Arts & Culture / Mosaic / May 6, 2010

Berwick firefighters take outhouse racing pot

The sky turned cloudy and it began to drizzle as midday drew near and people trickled into Berwick, Ill., to engage in some competitive outhouse racing. It’s easy to miss the township of Berwick. There are only 50 houses in the township, many of those spread out in the fields around the town.

Berwick is situated at a crossroads in Warren County. The town — such as it is, being unincorporated — is nestled around a small park encircled by a roundabout. There are 34 houses, Berwick Baptist church, a post office and the local volunteer fire department. Normally, it is an exceptionally quiet community, primarily agricultural and with many people working in Monmouth, Galesburg and Abingdon, Ill.

On Saturday, however, Berwick was booming. Several dozen people sat at tables in the town green, selling old knick-knacks and listening to the crooning of an Elvis impersonator. The occasion was “Berwick Appreciation Day.” Berwick Day, every year at the beginning of May ,is a chance for the tiny township to show some civic pride and even on this dreary day, the whole town was out.

The morning had begun with a pancake breakfast at the Berwick fire station which was followed by a “Cruise in & Tractor Show.” A half-dozen classic cars were parked haphazardly in front of the post office. On the opposite side of the street 10 or 11 antique tractors were parked in neat rows.

The indefatigable Elvis impersonator, better than one would expect, sang for several hours, until people began to drift to the Berwick Baptist Church for the Berwick Day luncheon.

Berwick Baptist Church is the center of the township these days, but that was not always the case.

“The Iowa railroad was the original reason for the town. Berwick was big, actually. It was the [rail] stop for all the farmers in the area back in the early 1800s. There were a couple of doctors, a blacksmith, a bank, several grocery stores, a Methodist Church (it burned down in the 1890s), a hotel, a grainery, with the train station next to it,” said Berwick Baptist Church Pastor Tom Smith. Nowadays, though, the town is down on its luck after contracting for the past 60 years.

“When my parents moved here 43 years ago, there were close to 73 kids in town. Now there are only a dozen,” said Smith.

Brightening, though, Smith continued, “People drive in from all over for church services. We have people from Galesburg and Abingdon and we’re averaging in the mid 60s.”

Following the barbeque, ham sandwich and pie luncheon at the church, people made their way back down the street to the park for the crowning events of the day, the Berwick Day Parade and the annual Outhouse Race. The parade was a small affair: tractors, the fire truck and a Mardi Gras themed float whose riders threw Mardi Gras beads and candy for the children. Following the small parade, a new tension entered the air as the town prepared for the Outhouse Race.

Outhouse racing is an arcane sport unique to Berwick. The brainchild of Berwick Day organizer Mike Taylor, teams literally race outhouses around the park. Each outhouse is on wheels and teams take turns making time trials around the park. Once each time has completed its time trial, the two fastest teams race simultaneously in opposite directions around the park to decide the winner. The winning team gets a cut from the pot.

Each time trial went quickly, ranging from a little over a minute to less than 45 seconds. There was an untimed run for the kids and then the final race-off took place. One team was made up of Berwick Firefighters, the other of assorted community members. In the end, the firefighters took the day.

When asked about the origins of outhouse racing, Pastor Smith said, “Well, outhouses were big back in the day. When I was a kid, we all had an outhouse. Outhouse tipping was a big deal.

“It started back in the 50s as ‘Smiles Day.’ We brought in outside entertainment; there was an ice cream social. It was a big deal. It dropped off, though. We restarted it five years ago. As for outhouse racing, nobody else was doing it. I built two of them,” he said. Taylor has built two custom racing outhouses for teams to use.

Berwick Day takes place in May each year. For more information contact Mike Taylor (309) 462-5618.

Ben Reeves

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