When The Horse Was King Of The Prairies

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 12, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Probably the closest thing I have ever seen to a real stagecoach was the horse-driven funeral hearse, still owned and preserved by Knesnek’s funeral Home in Wallis. It seemed to be modeled after a 19th Century stagecoach. Serving as a Lutheran pastor in Wallis, I never had any family ask to use it for a funeral, but it remains an invaluable piece of local Texas history. As a child in Dime Box in the 1930’s and 1940’s, I, like others of my generation, witnessed the tail-end of transportation by horseback, horse and buggy, horse and wagon, and stagecoach, and plowing with work horses rather than tractors.

            Although I never plowed with my grandfather’s plow horses, which, in bad weather, transported my teenage mother and her siblings to school, I did ride to town with him numerous times on a flatbed wagon, pulled by one of the horses. And, on occasion, I would see folks driving by our home on their way to town in a horse-drawn buggy. Because of the growing popularity of the Model-A Ford in the 1930’s and the V8 Coupe in the 1940’s, we began to see fewer and fewer horses and buggies. I feel blessed to have lived when horses were still (in rural areas anyway) king.

            Since I first moved to Wharton County 54 years ago, I have listened to many residents, some of whom have passed away, talk about the good old days of slower transportation and a slower lifestyle. Based on the stories they told, it was even my pleasure to include their stories in my column which I started writing for the Tribune about 30 years ago. Back in those days, I was given a copy of, and read, Annie Lee Williams’ The History of Wharton County, a real treasure chest of the past for all of us Wharton Countians.

            The horse was still King of the Prairies in the early 1900’s in every town in Wharton County. Even though the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railroad and the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad had come through the town of Wharton by then, the horse (and sometimes the mule) was still King of Transportation. Trains didn’t solve transportation problems within the towns. Annie Lee Williams quoted old-timers who talked about the days back when Milam Street was a quagmire, and the Plaza Hotel bus was stuck in black mud in front of Outlar Drug Company, and had to be pulled out by a team of six mules. Wooden boards made it possible to walk from store to store.

            A cherished East Bernard friend, the late Mary Kopecky, used to share with me her experiences as a teacher in the old Bernard Prairie School (the old building near East Bernard still stands), when kids either walked to school or road horseback. To those who had horses to ride the horse was indeed King. There were hitching posts in front of the school, but often the horses grazed freely in the back of the building, a horse sometimes trotting back home without its rider before school was out. Miss Mary’s landlord would take her, then a very young teacher, to school every day by horse and buggy.

            Several members of the Sands’ family in East Bernard used to describe the interesting adventures of East Bernard’s first rural mail carrier, the late Dean M. Sands, who delivered the mail in a very small, unusual-looking (to me) horse-drawn “jitney” (only it carried mail rather than passengers). In 1976, to celebrate our nation’s 200th birthday, the Herald-Coaster included a picture, dated October 16, 1917, of Dean M. Sands and his mail wagon on their history page. None of the roads were paved in those days, so I’m sure this horse-drawn mail wagon would have survived Wharton County’s monsoon weeks better than the Model-T Fords which had become so popular by then. A couple other pictures on that history page revealed downtown East Bernard, and there was only one Model-T amid horses and buggies. In the early 1900’s, the horse was indeed King of the Prairies!

            My grandfather plowed with a heavy, hand-held plow, pulled by one or two work horses, until he retired from farming in 1953. I don’t think it was just that he was too poor to afford to buy a tractor. I think he loved and trusted his horses more than gasoline, because to him, and to other precious rural folks, the horse was still King of the Prairies.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher and a retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, Open Prairies and It Must Be the Noodles.

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