Heartbeat of the Jug

Thomson family’s involvement in the Little Brown Jug is a labor of love

story by Kathy Parker

How do you maintain traditions while remaining relevant and providing contemporary amenities? That’s the challenge facing the leadership of the Delaware County Fair and Little Brown Jug as they carry on a legacy now 76 years old.

The Little Brown Jug race was created in 1946 by Delaware County natives Joe Neville and Henry “Hank” Thomson, sports editor of the Delaware Gazette, the local newspaper. Neville served as the speed superintendent at the fair and thought a rich race for 3-year-old pacing colts would give the fair’s Grand Circuit racing program a major boost. Thomson launched a contest to name the race through the newspaper. There were more than 4,000 entries and a panel selected Little Brown Jug, the name of a champion pacer in the years after the Civil War and a popular tune as well.

Although the Little Brown Jug takes place on just one day, and racing at the Delaware County Fair is only one week a year, the fair and Jug became a big part of the Thomson family’s life. Hank’s interest in the race was absorbed by his son Tom, who stepped into leadership roles at the fair and embraced changes that kept the fair’s racing program, and Little Brown Jug, in the spotlight.

Hank and Tom Thomson were both elected to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame, the father in 1988 and son in 2005.

“We talked about [the Little Brown Jug] at the dinner table every night,” Tom Thomson once recalled. “In 1972, my mother had open heart surgery and my dad turned over the reins to me. I do it because it is so much fun, and I really enjoy it. It’s so important to the community and the horsemen. I’ve loved it and worked hard at it, and that’s always been great fun.”

Tom Thomson lived the Little Crown Jug and the fair year-round and in turn inspired his four children, especially sons Chip (Henry) and T (Thomas), to become fans. And Tom Thomson’s family dinner table did more than hold the food. It served up the logistics of putting on the Grand Circuit race meet at Delaware.

“Mom and Dad would have blue and pink index cards on the kitchen table, and we couldn’t touch them,” remembers Chip Thomson, now 56. “That was how they kept track of who paid into races, the sustaining payments. Then after they tabulated and organized them, Dad would take them and put them in the safe at the newspaper. It was a big deal.”

T Thomson, 53, thinks he attended his first Jug Day when he was in fifth or sixth grade.

“Mom would take us to the old Log Cabin and we would see Dad and Hank working,” said T. “They were so busy they didn’t really have time for us then, which is understandable.

“I looked forward to Mom taking us back to the Log Cabin because Laverne Hill (owner of Scioto Downs with her husband, Charlie) would bring her fried chicken. Back then, things were simpler.”

Chip and T’s sisters, Criss and Cheryl, made plenty of trips to the fair, especially on Jug Day, but the boys were the ones who were clamoring to be involved. When they obtained their drivers’ licenses, they didn’t need to be drafted into duty.

“T and I would do anything to be involved,” said Chip.

Both worked as errand boys, which consisted of picking up dignitaries at the airport, delivering tickets to locals, checking for mail and other assorted tasks.

Delaware native Tom Wright was another youngster who became a fan of the fair through his work there at an early age. Wright’s first job at the fair, at age 13, was selling “trays of pop” in the grandstand.

“I got promoted to errand boy when the gentleman in charge of the employees was approached by Tom Thomson, who told him he needed an errand boy. The gentleman volunteered me, and told him my name,” Wright recalled. “Tom asked if it was the same Tom Wright who was dating his daughter. I was. Cheryl and I had been dating for over a year and we’ve now been married 35 years.”

Wright, now 59, has one particularly vivid memory of his days as an errand boy.

“Tom and Charlie Bowen liked to help the handle and they couldn’t wager, so when I was of the age that I could bet, I placed their bets. They always pooled some money to play a trifecta, and it was always the address of the fairgrounds, 236 Pennsylvania Avenue. One year, lo and behold, it hit for over $2,000.”

Both the Thomson brothers and Wright attended college, landed jobs, were married and raised families, all while watching and learning what it takes to put on a county fair with a major racing event. The three men continue to make harness racing at the Delaware County Fair a family affair for the Thomson clan, carrying the torch for both the family and the Jug.

