October 22, 2021

After a 20-year dry spell, bathtub races set to return this summer

Moravia tradition resurfaces

Photo provided by the Cayuga-Owasco Lakes Historical Society from the Robert J. Scarry Jr. Collection

Contestants compete in the bathtub races during the 1978 Fillmore Days in Moravia.

MORAVIA — Bathtub days are here again. Or will be this summer, come Aug. 10.

The vanished Moravia tradition, which presented the spectacle of grown men and women racing each other in cast iron bathtubs down Main Street, has been defunct since 1999, despite attempts to stage a comeback.

But that’s all about to change, said Joshua Marnell, who figured out a way to make it happen.

Marnell, 37, vowed to his wife that he’d bring back the races when they moved to his hometown from nearby Locke four years ago.

“I’ve always wanted to do it again and to see it come back,” said Marnell, who has fond memories of the races years ago. “The streets were packed with people, and people were just having a great time.”

Marnell tried to get the town to approve the races, but when that attempt failed — insurance was cited as a concern, he said — he tried something different: He approached the Friends of Fillmore Glen, a volunteer group affiliated with the nearby Fillmore Glen State Park, which “agreed to my crazy idea to bring this back.”

This year’s event, unlike past races, won’t be in the streets of Moravia, but in the park’s driveway, on a course that’s about 300 feet long.

Tub into the crowd

Past races went through the streets of Moravia to town hall.

The last race was in 1999, when a bystander was injured by an out-of-control tub.

During the old races, bystanders stood on the sides of the road, with no protection between their legs and the bathtubs on castor-wheeled platforms.

This year, a barrier of hay bales and a fence behind the bales will protect spectators from wayward bathtubs, Marnell said. Also, the race will be run on the flat driveway of the state park.

Roger Phillips, owner of Glenview Graphics in Moravia, said the flat surface by itself will help make the race safer.

Town streets, he pointed out, are curved slightly for runoff. That slight curvature may not make a difference for driving, but they can make a big difference in maneuvering a heavy, cast iron bathtub on castor wheels.

“People don’t realize how heavy these things are,” he said.

Several events

Marnell said races of the past featured more than 30 teams, including participation from most of the local businesses, a trend he hopes will revive.

Pick your tub

Tubs in this year’s races will be divided into three categories:

• Classic cast iron tubs.
• Modern fiberglass tubs.
• Custom anything-goes tubs, which can be built out of any material, “as long as they hold water like a normal tub,” said Bathtub race organizer Joshua Marnell.

Trophies will be awarded for first, second and third places. An additional trophy will be given as the “down the drain” award, for the tub that has the most problems on the course.

Awards will also be given for tub design. One such entry might be the ambitious but still-conceptual tub that Marnell’s brother Joe wants to build: a stand-up shower that would actually spray water.

“We’ll see how much time he has to do that,” Marnell said.

Travis Dunn

The event will also coincide with Fillmore Days, and feature carnival games and vendors.

Nonprofits will raise money for their own causes, while the Friends of Fillmore Glen will also raise money for trailbuilding at the park by charging fees for parking, as well as for entry into the race and for vendor permits.

The races will be free for spectators.

A parade of tubs precedes the races. Marnell said racing tubs will also be featured in the Moravia parade that takes place during the Moravia Fair in July, “just to get people talking.”

Marnell said his team’s tub will also be displayed at the Fillmore Glen and at several Moravia businesses this summer.

No-baloney origins

The origins of the race remain murky, but the first was in 1974. It’s uncertain who came up with the idea, but Phillips said the races were originally sponsored by the Moravia Jaycees and the Chamber of Commerce.

Phillips thinks that late local historian Robert Scarry Jr. may have had a hand in creating the races; Scarry was the driving force behind the annual Fillmore Days festival.

The ultimate origin of the races goes back to the apocryphal story that President Millard Fillmore, who was born in Summerhill, first introduced a bathtub into the White House.

That story is total baloney, and it was put forward as a gag by journalist H.L. Mencken in the Dec. 28, 1917, edition of the New York Evening Mail. Mencken admitted to the hoax in 1926 (“pure buncombe,” he later wrote), but that did not stop the story from spreading, or people from believing it.

“If there were any facts in it, they got there accidentally and against my design,” Mencken wrote. “But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk.”