Stable of dreams
Mexico group working to save nation's oldest and largest public stable
By SUSAN DENKLER - (Excerpted from the Nov 2009 edition of the Cattleman's Advocate.)
It’s not just that the 254-foot-long stable is the oldest and largest public U.S. stable in continual use as a horse facility. It’s the feel of the place, the repository of memories, the echoes in each stall of that anticipated next trip to the show ring when the bright lights of the arena would once again slam on to showcase the greatest names in Saddlebred equitation. That’s the history. That’s the vision.
MAKING HISTORY: Bobette Wilson is eight years into a crusade to save Simmons Stables, a hallmark of a time when Mexico reigned as Saddle Horse Capital of the World. As much as anyone, owner Art Simmons had a hand in making this barn’s reputation, training and trading some of the world’s foremost Saddlebreds. (Advocate photo by Susan Denkler)
MEXICO, Mo. - If you build it, they will come.
This line from the movie "Field of Dreams" could describe an ongoing effort to save an historic old horse stable that for many epitomizes an era when Mexico, Mo., rivaled the Bluegrass State as "The Saddle Horse Capital of the World."
It's been an uphill battle - and a Herculean one - to preserve this stable, and to burn the dream of what it could mean into the hearts of those who should care the most. The fact Simmons Stables is still standing is largely because the handful of citizens rallying to save it is a stubborn lot.
"Let me tell you, this has been a roller coaster ride," says Bobette Balser Wilson, co-president of the Simmons Stables Preservation Fund with Mary White Littrell. "Every time we hit a low spot, somebody calls and we hit a high spot. But I've never intended on quitting this project. And the others are just as bullheaded as I am."
Perhaps too many people have forgotten how to daydream.
A diminutive woman with a whirlwind spirit and giant vision, Wilson possesses the ability to daydream much like the girl who grew up attending church across the street from Simmons Stables. In those days, she'd peer out the windows of St. Matthew's at the teeming activity right across the Boulevard, and fantasize.
What must it be like to sit astride a sleek Saddlebred horse with long lean lines and a flowing tail, or to ride in a cart alongside the master as he jogged one of his world champion harness horses around a cinder track?
The visionary got her chance to find out, for at age 21, on a trip into town, this cattle woman who knew nothing about Saddlebreds decided to pull her pickup over and watch the aging master once again.
"The master" was Arthur Simmons, internationally-known breeder, trainer, showman, judge, and salesman, who had racked up more ribbons and trophies in the ring than most anyone in the Saddlebred business.
Simmons had a hand in training, trading or stabling some of the greatest names in Saddle Horse history, and along with his counterparts, helped put Mexico and Audrain County on the map as a veritable rival to Kentucky's Saddlebred heritage.
Art started the American Royal's Heart of America Saddle Horse Sale, the nation's premier auction for Saddlebreds, and garnered a raft of professional recognitions during his career.
And when this man competed in the ring - whether it was for one of the athletic county shows of the agriculture states, or the popular state fairs of the South and the Midwest, or the highest of society affairs in places like Kansas City, Denver, Houston, Chicago, and Lexington - his stature parted the way.
Would someone like that notice Bobette?
"That day I was coming down the street and saw him in his two-wheeled cart and thought, by gosh, I'm gonna stop and see if he'll wave at me." She got more than she bargained for.
RACING AGAINST TIME: This 2001 photo of Simmons Stables (above), pictured next to a recent shot of the unrestored half, displays the stark ravages of time. The building was in such bad shape that an emergency stabilization was needed to anchor the building with steel cross-ties and cables. (Advocate photo below by Susan Denkler/Courtesy photo above)
Roughly $700,000 is needed to complete the project, including the stalls on the first half of the stable, and the entire second wing. Other district structures they hope to preserve include a farrier's building, a back barn, granary, the Hook Barn and open lot, and Art Simmons' home.
Before she knew it, Art had slowed down, waved her into the cart, and was taking her for the ride of her life. Who could've dreamed she was really in for the long ride, and that 22 years later, after Art passed off the scene, she would embark on a mission to save the trademark barn that still bears the Simmons name?
For Wilson and those on the preservation team, it's not just that the 254-foot-long stable is the oldest and largest public U.S. stable in continual use as a horse facility. It's the feel of the place, the repository of memories, the echoes in each stall of that anticipated next trip to the show ring when the bright lights of the arena would once again slam on to showcase the greatest names in Saddlebred equitation. That's the history. That's the vision.
For Saddlebred enthusiasts, the legacy of this stable begins long before Art Simmons. It extends back to the mid-1800s when settlers were coming west to Missouri and bringing their horse stock with them. Among these horses was the intelligent, versatile breed descending from the Narragansett Pacer, the American version of the English Pacer. Kentucky breeders had crossbred the Pacer with Thoroughbreds to get the first American Saddle Horse, also known as the Saddlebred.
"Kentuckians wanted horses that could plow the field, jump streams and fences for hunting, pull fancy carriages to town on Sunday and also win races at the county fairs," explains Earl Farshler in his history entitled, "The American Saddle Horse."
Prized for their finely-chiseled heads, large bright eyes, long fine necks, prominent withers and matchless stamina, these beautiful, high-stepping "picture perfect" riding horses quickly became the most popular riding horses in America.
