When “horse apples” covered our streets

Horses are no longer a part of daily life.  That’s hardly news, of course, but to the longtime erudite sports columnist and author Frank Deford the fact that horses have lost their importance in daily life is one of the reasons that horse racing has lost popularity to the general public.  On his National Public Radio commentary in early June, Deford said even the wide interest over California Chrome’s possible winning of the famed Triple Crown this year will not revitalize the popularity of the sport.

He cited other reasons as well to explain why the names of today’s top racing horses are not household words as were the names of War Admiral, Whirlaway, and Secretariat in the past, who won the Triple Crown in 1937, 1941 and 1973, respectively.  The most famous horse of all – which everyone knew during those Big Band years of the 1930s and 40s – was Seabiscuit; the horse failed in winning the Crown.

Horse-drawn wagon carried Fauerbach's Beer in Madison, Wisconsin (circa 1886)

Horse-drawn wagon carried Fauerbach’s Beer in Madison, Wisconsin (circa 1886)

His remark, however, that horses mean little to the ordinary American was right on the mark, unless, of course, you are an octogenarian like this writer.

Horses were very much a part of a child of the 1930s and 1940s, even for a child like myself who was raised in a suburb adjacent to a major city like Milwaukee.  “Horse apples” were dropped along the streets and as a young bike rider I remember dodging these collections of manure.  The “apples” came from horses pulling wagons that brought our milk each morning, collected our garbage and trash, and delivered the ice for refrigeration (most families still used “ice boxes”).  We were careful to not step into the apples as we trailed along behind the wagon begging the iceman for particles of ice on hot summer days.

The ragman also collected the recyclables of the day, our old clothes, metal products and other junk in a horse-drawn wagon, yelling out “rags,” which sounded more like “rex” in their broken English.

The city of Milwaukee continued to use the horses that drew their garbage wagons to pull snow plows down the city’s side streets.  The ridiculousness of this apparently frugal practice ended after the massive snow storm of January, 1947, clogged many of the city’s streets for a week when the horse drawn plows were hardly able to move in the heavy snow.  Trucks were used then to plow only the main drags.

I got my earliest education about how little boys and girls are born, thanks to the fact that the city’s largest dairy had its horse barn located across the street from our grade school playground.  When we kids (out for a morning recess) saw one horse mount another, a boy who was far more advanced about the facts of life told me what was going on.  Oh how we giggled that day!

Half of the families in Wisconsin were still farming in those days, too, and my parents had friends with working farms.  By then most had begun mechanizing, but there were still horses about and I remember the fright I experienced in riding a frisky mustang when I was about ten years old.  It was a fear I had to later overcome as our children dragged me out to ride horses at a stable.

Thanks to Deford’s observation on NPR, I realized again how important horses were to developing all of America.  They provided the “horsepower” to pull logs out of the woods to create lumber that built our cities; horses delivered the nation’s food, appliances and machinery being led by teamsters, still the name of one of the largest labor unions in the nation.  Horses were still pulling tanks and supply wagons in the earliest days of World War II.

Whether horse racing ever again regains its once proud standing is not important.  What is important is that we not forget the role that this noble animal had in helping to create our current standard of living.  How fortunate the kids of early generations were to have experienced their presence. – Ken Germanson, June 4, 2014.

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