To most people the wheelbarrow is a utilitarian object. But for William Cross of Antigo, a machinist working for the railroad,
and 13 others from 12 Wisconsin communities it was part of an endurance event and a means of earning badly needed extra dollars during the Great Depression. What was billed as “the world’s greatest wheelbarrow race” was another of the many endurance events of the Roaring Twenties and 1930s.
Wisconsin was not immune to the craze. In 1931 a race was held to commemorate the completion of Highway 26. The 10 stage
race covered the 200 miles from Waupun to Eagle River. All contestants were required to push a wheelbarrow while covering
the distance. On August 28 after speeches by Waupun’s mayor and other dignitaries, the runners/wheelbarrow pushers were off.
Contestants who managed to get at least as far as Antigo were guaranteed $5 per day. The first leg of the race, from Waupun to
Rosendale, occurred during some heavy winds. Herbert Anklam was behind in the early part but surged o complete the 14-mile portion in two hours and 18 minutes, establishing a six minute lead over his nearest competitor. There was great celebration in Rosendale to see a hometown boy in first place. Herbert Anklam’s tenure as leader was short lived. On the next day he dropped to third, as Marcus Dammeier of Tigerton led. Three contestants dropped out. By the fourth day, the road changed from pavement to gravel, making for other challenges. Gravel was easier on the feet but made pushing a wheelbarrow more difficult. Despite a bout of flu, Dammeier maintained his lead of seven minutes over Erwin Wahlers of Birnamwood as they entered his hometown of Tigerton.
The sixth stage took the racers from Wittenberg to Antigo and a guaranteed payoff. Flu slowed Dammeier down and when Erwin
Wahlers took the lead as the racers entere Birnamwood, another home town boy was in the lead. They entered Antigo on South Superior Street, turned at Seventh Avenue onto Clermont and then went to the courthouse where they were greeted
by George Polkinhorn and Henry Berner at a formal reception. After a meal, the contestants were guests of the Home Theater where they were introduced to the audience. Then a good night’s rest and it was on to the next stage.
At 9 am racers were on their way with Wahlers holding an almost one hour lead over previous leader Dammeier and almost two hours over Anklam who had won the first stage. After lunch in Kempster, they were off toward Elcho. Dammeier had dropped to fifth. Anklam tied Wahlers for first place on the day’s event but Wahlers still held a comfortable overall lead. One contestant, Howard Tanner of Waupun, was struck from behind by an automobile carrying Illinois plates and limped across the finish
line with a badly bruised leg.
The following stage, from Elcho to Monico, saw Dammeier withdraw. The stage from Monico to Three
Lakes ended in a four way tie. Wahlers was in firm control of the overall lead. Tanner, who had sustained a fractured knee cap in his
encounter with the automobile, did finish. On the final leg of the race from Three Lakes to Eagle River, Wahlers set a pace of 5.2 miles per hour to win first prize.
Anklam, an early leader and in the top three, finished second with Paul Calum of Three Lakes taking third. Wahlers total time for the ten day, 200 mile event, was 41 hours and 38 minutes. Tanners, despite his fractured knee
cap, did finish about 14 hours off the lead. William Cross of Antigo, never really in contention, finished about 12 hours behind Wahlers.
Of the original 14 contestants, ten finished. Three dropped out in the early stages and Dammeier, an early leader, dropped out at Elcho, enough to earn him some money.