The surprising story behind Dan Patch Avenue

Dan Patch and driver
Dan Patch and a driver.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

If you've been anywhere near the Minnesota State Fair grandstand, you've seen the name “Dan Patch Avenue.” It’s not named after a politician, philanthropist or an army officer.

In our latest installment of Minnesota Now and Then, MPR contributors Robbie Mitchem, Jamal Allen and Britt Aamodt bring us this story on one of the state's most famous athletes of all time.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.  

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here. 

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: If you've been anywhere near the Minnesota State Fair grandstand, you've seen the name Dan Patch Avenue. It's not named after a politician, a great philanthropist, or an army officer. And our latest installment of Minnesota Now and Then, MPR contributors Robbie Mitchem, Jamal Allen, and Britt Aamodt bring us this story on one of the state's most famous athletes of all time.

Everyone knew Dan Patch. It was 1906, and he was on your breakfast cereal, your plug tobacco, your washing machine. Newspapers, particularly the local ones, detailed his coast-to-coast exploits. I mean, why wouldn't they? He was the most famous athlete in the country.

And a Minnesota boy at that, you could take a certain pride seeing his name in the headlines as he barnstormed distant cities and ran off with another title and another record. Dan Patch was the greatest harness racehorse to ever live, and he lived just down the road, south of Minneapolis, on acres of green pasture land along the Minnesota River. He lived large in a grand stable, nicknamed the Taj Mahal because of its ornate onion dome. He had grooms to plumb his bedding and to fork out the sweet golden hay that came from California. Still, anyone could visit.

MAN: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: You could rub his soft muzzle and when the grooms weren't looking, pluck a hair from his tail to take home. But the real thrill was seeing Dan raise. Last year at the 1905 Minnesota State Fair, he'd set a world record for the mile-- 1 minute, 55 seconds, and a quarter.

So when it was announced that he was looking to break that record at this year's fair, 90,000 people poured through the gates. There was no room left on the bleachers when Dan paced his first 2 miles of the day. They were practice rounds for the afternoon show. They came at 4. When Dan and his trainer occupying the two-wheeled cart, called a Scully, appeared but was waved back to the stables-- too much breeze. The conditions had to be just perfect for him to be able to get that extra edge.

Finally, 45 minutes later, horse and trainer reappeared and were giving a "go ahead." The crowd hushed. And Dan, a handsome mahogany stallion, gazed into the stands, like he was looking right at you. People said, he seemed to understand that what was at stake with this race, the announcer called the start.

ANNOUNCER: There at the gate head start. The timekeeper clicked their watches, and Dan charged down the track in a company with the three other horses. They were there merely to spur him on.

INTERVIEWER: So he ran so fast no other horse of that day could keep up. The clock was his competition. It was hard to believe that a decade ago that he was an Indiana Colt with legs so crippled, he was almost put down.

From that sliver of a chance, he'd grown into a champion, beating the odds again and again, like when he came down with a potentially fatal attack of colic. He pulled through that and regained his title at the top only to now be dismissed as too old. He was 10.

ANNOUNCER: There were no more records left in him.

INTERVIEWER: Experts were saying, but something was happening down at the state fair track. As the timekeepers called the quarter miles, the spectators leaned forward in a blur. Dan crossed the finish line.

ANNOUNCER: 1 minute, 55 seconds.

INTERVIEWER: The announcer called to silence.

Then came the war. Dan Patch had broken the world record again right here in Minnesota, a harness racing feat that wouldn't be equaled until 1938, proving that he wasn't over the hill, just ahead of his time. As famous as the harness horse was named in his time, hardly anyone knows who he is today or why the state fairgrounds has an avenue named for somebody called Dan Patch.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

You know what I love about this program, is that I learn something new every time I listen. So that terrific story was produced by MPR contributors Robbie Mitchem, Jamal Allen, and it was written by Britt Aamodt, and it was made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.