Florence Allen, Dorothy Gilbert, Russell N. Hirst, Wells Jackson, Rosa Melartin, Theon Nielson, Julia Rawlins, Howard Shuldberg, Joan Shaw, Estelle Smith, Guy Swendsen, 
Eddis Taggart, Virginia Van Orden, Lloyd Walker 

 29 North Main 
 Lewiston, Utah 84320

September 1996 
Historical Report #5

The enduring role of heavy horses

 Joan Shaw


Wells Jackson's Cap and Chief

In 1900, thirty-eight percent of the nation's population was made up of farmers working the soil and feeding livestock with the help of horses.  By 1996, the number had been reduced to three percent, and that three percent works with the help  of mechanized equipment astonishing in both its complexity and price tag.

A good part of these present-day farms are huge.  Acres of stockyards.  Township-sized corn and wheat fields.  Entire villages of chicken sheds.  But you could lose an eye looking for a heavy horse among them.   What would they do with heavy horses?  They were rendered obsolete along with the term, farming.  It's agribusiness now, and since it takes something like three-quarters of a million dollars to start up a viable operation from scratch, it's no wonder there are fewer and fewer young people going onto the land..

But was it just as difficult, in 1900?   In real dollars?   In the Utah Agricultural College's Livestock Census for that year, there were 2.5 million horses in Utah, averaging out at $24 a head.  A new walking plow was going for $8.62, a riding cultivator for $19.95, a two-horse grain drill for $22.95.  A farm wagon and harness could be bought from Sears Roebuck for under $50, and a cream separator for $28.  By 1946 when farm mechanization had become widespread, the cost of farming had skyrocketed.  One farmer complained in the Suffolk Bulletin that he could have equipped an entire operation in his early years for what a tractor and cultivator had cost him after he'd given up his heavy horses.

In Utah, Lewiston farmer Clyde Littledike, a retired businessman, went further on the subject of relative cost:  "There's no comparison between the price of a horse and its upkeep and the price and upkeep of today's mechanized equipment."  He should know; he and his partner just recently repaired a $375 tire for a combine they own together, a machine whose replacement value in 1996 would run around $180,000.

Nor is there much to compare with in the price of land, even in rural areas like Lewiston.  Back in 1863, after the creation of the Homestead Act, land was offered for $1.25 an acre in 160-acre parcels, and it was plentiful.  Of course, there was a lot of back-breaking work involved in turning it into farmland.   One-time Lewiston mayor, Howard Shuldberg, tells of his parents homesteading 160 acres in Idaho near Banida, working the soil down with two horses and walk-behind implements on those rolling hills.  When his dad wanted a third horse, he contracted to plow 80 acres to pay for it.  "That was with a hand plow," emphasizes Howard, "behind two horses."

No, making a living breaking out new land wasn't easy back then, but at least, with a team of horses, it was possible for a young couple to try.  They'd be looking upon their horses as living, breathing partners in the farming operation, and they'd have a lot of hope.  It would be hard, it seems to me, to look upon a John Deere, belching diesel exhaust and roaring down an 80-acre field, as a living, breathing partner, especially with a $60,000 debt riding up there in the cab with the driver.   Howard Shuldberg can see the sense and efficiency of tractors, however, working one- and two-hundred acre fields, but "Oh," he says, "I loved horses.  I was coaxing my parents before I was eight years old to let me drive the team on the disk cultivator.  And they'd let me drive it;  there'd be someone else working in the field, keeping an eye on me."

Lewiston's Wells and Jodi Jackson, another pair of horse lovers, searches out a photograph of Wells' parents with a wagon-load of lumber for their first cabin on Center Street in Lewiston, east of the cemetery, pictured above.  Wells remembers the names of the horses as though the photograph were taken yesterday: "That was Chub," he says, pointing to the left, "and that was Fox."   His dad was always kind to his horses, Wells says.  And so was Wells.  "They respond so well to kindness, they can sense your appreciation of them."  Jodi adds, "They'll do anything for you; they'll work until they drop."

Rosa Melartin, a long-time resident of Cache Valley, describes the heavy horses in her life as gentle animals.  "There wasn't one child in my family or in my uncle's family that couldn't walk under them or around them, pet them.  They were just ...  part of the family."

And strong?  It's hard to credit, the loads these types of animals are capable of moving. The term horse power is used to express the amount of energy required to perform 33,000 foot pounds of work in one minute and defines a particular unit of output.  So the twelve horses Howard Shuldberg describes as powering a threshing machine by walking in a circle for hours on end--blinkered, hitched in pairs to horse bars--would be considered a twelve-horse-power operation or engine.  And plodding around all day at a steady pace like that, the equation would work out just about right.

But this figure doesn't take into consideration the tremendous reserve power of the horse.  This reserve power, according to one 1914 extension bulletin, is one of the draft horse's greatest assets, developing for short stretches from 25 to 30 horse power per team--say, in pulling a truck out of a mud hole or borrow pit or skidding hardwood timber in a logging operation.   In 1914 this power, along with the horse's ability to utilize home grown feeds, fertilize the soil, and reproduce itself in the form of colts, was emphasized as reasons against the motor's replacing draft horses on Utah farms.

But the motor did replace them.  And, except for a brief period during the Great Depression when farmers turned back to horse power because they had no money for the fuel and upkeep of their tractors, horses eventually disappeared as an integral part of agriculture.  By the 1950s and 1960s, farmers turning more and more to mechanization found it hard to even give their horses away.  Thousands were sent to Europe for meat; many in the West were let out to roam, eventually becoming wild.  Why, then, hasn't the heavy horse simply died out as a domestic breed?

