Working horses in the Upper Valley have a rich and varied history

  • About 1904, Walter Stearns, 20, took over a rural mail route in Bradford, Vt., with this horse drawn cart. Other delivery wagons brought meat, milk and other supplies directly to households. Stearns continued his route until about 1921 when he went to Kansas City to learn automobile mechanics. (Bradford Historical Society photograph) Bradford Historical Society photograph

  • Horses were a main source of power for America's farmers until the introduction of the tractor after 1930. In 1942, however, this horse still worked the fields at the Worthley farm on Taplin Hill in Corinth, Vt. (Philip Ross Hastings photograph) Philip Ross Hastings photograph

  • Members of the Peters family pose in front of their Upper Plain home in Bradford, Vt., with two of their most influential stallions in an undated photograph. The family's Morgans had a higher percentage of the blood of the original Just Morgan of any strain of the time. Peter's Morgan, right, is the sire of Peter's Ethan Allen 2nd, left. The latter is cited as one of the most influential Morgans of his day. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

For the Valley News
Published: 10/14/2019 1:38:48 PM
Modified: 10/15/2019 12:01:08 PM

The greatest part of the labor upon the farms, and nearly all the whole of the travel and transportation in the state is performed by horses, and large numbers of fine horses are annually sent to market out of state.

Zadock Thompson,
History of Vermont, 1842.

Since settlers first came to establish local towns, horses have played an important part in their culture. What follows is a collection of stories on the role of horses prior to 1920 as described in Vermont’s newspapers, local histories and journals.

The first European explorers of the area came on foot. But the first families often came with a horse and a few possessions. For example, in 1765, John Mann and his wife came astride their horse from Hebron, Conn., to become the first settlers of Orford.

Not all residents in these early communities owned a horse and, sometimes, an owner would loan his horse to another. The 1789 census of Ryegate, Vt., listed 47 taxpayers but only 21 horses, with only two persons owning more than one. As the community grew, the number of horses increased as follows: in 1800 there were 80 households and 60 horses; in 1810, 152 households and 120 horses and 27 colts, and by 1840, 253 households and 285 horses.

During a recent presentation, Orford historian Arthur Pease revealed that in 1850 the 10 local farmers with the most improved land had an average of 5.3 horses while the 10 with the least amount of improved land had only 0.7 horses, on average.

Early roads were generally too rough for wheeled vehicles. After 1810, sufficient improvements had been made to allow the use of horse-drawn carriages, buggies and farm wagons. Winter travel featured horse-drawn sleighs and sleds.

Stagecoaches began to operate on established routes. In 1814, a line of stages opened from Haverhill to Concord. In 1834, a stage left Haverhill three times a week for Albany, N.Y., via Chelsea. The coaches were pulled by four, six or eight “steaming horses,” according to a newspaper account.

Even after the coming of the railroad, in 1848, stage routes connected outlying towns to railroad stations. For example, the route from East Orange and West Topsham to Bradford, Vt., offered passenger and mail service.

There were a number of local horse breeders and trainers. The Peters family of Bradford was well known for the Morgan horses they raised. About 1850, Joseph Howard Peters, reacting to the decline in the sheep industry, turned to horses. He described the Morgans as “the cheapest kept, most hardy and most profitable horses.”

The Morgans he and his descendants developed had a high percentage of the original Justin Morgan blood. The most famous Peters stallions included Damon, Peter’s Vermont, Peter’s Morgan and Peter’s Ethan Allen 2d.

Morgan horses, known for their stamina, spirit and beauty, were considered general-purpose horses capable of performing a wide variety of tasks. It was said: “The Morgan horse is one thing, all other horses are something else.”

At the time, nearly every farmer in Vermont had one or more Morgans and the breed became synonymous with Vermont. Many farms raised Morgans. In 1888, Newbury, Vt., had at least 30 farmers listed as breeders or trainers, although not all with Morgans.

