The 'race' that never was brought great excitement to town
A gimmick of an event helped build the membership of the fledgling Rochester Civic Association.
Here it was, the most important automobile race in Rochester’s young history, and Dr. David Berkman’s Packard was out of gas. As he sent the other three members of his racing crew out on foot to look for a gas station, Berkman had to know his chances of winning this all-important dash to downtown Rochester were receding by the minute.
Other drivers passed him with barely a nod of sympathy, according to the Post-Bulletin. Civic pride, after all, was on the line. Whoever crossed the finish line first, after the long drive from New York City, would be feted like a local hero.
Of course, this race never actually took place — except in the imagination of local boosters. In 1923, the new Rochester Civic Association was formed, and a plan was launched to sign up members by staging a “race” from New York to Rochester. Much in the style of modern walkathons, competitors would receive credit, in the form of miles, for each new member they recruited. The “driver” who enrolled the most members would win the race.
The new organization was designed to pull together various civic and service groups under one umbrella to better coordinate activities on behalf of the community.
“The whole idea is unselfish service,” the Post-Bulletin editorialized, and then pronounced in Kennedyesque style, “The members do not look to see what they can get out of such a unit as the Civic Association, they seek to find out what they can put into it.”
The goal of the four-day race was to sign up a minimum of 400 members for the new organization. Fourteen drivers, each with a three-person crew in an imaginary automobile, were to start in New York and head west to Rochester.
Local luminaries in the race included James O. Nelson driving a Ford, Frank Case at the wheel of a Studebaker, Alice Dodge steering a Reo, Otto Fitzke in a Cadillac and Earl Vine in a Hupmobile. In all, 14 drivers were at the starting line on April 23.
Colorful reporting by the Post-Bulletin kept everyone abreast of the progress of the race. Early on the first day, Berkman’s Packard sped past Nelson’s Ford, which had raced off to an early lead. Close behind came Dodge’s Reo.
“Indications are at this time of day (noon) that the cross-country racers will reach Trenton, N.J., at an early hour,” the Post-Bulletin reported.
The next day, the Ford was back in the lead and crossing Ohio, with Berkman’s Packard lagging nearly 100 miles behind. Dodge, meanwhile, was experiencing tire trouble with her Reo. All the while, new membership applications were arriving at Rochester Civic Association.
“So great has been the enthusiasm that the racers have been able to progress with reasonable speed,” said the Post-Bulletin.
Early the next morning, Vine’s Hupmobile supposedly rolled down an embankment in Illinois. By then, Nelson’s Ford, way out in front, was all but assured of victory. When the finish line was crossed at noon, the race was judged to be an unqualified success, with more than 500 new members of the Rochester Civic Association enrolled.
It might have seemed like a gimmick, but there’s no question the imaginary “race” rallied local boosters and created enthusiasm for Rochester.
One imagines George F. Babbitt being green with envy.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.