Thursday, April 11, 2013

C.E. Shaw and the Rooster Races

Several of you may have attended the most recent Tea and Tour presentation in March.  We thought it would be very interesting for those of you who were unable to attend to have the opportunity to take the same virtual tour that was present by Marie Sposato.  Our docent spent a vast amount of time researching the topics for those virtual tours, and we believe that everyone will learn something new no matter how much of the greater Gig Harbor's history we know.  We hope you enjoy this and will thank Marie for all her hard work and excellent presentation

Clarence Elvin (C.E.) Shaw was born in Nebraska on November 30, 1885.  He arrived in Gig Harbor in 1924 with his wife, Vie, and their three children, as the Northwest District Salesman for the Masonic Supply Company.  Not long after moving to the Harbor the family permanently settled down at 3916 Benson Street, just west of Peacock Hill Avenue.

Shaw and his family soon became a part of the fabric of Gig Harbor.  He was outgoing and interested in the community.  He was a pretty colorful character, too!  His children remember him as having a perpetual attitude of, “What can we do for fun today?”  

Not surprisingly, Shaw was a man of many interests.  Listed here are a few of his more noteworthy interests and talents:
  • Musician (violin, guitar)
  • Composed ditties for entertainment of family and friends.
  • Avid archer.
  • Painted scenery and portraits.  (including the ceiling murals at original Hy Iu Hee Hee near Burnham and Sehmel, its large outdoor signs, as well as the Indian maiden who stood on the roof.)
  • Cartoonist – the community experienced that aspect of Shaw in the many fliers he posted around town when he was moved to express his opinion on some town-wide topic.   
  • He could be as prolific as he liked with these flyers and posters because for 30 years he owned a sign shop and printing business in town.
  • Patented several inventions (His Revolving Card Device is in the museum’s Main Gallery along with other Shaw items).
Outside of Gig Harbor, however, Shaw was most notably known for his Rooster Races.  

The head of the harbor began to experience rapid growth in 1918 after Pierce County renovated the dock at the head of the bay so a car ferry could stop at Gig Harbor.  This was a first for the Harbor – to have vehicles able to drive off and on the ferry.  This, along with the new Union High School built above the waterfront, where Harbor Ridge MS stands now, brought a commercial and residential boom to the north end.  The north end was where the action was!

However, this was short-lived because in 1923 the landing was moved to the renovated People’s Dock on the west side of the harbor, by today’s Tides Tavern.  Then, due to increased traffic and larger vehicles, it was moved again in 1928 to a new dock just outside of the entrance of the harbor at the end of a newly extended Harborview Drive.  Today there is a nice viewing platform there.

A second downtown grew up around these two docks.  This pretty much put the skids on the boom at the head of the harbor.  Most people didn’t have to travel to that end of town if they were just passing through.

The people at the north end of town were still having fun, though.  They tied up a barge down at the dock, brought in music (local and professional), and put on dances and concerts.  In 1935 they pulled together and raised the money to build a real bandstand so they could do these gatherings up right.

It was at this point that the idea for the rooster races was hatched.  Shaw and his friend, Bill Slonecker, who had recently opened the Home Café on North Harborview Drive, wanted to cook up something different to lure people back to their downtown for the bandstand celebration.  The area was still smarting from the loss of the car ferry landing in 1923.  The area along the west side was growing like mad, and the people on the north end wanted some of that business back!  What could they do that was unique?

Shaw thought of his childhood on the farm in Nebraska and how his mother’s roosters could be incited to run, and how he would often get in trouble for being the cause of it.  A ROOSTER RACE WOULD BE UNIQUE!  As a kid, Shaw used to tie a red rag around the rooster’s tail to make it think it was being followed, and it would run to get away.  He and Bill thought that would draw fire from the SPCA, so they decided on a red tag attached to the tail.  If they put a number on the tag they could defend it by protesting that they had to identify the roosters in some way, didn’t they?

There were a good number of chicken farms in the area then, so they put out a call in the newspaper for entrants by offering cash prizes for 1st and 2nd place winners.  Nine entrants showed up the day of the race, which was held right down the middle of today’s N. Harborview Dr., in the Finholm District. 

