this land north of Park Street to the Public Welfare Association, “in consideration of the public welfare to be served by said association, and in memory of my sons who died in childhood, Leslie Adrian Muzzy and Floyd Downs Muzzy.” The deed requested, but did not require, the land be called Muzzy Athletic Field. The PWA later transferred this land to the city, which developed a portion of the land as a baseball field with spectator stands. The remainder of the land was used as part of a public park.
Adrian J. Muzzy, as a city benefactor, probably never recognized the significance of his contribution. Through its marketing, utilization, and quality playing conditions, Muzzy Field has garnered local, state, regional and national recognition as an athletic icon.
The next article will describe the activity and planning at Muzzy Field from 1912 to 1920.