At the Livery Barn

The livery barn was the place to be in 1899.

Livery Barn in Columbia, California

The livery barn in a restored gold rush town in Columbia (Calif.) State Park.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

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Roscoe Pedlar, a patent medicine drummer, arrived in town on the 5:17 p.m. from Pittsburgh. With his valise (containing clean socks, a clean shirt and a couple of fresh celluloid collars, along with a comforting bottle of white lightning) in one hand and his sample case (bulging with alcohol-laced tonics and morphine-fortified pills for every ailment known to man and woman) in the other, he walked up the street to the new Reeves Hotel where he got a $2 room. (Roscoe was on an expense account.)

After a 75-cent supper in the hotel dining room, he visited Clem Wilson’s livery barn three doors down, where, for $5, he hired a horse and buggy for early the next morning to carry him on a sales expedition to all the small villages and hamlets in the area.

Jedediah Smith had arrived in town in early afternoon with a wagon load of corn from his farm 15 miles out in the country. After a delay getting unloaded at Herm Wilson’s feed mill, Jed decided it was too late to head home so he found a 25-cent bed at the Walker House, an old hotel that had long ago passed its glory days. He had a 25-cent meal at Vinnie’s Tavern, but his team required better care so he took it to Clem and arranged for oats, hay, water and a stall for the night, which cost him $1.

Young Bobby Arden had been courting pretty Miss Meribah Flowers for a while and had finally convinced her to go riding with him Saturday afternoon. His dad’s plug horses and old farm wagon wouldn’t do, so Bobby took the money he’d been saving and went to Clem’s, where he hired a $3 team of “high steppin’ strutters” and a “shiny surrey with a fringe on top,” which set him back another $3 – a lot of money, but Miss Meribah was worth it.

Boston Billy, the tramp who had jumped off the 7:47 a.m. freight train and asked Clem for work, was washing Clem’s new phaeton before he began mucking out the stalls and dumping the results on the odiferous manure pile in the alley.

Livery barn loafers

On this warm evening, Bert Adams, Wash Reed and the rest of the half-dozen or so loafers that were always at Clem’s were sitting tilted back on wooden chairs along the front of the barn, lying and joking and arguing among themselves, while idly whittling or watching and commenting on the village people who walked by. Miss Primly, the organist down at the First Reformed Presbyterian, swept by with her nose in the air, holding up her skirts to keep them from being contaminated by the tobacco juice on the boardwalk or the looks and laughter of the men. In cold weather, this same crew would be huddled around the potbellied stove in Clem’s tiny office, so many of them sometimes that Clem could hardly get to his desk to scratch an entry in his smudged and ink-stained old ledger.

Jemmie McCandless, a barefoot urchin of 8 whose parents had told him he’d get “whupped” if they ever caught him at the livery, scratched around in the sawdust on the floor hoping to find a discarded horseshoe nail that he could bend into a ring, while listening wide-eyed to the tall tales of the corps of loafers.

The village dimwit, a big shuffling man of indeterminate age called Simple Shermie, came wandering by and Wash Reed talked him into running over to Glim Glogan’s hardware emporium and getting a couple of sky hooks Wash said Clem needed.

Along toward midnight, Bill Barley, the village tippler, who’d dimly realized he’d taken on too heavy a load at Vinnie’s to make it home to his shack, came staggering in, crawled unsteadily up the ladder to the hayloft and passed out, dead to the world.

Heart of the small town

From early morning to late at night, Clem did a brisk business. Farmers in town for the day needed feed and water for their teams. Elijah Graves, the undertaker, hired Clem’s fancy hearse and a team of matched grays for a wealthy (and very dead) client. An important banker from Pittsburgh was in town and needed a drop-front phaeton to take him to a meeting. Widow McKenzie’s buggy horse was ailing so she brought it in for Clem, who was a veterinarian of sorts, to minister to. A Weber Wagon Co. traveler (or salesman) stopped by to see if he could sell Clem a new dray. The traffic into and out of the livery barn was steady.

Just about every village and town had at least one livery barn, except for the so-called “one horse” towns, while larger cities had many of these equine facilities. They must have been as common as corner gas stations were before self-serve gas pumps became the norm. The facilities were absolutely essential, although often looked down upon by “decent folk” as “dens of iniquity.”

Then came the automobile, and one by one the corner livery stables and barns went out of business or converted to car repair shops and filling stations. A way of life had passed, but not everyone was sad to see it go. Consider the following article by a man named Monroe Woolley that appeared in the June 1917 issue of Gas Review magazine.

“One commendable thing which is a direct outcome of the growing use of automobiles is that public garages are fast displacing the livery barns in our cities and towns. Already the old fashioned livery stable has wholly disappeared from our cities, and in the smaller towns and rural communities livery barns are likewise giving way to the establishment of garages.

“The livery barn has always been a detriment to humanity in at least two ways. It has been harmful to health and to morals. Next to municipal slaughterhouses nothing in the way of a business institution has been so harmful to citizens as stinking livery stables. The ever-present pile of manure has served as a colossal incubator for the hatching of flies and mosquitoes, and the stench which greets people’s nostrils, passing a livery barn, is too well known to be dwelt upon in print.”

So, progress strikes again; today, cars are allegedly the big pollutants and the circle goes round and round. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.