Wright serves as the director of racing, a position he learned by watching his father-in-law in action. He’s paid for the side gig but notes that it’s the same amount he made in his first year of doing it, 1986. His day job is director of sales for Cranel, a distributor of document, check and print management technologies.

“Tom (Thomson) took me around everywhere and exposed me to so many things,” said Wright. “He was my father-in-law and also a second father. He was a great mentor.”

T is the sponsorship manager for the Delaware County Fair, a position that is key to the success of the entire fair. He took over the role from Phil Terry in 2017.

Chip has worn a variety of hats but recently has concentrated on working with legislators to secure a $500,000 grant to fund grandstand improvements. He also serves on the board of the Delaware County Conventions and Visitors Bureau.

Chip and Wright are both elected members of the Delaware County Agricultural Society/fair board and Wright is chairman of the fair board’s Bed Tax Committee. Both are also members of the board of the Little Brown Jug Society, with Wright serving as president.

When the Thomson clan isn’t working with fair officials and harness racing organizations to plan for the upcoming fair, there are now meetings about other future matters.

The $6 million, 28,000-square foot Junior Fair Building/Agriculture Center was recently opened on fairgrounds property, with funding for the new building provided by a hotel bed tax levy which was approved by voters in 2016. The revenue generated by the county bed tax has exceeded expectations even though travel was down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We now have funding in place for another 15 years,” said Chip. “A safe estimate is that we have funds up to another $20 million for improvements. We specifically received a $500,000 grant in the recently passed state budget, which was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine, to improve the grandstand, plus we have $200,000 from the bed tax, so that gives us $700,000 to renovate the grandstand. Plus, the bed tax was extended for another 15 years.”

The Delaware County Agricultural Society made the Junior Fair Building/Agriculture Center its first project because it hopes to turn the fairgrounds into a destination year-round, not just during Jug Week.

But enhancements to specifically benefit the Jug and harness racing, the county’s biggest tourist attraction, are on the drawing board. In addition to the Junior Fair Building/Agriculture Center and grandstand, the infrastructure plans include two new horse barns.

“Next we want to take all of the barns down—except the Jug and Jugette barns and the Perfect Barn—and construct two new barns with 50 stalls per barn, which would give us 220 stalls,” said Chip.

While $700,000 obviously won’t permit a complete remake of the grandstand, improvements are coming.

“Everyone wants amenities, but how do you keep a hometown feel?” said Chip when asked about renovation ideas being considered for the grandstand.

“The first step is a virtual blueprint of the grandstand,” said Wright. “We want to take an old, historical building and modernize it. We will definitely re-side the back of the grandstand, and we’re looking at ways to create different seating and a social area.”

“This is public money so you have to spend it properly and be responsible,” added Chip.

Outside of infrastructure and various improvements to the fairgrounds, the leadership at the fair understands that they need to attract more people to the fair, especially on Jug Day. Earlier this year, the state of Ohio announced that Delaware County has had the largest increase in population than any county in the state.

“We have to do better to get the word out in southern Delaware County, the Columbus suburbs, where the population is concentrated,” said T, who in late August was working on getting the logistics at the Log Cabin ready for the upcoming race meet.

“We do direct mailing to certain zip codes, and we’re targeting the southern part of the county,” added Wright. “We’re really trying to get these people to the fairgrounds. And we’ve talked about trying to expand the tailgating.”

While the Thomson brothers and the Wrights collectively have several children and all are fans of the fair and the Jug, they’re not sure if their families will provide the next generation of leadership.

“I need to find that young errand boy again,” laughed Wright. “Every year that goes by, I give more thought to that. My son, Hunter, is a lobbyist and has been a big help in getting legislative support, and he’ll be at Delaware the entire week and that makes it really fun for me.”

Chip has three children ranging in age from 24 to 30. All live in Delaware County and are teachers, so he’s hopeful one of them will continue the family’s involvement.

T also has two children, a son and a daughter.

“My father was always ready for the fair and the Jug. It amazed me,” said Chip. “It didn’t matter what it was. I learned that if you prepare and surround yourself with good people, you are ready.

“We’re not doing this for ourselves,” he continued. “This is something we do for the sport, the fans, and we want people to come back to Delaware. Nowadays things are more complicated, but one thing we really try to do is maintain a hometown feel.” HB

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