Guelph Mason Gives Competition the Boot in 1903 Thanksgiving Day Race

This weekend many of our city’s best athletes will be lacing up a pair of their favourite runners and headover to Exhibition Park to compete in the annual Thanksgiving Day Race. While the event will no doubt feature some impressive displays of speed and endurance, it’s unlikely that any runner will replicate one Guelph man’s amazing feat in the 1903 race.

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The Thanksgiving Day Race is an old tradition in Guelph. The first such race was held in 1894 with runners following a route through the city’s downtown. Local manufacturers often donated prizes, which were displayed prominently in the windows of Bond’s Hardware store.

On the day of the race in 1903, a seventeen year old mason, William (Bill) Smith, was on his way home from work when he saw the crowd forming around the starting line of the race. He asked the race organizers whether anyone could compete, and they told him yes. However, the race was about to start, and Bill no time to go home and change. He had no choice but to run the race in his mason’s clothes – overalls and heavy boots.

Imagine being a spectator at that starting line of that race. You see a line of athletic-looking young men  jogging on the spot, stretching cold muscles, preening for the crowd. Then you see some guy in dusty overalls and muddy boots taking his place amongst the others. He sticks out like sore thumb. Let’s put it this way – there is no way you would have bet your money on that guy winning. Well, despite this obvious handicap, and against all odds, he did win!

What do you think – is Bill Smith’s victory at the Thanksgiving Day Race the greatest upset in Guelph’s sporting history? Could be.

The prize that year was a clock, pictured here:

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Bill cherished the clock, keeping it in working condition even after he and his family moved to England during the depression. Following Bill’s death in 1939, his widow and children moved back to Guelph, bringing the clock with them. When his son George died in 2001, the clock was donated to the Guelph Civic Museum, where it’s on display in our City Galleries.

You can discover more fascinating Guelph stories at the Guelph Civic Museum’s City Gallery. We give tours every Saturday at 2 PM.

Posted by Sarah Ball on October 9, 2014

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