December 2, 2021

Bathtub races return to Moravia

Photo contributed by Abigail Marnell

This contraption, built by Joseph Marnell from a cast iron tub, the front of a motorcyle and the rear axle of a VW Rabbit, will roll this Saturday in the Moravia Fillmore Days bathtub races -- the first such race in 20 years.

MORAVIA — Come Saturday, bathtubs will once again roll through Moravia.

The old tradition, featuring contestants racing each other in bathtubs on castor wheels, will return after a 20-year absence.

The first race was held in 1974, the last in 1999; the races came to an end after a spectator was injured by an out-of-control bathtub.

That element of danger will be removed from this year’s race, which will not run through the sloping village streets, but along the flat driveway of the nearby Fillmore Glen State Park. Hay bales along the route will protect the spectators.

This year’s race is the brainchild of Moravia native Josh Marnell, 37, who vowed to his wife that he would resurrect the tradition when they moved back to town from nearby Locke four years ago.

After Marnell unsuccessfully sought approval from the village board, he changed tactics and asked the Friends of Fillmore Glen, the volunteer group affiliated with the nearby Fillmore Glen State Park, which agreed to host the event.

This year’s race will run a flat, straight course that’s about 300 feet long, Marnell said.

Past races featured more than 30 teams, and local businesses sent teams to participate, he said.

Photo courtesy of Theon Parseghian

Theon Parseghian demonstrates the steering on his partly-completed tub built for the Fillmore Days bathtub races to be held this Saturday at Fillmore Glen State Park in Moravia.

The races will coincide with Fillmore Days, a weekend festival celebrating President Millard Fillmore, who was born in nearby Summerhill.

As of Wednesday, Marnell had registered 18 tubs for the race, and he expects at least two or three more. Registration, however, is open on the day of registration, so he doesn’t know who might show up at the last minute.

“It looks like we’re going to have a pretty decent tub showing for our first year of bringing it back,” he said.

One of the teams is the “Powerful Porcelain Pushers” from New Jersey, who were regular competitors in the old races. Marnell said a contingent of about 70 people from this group was coming from New Jersey and Wescott, New York.

Another past group that regularly ran “the Budweiser tub” in the ‘70s and ‘80s is also registered.

“They’ve been boasting how cool it is, so I want to see it,” he said.

Good, clean fun

• Fillmore Days will begin 7 p.m. Friday at the Powers Library, starting with concessions and facepainting, followed by an outdoor screening of of “Wonder Park” at dusk. This event will be moved to the Millard Fillmore Elementary school gym if it rains.

• A “Forge the Gorge” trail run starts 8 a.m. Saturday at Fillmore Glen StatePark.

• Entry for the main event, the bathtub races, begins 10 a.m. Saturday. A parade of tubs will start at 11 a.m., followed by the races at noon.

• Attractions will include carnival games and a pie toss. The event will also feature four food vendors, three alcoholic beverage vendors and at least 39 other booths.

• The races will be followed by live music starting at 2 p.m. Bands will include Perform 4 Purpose, Bob Irving and Drew Kiddo and the Blackouts.

• Parking fees at the park will be reduced to $5 from $7 Saturday, Marnell said.

Marnell is uncertain how many people might turn up. Past races saw as many as 7,000 people, he said, and this year’s races could bring at least 2,000.

One entry in this year’s race will be a monstrosity welded together by Marnell’s brother, Joe.

It began with a cast-iron bathtub Joe Marnell dug up from his neighbor’s backyard with the help of the winch on his truck. Once he cleaned all the dirt off, he then welded on the axle of a VW Rabbit and the front of a motorcycle.

“It was just a matter of connecting the two together,” he said. “Most people walk up and ask ‘Where’s the engine?’”

But there is no engine, and the contraption is awfully heavy, making it hard to get moving, he said.

“It rolls OK, when we have two pushers it won’t be that bad,” he said. “Once we get up to speed, we should be OK.”

The origin of the bathtub race is uncertain, but it started as an ironic gesture to the bogus story that Fillmore was the first president to put a bathtub into the White House, a story was manufactured by journalist H.L. Mencken in 1917.

“If there were any facts in it, they got there accidentally and against my design,” Mencken wrote in 1926. “But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk.”