Saratoga Hosts Fairs and Races
In 1858, leftover boosters from the old town of Saratoga managed to get the Douglas County Fair landed on a slice of land in their neck of the woods. Located five miles north of downtown Omaha, Saratoga was a dusty frontier town that busted in the Panic of ’57.
It’s spirit was still intact though, and the citizens managed to land the new fairgrounds on a big parcel located at the present-day location between North 16th and Commercial Avenue North 18th and Sprague streets.
|Can YOU name this location?!?|
Starting in 1875, the land was called the Omaha Driving Park. The Omaha Driving Park Association allowed horse buggies of all types to parade over an oval track, held races on the grounds, and later built grandstands for crowds and an amphitheater for special events associated with the Douglas County Fair.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
The Omaha Driving Park hosted the first public performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on May 19, 1883.
|The entrance to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Saratoga, photo undated.|
After several test runs, in May 1883, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody premiered Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Residents of Omaha, Saratoga, Florence and other surrounding towns poured into the grounds and reveled at the performances and shenanigans of Cody’s actors.
The show ran in some form into the 1910s throughout the United States and Europe. Some of the performers included James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull and Geronimo, as well as working cowboys from the western US. The show usually had historical scenes featuring showmanship, sharp shooting, staged races, rodeo style events, and sideshows.
Douglas County Fair and the Nebraska State Fair
In 1895, the Association pulled another coup by landing the Nebraska State Fair on the site for five years. While it was nowhere near the major affair that the state fair is today, it was a big deal for Omaha.
But then, in 1898, the most major event North Omaha ever saw happened. The Trans-Mississippi Exposition, including Cody’s Wild West show and hundreds of other activities, was held on 180 acres, including the driving park.
Omaha’s First Car Racing Track
Races continued to be held there into the 1900s. I found evidence that in 1909, the Association was disbanded. Just before then the park was starting to be called the Sprague Street Driving Park. In the 1910s, there was a wood surfaced racetrack there called a board track.
In 1914, racing a motorcycle, J. A. “Jock” McNeil turned a mile there in 35 and 2/5th seconds at 101 miles per hour, breaking the record established in 1912. The track was also used for car racing, with the wooden oval popular among race cars from the 1910s through the 1920s. All of this was made possible by a variety of organizations through the years, including the Omaha Fairground and Racing Association; the Omaha Motor Club; the Omaha Speedway Company; and others.
Closing the Driving Park
In 1910, a new race track opened near the Omaha Driving Park. The Omaha Auto Speedway, also called the Carter Lake Race Track, was opened less than a mile away. In 1915, the owners installed a wooden slot track and virtually stole the remainder of the Omaha Driving Park’s business. Then in 1928, the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum, with its illustrious race track, opened in west Omaha.
The old track was finished.
|The Carter Lake Race Track, aka the East Omaha Race Track, was used through the 1930s. Look closely in the circle and you can see the outline of the 2-mile long track.|
The Saratoga track was needed no longer, and the rest is history. The area was plowed in the 1920s to make way for a housing development that stands there in neat rows today, hiding it’s leisurely history of driving races.
There are no plaques, markers or other signs that the Omaha Driving Park and County Fairgrounds were ever there.