Benton County’s two most prominent claims to fame both pertain to the “harness” — as in harness racing and harnessing the wind.
At the turn of the 20th century, harness racing was one of the most popular sports in the nation. And into the limelight paced Dan Patch, a dark bay Standardbred stallion who went undefeated in open competition. Dan Patch’s achievements made him a sports celebrity, possibly the most famous athlete in America until Babe Ruth.
Born in 1896 in Oxford, Indiana, Dan Patch became so dominant on the racetrack after just two seasons of racing that other owners eventually refused to enter their horses against him. With his short racing career over, he performed time trials and traveled extensively on exhibition. He earned millions of dollars in purses, attendance gate receipts and product endorsements while breaking the world speed records at least 14 times in the early 1900s.
Dan Patch was bred by Daniel Messner Jr., a dry goods merchant in Oxford, and began his harness racing career in 1900 at Indiana county fairs. A year later, he began racing on a national circuit to great acclaim. In a surprise move in 1901, Messner sold his prized stallion to a New York casino owner for $20,000, a record price at the time. A year later, he was sold for $60,000 to the owner of a stock feed company in Minnesota. Dan Patch retired undefeated in 1909 as the holder of nine world records. He died of a heart attack at the age of 20 in 1916.
Though buried in Minnesota, Dan Patch is remembered in Oxford with a memorial tombstone. The town holds its annual “Dan Patch Days” festival on the weekend following Labor Day each year. The festival is scheduled this year for Sept. 10–12.
Benton County is also known for harnessing wind. Sitting along the Illinois state line between Chicago and Terre Haute, Benton County is positioned at the door to the great prairies to the west. Benton County is among the windiest areas of the state which led to its selection as site of the state’s first wind farm.
Benton County Wind Farm began operating in 2008. A second farm, Fowler Ridge Wind Farm in the southern part of the county, opened in 2009. The two large wind farms make Benton County the largest wind producer in the state, and, with over 620 turbines, the county has one of the largest concentrations of wind turbines in the United States east of the Mississippi River.