Editor's note: Technology has changed, but how it's implemented tripped people up 78 years ago as much as it can today.

One of the great stories of Colorado newspaper lore is the report that Will Overhead "won" the 1933 Indianapolis 500 auto race.

The technology and economics in the middle of the Great Depression caused The Associated Press to offer what was called "the Pony Wire." Instead of installing a teletype machine, the AP offered small daily newspapers the option of dialing in to a conference call.

An AP editor would read the "top of the report" - updating the major news and sports events of the day. Pony Wire clients listened in to the call and madly typed notes. Pony Wire customers typically subscribed to a major regional newspaper, and could legally "lift" AP stories, and then freshen up the story with details given during the Pony Wire conference call. These were the "hot lead" days when Linotype machines set type.

The Walsenburg (Colo.) World-Independent was a customer of the AP's Pony Wire. And this is the story of how it became part of newspaper lore.

Walsenburg is the county seat of rural Huerfano County, whose major landmark is the magnificent snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Range in south-central Colorado. The county's population has rarely climbed over 10,000.

Back in the early 1930s, little daily newspapers in rural markets were the main source of national, state and regional news and sports. Walsenburg didn't have its own radio station. Some residents subscribed to the big city Denver Post, but other sources of news were scarce - and, of course, fax machines, TV, cable and Twitter hadn't been invented.

Needed the latest news

So, if the farmers, ranchers and shopkeepers in Huerfano County wanted to keep up with the news, they likely read the World-Independent. Major sporting events, including heavyweight fights and the Indy 500, were major drivers of newsstand sales.

On Memorial Day 1933, the AP Pony Wire call occurred early in the afternoon. The call likely carried news updates about Germany's Nazi Party introducing a law to legalize eugenic sterilization, and reports about the World's Fair in Chicago, Congress passing the New Deal Federal Securities Act and possibly an update on Walt Disney's release of the cartoon "The Three Little Pigs."

The big sporting event of the day, of course, was the Indianapolis 500. But the race was only at its midway point when the Pony Wire call was completed.

Being attuned to his readers' needs, the World-Independent's editor on the Pony Wire stayed on the line after the regular call ended and asked if there was any way possible to get the final results of the Indy 500 before his deadline.

The AP - ever obliging to its members - agreed to help.

The rub

The AP Denver bureau confirmed that it would get the paper the final results by sending a Western Union telegraph to the World-Independent, which read: "Will Overhead Indy 500 Winner."

In the vernacular of the day, "will overhead" was verbal shorthand for "we will telephone you."

But the editor at the World-Independent (whose name has been lost to history) read the telegram to mean that Will Overhead had won the Indianapolis 500.

So the May 31 World-Independent sports page carried this headline:

"Overhead Wins Indianapolis Race"

The World-Independent story, written by a newspaper staffer, read:

"Indianapolis, Ind. May 30 (AP) - Will Overhead won the Indianapolis Memorial Day race today. At the two hundred fifty mile post, Babe Stapp was leading the string of roaring cars, but gave way to Overhead on the last half of the 500 mile grind."

Lore has it that the story claimed Overhead was an unknown rookie who roared past all the great veterans to win "the Greatest Spectacle in Racing."


Times and technology change. Back in 1933, U.S. newspapers owned a 48 percent share of all U.S. advertising. Almost all households received a daily paper and some got two. There were few other means to receive news, sports, features, stock results and other information.

Little daily newspapers that got their news from the Pony Wire flourished.

Today, with the advent of multiple technologies to deliver and receive information, newspapers sell only about 12 percent of all U.S. advertising. Few people use printed newspapers as their prime source of news, sports and finance.

The six-day-a-week Walsenburg World-Independent is now the weekly Huerfano World Journal. Co-publishers Gretchen Sporleder Orr and Brian Orr depend on coverage of local news and sports to keep readers and advertisers in the fold.

"For many years, we had Will Overhead Days in Walsenburg, but now most of the people who remember the story are gone," Brian Orr said.

By the way, Louis Meyer won the 1933 Indianapolis 500.

But I will always cherish the notion that - thanks to the technology of the day - Will Overhead won the Indy 500 that year.


Marc Wilson is CEO of TownNews.com. He can be reached at marcus@townnews.com.


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