HALLOWELL — For more than a decade, the Lost Trotting Parks Heritage Center, led by Stephen Thompson, has worked to ensure that Maine’s history of horse racing parks, also called trotting parks, is not forgotten.

Now, he is looking to establish a physical location.

Thompson, a Limestone native, was fascinated by horses from a young age. He said that when he and his cousin Clark Thompson were children, they would talk about starting their own horse farm.

“That was the beginning of my love of horses,” he said. “I was probably no more than 12 years old .”

Clark Thompson also became a trotting horse historian, and in 2009 published a book titled “Maine’s Trotting Horse Heritage Trail.”

Stephen Thompson said his cousin later asked for help with research on a former trotting park in Waterville, now the Pine Grove Cemetery.

“As I stood on the grounds of the (graveyard) in Waterville, I asked myself ‘If this turned into a cemetery, what happened to the other old trotting parks in Maine?’ ” he said. “That was the start.”

Stephen Thompson of the Lost Trotting Parks Heritage Center sets up a video camera in the officials’ booth at the Windsor Fairgrounds on Sept. 2. Thompson works for a company that broadcasts races to off-track betting parlors. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In 2009, he launched the Lost Trotting Parks Heritage Center as a blog. In 2012, it became a registered nonprofit. Thompson now wants to find a physical home for his passion — to wit, a resource center and museum focused on trotting parks.

He seems to be the right man for the job. To expand and share his knowledge, Thompson has long been in touch with historical societies in towns across Maine. He believes there are more than 80 lost trotting parks in the state, and eight or nine that are still in operation.

 

Stephen Thompson stands behind a 1892 high-wheeled sulky in The Lost Trotting Parks Heritage Center’s display inside the Beano Hall at Windsor Fairgrounds on Sept. 2. The wheels on modern racing carts are smaller than bicycle tires. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Lost Trotting Parks frequently makes  presentations at historical societies, schools and agricultural fairs. For instance, the center recently set up an exhibit at the Windsor Fair. The project included the creation of 16 horse-themed banners. It also featured a ca. 1880s high-wheel sulky — a lightweight cart typically pulled by horses or dogs.

Thompson said that even today, horses are very much a part of the state’s economy.

“I remember talking to a farmer up in Dixfield,” Thompson said, “who told me that every year he made at least $50,000 selling hay to horsemen. If the harness-racing industry went out of business, that man would lose his income.”

The organization plans to solicit grants so that the center can afford a physical museum complete with literature and displays, as well as staff.

The challenge, Thompson said, isn’t setting up a physical space, but keeping it open. “You have to keep the money at the same level every year so you can pay expenses and pay people to do the work. It’s not easy.”

All the same, he believes the plan could come to fruition within a year or two.

A historic map of the Augusta Trotting Park, seen Sept. 2, is part of the collection of the Starting Gate Museum at the Windsor Fairgrounds. The site on the map is now home to the Augusta Police Station and the Kennebec Valley YMCA. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal


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