Maurice Teleen in The Draft Horse Primer credits three classes of people with keeping these  horses alive--the breeders who kept and propagated heavy horses for show purposes and hitches, like the Budweiser hitch; the Amish, who retained the horse as an integral way of life and who (incidentally)  look upon work, not as an evil, but as one of the blessings in life; and those few farmers who simply kept horses, frequently in combination with tractor power, out of a reasoned belief that they were both an economical source of power and satisfying to work with.

In this last group we find Wells Jackson, pictured above with his heavy horses, Cap and Chief, standing ready to pull a grain drill. Wells, though he bought a Farmall tractor in 1944,  never let his horses go. "I did the plowing with the tractor, and the harrowing and drilling with the horses."  Sometimes he used both.  "That first Farmall, it was a small tractor, and when I needed more power to pull than the tractor could give me--when I was harvesting beets or hauling beets--I hitched the horses up in front of it."

Did people kid him about staying back in the horse-and-wagon days?  "Sure they did.  But I always said, 'Hey, I enjoy working with horses, watching them perform, reacting to kindness.  Why should I sit on a tractor when I don't enjoy it up there?'"

Horses have other things going for them--those tenacious hooves on the end of  four powerful legs.  We're familiar here in Cache Valley with the horses on Blacksmith Fork's Hardware ranch, drawing  sledges full of hay to the elk.  But in a Draft Horse Journal piece about the Barr Ranch in Alberta, Canada, heavy Belgians are shown being used the same way to feed some six hundred head of cattle in a commercial operation. The owner points out that horses can go through two feet of snow and, what's more, do it without getting stuck there until spring.  Best of all, they can start right up on mornings when its forty below. "You just try starting a tractor up," he says, "on a morning when it's forty below."

And horses can go through mud, too.  In spring, tractors and 4x4s sink into the ground making deep ruts in the field, ending at times mired up to the hubcaps.  Wells agrees.  "Even in decent weather, the tractor tires will leave tracks--you can see the tracks--it's where the grain's slow to come up."  Jodi recalls a spring years ago when it rained and rained and rained.  "Nobody around here could get on the land to cultivate their corn, but Wells didn't have that problem, he had a horse-drawn cultivator, and the horses could just go along, and he cultivated his own field and any of the others' that asked him."

By the late 1970s, heavy horse pulling contests were creating a lot of interest, and Wells by that time had his last, and biggest, team--Cap and Chief.  "They weighed a ton a piece, they were half brothers."  Wells would take them all over the region to pulling matches, keeping them in shape with work on the farm.  Jodi gets out the albums and we leaf through the pages of photographs showing Cap and Chief--firm and powerful, willing and responsive. One photo is of Wells with Chief at the Richmond Black and White Days, shown at left, the horse having been judged Best Heavy Show Horse.  No mistake about it, these horses were very nearly human.  When Chief died and Wells sent Cap to Idaho Falls to pull with another horse, he tells how Cap got so homesick he lost 300 pounds in one month.  "He missed Chief, and he missed me."  The man in Idaho Falls brought him back in a hurry before Cap died on his hands, and Cap gained his weight back, living out the last of his life in Lewiston with Wells and Jodi.

In a 1993 USDA Economics Research Service report on trends in farm size, numbers show that the trend toward larger and larger farms is slowing and small and part-time farming is growing.  Supporting this report are stories in farm and draft horse literature on the proliferation of smaller units, all of them relying on horse power, some of them exclusively.  An organic operation using horse power alone and paying its way  in northern Pennsylvania.  An 80-acre grain farm where the tractor hasn't been fired up in years.  A forty-acre dairy in Iowa run by a team of Percherons and a couple of humans who teach school as their "second job."

It's generally agreed that horses are unlikely to take the place of mechanized equipment in present-day agriculture.  Nor would many people want to go back to farming as practiced in 1900.  But, aside from their increasing use in organic and small-time farming, there are many other opportunities for these animals to do their stuff.  The pulling matches, for instance, the heavy horse shows, and the ever-growing number of historic farms and villages in which working draft horses are shown as part of history.  Most of all, these gentle giants retain an ongoing appeal to farmers who simply love to work with them, and this love is what will keep these horses alive on Utah farms.

In 1987, after the loss of Cap and Chief, Wells felt he should give up heavy horses; he was well into his seventies by then, and not as strong as he had been.  "There's a lot of work to training horses, they've got to be in shape.  You can't expect them to give you all they got if they're not in the shape to do it."  But Jodi's unhappy about it.  "I wish he'd got some colts to train after Cap and Chief.  I think he'd have been a lot happier."

The question may be whether any other animals could take the place of Cap and Chief in the heart of Wells Jackson.  "I loved those two horses," Wells says, " I really loved them."

Many thanks to Wells and Jodi Jackson and Rosa Melartin for sharing their wonderful memories and photographs, and to Howard Shuldberg for his wonderful stories and piles of Draft Horse Journals with which I've spent many happy hours; and to Clyde Littledike for his pithy comments. Among the references consulted for this piece are agricultural bulletins, oral history transcriptions, and books found in USU's Special Collections, and books on heavy horses found in USU's SciTech Library--most especially, Horses and Americans, Strong; Horse Power, Clutton-Brock; Heavy Horses, Hart; The Draft Horse Primer, Teleen; Dirt Rich, Dirt Poor, Belden; and various government documents and journals detailing modern farming. 
 Illustration Credits:

Photo of Wells Jackson’s Cap and Chief, waiting to be put to work, by Hal Bergeson 
Photo of Julia and Marriner Jackson Wells with baby Janean on her grandfather’s lap in the wagon, courtesy of Wells and Jodi Jackson 
Photos of Wells Jackson on his 2-horse grain drill and of Wells with Chief – Best Heavy Show Horse that day – at the Richmond, Utah, Black and White Days by Hal Bergeson 


Farming Then and Now