1890 - 1918
And His “Wampus Cat” Ford
Herbert LeRoy “Roy” Gillett was born August 15, 1890 in Fredonia, Kansas, a son of Leveret Levi Gillette (1867-1939) and Mary Elizabeth (Haas) Gillette (1866-1939). He moved to Iola, Kansas in 1912 where he worked as a mechanic for the local Ford agency, Barber & Smith. Learning auto racing from his employer, B. T. Barber, Gilette returned home to Fredonia in 1914.
Gillett won the first ever auto race run in Wilson County, Kansas which was contested on a ½ mile dirt oval racetrack in the city park in Fredonia, Kansas on July 1, 1914. Gillett drove a Ford that day but there is no word as to who his competitors might have been.
Gillett entered his first races at Riverside Park at Iola, Kansas on July 4, 1914. Most of the motorcycles races were run that day but only one 5-mile heat race for automobiles was run before the rain came and the remainder of the program was postponed until July 15, 1914. That one heat race was won by Ross O’Connor of Edgerton, Kansas in 6 minutes, 15.0 seconds. O’Connor had a riding mechanic, John Rowland of Wellsville, Kansas in this race. Gillett may have competed in this race but only the names of the winner were mentioned in the newspaper.
Gillett competed in the postponed races at Riverside Park at Iola, Kansas on July 15, 1914. His was one of only six automobiles to do so and drove a #2 Ford special. These races utilized the two-abreast rolling start that was to become so prevalent. Gillet ran his one mile time trial in 1 minute, 28.0. That tied with Lee D. Hester of Iola, Kansas for the slowest time of the day. Hester was driving John F. Jersezy’s 1910 Flanders 20. Gillett finished in third place in the first heat race behind B. T. Barber and W. W. Brown. Gillett covered the five-mile distance in 6 minutes, 45.0 seconds finishing 21.0 seconds behind winner Barber. Gillett’s engine had acquired valve trouble during this race though, a problem that took him 30 minutes to remedy. Gillett finished in third place in the second heat race behind W. W. Brown and B. T. Barber. Gillett’s time of 6 minutes, 38.0 seconds for the five miles was only 8.0 seconds slower than Brown’s winning time. Gillett also finished third in the third heat race behind winner Barber and second place Brown. Gillett’s time for that race was 6 minutes, 40.0 seconds which was 20 .0 slower than Barber’s winning time. For his three third place finishes, Gillett collected a total of $45 from the $350 purse.
Gillett entered a Ford in a race at Riverside Park in Iola, Kansas on September 4, 1914. Lee D. Hester of Iola drove the car for Gillett but finished behind the cars of B. T. Barber of Iola, Kansas; and Ross O’Connor of Edgerton, Kansas in each of the five 5-mile races run that day. Hester still collected $45 from the purse for his efforts.
Over the winter months, Gillett built his new “Wampus Cat” Ford. He drove the new car to first place in the Australian Pursuit race at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Forest Park in Coffeyville, Kansas on May 5, 1915. Gillett then led the first five-mile heat race until his engine “went bad” at the four-mile mark and he was passed by Sig Haugdahl of Albert Lea, Minnesota. Gillett started last in the second five-car, five-mile heat race, took the lead after two miles and went on to win that race handily. Gillett was leading the twenty-mile final race of the day when it was stopped after three laps and then canceled after a fatal accident that took the life of Guy Knease of Iowa City, Iowa.
Gillett won the 10-mile race at the Labette County Fairgrounds at Oswego, Kansas on July 30, 1915, finishing just ahead of Glenn M. Breed who was driving a 1910 Flanders 20 owned by John F. Jersezy, both of whom were from Chanute, Kansas. Gillett also won the Australian Pursuit race finishing ahead of Harry Neal who was driving B. T. Barber’s Model T Ford “Bug”.
Gillett raced the “Wampus Cat” Ford at the Burlington Fairgrounds at Burlington, Kansas on August 4, 1915 but the results of those races have yet to be located.
On September 8, 1915, Lee D. Hester of Iola, Kansas drove Gillett’s “Wampus Cat” Ford to a second-place finish behind John F. Jersezy’s 1910 Flanders 20 at the Seneca Fairgrounds at Seneca, Kansas.
