Usain Bolt set the world record in the 100 meter dash in 2009 with a blistering 9.58 seconds.
That’s with moden shoes, modern training, modern nutrition and modern everything.
At the turn of the 20th century, the premier footrace was the 100 yard dash about 8.5 yards short of 100 meters.
It’s safe to say that a report of a Sugar Grove man — one of the few African Americans in the community — running a 9.3 in the late 1800s and early 1900s stands out.
Adjusted for the added distance, his times would have been world-class competitive into the 1970s.
Harry Batson was born in Lottsville in 1876 and raised in Sugar Grove, the son of John and Nancy Batson.
One account says his father escaped slavery at the start of the Civil War and immediately joined the Union Army as a means of obtaining his freedom. He and his wife then settled in Warren County.
But this story is about Harry.
According to the Warren County Historical Society, he left Sugar Grove for Youngsville in his teens. A newspaper account indicates that he worked at the Youngsville Saddlery Works, rising to the position of foreman of the stitching department.
In the 1890s, his name starts popping up in press accounts; such as in June 1896 when he was an “easy winner” of the hundred yard dash at the Spring Hill Athletic Club in Titusville.
“He runs as easily as a deer and his every move indicated he could break the string inside of ten seconds if he felt so disposed or was pushed,” the Titusville Herald reported. “He won the entire gathering by his easy and graceful running and gentlemanly bearing.”
It was common for sprinters to run with fire company teams and various records show Batson running with a hose team out of Corning and at times with a company out of Union City.
The descriptors to describe his performances are flowering — he “had an easy thing in finishing first” in one race and “took about all the prize money” in another.
It appears from a review of local press accounts that the furthest he traveled to race is Philadelphia in 1902.
He races for decades — an account in the Warren Evening Mirror in 1916 said Batson ran in two 100 yard dashes at Clarendon.
“He won the second one and those who watched him thought he could have taken the first had he tried,” the report said. “Batson is an old timer in the running game and might at one time have gotten into the world’s champion class had he at all times enjoyed the confidence of those behind him.”
The paper took a historical look at his career — calling it “practically over” at the age of 35 — and said he was “admittedly a 10-second man, and was said to have gone the hundred in 9 3-5. His biggest race perhaps was at Corry eight or nine years ago. At the time, Batson was a member of a Union City hose cart company that held the world’s record for 100 yards.”
As with stories like this, legends have crept into the narrative that, well, we hope are true.
The Historical Society wrote in a Facebook post that Batson was “once hailed as a hero after chasing down and successfully stopping a runaway horse and buggy that was carrying a woman and little girl.”
Or the story from another source that he won one of his races running backwards.
Whether those stories are true is impossible to know; but one thing is clear — Batson was fast.
According to his obituary, he opened his own shoe repair shop after the Youngsville Saddlery Works went out of business, opened his own shoe repair place and lived in Youngsville for over 40 years.
He was interviewed in 1946 and the reporter said Batson “has not participated in foot races in some time.”
“I think I could run pretty well if I had to.”
Batson died in 1953 and is buried in Sugar Grove at the Cherry Hill Cemetery.
He never married and was identified in his obituary as one of the few African Americans in the community. He “enjoyed the friendship and respect of all who knew him.”
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