Asheville Archives: Polio outbreak delays the city’s third annual soap box derby, 1948

FLASH: A young soap box racer soars down Montford Avenue during the 6th annual race, which was held on July 14, 1951. Photo courtesy of E. M. Ball Collection, Special Collections, UNC Asheville

On July 24, 1948, boys 11-15 years of age were supposed to have participated in Asheville’s third annual Soap Box Derby. The local race was part of a larger national trend that first began in Dayton, Ohio, in 1934. The city’s 1948 event, however, was postponed due to an increasing number of polio cases.

Earlier that month, the Asheville and Buncombe County health departments offered recommendations for ways to avoid the contagious viral illness, which in its most severe form can lead to paralysis and/or death. Social gatherings, such as the derby, were strongly discouraged.

The committee made unusual suggestions, as well. According to The Asheville Citizen’s July 10, 1948, recap of the meeting, officials had advised residents to postpone tooth extractions and tonsillectomies, as it was believed that “irritation to the mouth, nose, and throat … greatly [increased] danger of the infection.”

Comments by city health officer Dr. Margery J. Lord were also included in the paper. She encouraged citizens to follow the departments’ recommendations in order to prevent a widespread health crisis. “We do not want to have to close any place arbitrarily, and it will not be necessary to do so if an epidemic is avoided,” Lord declared.

At the time of the article, the city had 15 polio cases, two of which resulted in deaths. Over the course of the next 21 days, the number of infections throughout the county climbed to 70.

By month’s end, the Buncombe County Public Health Committee ordered an official closing of theaters, churches and civic gatherings. A week later, on Aug. 6, the paper reported 21 new infections, bringing the year’s total to 91 cases.

DOWN MONTFORD AVENUE: The annual Soap Box Derby race was launched in Asheville in 1946. News coverage suggests it ran continually until 1962. The featured image was taken in 1951. Photo courtesy of E. M. Ball Collection, Special Collections, UNC Asheville

Yet on Aug. 12, the ban was lifted. “Perhaps the embargo did no real good,” the paper speculated. “The truth is that no one can say, though the number of polio cases in the City began to decline when the ban was imposed.”

By Aug. 15, plans were back on for the third annual Soap Box Derby. Initially rescheduled for Oct. 23, the race would ultimately take place a month earlier on Sept. 18.

“Some 51 boys … will steer gravity-powered soap box racers down a thousand-foot runway on Montford avenue beginning at 1 o’clock this afternoon,” The Asheville Citizen reported on event day.

Timed races would be conducted throughout the afternoon, the preview continued, with no more than two to three cars competing per round.

“Each racer will get an even start from a specially constructed ramp that releases each gravity-powered car in a heat at the same instant,” the paper wrote. “Spectators will be kept abreast of the progress of each heat over a public-address system from the time the racers leave the ramp until they cross the finish line[.]”

The day’s preview went on to remind residents that the original race had been scheduled for July 24, which would have permitted the winner to represent the city in the national Soap Box Derby finals. However, the paper continued, “[t]he polio epidemic prevented the running of the derby on schedule, and in the meantime the national derby finals have already been held[.]”

The following day’s paper reported that roughly 5,000 people lined the streets to watch J.F. Till III take the day’s top prize. Though the 14-year-old Fairview resident was ineligible to compete in the following year’s national competition, he earned a free trip to Akron, Ohio, to watch the 1949 national finals. His estimated speed that day was 35 miles per hour.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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One thought on “Asheville Archives: Polio outbreak delays the city’s third annual soap box derby, 1948

  1. Virginia Alexander

    Thank you so much for the are archive Article on my brother, j f till iii winning the soapbox derby in 1948. Becky Ramsey from Fairview saw it and went to lot of trouble to find us. Thanks for the memories. You have a great paper and I will check you out often. Virginia till Alexander, Aiken , SC

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