Mister, Get a Hoss!

We tend to forget that creatures other than humans were equally responsible for the development of the town of Greene.  I'm referring to the draft animals: oxen, horses, and mules.  At one time the average citizen of Greene couldn't imagine life without them; today their use for farming and pulling heavy loads to market is a very distant memory, and their management a skill held by very few.

When the settlers began to move to this area around 1800, oxen were the preferred draft animal.  They were very strong and could pull up tree stumps and haul heavy loads. Mildred Folsom mentions several times that teams of oxen moved houses all over Greene before there were electric poles and lines to interfere. I am amazed to learn how often our ancestors moved their houses!

Mules are another excellent draft animal, very strong and even-tempered, and used extensively in long-lost Greene. They were the preferred animal used to pull barges on the New York Canal System. You know the lyric: ‘I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.’ Maybe Sal came through Greene once in a while switching from the Erie to the Chenango Canal in Utica.

After the land was cleared and the farmers turned to agriculture in the 19th century, horses proved to be better and more versatile than oxen on the farm.  The oxen worked only half as fast as horses and their hooves were useless on frozen winter fields and roads. Horse power was needed to work the fields and haul all the produce and products to market in summer and winter.  One could also saddle up the horse and ride into town.  So the heavy horse became America’s main work animal.   A good example to show how the horse took over is this Chenango American entry on Sept. 20, 1888: ‘Novel ox race, ½ mile, at Fair was the most laughable of any during the Fair. Burt Wylie came in 2nd.’

As technology and agricultural equipment improved, the farmer need a heavier horse. As a result, the first European Draft horses were imported to the U.S. in the late 1830s. Although the purebred draft horses, such as the Belgians and Clydesdales, were seldom used in the field, their bloodlines are now in other work horses and the average horse size increased to between 1200 and 1500 pounds by 1900. Another interesting statistic is that by 1900 at least half of the 13,500,000 horses in the U.S. carried between 10% and 50% draft horse blood.

There are numerous entries in the Chenango American about horse teams hauling stone and lumber to the depot or to the mills and how heavy the loads were. There’s even mention of a huge stone monument being hauled and erected at Sylvan Lawn Cemetery. It is John H. Sherwood’s (the Sherwood Inn is named after him) and it is one of the largest still in Sylvan Lawn.
Chenango American 2-Mar-1882:  ‘An enormous stone from the Smithville Quarry, drawn by 12 horses, was brought to our depot for shipment.’
13-Jan-1881: ‘Hiram Curtis, who resides 3 miles above the village, has just drawn an immense oak log to Wheeler’s Mill to be sawed into railroad ties.  It was 17 feet long and 4 feet in diameter and took three teams to draw it.’  Has anyone today ever seen a load drawn by 12 horses?  Back then, it was the size of the load that stunned people; today it would be the sight of 12 horses hitched together.


The horsepower and strength of the heavy horse was necessary for pulling the fire equipment. Fire horses were almost always draft crosses. I have included one photo of a firemen’s parade showing the horses. (Or are those mules?) And like other villages of the 1800s, the horses had their workouts; fires were numerous and extensive. There are many references to the “burnt districts”.

With such tremendous weight and heavy loads, there were accidents mentioned. Some wagons tipped over and some horses fell through the ice. Here are two involving the horses.
25-Jan-1872: ‘A team belonging to Harmon O. Banks, drawing a sleigh load of logs, broke through the ice of the aqueduct, 3 miles above the village, Monday, and went to the bottom of the canal. They were finally extricated without much injury to them.’
25-Feb-1878: ‘As Aaron Newton was hauling a load of ice off Daniel Bradley’s mill pond (now Beardsley’s Saw Mill in 2006) at upper Genegantslet, the ice gave way, plunging all into the deep water. Mr. Newton got out and held the horses’ heads above water while A.B. Robinson (who owned the ice house you can still see on the east side of County Road 2), near by, ran for help.  The four men cutting ice ran to the rescue and succeeded in getting the horses unhitched and lifted them out before they floundered.  A few hours of vigorous exercise under dry blankets revived the valuable team.  It was a very narrow escape for both them and Mr. Newton.’

Businesses sprang up that catered to the horse trade: livery stables where people could rent or house horses; blacksmith shops; harness shops; wagon shops; wheelwright shops. I know many of you can tell me of an ancestor who worked at one of these trades in Greene. I also think that the livery stables were a great place for the hangers-on and what we call the men’s a.m. coffee klatch nowadays trading horse stories of a different sort.

 There are accounts of people coming to Greene for their supplies and you might see 60 horses along the streets.  There were sometimes problems with so many animals and people congregated in the streets. December 19, 1872: ‘ Horses not only chew up the wooden hitching posts but bite at people’s clothing as they pass along the sidewalks. More than one man loses a coat sleeve this way!’  In 1874 iron hitching posts are installed in front of the Butter Shop (Sebastian’s Restaurant in 2006) and W. J. Davidson’s (Polka-Dots and Moonbeams in 2006).

  A sad chapter in the history of draft horses was their use in  World War I. From 1913 to 1918, over a million horses were exported to England and France as the light cavalry horses were useless in the trenches. The heavier horses hauled supplies, ammunition and artillery to the front. When the American Expeditionary Force entered the war in 1917, 182,000 additional horses went with it. Only 200 of these returned to the U.S. after the war. In the novel  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, there is a horrifying description of  wounded horses crying in the night, the author’s intent being to show the horror and futility of war.

The modern draft horses in recent years have made a bit of a comeback. They are in the show ring in different classes. We have seen them perform at the State Fair. Some woodsmen use them for logging, as they are often the best and most sure-footed way to negotiate a heavy stand of trees without clear-cutting the whole stand. There is a new breed of enterprising farmer who is rediscovering small, diverse, organic horse-powered farms.  In Greene, we have Roberta Ryan who brings her Belgian horses to the Silo Restaurant every summer for wagon rides. At Jockeyport, a Livery Stable in Afton, draft horses, carriages and drivers can be rented for all kinds of occasions. If you drive around the Amish farms in Pennsylvania, you may see a six-horse hitch with the horses abreast in the fields and that is a beautiful sight.

In the old days, just about everyone knew how to saddle or hitch a horse.  For many it was a matter of daily necessity.  Our ancestors would probably be flabbergasted at modern ignorance about the ways of a horse.  We're gas and electric powered now, faster, much more mobile.  We can drive to NYC in a day!  But what a trade-off.  We've all but lost that rhythm of horseback, the sweet earthy smell of a team pulling our plow in April, the special bond between horse and human (we'd jump into an icy river to hold up their heads!), and the thrilling jingle of the sleighbells and thump of hoof on the first deep winter snow.