Unusual contests became popular during the Great Depression, dance marathons, walkathons and 6 day bike racing to name a few. Bakersfield was no exception and promoted "The Horned Toad Derby." I don't know what became of all the horned toads that used to be plentiful around Bakersfield but back then I could catch one to put in my pocket most any morning while walking to Jefferson School. I haven't seen any, locally, for years.
The abundance of horned toads around town during the summer prompted The Veterans Of Foreign Wars to plan the big race at The Union Ave Plunge dance pavilion and award cash prizes and trophies. A dance featuring a popular band was to follow the big race as well as swimming in the massive plunge. The race headquarters was located at 1630 19th Street and for many weeks prior to the race, the event was the talk of the town due to heavy promotion by radio and newspapers.
Nearly a hundred merchants, countywide, including gas stations, food markets, cafes, department stores and every sort of business were sponsoring and training a spiney critter for which they chose a fitting name. For instance Pioneer Dry Cleaners trained "Spots", Steiners Feed and Seed touted "Hayseed", Safeway Stores was training "Airway", Green Frog Market sponsored "Bug Eyes"and Barnetts Tire Company featured "Goodyear". Secret training methods were claimed by most owners such as hanging a cricket on a tooth pick and taping it to the toad's head like a carrot dangled in front of a donkey or feeding their critter hot peppers to add more speed. Some trainers believed light weight was the secret of a fast racer so small toads were in abundance.
About a hundred horned toads of every size with racing numbers painted on their backs crowded the Union Avenue Plunge dance floor on the night of the big race, August 8, 1935. When they were all released , the mad scramble lasted only a few seconds as speedy "Nehi" of the Nehi Bottling Company zipped across the finish line first. After the big race, the losers were heard protesting Nehi was a "ringer" imported from Death Valley where the toads had to run fast or their feet would get scorched.
(C) by George Gilbert Lynch, Feb. 2003
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