Fame alone doesn’t lead to fortune. But for the clever entrepreneur, it can certainly smooth the way. When he bought the most famous racehorse of a generation, Marion Willis Savage, owner of International Stock Food Co., Minneapolis, was banking on a proven winner.
In 1902, Savage bought legendary pacer Dan Patch. Two years earlier, on Aug. 30, 1900, in his harness race debut as a 4-year-old, Dan Patch trounced the competition. For nearly a decade after that, the horse never lost a race.
By 1901, Dan Patch’s success was such a foregone conclusion that track owners, fearing staggering financial losses, pulled the horse from the betting,” says Gerald Waite in the Dan Patch Project
. “During the year, Dan Patch became the most talked-about phenomenon on the American sports scene, finishing the year with 12 straight race wins and $13,800 in winnings.”
Instant return on investment
When Savage paid $60,000 ($1.7 million today) for the famed racehorse, he clearly saw potential well beyond the racetrack. The son of a country doctor, Savage had spent years trying to launch various agriculture-related businesses. In 1886, he finally found success with the International Stock Food Co., which soon became known as the world’s largest stock food company.
As the company prospered, Savage built a reputation as a master of the art of advertising and promotion. His ability to transform a successful racehorse into a household name is evidence of that. Dan Patch had tied the world’s record for the 1-mile distance for pacing horses in 1902, but he was neither the world’s fastest horse nor a world champion. Nonetheless, thanks to Savage’s tireless promotion, Dan Patch became known as “World’s Champion Pacing Horse.”
And that is the same time the Dan Patch name began showing up on farm equipment.
Making a name in farm equipment
Like many “factories” of the era, M.W. Savage Factories Co. (another Savage company), based in Minneapolis, did not build engines. Instead, Savage contracted with established manufacturers like Northwestern Steel & Iron Works, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which manufactured cement mixer engines, among other things.
According to an article in the Dec. 31, 1911, edition of the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Leader-Telegram, Northwestern signed a contract with Savage to manufacture “at least $50,000 worth of gasoline engines” in 1912. It is believed that 1912 was the first year for the Northwestern-built Dan Patch, which appears to have remained in production for five years.
Dan Patch-badged engines – and the smaller Dazzle Patch engines — appear to have been produced by at least two other companies: Nelson Bros. Co., Saginaw, Michigan, and Gray Motor Co., Detroit.
Savage also sold a full line of Dan Patch plows, including the Dan Patch Special general-purpose plow, the Dan Patch brush plow, the Dan Patch Prairie Breaker, Dan Patch sulky, Dan Patch gang plow and the Dan Patch one-horse plow. Little is known of the Dan Patch plow line other than the fact that, as noted in the Savage catalog, inventory was shipped from an unnamed “factory near Chicago.”
Capitalizing on — and spreading — a horse’s fame
Waite says observers speculate that the Dan Patch name alone made Savage more than $20,000 in his first month of ownership, during a period when the horse never left the barn. Later, traveling in his own railroad car emblazoned with his portrait on each side of the car, the horse drew crowds of as many as 40,000 fans at every stop.
Meanwhile, the Dan Patch name appeared on sleds, coaster wagons, the Dan Patch automobile, tobacco, and gasoline washing machines. A total of 30 products were licensed with the horse’s name. Countless Dan Patch promotional and premium items were available through International Stock Food, and Savage’s Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, and Dubuque Electric Traction Co. railroad became known as The Dan Patch Line.
Politicians knew a good thing when they saw it. In early 1902, some candidates wooed voters by handing out free Dan Patch cigars and balloons.
The end of an era
By some estimates, Savage is thought to have made about $13 million on the Dan Patch name alone, but the total profit could be considerably higher. Even more funds poured in from the growth of International Stock Food.
But by 1909, the bubble had burst. Lameness forced Dan Patch into retirement. He was retired to stud but his success as a sire was limited. Both the horse and his owner became ill on July 4, 1916. A week later, Dan Patch died of an enlarged heart.
When informed of his horse’s death, Savage was in a Minneapolis hospital recovering from minor surgery. He made arrangements to have Dan Patch’s body stuffed and mounted for display. Before the order could be fulfilled, however, Savage died, scarcely 24 hours after his champion pacer. FC
IN TWO COMMUNITIES, DAN PATCH LEGACY ENDURES
Can’t get enough? Two annual events celebrate the famed racehorse:
- Dan Patch Days will be held June 20-23, 2019, in Savage (yes, that Savage), Minnesota.
- The Dan Patch Community Festival will be held Sept. 6-8, 2019, in Oxford, Indiana, where the famed pacer was foaled. The event can be traced to Oxford’s first Dan Patch celebration, held Nov. 14, 1901.