In September of 1915, Gillette, driving his #13 “Wampus Cat” Ford, ran second to William “Candy” Cunningham of Fredonia, Kansas who was driving his “Yellow Kid” car in a race on a dusty racetrack at Pittsburg, Kansas.
Gillett won the 10-mile race run on October 1, 1915 which was the last day of the county fair at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Forest Park at Coffeyville, Kansas. Second place in that race went to Charlie Shaffstall of Coffeyville, Kansas who was driving a Studebaker.
Gillett also raced to a second-place finish behind William "Candy" Cunningham also of Fredonia, Kansas in the K. O. M. Classic automobile race at Speedway Park in Wichita, Kansas on October 14, 1915. (K. O. M. appears to have been an acronym for Kansas – Oklahoma – Missouri.) Gillett averaged 47 M.P.H. for the 10½ mile distance on a very rough racetrack.
Gillett entered his #13 “Wampus Car” Ford in races at the El Dorado Fairgrounds at El Dorado, Kansas run on October 21, 1915 but the crowd was so small that the promoter reduced the “guaranteed" $600 advertised purse. At first, the drivers refused to race for the reduced purse but that upset the spectators so the drivers agreed to run one race for the reduced purse. Results of that one race have yet to be located.
Gillett sold his #13 “Wampus Cat” Ford to William Mercer of Dewey, Oklahoma early in 1916 and obtained a different automobile to race. 2,000 spectators watched as Mercer raced the #13 Wampus Car” Ford in three 5-mile races on a new ½ mile dirt oval racetrack at Caney, Kansas on June 4, 1916. Mercer dropped out of the first race but then came back to win the next two races and, thus, was declared the overall victor for the meet.
Gillett won the 10-mile race in 12 minutes, 48.0 seconds a Riverside Park at Iola, Kansas on September 8, 1916.
On November 2, 1917, Gillett was uninjured when he crashed into a fence during a specialty race at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Forest Park at Coffeyville, Kansas. That left Glenn M. Breed the only other competitor running so Breed collected the $1,000 that had been posted for the winning driver.
It is unknown for certain just where the photo above was taken but you can click your mouse on it and see a larger version of that photo showing more of the area where it was taken. The building at the upper left corner of that photo suggests that the photo may have been taken northwest of Fredonia, Kansas as there is at least a school building there that resembles the one in the photo. Another theory has been put forward saying it was taken at Forrest Park in Coffeyville. That theory suggests that the building in the background was a mansion that was once located west of the park.
Gillett listed a wife and child as dependents on his World War I draft registration form but their names have not been learned. He was serving in the Army when he became a victim of the “Great Flu Epidemic” and passed away of pneumonia in a hospital in San Francisco, California on November 10, 1918. He is buried near his parent’s graves in the Fredonia City Cemetery at Fredonia, Kansas.
With William Mercer still the owner, the “Wampus Cat” Ford is known to have competed at Chanute, Kansas on August 17, 1918, with Paul Clem of Enid, Oklahoma as its driver; and on October 8, 1921 at Pittsburg, Kansas with driver Ed Lusk of Dewey, Oklahoma. Lusk was defeated at Pittsburg by a Packard automobile whose driver’s name was not given. The last known appearance of the “Wampus Cat” Ford came at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds at Coffeyville, Kansas on Labor Day, September 6, 1926. Floyd Edwards of Coffeyville was the driver and he won a three-mile race for stock Fords, finishing in front of a #2 Ford roadster being driven by Fred Wagner.
Note: The original Wampus cat was a mythical creature from American folklore and it has served as the mascot for many sports teams. There was also another racing car known as the Wampus Cat. That one was a Buick owned by A. W. Anderson of Wichita, Kansas as early as 1914. If you know anything more about the Wampus Cat race car, William “Candy” Cunningham, Roy Gillett, Gillett’s wife or child, or any more about where the photo above was taken, please contacts Bob Lawrence via e-mail at: sprintguy @ cox.net – Photo from the Wally Murdoch collection