As more Saddlebred owners arrived in Missouri from states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, they became effective champions of the breed: training horses, holding sales, and vibrantly promoting horse races and shows. Saddle horse sale barns and horse breeding organizations began popping up.
With the boom after the Civil War, Mexico began developing rapidly along with the county's surging population growth, and by the 1870s, hundreds of horse trainers were plying their trade all over Audrain and neighboring counties.
Banker and lawyer Cyrus F. Clark, an active Mexico farmer, rancher, and horseman, joined with his brother-in-law Joseph A. Potts, who had grown up in the tradition of Saddle Horses, to develop the breed. The two partnered to form the Clark and Potts Combination Sales Company, and held horse sales several times a year.
In 1885, the pair began the post-and-beam construction of a massive stable on West Boulevard Street to house their horse trade, and with its completion in 1887, "The Big Barn on the Boulevard" was born. From that moment until Arthur Simmons slid into town with his trailer of horses on an icy 1949 day to take over a new era of ownership, a string of people connected with this barn made history under its imposing roof.
"This building probably has the richest history of any stable in the United States," proclaims Bobette, who can count down a list of top horsemen who received their start here. One was the phenomenal horseman Tom Bass. Additional horsemen connected with the stable include the noted trainer John T. Hook, who first worked as a groom at the great old barn and later operated his own stable right across the street. Hook is said to have developed more outstanding riders and champion horses during his career than perhaps anyone on record at the time.
Two other noteworthy denizens of the stable were the famous Lee Brothers - Bill and George - who operated the barn as a sales and training stable, and supplied horses to the police departments of New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other large cities. According to accounts, this pair contracted with the biggest Eastern dealers to supply the carriage trade, and sold horses and mules by the trainload to the U.S. Government.
As for the horses connected with Simmons Stables, writers and historians of the Saddlebred world have long searched for adjectives eloquent enough to memorialize the kind of show horse talent once quartered there. They involve a litany of stars, including Forest King, Belle Beach, Roxie Highland, Miss Rex, Thornton's Star, Senator Crawford, The Replica, King Lee, Sea Beauty, Meadow Princess, Ann Rutledge, Bugle Ann, Tashi Ling, and six-time world champion Colonel Boyle. What would the 36 stalls of the "Big Barn of the Boulevard" be without them?
In addition, those entrenched in the industry can recite by heart the names of the celebrated horsemen associated with the onetime big red barn. In addition to Bass and Hook, they include stable owner Robert G. Steward, who painted the barn white and renamed it Dincara Stables; trainers Splint Barnett, Hugh Dempsey, Del Holeman, Lee Butler, Ross Drake and Jim Hitte; noted talent finder, trainer, judge and stable owner Bill Cunningham (who once advertised the barn as "The Best Saddle Horse Sales Barn in America"); owners and operators P.W. Woodruff, Jack McCracklin, B.B. Tucker and Joe Graham; and in more recent decades, the esteemed Art Simmons and his son Jim.
It was Jim's decision in 2001 to move his stabling and training operation to the family farm outside Mexico that set off the crisis of conscience that has propelled Wilson and the preservationists ever since. Just knowing this last hallmark of Mexico's Saddlebred ancestry might be bulldozed into the ground caused Bobette to confront Simmons with all the heartfelt enthusiasm a novice could muster.
"You can't tear this building down."
What clinched it for her was the discovery of two picture frames hanging on Jim's office wall in the stable, where she had taken her children for one last look. As she wiped the dust and cobwebs from the glass, she noticed each frame was stuffed with yellowed news clippings and photographs that trumpeted the renowned achievements of the stable, and the men and horses that graced it. Suddenly the history of the thing swept over her in a wave.
"I said, 'Perhaps I'm stepping out of my bounds, but you just can't tear this building down. I mean, everyone that's come out of these stables has been amazing. Presidents came here to buy horses. The horses from this place showed at Madison Square Garden. This place provided halter horses during the war ...'
"I really don't know anything about Saddlebreds," she'll admit to anyone. "I own horses but I don't own Saddlebreds. But for me, it's about the history, it's about the stable, it's about all the people that have come out of it. It's about the whole area - Mexico, Audrain County, Callaway County. There were just big stables all around the area."
Simmons Stables is the last of the old soldiers standing.
A WORK IN PROGRESS: This shot of the interior wing of the stable shows a glimpse of the progress so far on the roof, haylofts, catwalks and stalls. Restoration contractors dug fresh footings and poured new concrete foundations to support the posts, and although the roof required a total replacement, they were able to use original vertical sideboards for the barn’s exterior. (Advocate photo by Susan Denkler)
Its preservationists envision a time when the barn and its adjoining facilities could become a National Saddlebred Hall of Fame, a museum, an educational site, and a focal point for visitors from across the nation. They foresee a training facility and riding academy, agricultural exposition, farmers market, pioneer and crafters village, equine seminars, gift shops and a host of other possibilities. Yes, that's the vision.
Although a lagging economy makes fundraising harder for the remainder of the project, the committee remains undaunted.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information, or to make a donation, contact Simmons Stables Preservation Fund, Inc., at 573-581-8873.)