81 years of Horned Toad Derby, how did this all begin. I was looking through past articles, writings and more to learn the history of the Annual Horned Toad Derby. The reality of 80 years of a small-town festival continuing to exist is mind blowing especially if you look at all that has changed our community in the last 81 years. According to Bill Howell, (former editor of The Coalinga Record), in 1933, the Coalinga Junior Chamber of Commerce turned the annual dinner meeting of the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce into a “big party at the Coalinga Mineral Spring’s Hotel.” The youth attending the dinner were “bored” and began rounding up critters to race. From this, evolved into the present. The first advertised Coalinga Horned Toad Derby was in 1943 and that year the Coalinga American Legion sponsored the event that began 2 years earlier at the Chamber banquet.
In 1933, The Coalinga Record reported on the upcoming banquet with no mention of the activities that were to transpire that evening. A circle was drawn, critters collected and the Derby was born. Mrs. Abel, who in 1984 reported to the Coalinga Record, operated the Coalinga Hot Spring’s Hotel in 1933, said “It took days to rid the Hotel of frogs and other reptiles from evenings activities of the Banquet.” Apparently, the evenings fun was so great that in 1934, the Chamber included the races in the annual dinner meeting’s agenda. According to Mr. Howell, in 1934, the banquet was billed in the Coalinga Record as the “The Chamber Hi-Jinks” with the races well publicized in advance. Howell continues,” it was not the Horned Toad that was featured” as the Coalinga Record called the upcoming event the Coalinga-Kettleman “Frog Derby”.
So how the American Legion came to call their 1935 Boy Scout Fundraiser the “Third Annual Horned Toad Derby” is left to speculations. There is some evidence as The Coalinga Record reported in 1935, “previously the Horned Toad Derby has been privately conducted by the Coalinga Area Chamber of Commerce and it has proven so popular that this year (1935) it was flung wide open on a huge scale and made a public affair.” It also seems the Coalinga Record can take credit for naming the Horned Toad Derby as they first coined the term in their 1934 article.
After the Coalinga-Hot Springs Hotel served as host for the Derby, the Derby moved to the Standard Oil Picnic grounds for a couple of years, then Motorcycle Hill, or better known as ‘the slab” before locating to downtown Coalinga in 1937. In 1938, the races hit big time and the California Horned Toad Racing Association was incorporated. In 1938, the race was televised by KMJ, Fresno who broadcast it to the western states.
In 1940 the Derby went Hollywood, Jim Rau from Gone with the Wind Fame entered a toad, and in 1941 Bob Hope, Rudy Vallee, Jerry Colona, The Fitch Band Wagon as well as Jim Rau all had entries in the Hollywood Handicap race.
1941 the champion trophy went to Corpus Christi, TX where Coalinga native Don Terry was training to become a fighter pilot. 1942, the Derby was never officially cancelled but due to gas rationing and many off to war, the Derby was placed on hold. 1946 the Derby returned, honoring it as the 10th Anniversary of the Horned Toad Derby and billing it as a festival of rejoicing for the homecoming of the sons and daughters who had been scattered around the world serving in the armed forces.
During the 1970’s the Derby name lost out to Joaquin Murrieta Days but continued with the honored horned toad races. In 1979, the traditional Horned Toad Derby named event returned and has been going strong ever since except for 1983, the year Coalinga was devastated by the Earthquake, with infrastructure down, the Derby was cancelled returning full force in 1984.
As we get ready to honor our beloved Toad, Coalinga Horned Toad Derby will celebrate 81years. Change has happened over the years, but it is the Toad and Coalinga who makes the Annual Horned Toad Derby Celebration.
The Horned Toad Derby will run May 26-29, 2017 – Memorial Day Weekend, we are 81 and Having FUN!