When describing the attributes of the Morgan to my history classes, I upgraded an old description to one that would be understood by teenagers. A Morgan was like a good pickup truck. One could use it to haul loads, shine it up to pick up a date and, in a challenge, could show off its speed over a short distance. I think they understood.

The S.S. Houghton Stock Farm in lower Orford raised blooded trotting horses. By 1880, it was offering stud service by a horse named George Wilkes Jr., one of four stallions. Later, Morgans were added. In 1895, the farm advertised a gray gelding, 17 hands high, a lady’s horse that “can road eight miles an hour.”

Horses raised in the area were taken to Boston and other markets. Likewise, horses were brought in from Boston, Canada and the West for sale locally. In 1895, Turner and Smith of Orford advertised 18 horses from Iowa for sale. F.E. Kimball’s stable in Newbury, brought in horses by the car load from locations such as Wisconsin.

As early as 1867, there were warnings about the sales of the best animals while keeping poorer mares and stallions. “When will our farmers learn to keep their best horses at home and improve their stock” one observer noted. That came with the announcement that D.F. Tillotson, of Orford, had sold a stallion to a man from California for $6,000.

Not surprisingly, there were many accidents involving horses. Despite the use of blinders, carriage horses often became frightened by noises, objects in the road or other horses. In 1854, one observer wrote “We want horses for all purposes, that are not cowardly, will not take fright; for those of that temperament are ever dangerous to whomever may use them, and to persons in the street.”

Over the years, frightened horses resulted in injury and death to passengers and horses alike, as well as damage to property.

Runaway horses posed a threat to pedestrians. In 1868, in Bradford, a runaway stage drawn by four horses “dashed through the street at great speed.” In 1906, several Vermont newspapers carried the sad story of William Silsby, an “active and highly respected citizen” of Newbury who was struck and killed by a runaway horse.

In the early 1900s, horses often were frightened when they met automobiles on the road. In 1909, the horse drawing a carriage carrying Mrs. McCanna, of Ryegate, was frightened by an auto on the road from Woodsville. The buggy was demolished and McCanna suffered a broken leg. “No blame was attached to the occupants or driver of the auto,” according to an article in the United Opinion.

In 1904, William Thompson, Corinth’s state representative, declared it was not safe for a woman to drive a horse on the highway where an auto might come along, as they were “devilish contraptions.”

Not all such incidents resulted in injury. In 1897, a tongue-in-cheek newspaper notice told of a young West Newbury couple whose horse became frightened and “nearly upset the occupants, and unfortunately, the young man was so much engaged that it was difficult to get the horse under control. No damage was done.”

As horses were both accessible and valued, horse thieves appeared regularly. In November 1863, the following Bradford notice appeared: “Sheriff Peckett caught two horse thieves in the village. A large amount of thievery has been carried on lately, but the authorities have been very successful in taking the rogues.” Sometimes stolen horses were taken several communities away and offered for sale.

Local industries used heavy draft horses. One newspaper article mentioned that around 1840 a local team of nine horses was seen pulling a “tremendously heavy load of merchant’s goods.”

After 1865, heavy horse-drawn wagons filled with copper ore rumbled through West Fairlee on the way to Ely, returning later with loads of coke. In 1895, similar operations brought ore down from Pike Hill in Corinth. Newspaper notices mentioned horse-drawn wagons and sleds carrying granite in Ryegate, hardwood in Ely and logs from Quintown, a village in Orford. Many of these draft animals were from the West.

In 1911, it was reported that Mr. and Mrs. William Putnam of West Newbury, both in their late 70s, picked 10,000 pounds of cider apples and took them to the factory in South Newbury with one horse.

How horses were treated was totally dependent on their owners. One Orford resident wrote a long letter to the local newspaper on the “mercilessness shown to horses.” In 1846, Vermont passed a law making cruelty to animals illegal, but only if the animal belonged to another. After the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1866, state chapters began to appear.

