Q&A Questions and Answers:
Greetings from Ohio,
Bob, I read that you played in the Movie "Iron Will." Do you know what ever happened to the real Iron Will? I would appreciate any information that you might have.
That's a great question! It took a bit of digging, but I've uncovered a fair amount of information about the story behind the story of "Iron Will." Rather than saying "based on a true story," the film would have been more forthright had it said, "inspired by a true story."
There were two main players in the 1917 "Red River Derby" from Winnipeg to St. Paul: the winner, Albert Campbell; and the last of the finishers, Fred Hartman. The Disney movie "Iron Will" picked bits and pieces from the lives of both men, but the underdog role of "Will Stoneman" generally fits Fred Hartman best.
Albert Campbell was a 22-year-old Canadian metis (part French, part Cree Indian) trapper from Le Pas, Manitoba, who entered along with his 20-year-old brother, Gabriel. The Campbells' father, 41-year-old John Campbell of St. Laurent, Manitoba, had passed away a couple of weeks before the race, and the brothers ran to fulfill their father's dying wish -- as Will Stoneman did in the film. In the movie, the Campbell brothers are represented by Gabriel and Albert Carey.
The two entries from the U.S. were Hartman and Michael Kelly from Antigo, Wisconsin. Kelly dropped out two days before the finish. In the film, Will Stoneman was a 17-year old from South Dakota running to save the family farm and get enough money for his college tuition. Hartman, however, was a 26-year-old from Boston and a member of the1915 class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At the time of the race, he was working at a mine in Le Pas.
Where Will Stoneman's lead dog is injured during the course of the race, Fred Hartman's chief dog actually was killed in a dog fight before the starting gun was fired. The unfortunate Hartman quickly became a favorite among folks on the U.S. side of the border, and even papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post followed his progress. Meanwhile, the Canadian government broadcast news of the Campbell brothers' progress to Canadian troops fighting overseas.
There were eleven teams at the race's start, but one dropped out by the end of the first day. Five more teams would be eliminated before the contest's end.
In the film, Will Stoneman breaks the trail for the other racers on "Heartbreak Hill." Gabriel Campbell, however, was the one who drew "unlucky number one" -- forcing him to cut the trail for the other racers at the start of the race.
The film makers went to great lengths to use historically appropriate props in the movie -- except for the sleds. The Red River Derby followed the path of the pioneer Pembina ox cart trail and was run on fairly flat ground. The sleds used by the original racers were flat-bottomed rigs similar to a toboggan. Those old sleds simply are not suited to jumps and other fast maneuvers on rugged terrain. For the sake of visual excitement, the film's sleds are of modern design. Also, the film's dog teams run in pairs, with a single dog at the lead. In the 1917 Red River Derby, the dogs ran in single file.
In "Iron Will," the villain uses his whip liberally -- on his dogs and on other racers. The rules of the real race, however, stipulated that any driver who whipped his dogs would be disqualified. In addition, the object of the race, according to rule number one, was, "the earnest endeavor to encourage the breeding of better sleigh dogs and the better care in the handling of them, as well as to provide an object lesson in the use that can be made of these hardy dogs, which are invaluable to their owners."
One of the less believable scenes in "Iron Will" has Will Stoneman stopping to help another driver who has come down with a fever. Truth, in this case, is as strange as fiction, because Fred Hartman really did accompany Gunnar Tommasson into Melrose, Minnesota -- where Tommasson collapsed from a fever and dropped out of the race.
"Iron Will" is also accurate in showing townspeople along the route turning out to cheer the racers on. Public schools even went into recess in order for students to witness the event -- even at temperatures of 25 below zero Fahrenheit.
As in the film, on the last night of the race, Hartman rose shortly after two o’clock, harnessed his dogs and mushed toward St. Paul, hoping to steal a march on his opponents and open a lead on the final leg of the race. His hopes were dashed when the other four drivers were tipped off by a local man who served as their lookout. The other contestants immediately harnessed their dogs and soon overtook Hartman's team.
At the finish line, Albert Campbell finished first, Bill Grayson placed second, Joe Metcalf came in third, and Gabriel Campbell was fourth. Five minutes separated Albert Campbell from Grayson, with Grayson, Metcalf and Gabriel Campbell arriving within 40 seconds of each other. Hartman crossed the finish line some four hours later.
"Iron Will" puts the race's top prize at $10,000.00 -- an incredible sum for those days. The actual amount was $500.00 -- a more modest amount, but still more than a year's wages for an average worker.
Even though Albert Campbell walked away with the $500.00 top prize from the race, Fred Hartman -- who was the last of the five racers who made it to the Como Park finish line -- received a total of $1,000.00 that had been collected by his fans. Immediately after crossing the finish line, Hartman collapsed and was taken to recuperate in the home of Louis W. Hill, son of railway magnate James J. Hill and president of the Great Northern Railway Company. Louis Hill -- changed to "J. W. Harper" in "Iron Will" -- was chairman of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the sponsor of the race.
Even after the race, things seemed to keep going wrong for Hartman. When the New York Times wrote about Fred Hartman's finish, they mistakenly published a photograph of second-place finisher Bill Grayson instead.
At the time they filmed the scenes that I was in, the script showed that the writers were toying with some alternate endings that would have been more true to the actual conclusion of the race. In the final edit, however, they went with a typical Disney "feel good" finale.
For a few weeks after the race, Hartman and his dog team went on the lecture circuit -- providing narration for motion pictures of the race that had been shot from a train on tracks that paralleled the race's course. One of his stops was at the Grand Theater here in my home town of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
As hinted in the movie, Fred Hartman did go to war shortly after the race, reporting for duty on May 8, 1917, as a volunteer in the army aviation corps. He served with the 354th Aero Squadron in France.
Hartman lived to see the war's end in November of 1918, but died in a plane crash on April 7, 1919 -- five days before his 29th birthday. While taking off on a routine flight from the Toul Airdrome, 2nd Lt. Hartman pushed his open cockpit De Havilland DH-4 biplane -- commonly known as a "Liberty Plane" -- into a steep climb to avoid hitting a hangar. At an altitude of about 300 feet Hartman leveled off and started to turn, but the plane suddenly plunged nose down into the ground. The aerial observer in the plane survived the crash, but Fred Hartman was killed instantly. His parents had died shortly after Hartman was born, and he had no siblings, so his personal effects were sent to his "foster mother," Mrs. Agnes G. Curtis of Brookline, Massachusetts. At her request, he was buried in American Cemetery No. 108, Sebastopal Barracks, Toul, France.
Gabriel Campbell died in 1958, and his brother Albert -- the real winner of the "Iron Will." race -- passed away three years later.
The top two photos are publicity shots that were printed in the Itasca Independent when Hartman appeared in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The one on the right shows Hartman and part of his team in front of a warming tent at the St. Paul Winter Carnival after the race.
The two photos of Fred Hartman serving in France were taken by a friend and fellow officer, William O. Gross. Both photos: copyright Joe Head, used with permission. Joe has done extensive research into Hartman's life, and has been very generous in sharing the results of his work with me. Thanks, Joe! By the way, it's interesting to see that Hartman retained his love for dogs even while in the military.
The photo of Fred Hartman's grave marker in France is courtesy of the American Battle Monument Commission.
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