Imagine the scene:  Crowds, lots of noise, unnerved roosters, hovering handlers, expectations great and small.  BANG! went the starter’s gun.  And there are the nine roosters just standing there, bewildered.  Hopeful “jockeys” ignore the rules and begin to nudge their birds along toward the fishnet stretched behind the finish line.  Some trip over their roosters, some model by pantomime what’s expected, some run ahead hoping to inspire. At the end a great tangle of man and beast has to be extracted from the net.  It took the judges several hours of interviewing participants and spectators before declaring a winner:  Mrs. A.L. Hopkins’ black rooster hit the net just behind his jockey.

What a hit!  The Rooster Races (they are now capitalized!) became a weekly event in Gig Harbor; up on Benson Street behind Shaw’s house.   There was a real race track, oval and 80-yards around.  Betting, pretty local girls hired on as Roosterettes, and a chicken-coop town called Roosterville all added to the allure of the races.  For major town-wide events the races would be moved to a local park or open area.

Shaw copyrighted Rooster Races and anything that had to do with them.  Races were held around western Washington at fairs and other events.  He tried hard to get a sponsor for the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, but was unsuccessful.

In December 1938 the roosters received national attention when they were featured on the Hobby Lobby radio show live from Madison Square Garden in NYC.  The show featured unusual hobbies, many of which revolved around animals.  It took a year of preparation, with letters back and forth between Shaw and David Elman of the Hobby Lobby show to get all the details arranged.  

In spite of all the effort put into the planning, things did not go as expected.  Elman had arranged lodging for Shaw and his roosters in a suite at a center-city hotel.  But roosters are early risers, and numerous guests phoned the front desk with complaints about the racket at such an early hour.  Elman received a call from a harried Shaw after he and his roosters had been removed from the hotel and put into a taxi.  Mr. Elman, professional that he was, managed to find a stable for the roosters and returned Shaw to his hotel room.

Shaw insisted on a rehearsal at Madison Square Garden.  After all, his racers had never been to the venue before, nor were they familiar with the starter.  What he hadn’t counted on was the press.  When the starter’s gun went off, so did the reporters’ flash cameras.  The roosters, blinded and traumatized, fell to the ground as though dead!  One, however, flew around in a fit until he found his way into the main arena, where he recovered during the several hours it took to retrieve him.  That evening the race went on without a hitch.

Movie studios made newsreels of the roosters which were shown at theaters across the nation.  Through these newsreels, along with the Hobby Lobby show, and numerous newspaper and magazine articles (for example: Life, Popular Science, Argosy), Shaw and his Rooster Races managed to put Gig Harbor on the map for over 50 million people worldwide!  The Movietone newsreel can be viewed in the museum at the Shaw exhibit.

The good times rolled on for Shaw and his roosters until 1948, when Washington State passed a law prohibiting gambling.  It seems that as entertaining as they were, the races didn’t have the allure they once had without the thrill of having a payback for picking the right rooster.

Roosterville was eventually moved up to Skandia Gaard on Peacock Hill (current site of Kona Coffee Company) where it was on display until the buildings deteriorated.  You can see one of these miniature buildings on display in the museum at the Shaw exhibit.

Racing roosters and Roosterville may have become history in 1948, but that didn’t stop C.E. Shaw from finding ways to have fun.  He went on to institute the Round Rock Contest in 1951.  The museum has some of the winning round rocks on display in the Shaw exhibit and in the lobby.  If you find a “roundest” rock in Washington State, you can still win money for it in Gig Harbor!  The contest is co-sponsored by the Harbor History Museum and the Chamber of Commerce.  Entries must be submitted by April 19, 2013.  You can download an entry on line or pick one up at the museum or the chamber.

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.



    The area was still smarting from the loss of the car ferry landing in 1928. THIS SHOULD READ 1923.

    The Rooster Races (they are now capitalized!) became a weekly event in Gig Harbor..." SHOULD READ HELD YEARLY WITH TRIPS TO MORTON AND TACOMA DURING THE SUMMER WHEN HE WAS ASKED.

  2. Hello, I am looking for information on a water color painting that was painted by C. E. Shaw that depicted an Indian attach on an Oregon Trail wagon train at Massacre Rocks (Devil's Gate) in 1862. I have a copy of a photo of the print that had been sent to the Idaho State Historical Society on November 25, 1931. If you could send me some information I would appreciate it. Thanks, Kevin Lynott, Park Manager of Massacre Rocks State Park in American Falls, ID

  3. The Shaw family arrived in Gig Harbor in 1919. Their youngest daughter Jane, was 4 years old at the time.