A chapter opened in Portsmouth in 1872, and became the basis for the state organization. While there was interest in a similar group in Vermont as early as 1869, it was not incorporated until 1888. This movement successfully challenged the strict property concept that had protected an owner’s cruelty toward his own animals.

Horses played an important role in support of Americans at war. In addition to serving in cavalry and artillery units, horses were used as draft and pack animals to transport supplies. Infantry unit officers were usually mounted. In 1862, the citizens of Bradford purchased and transported a horse for their neighbor Lt. Col. Dudley Andross of the Ninth Vermont Regiment. The First Vermont Cavalry, mounted entirely on Morgans, saw considerable action in the Civil War.

The largest cavalry action of the Civil War involved 17,000 horsemen in the June 1863 Battle of Brandy Station, in Virginia. It is estimated that more than 1 million horses and mules were killed in military action during the Civil War. That is perhaps because horses were a prime target as their deaths weakened artillery and cavalry units.

World War I saw a similar role and plight for horses. America was a primary source of horses for European allies, with perhaps 1 million horses shipped abroad. It is the last major conflict in which American cavalry units used horses rather than tanks. Bradford’s Harold Haskins recalled having to put a gas mask on his horse during a night-time attack in April 1918. Capt. Ernest George Harmon, of West Newbury, recounted an experience in September 1918 in which he remained astride his horse for three straight days during an advance against the enemy.

The agricultural revolution of the 19th century was powered by horses. In the period after 1830, the introduction of horse-drawn farm implements, such as the reaper, rake and mower, greatly reduced labor and increased production.

Horse power also was out to work for a variety of other purposes. An 1859 letter to the New England Farmer magazine suggested other possible horse-powered devices: “The horse can saw the wood, wash the clothes, churn, turn the grindstone, cut the hay, shell the corn, drive the small circular saw and pump the water.”

The horse was at the center of the local economy, as well. There were blacksmiths, veterinarians, stables that rented or sold horses and hardware stores that sold horse-powered machinery, harnesses, blankets and horse feed. The market area of central villages was about the distance a farmer could drive with his horse and be back home for milking.

Horse drawn delivery wagons carried meat, milk and other products directly to households. Doctors in buggies made home visits and horses pulled hearses. Station wagons met railroad passengers. Horses transported schoolchildren and firefighting equipment alike.

Horse shows and racing at local fairs allowed owners to show off their prized animals. Virtually every agricultural fair in the area included a horse show. In 1892, the Waits River Valley Fair in East Corinth featured various classes including for stallions, broodmares, gent’s single drivers, matched horses and draft horses. Horse and ox pulls were, and still are, a standard fair feature. In 1906, trotting races were a major component of the Bradford Fair, attracting as many as 10,000 spectators.

There were occasions when the town centers became crowded with horse teams. In 1904, the road to the Bradford fair gate was backed up with wagons and carriages. On some days, as many as 40 teams crowded Wells River’s main streets. The automobile was considered a solution for the problem of horse manure or “street dirt.”

In August 1922, the Caledonian Record carried the following: “No one need fear that the automobile, despite its popularity, will ever supplant the horse.” In 1915, there were an estimated 20 million horses in the United States. The increasing number of automobiles clearly mirrored the decline in the number of horses. Throughout the 1920s the number of horses fell by a half million per year.

All of this leaves out the personal relationships between people and their horses. Whether its name was Baldy or Beauty, Danny or Dick, a horse and its owner were often close.

My father-in-law, Harry Martin, told of a special family horse he had as a young man. If Harry stayed out late and fell asleep in his wagon on the way to the farm on the Bradford-Newbury line, the horse saw both of them home safely. No automobile, however capable and favored, could have done that, at least not yet.

Larry Coffin is a former president of the Bradford Historical Society. A previous version of this story appeared in the Bradford Journal-Opinion.

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