In praise of magnificent draft horses


Near Darke
By Hank Nuwer

Once a week, my wife Gosia and I drive out to the Amish farm of our friends Reuben and Anna to pick up two gallons of milk from Twinkle, the cow we “own” as a partial share.

Always I am happiest when their big work horses are out behind their traces.

The grand sight brings back lovely memories of boyhood and the draft horses my grandparents used in the fields. Both my Polish grandfather and my German grandfather operated with gorgeous farm animals 16 to 18 hands high.

My German grandfather named all horses Bill. That way he only had to call out once when he wanted them to come in from the pasture.

On Sundays, I was allowed to slip each horse a cube of sugar. Too much might rot their teeth, my father warned.

Apples and carrots as treats were approved all days. My job was to muck out the stalls.

Once a year, our family traveled to the county fair. Besides the rides and cotton candy, my favorite fair experience was to sit in the grandstand during the pulling contests.

Ninety years ago, Darke County boasted that it claimed the World Championship Pulling Team. The horses hailed from Hole Farms of Versailles.

Driver Milo Collins won the top trophy in 1931 at the grand championship held in Hillsdale, Mich. Milo was a legend in the field. A few years later, he was elected secretary of the Ohio Champion Pulling Horse Association.

Even more exciting, the Hole team won a competition in 1931 at Richmond, Ind., after overcoming an accident, which forced the driver to compete with a team of horses that had never pulled previously.

What happened was that the truck hauling some of the horses crashed, and part of the horse team had to be scratched with injuries.

Nonetheless, the thrown-together backup horses literally pulled together to win.

All together in 1931, the Hole teams under Collins won six out of seven county fairs in three states. They set a high-water mark of pulling a record 3,800 pounds at a fair in Hillsdale, Mich.

Another great farm team of the 1930s belonged to George Wilcox who raised championship Percheron horses.

Hole Farms was one of the great pioneer agricultural operations in the county. It was started in the 19th century on an 80-acre tract by Charles and Phoebe Hole. Later, the farm swelled to more than 200 acres in various parcels.

Back then in the 1900s, pulling horses were a necessity to clear the heavily wooded fields for cultivation. They hauled out logs on skidders.

The original purpose of pulling contests was to encourage sound breeding of draft horses and to showcase horses that demonstrated maximum pulling performances.

Put into plain English, breeders of draft horses were out to snare braggin’ rights.

During the 1930s, one weight-measuring method determined the best pulling team.

The invention was called “a constant resistance dynomometer,” which to me sounds like something Dr. Emmett Brown might have come up with before he invented a flux capacitor that fit into a DeLorean DMC-12.

Great Scott, Marty!

Actually, the resistance-measuring device was patented by the Agricultural Engineering section of the Iowa Experiment Station in Ames, Iowa.

All teams competed on a level pulling field.

Each team was attached to a double-tree, which was much like a plow’s hitch. The point of hitch could not be less than 12 inches from the ground.

The Hole championship dynasty ended in 1945. The family sold 36 tracts of land in Wayne Township and Versailles at auction for $82,400.

Championship driver Milo Collins took sick in 1962 and died Jan. 8, 1962, at age 63. He farmed, performed custom meat processing for hunters, and operated Versailles Food Locker. He was a fixture at annual Poultry Day Celebrations.

Incidentally, my grandfather’s draft horses never competed in county fairs. With 110 acres to plow, he and my dad had little time for horsing around.

Still, to his day, I have great memories of our sturdy working teams.

At age four, with my dad assisting, I rode up on top of a big Clydesdale’s bare back with my legs spread like a wishbone.

You can bet your constant resistance dynamometer that I had fun!

Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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