December 4, 2021

Rub-a-Dub-Dub, racing in a tub to return

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 — If you can’t find bathtubs for your next renovation project, you might want to wander over to Fillmore Glen State Park next month. You’ll see them barreling down the path, chased by people in some seriously wacky outfits.

In 2019, Joshua Marnell, chairman of Friends of Fillmore Glen State Park, organized the first Fillmore Days in 20 years, reviving an event based on local lore: the Moravia bathtub races.

“The bathtub races started with a little white lie — it was rumored that Millard Fillmore was the first president who brought the bathtub to the White House. He didn’t, but all the locals believed that rumor for a while, so they decided it would be a great idea to start racing bathtubs,” Marnell said.

The hoax was perpetrated by journalist H.L. Mencken in 1917, leading to years of drivers speeding down Main Street in bathtubs mounted on steel frames with wheels.

But in 1999, a pedestrian strayed onto the course and was struck by a bathtub — putting an end to the races. Revivals were attempted over the years, but they were unsuccessful until 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the event in 2020, but they’re back on this year.

“It’s a great way to get people out seeing each other, and a great reminder that there’s still fun to be had,” Marnell said. “Lockdown was tough for everybody, and now they’re just itching to get out and do something. I think this will be a great way to do that — it’s all outdoors, spread out throughout the day.”

The event is expected to draw more than 2,000 people, from residents down the street to teams traveling from out of state to race.

The Schnurr siblings took second place last time, but they plan to enter the custom tub category — their designs, a secret.

“We learned a lot from the last time we did this that we made it way too hard to push,” said Jackie Schnurr of Moravia. She and her brother Tom are recruiting their other brother and his wife from Connecticut — extra muscles for pushing.

“The custom class can be very unusual — it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bathtub,” she said with a chuckle. “That’s gonna be a surprise.”

But the bathtubs themselves are not the only creative part of this weekend-long event — many of the competitors dress to match their tub.

“I really look forward to the bathtub creations, which are super elaborate and I just can’t believe the time and effort and resources people put into not only the tubs but the characters they play,” said Vanessa Richards of Syracuse.

Richards, a meteorologist for Spectrum News, is returning to her hometown to emcee the event for the second time — bringing with her Syracuse radio DJ Amy Robbins, who typically emcees the New York State Fair.

“I’m sure she was like, ‘What is this goofy, strange thing that we’re going to be doing?’ but it’s probably my favorite event that I get to emcee,” Richards said.

Flashback to 2019: A family of 25 donned leis, shower caps and pink tulle tutu skirts. One cousin carried a plunger as a scepter and wore a pair of bright, white underwear over his shorts. Tossing tighty-whities into the crowd (they were brand new), Captain Underpants brought a lot of attention to his team.

“They’re out there dancing, and while some people are really trying to race to beat the times, other people are just trying to make the crowd laugh — and are very successful,” Richards said.

Captain Underpants’ cousin, Kelly Bonsignore of Elmira, said her family has camped at Fillmore Glen State Park every summer since she was a baby. Although the team, named Barb’s Bubbly Brood after their grandmother, will not race this year, they plan to cheer on the competitors.

“We are attending — at least some of our team — but our racer was disassembled and not yet rebuilt due to COVID,” Bonsignore said. “We are disappointed, but plan to come and support the other teams — with a plan on making a comeback in 2022.”

“I think it’s good for the community because we all get to see each other in person after a year of being friends on the internet,” Schnurr said. “Being able to gather and celebrate something as ridiculous as this race, I think it’s really going to be important and bring a lot of excitement this year.”