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Get a soap box — then get in it or on it

April 9, 2011
By HOWARD RILEY , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Jerry Gillmett and Jan Plumadore competed in the 2nd annual Soap Box Derby held in Saranac Lake on July 17, 1955. Gillmett claims he beat Plumadore twice but being a good reporter, I decided to get only one side of the story - from Gillmett - so if you want to know the other side you will have to call Plumadore.

Now from those humble beginnings those two boys went from sitting in a soap box to standing on a soap box as they both were elected Franklin County Legislators - not at the same time, you understand. Cheering on these two from the sidelines on that long ago were Jan's dad, Hayward Plumadore, Supervisor of the Town of Harrietstown and Jerry's uncle, Jim Gillmett, Supervisor of the Town of Santa Clara. Politics was in their blood.

There is going to be another Soap Box Derby in Saranac Lake as part of Daffest which will be held on April 29. Cherrie Sayles originated and organized an awesome celebration known as Daffest (with a great logo) when Daffodils will create a sea of bright yellow flowers blooming all over the place and events will be going on all day; there will be more about that schedule in this space next week. The Enterprise will be covering that big time.

Article Photos

The 1955 race was a very big deal; there were 40 participants, 23 from Saranac Lake and eight from Tupper Lake. The winner of the race was David Sant from Natural Bridge. The race was run in heats down Church Street Extension Hill and because Jerry was in a dead heat on his first run, the same two raced again; He won, went on to a second heat, won, and then lost the last heat. He was the only one to race in three heats because of the tie in the first race.

The event had been held in Tupper Lake the year before and the Enterprise reported that 3,000 spectators lined the course but then the reporter went on to guess "This year more than 4,000 are expected in Saranac Lake". There was big a headline on page one with this lead "The snazziest cars on four wheels will not be on the highway tomorrow. They'll be in Saranac Lake, racing down the course on Church Street Extension as the streamlined, colorful racers compete in the 2nd Annual Tri-Village Soap Box Derby."

Soap Box racing started in 1933 when a reporter from the Dayton, Ohio Daily News saw kids coasting downhill in home made "engine-less" cars. It grew into a national competition with qualifiers, such as in Saranac Lake, hopefully competing in Dayton, Ohio. The race was later moved to Akron, Ohio because it had a much hillier terrain than Dayton.

The "cabs" on the early racers were wooden boxes that soap was packaged in many years ago. Apparently politicians and evangelists would use a soap box to stand above the crowd, giving an impromptu speech to anyone who would listenand the term was born "he's on his soap box again."

According to Jerry, the racers were given the plans for the car, the wheels and axle and a shirt and helmet. The cars were to be constructed by the racers aged 11 to 15.

Gentleman start your engines! Oh, I forgot there were no engines so here was the lineup for the 1955 race; from Saranac Lake: John Bruce Ryan, William LeRoy, Duncan Richardson, John Farewell, James Miner, Richard LaDue, Peter Premo, Frederick Sweatt, Patrick Latour, Russell Ross, Gordon Miner, Jr., William Donnelly, John Griebsch, Jerry Gillmett, Timothy Kilroy, Randall Wheeler, Thomas Meehan, Jr., Malcolm Martin, Tommy Kilroy, Charles Stiles, Douglas Poole, Jan Plumadore and John Dukett and there was one lone entry from Lake Colby, Roger Hesseltine.

From Tupper Lake: Arthur Richer, Neil White, Edward Chapman, Ernest Annette, Richard Santerre, Robert Mayville, Tom Vaughn and Roger Vincent. I am surprised that there were not more entries from Tupper Lake in 1955, since the event was held there the year before and there must have been many kids who still had there race cars.

There was a big pre-race parade which left Riverside Park at 1 p.m. lead by Derby Queen Donna McGill (known today as Mrs. Jay Law) with her attendants. Glenn White of Tupper Lake, winner of the 1954 Derby, lead the line-up of racers, all wearing their helmets and Derby T-shirts.

Next week's Part 2 will have more pictures including a special one of Jerry Gillmett's race car. He has stored the car these last 56 years and with the picture will be the announcement of a celebrity driver who is going to race in that same car in this year's event.

The 1955 picture of Jerry has him identified as Irving, perhaps mistaking him for Irving Altman, a prominent Saranac Lake businessman at that time.



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