Detroit was once a hotbed of pigeon racing, and there was a Wabash connection. The story is that Belgian immigrants, attracted to Detroit by the abundance of jobs in the auto industry, brought their love of homing pigeons with them from Europe. Pigeon racing was a relatively inexpensive sport, and as such it had great appeal to the blue-collar residents of The Motor City.
Factory workers started colonies of birds in lofts in backyard garages at minimum expense. Soon, racing clubs sprang up in the working class sections of Detroit, and before long the sport was firmly established.
Clubs organized races, which were almost always on weekends, and sent pigeons to distant places by rail. Wabash, some 200 miles from Detroit, was a favorite release point for many Detroit clubs.
The pigeons arrived here by Railway Express on the late-night Wabash Railroad [now the Norfolk and Southern] passenger train from Detroit. Railroad workers carefully lifted the wicker cages from the baggage cars, and placed them on the big wooden carts with large spoked wheels that were found then at every train depot. There the pigeons sat until daybreak.
W.G. Fisher, the Railway Express agent here, released the pigeons at first light. They rose into the sky and wheeled in ever-widening circles above the Courthouse and the steeples of the nearby Presbyterian and Christian churches. When the birds found their bearings they were off to the northeast, headed for their home lofts in Detroit.
But some of the birds never made it out of Wabash. Unable to lock in on the route home, these pigeons sometimes took up new quarters in the Courthouse tower or at the Daugherty grain elevator on East Canal Street.
In August of 1939, the Detroit clubs sent some 7,000 pigeons--a record number--here for release. Jerry Jontry, a reporter for The Plain Dealer, was driving down Wabash Street late on the night of August 12 when he saw the crated pigeons in front of the Railway Express office. He stopped to see what was going on and learned that the birds were due to be released early the next day.
“By habit and practice, we are not known for our early hours,” Jontry wrote, “but it isn’t every day we get a chance to see 7,000 racing pigeons take off.”
Jontry made it to the depot by five o’clock the next morning, but it was raining in Detroit and the race officials telegraphed and asked for a delayed release of the pigeons. The sleepy reporter went home and back to bed, and so he missed the 7:30 a.m. departure of the birds.
Detroit clubs continued to send their birds here for release until World War II put a stop to such things. To my knowledge, the races, at least those from Wabash, did not resume after the war.
Jontry, it was said, lost his job with the Plain Dealer when he clashed with the publishers over a now long-forgotten issue. He went on to New York City where he became president of the company which published Esquire Magazine. Later, he patched up his differences with the publishers and came back to Wabash in the early 1960s to speak at the dedication of the restored Dora covered bridge.
Jontry, who was born in Chenoa, Illinois, died in his Manhattan home in 1992 at the age of 81.