October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 26, 2023

Flashback Friday: A Surprising Foot Race

Foot racing was a popular sport in 1890s Nebraska. Sometimes things could get a little shady, like when a local favorite beat a supposedly famous competitor and walked away with $600.

Many community celebrations and smaller gatherings in early Nebraska included foot racing. The popularity of foot racing as a competitive sport is revealed by a photograph from History Nebraska’s John Nelson collection depicting men racing barefoot on a muddy road. Taken about 1907-17, the picture includes numerous onlookers. Such contests between local runners or between locals and outsiders (sometimes with shady reputations) once attracted much attention, with considerable sums wagered on the outcomes.

The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln) on September 23, 1890, reported one such “sprinting match” that ended in a surprise victory for a local contender: “A typical foot race occurred yesterday afternoon at the fair grounds in the presence of about a hundred ‘dead game sports.’ The contestants were F. J. Brezee, a local sprinter of some repute and a taxidermist by profession, and an unknown.

Local sports who are posted and claim to know say that the ‘unknown’ is not entirely unknown, but has a national reputation as a champion, being none other than the famous Harry Bethune of San Francisco. This and the fact that the champion lost the race on very moderate time, leads local sports to the conviction that it was a ‘typical’ foot-race, such a thing as an honest sprinting match being practically unknown in modern sporting annals.

For several days Lozier, the well known Council Bluffs foot runner, has been hibernating in Lincoln for some purpose not fathomed. Suddenly the unknown dropped in upon the scene of action and with him came a sportive and well-heeled gentleman from Seward whose name was not learned. He is somewhat lame and is reputed to be connected with a Seward bank. He came along as the backer of the unknown. Unless the opinion of local sports is at fault, he is the victim of misplaced confidence.

A race was made with Brezee, who was formerly from Council Bluffs. It was a seventy-five yards dash for $125 a side. There was some betting on the side. Much to the surprise of those who claim to know the unknown to be Bethune, the local champion came in about two feet ahead and the Seward backer is reported to be out about $600 in consequence.

If the unknown is Harry Bethune the race was undoubtedly thrown as the time made was considerably above eight seconds. However, Lozier contends that the unknown is not Harry Bethune, but very curiously fails to remember who he is. Suckers are warned to roost high while Lozier and the unknown are in sight. Whether or not Brezee was on [in] the deal is not apparent. He may be congratulating himself on having thrown dust in the eyes of an honest but misguided contestant.

An interesting footnote to the incident is that Lozier, who already had a shady reputation in 1890, in January of 1894, narrowly escaped a lynch mob in Council Bluffs, where he had been imprisoned in the Pottawattamie County Jail for an alleged criminal assault.

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History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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