- Jessie Walsh
Off to the Races - The History of the Stuttgart Driving Track and the Men Behind It
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
This blog has been reformatted from its original form as a live presentation at the Museum's monthly event, “Coffee with the Curator.” This free event is held on the first Thursday of each month. Please RSVP so we can have a seat for you.
When we think of horse racing in Arkansas, we tend to think of Oaklawn in Hot Springs. Few people know Stuttgart had a track of its own 120 years ago.
Less than a decade after founder, Rev. Adam Buerkle, established a post office here and named the community, Stuttgart was incorporated in April 1889. Around the same time, a group of farmers purchased a tract of land at the south end of Main St., between what is now 20th and 22nd Streets. They created Stuttgart's fairgrounds and laid out a race track.
The following year the property was sold to Philip Reinsch. The Reinsch family came to Stuttgart in the 1880's and opened one of the first general stores, among various other business ventures. Like his family, Philip Reinsch was a young, industrious entrepreneur, active in an array of business ventures. In a full-page ad in the 1908 City Directory, Reinsch called himself a “dealer in farm, timber and rice lands, wholesaler of hay and grain, breeder of standard bred horses, cattle and mules” as well as the owner of the Stuttgart Driving Track.
But even this impressive list was incomplete. Reinsch was also the first president of the Stuttgart Electric Light and Water Works, with his family owning all but one of the 1200 shares in the company. He would also become a director of the German American Bank, which opened in 1894.
At the time, he was considered the richest man on the prairie. This is all even more impressive given that he was only 25 when he became owner of the driving park.
His purchase of the fairgrounds seemed an obvious investment for a man who owned an impressive stable of race horses. While we know little about how Philip Reinsch became acquainted with Joe Bush, several historians have noted Mr. Bush was a renowned horse trainer.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky around 1864, little is known about Bush's life prior to moving to Stuttgart. We do know that upon his arrival here in 1890, he became the first African American citizen of Stuttgart. He was joined by three daughters, Josie, Dora, and Rachel, and his brother, Jim.
While Reinsch was consumed with having a starter's stand, reviewing stand, and horse and breeding barns constructed, Bush embarked on training horses for harness racing. In harness racing, standard bred horses race around a track while pulling a driver in a two-wheeled cart, called a sulky. Visitors to the Museum can see one of those carts used on Stuttgart's track around the turn of the century on display.
Like Reinsch, Bush was as influential in early life on the Grand Prairie as he was at the horse track. A man of deep faith, he was deeply involved with his church. The first worship services of Union First Baptist Church were held in the Bush home. After moving worship services to the space over a blacksmith shop at McKinley and Porter Streets, the congregation began plans to build a church. By this time, Bush become a prominent land owner and donated the lot for the new church then helped obtain lumber for construction. The church was built at 606 N. Porter Street, where First Missionary Baptist Church is located today.
Similarly, Harry Downing started out working at the Welchman Harness Shop. Shown in a photo dated 1903, we can only assume Downing became associated with Reinsch and others involved at the Stuttgart Driving Track due to his employment at the harness shop. But his influence would extend far beyond that trade when he took up professional photography.
Downing is accredited with a panoramic photograph of the driving track on exhibit in the Museum today, as well as with various other photos he is believed to have taken for the purposes of advertisement.
In 1913, Downing opened up his own photography studio at 405 S. Main, where Floyd Denman Jewelers and Max Denman Optometry were later located. Over time Downing partnered with Richard Schilberg, the first major promoter of aviation in the Grand Prairie, to pioneer aerial photography in the area. Downing is accredited with aerial photographic records of the devastation caused by the Flood of 1927. That flood left 6,600 square miles and 36 of Arkansas’s 75 counties covered by water up to 30 feet deep. Several of Downing’s photos of that historic flood are now housed in the Library of Congress.
Once advertised as the fastest track in the state, the latest photograph of the Stuttgart Driving Track in the museum's collection is dated October 1914. Our records do not detail exactly when it closed. Given that Philip Reinsch passed away just a week after his 52nd birthday in 1917, it appears the timing of his death and the closing of the track could have been related.
Part of the property is now owned by Layne Arkansas. When a tornado ravaged Stuttgart in 2008, it hit the Layne property and took the last structure built for the Stuttgart Driving Track. Yet, the legacy built by Philip Reinsch, Joe Bush, and Harry Downing remain strong throughout this area today.