First derby victor named to lead parade

WELLSBURG – Dan Gilchrist may experience a case of deja vu Thursday when he appears with his Oil Can Derby car in Wellsburg’s Independence Day parade.

Gilchrist was the first winner of the soapbox-style race, which was held as part of the city’s Independence Day celebration in 1947 and was invited by the Wellsburg 4th of July Committee to serve as grand marshal for this year’s parade, which will begin at 7 p.m. on Charles Street.

It was customary for the Oil Can Derby winner to appear with his winning car in the parade and Gilchrist would win the race three more times (placing second in his second year in the race) before he turned 16 and was no longer eligible to compete.

Gilchrist would go on to serve as Brooke County commissioner for 18 years as well as work for more than 46 years for Banner Fiberboard, retiring as its plant manager in 2000.

But long-time Wellsburg residents also remember him as the first winner of the Oil Can Derby, a distinction he’s proud to claim.

His first Oil Can Derby car has been displayed with his trophy, photos and other derby-related material at the Brooke County Museum and Cultural Center since last year. This year it will be brought out for another parade appearance.

Gilchrist has fond memories of the red and white-striped car, which began as a damaged pedal tractor he pulled from a creek.

With the help of friends and his uncle, Cliff Gilchrist, he repaired the vehicle, adding a rope to steer it and a wood block brake that slowed the vehicle when lowered against its rear wagon wheels.

He dubbed it Old ’97, a name inspired by the song, “The Wreck of the Old ’97.”

“The older I get, the cooler it is. I was sure as sure-fire I was going to win that,” he said.

Gilchrist said the retrofitted pedal tractor wasn’t an unusual entry for the first race, which was open to “anything with wheels.”

“Anything was legal. You never saw such contraptions in your life,” he said.

More conventional vehicles would come as more regulations were introduced, Gilchrist noted.

The derby was named for the then-leading product of Eagle Manufacturing, which was then a major sponsor for the race.

Gilchrist said, like now, the race was a very popular event among several planned by the volunteer members of the Wellsburg 4th of July Committee.

He said he was pleased to see the race return last year after a lengthy hiatus. Local business owner Fred Marino revived the derby. He said he remembered building derby cars with his father, Al, and wanted families today to share that memory of working together and cheering for their children.

This year’s race will be held at 9 a.m. Thursday on Fourth Street, not far from the E.R. Nichols Playground in the city’s 1st Ward, where a patriotic service will be held at 8:30 a.m.

As an adult Gilchrist cheered for all of his children and several grandchildren as they competed in the race. His daughter, Brenda, was the first girl to compete, and his oldest grandson, Mike, was one of the last winners.

Gilchrist applauded the efforts of the Wellsburg 4th of July Committee, which once included his son Kurt, who died earlier this year.

He noted the group has planned free concerts and other events through Saturday.

Area children are invited to decorate their bicycles in patriotic style for the parade and a contest held by the Wellsburg Kiwanis Club at 6 p.m. on the Town Square. At dusk the city will hold its fireworks display near the Betty Carr Recreation Site near the Ohio River.

“I think what the committee does for the 4th of July keeps people at home (in Wellsburg) and brings people home. It’s just a joyous time for the people of Wellsburg,” Gilchrist said.

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