Out-Foxed in Red Wing

The Stillwater crew who defeated Red Wing BC in 1875. Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society.

30 March 2018

The sport of rowing enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 1870s, due in large part to the rise of professional rowers. By the mid-1870s, the sport was spreading rapidly across the country with a number of amateur clubs popping up across the Upper Midwest. As this story by Sarah Risser illustrates, the distinction between a professional and an amateur rower, at this time, was not always clear. Sarah writes:

In the spring of 1875, Minnesota’s newly-formed Red Wing Boat Club challenged their chief rival, Stillwater, to a two-mile, out and back, four-oared race for a $100 purse. To further enliven the day, Red Wing invited the Minnesota Boat Club’s Norman Wright, considered the state’s second fastest single sculler (after Charles L. Corning), to race John B. Fox for $50.00. Mr. Fox had recently moved to Red Wing and was working as clerk at Hi Parks grocery. As far as anyone knew, this was going to be Mr. Fox’s first race. Norman Wright was well known throughout the rowing community. He was considered the real deal and heavily favored to win. The three clubs agreed to meet in Red Wing on Monday, 28 June 1875.

The Red Wing and Stillwater Boat Clubs shared a taunting rivalry characterized by posturing and provocative shenanigans. In the days leading up to the race, Stillwater, a lumber town, boasted that the upcoming race would be child’s play for its lumberjack-strong crew. Red Wing responded by cajoling the local blacksmith, the largest man in town – a man who didn’t row – into posing with a surly expression, stripped to the waist, muscles bulging. Red Wing sent the photograph upriver with a note clarifying their intention of boating the burly specimen and that his three crew mates were in possession of equally strapping physiques. As legend has it, Stillwater sent a scout to verify this claim. When the Red Wing crew noticed the spy lurking on shore, they intentionally let their form fall apart and spent the remainder of their practice violently lunging into the catch and rushing up the slide at wildly different speeds. The scout returned, rubbing his hands together in eager anticipation of Stillwater’s impending athletic and gambling victories.1

The weekend before the race, Norman Wright rowed his single shell from St. Paul’s Raspberry Island to Red Wing, a distance of approximately 45 miles. He enjoyed long downstream rows on the Mississippi, and an annual row to Red Wing would eventually become a Minnesota Boat Club tradition. Members and fans of the Minnesota and Stillwater Boat Clubs boarded the The James Mean in Stillwater early on the morning of the race. The steamboat was decorated with flags and branches and St. Paul’s cornet band was on board ensuring a festive ride down the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers to Red Wing.

As the crowds swelled in Red Wing, so too did the number of bets placed. Stillwater fans, secure in their belief that they would win, offered bets of $100 to $50 and, to their delight, Red Wing fans readily accepted.2 By the time Norman Wright and John B. Fox were lined up for their 2 p.m. start, Red Wing’s banks had been depleted, their cash stores almost entirely drawn down. The town was lousy with gamblers that day; it was the biggest day for betting and sport that Red Wing had seen.

At half past two, the starter’s pistol fired. With a few graceful strokes, John B. Fox easily glided into a comfortable lead leaving little doubt that Norman Wright was outmatched. After rounding the stake, Fox had such a yawning lead that he came to a complete stop, smiled mischievously at the crowd, and splashed water on his arms and face. He pulled out a lemon and sucked on it until Wright was close. Fox toyed with Wright on the return stretch, stopping to let Wright catch up and then spurting ahead in turns. Fox ultimately won the race by a boat length to Red Wing’s jubilant cheers.3

The crowd was duly primed for the four-oared race,4 the main event of the day. Immediately after the starting pistol’s shot rang out, Stillwater caught a crab. Rattled, the crew steadily lost ground, soon realizing that they would not recover. They yielded the race to Red Wing without finishing and rowed disconsolately back to The James Means where they suddenly realized that they had gambled away their return fare. A sympathetic winner eventually turned over enough money to allow the captain to purchase coal and ferry the disheartened Stillwater and Minnesota Boat Club fans back home.

The local press said little about the race during the following week aside from that Stillwater was more accustomed to rowing on a lake than a river, that there would likely be a re-match, and that Fox, who surprised everyone with his spectacular performance, would likely challenge Charles L. Corning, Minnesota’s champion single sculler, in the near future.

Ellis Ward, a.k.a. ‘John B. Fox’. Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Archives.

After a week of relative quiet, fresh information surfaced that put a startling twist on the story. According to C. A. Rasmussen, in his A History of the City of Red Wing, Minnesota (1934), the Tennessee Jubilee Singers were touring in Minnesota to raise money for Fisk College. The musicians had been in Red Wing watching the races on 28 June. One of the performers recognized John B. Fox and made a shocking claim. John B. Fox was not John B. Fox at all! John B. Fox was professional sculler Ellis Ward.5 Not only had Ward, masquerading as a simple grocery clerk, raced Norman Wright, he had also rowed bow seat in the Red Wing four. This revelation set off a weeks-long crescendo of howling protests from Stillwater and St. Paul.

Sources differ on the extent to which Red Wing knew Ellis Ward had taken on an alias to out-smart Stillwater. According to Rasmussen, the Red Wing crew was oblivious. Ward had been imported for the occasion by a small coterie of residents who zealously guarded the secret as they put up prize money. Yet, according to the 31 July edition of the Minneapolis Tribune, the Red Wing club retained Ellis Ward as their trainer earlier that spring and it was a last-minute decision to have him race.

Stillwater’s indignation was matched almost perfectly by Red Wing’s defensive and unapologetic stance. Red Wing argued that considerably more money was bet on the four-oared race, which happened after Fox’s skill had been made apparent. Consequently, Stillwater had only themselves to blame. The 13 July 1875 edition of The Grange Advance was firm on this point:

Stillwater entered the race and wagered their money with their eyes open… we can have no sympathy with men who, after seeing such rowing as Mr. Fox did in the single oared race, run around with their hands full of money trying to get somebody to take it. Betting is not the most honorable way in the world to get money, but when greenbacks are thrust in a man’s face in these times, he is not very apt to refuse them… Stillwater came down longing to get rid of their surplus of greenback, with which they and their overburdened pockets were surfeited, begging someone to ‘take them’ and the Red Wing boys noted for their accommodating dispositions, ‘took them’ just to please their whims…6

By August, tempers had cooled. Stillwater, deeply unsatisfied with their June race, challenged Red Wing to a rematch on Lake St. Croix in Prescott, Wisconsin on 18 August 1875. Ellis Ward came to scout out the venue and offer advice to the Red Wing crew.7 Red Wing broke their rigging during the race and Stillwater won easily. The two teams met again in late September to race at the Washington County fair. Again, Stillwater won.

Both clubs got on with rowing and racing and eventually let the John B. Fox incident go, but it would be many years before the phrase ‘as foxy as the Red Wing Boat Club’ disappeared from the Upper Midwestern vernacular.


1. Description of pre-race shenanigans taken from Potter, Merle. 101 Best Stories of Minnesota. Harrison and Smith Company, Minneapolis, MN. P 61.
2. The Grange Advance, June 29, 1875.
3. Rasmussen, C. A. 1933 A History of the City of Red Wing, Minnesota Copyright 1934 p 113.
4. Stillwater Crew: T Scully, J Morarity, John Cain (Cain was swapped out for Staples for the August race) and John McGrath. Red Wing Crew: Charles Lent, Joseph Harrison, EB Philleo and John B Fox.
5. Rasmussen p.113.
6. The Grange Advance, July 13, 1875.
7. Elis Ward did not race in August, D. Harrison took his place in the four. Stillwater also swapped out one man, replacing Cain for Staples.

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