Vintage hitching posts serve as reminder of the days of "real horsepower"
Hitching post collector Bob Maclin with one of his horsehead figural posts, fitted with a wooden base and his family's monogram. Everything beneath the round swirl is new; metal parts were crafted on a friend's metal milling machine
When you go to town, turning off your car's ignition is the main thing to do after parking. But in the days of real horsepower, tying up to an iron ring or a hitching post was standard procedure.
"Horses and mules, and about anything used on or with them, has always interested me after growing up in a small Texas town," says Bob Maclin, who now lives in Lexington, Ky. "That includes curiosity about hitching posts and their many designs."
The Texas town Bob refers to has long since been absorbed by urban sprawl, but as a young man, he saw many wagon teams, buggy horses and riding horses tied at the county wagon yard after they arrived in town. Blacksmith shops were located on three corners of the town square, with a hitching post or rail at each. And many homes had hitching posts a few feet from the street or road.
Bob now has a substantial collection of hitching posts, and more than a hundred photographs of other types and designs he's encountered in his widespread travels. (He also has a large collection of bridle bits and is always on the look for a new addition.)
Collecting hitching posts is rewarding, he says, because ornate ones can be considered examples of Americana. Posts - both those manufactured in large numbers, and the locally produced models are increasingly scarce.
"Unfortunately, during World War II, scrap drives resulted in many hitching posts being broken up with sledge hammers for the war effort, as were metal flower urns and garden ornaments," Bob says. "A renewed interest in hitching posts has led to modern USA reproductions cast from aluminum. Some crude imports are also frequently found."
The hitching post probably originated in Europe, Bob says. Records show English use of the hitching post as early as 1625, with some of the oldest ones cut from stone (they also served as distance markers between villages). Many public buildings in England had stone hitching posts and public water troughs.
In the U.S., the oldest posts were made of stone or wood. Charles Bush, Newbury, N.Y., was issued the first patent in 1861. The post was made of cast iron, and had a top ring encased in a sleeve that was inserted in the ground. With a twist, the post could be pulled up for use; when not in use, it retracted into the sleeve.
"The oldest hitching post in my collection dates from around 1800," Bob says. "It has an iron horse head, and is upright when not in use. Tilting the head allows the reins to slide under the head, and as the head tilts forward, the reins are gripped by teeth and held secure until the horse head is again tilted. It grips in a fashion similar to a plumber's pipe wrench."
Bob says that in the 1870s and for several decades thereafter, many patents followed in just about every design imaginable, though most posts were made of cast iron. The posts were generally 38 to 40 inches tall, with a ring, slot or hole which bridle reins could be attached to or tied through.
Before 1900, Bob adds, figural hitching posts of cast iron became popular. Jockeys - both black and white - were posed with one hand on the hip and the other hand extended, holding a ring to which a horse could be tied.
"One of the more unusual ones is that of an elf or a leprechaun with an extended arm or hand which held the ring," Bob says. "Figurals were also made to resemble tree stumps, horse heads, animals, birds and other objects."
Bob says broken cast iron posts can usually be repaired and restored. To easily repair one broken below ground level, a heavy steel strap can be bolted on each side, or a smaller diameter pipe can be inserted and secured.
Middle breaks are much more difficult and challenging to correct, Bob says.
"Sometimes you can attach a completely different base portion than the original one-piece casting. The break in the middle can be sawed off square at the swirl-portion of the casting, and a 3/4-inch pipe can be cemented inside the hollow casting. Then, four 1/2-inch metal plates are machined, three round and one square, and drilled with holes in the centers. The plates are stacked and welded in place, then bolted to a steel, six-inch square tubing. 1/4-inch thick 'M' is machined and secured from the inside of the square tubing.'
Bob says cast iron horse heads designed to fit as finials over wooden posts allow one to return the wooden base to as near the original as possible, or to create an original design. Most finials were cast hollow, and placed over the wooden post and secured with flathead wood screws.
Vintage hitching posts are increasingly rare, and prices reflect that rarity. Bob says he was asked to put a value one that was stolen. He advised a minimum replacement cost of $1,200. Insurance coverage - and often a security system - have become necessities for the collector, he says. FC
For more information: Bob Maclin, 1436 Lakewood Drive, Lexington, KY 40502.
Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.