Today in History

Today in History: May 17

The First Derby Day

1921 Derby
1921 Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky,
Caufield & Shook, photographer, 1921.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

Popular rider Oliver Lewis rode H. P. McGrath's thoroughbred Aristides to victory in the first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875, at the Louisville Jockey Club. Fourteen of the fifteen jockeys in the derby, including Lewis, were African Americans.

The Kentucky Derby was begun by Meriwether Lewis Clark, a prominent Louisville citizen who developed the Louisville Jockey Club. Clark began construction on the race course in 1874 on land leased from two relatives, John and Henry Churchill. He patterned the Kentucky Derby after the English Classic, the Epsom Derby.1 The Derby, now run annually the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, is the oldest consecutively held thoroughbred horse race in the United States. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes comprise the coveted Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing.

exterior of the grandstand at Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky., Derby day
April 29, 1901.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920

In 1773, the College of William and Mary sponsored a survey of the area that eventually became Louisville, site of the Kentucky Derby. George Rogers Clark settled there in 1778, and the town, named for Louis XVI of France, was organized in 1779. By the early 1800s, Louisville became a major port serving both the Midwest and the South. During the Civil War, it was a key supply depot for Union troops.

Every May, Louisville hosts the Kentucky Derby and the acclaimed horse show at the Kentucky State Fair. Also during the Derby festival, the stern-wheeler Belle of Louisville races the Delta Queen.

cover of sheet music
"That Kentucky Rag,"
Hampton Durand, music, Boyle Woolfolk, words,
1912.
Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920

Norwegian Constitution Day

a crowd of people in a clearing
Crowds standing on a field at Humboldt Park during a Norwegian Celebration Day on May 17, 1925,
Chicago Daily News, photographer, May 17, 1925.
Photographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933

May 17 is Norwegian Constitution Day, a commemoration of the adoption of Norway's constitution in 1814. Many Norwegian-American communities celebrate the holiday in the United States.

A. H. Bratferg was among the many Norwegians who immigrated to the Upper Midwest and Northern Great Plains in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Born in 1856, he set sail for America with his parents, brother, and sister from Ringsager, Norway, in 1860. Sylvan Lee recorded in an oral history interview:

Upon landing in New York they boarded a freight train and came to La Crosse, Wisconsin. This town was but a mere lumbering camp and had no depot. The family was dumped off the train, bag and baggage at a point near the present Mill Street crossing, where they awaited the arrival of John Kjos who was to meet them and conduct them to their future home.

Sylvan Lee, "Pioneer Days of A. H. Bratferg."
American Life Histories, 1936-1940

Sod House
Ole Myrvik's Sod House,
Mr. & Mrs. Ole Myrvik and Child, Milton, North Dakota,
John McCarthy, photographer, 1896.
The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920

Inger Watland told the story of his family's pilgrimage from Norway to Nebraska in a 1940 interview:

My parents came from Norway and settled in Chicago, where my father was a carpenter, [sic] he helped to rebuild after the great fire of 1772…. My father came to Nebraska and homesteaded in what is now known as North Branch, Boone County. He came alone. He put up a sod house and some sheds for the stock and when he was ready to send for us every think [sic] burned down. So he had to put up more buildings and when we [went] to Nebraska in a moving wagon, mother, brother and myself…

Fay Levos, "Inger Watland," Petersburg, Nebraska, February 26, 1940.
American Life Histories, 1936-1940

Lutheran church
Lutheran Church, Monona County, Iowa,
John Vachon, photographer, 1940.
FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945

The Bratferg and Watland families were part of the large wave of Norwegian immigrants who came to the U.S. during the late 1840s through the 1860s. These pioneers came to better their economic and social conditions, largely settling in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas. Their strong religious heritage was evidenced in the construction of many Lutheran churches and colleges, such as St. Olaf College founded in Northfield, Minnesota in 1874.

"Paal paa Haugje,"
Alf Nilsson, performer,
Carmel, California, February 18, 1939.
California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties, 1938-1940

Real Audio format

wav format 2,736 Kb

"Paal paa Haugje" forms part of a group of field materials documenting Norwegian songs performed on February 18, 1939 by Alf Nilsson, originally from the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway. His songs were collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Carmel, California and form part of the collection California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties, 1938-1940.