Every morning as I enter the office I pass a sulky and driver weathervane. Made in the nineteenth century by the New York company, J.L. Mott, its original gold color has worn away in spots to reveal its depth of character and experience. Coincidentally, I have pretty much the same weathervane at home, except mine was molded, in Taiwan I believe, in the twentieth century. It is not handmade as the one in the office is, and is not weathered gold, but verdigris, the result not of years of weathering, but of a chemical coating (probably acetic acid) added during its manufacture.
My sulky and horse weathervane, a treasure from the days when my husband I were brass dealers, sits atop a bookcase, and affords me nostalgic pleasure. Among the memories it stirs is one of the only time I went to the harness races. I was four, and my family lived in Springfield, Ohio. Mother and I drove down to visit friends in Urbana, a well-preserved, picturesque, nineteenth century town forty-some miles from Columbus. While there, we went to the county fair, a novel experience for an only child who had lived most of her life in big cities. Then, as now, harness racing was part of the county fair experience. That was just fine with my mother who loved it, along with all things equestrian. That afternoon I sat in her lap, probably squirming, as we watched the horses and sulkies go by. I’m not sure that I got the point that day. I may have to go back to a county fair now that I appreciate the skill of those well-dressed gentlemen who sat so straight on those funny-looking carts. By the way, I checked the schedule for the 2012 version of the county fair in Urbana, Ohio, and harness racing is still very much a part of it, as it is at many county fairs around the country. Perhaps I should consider a return trip in 2013.
An indirect descendant of Greek and Roman chariot races in which men in two-wheeled vehicles drove galloping horses at top speed, a harness race features competing drivers in single-seated, two-wheeled sulkies, who guide their horses as fast as they can considering that the horse’s gait must not exceed the relatively sedate trot or a pace. According to a June 27, 1897 article in the New York Times, harness racing originated in the seventeenth century with the Dutch in New York. Casual races would occur on country roads when one carter met another, and off they’d go as fast as they could at the prescribed gait. As the sport became more prevalent in the early nineteenth century, pot-holed roads gave way to the first racetracks devoted to the new sport. The New York Trotting Club was established in 1825 to organize the sport and draft its rules. Harness racing is not confined to the United States, but is found a
round the world and is especially popular in Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Sweden and Canada.
Although riders on horseback had participated in early trotting races, it was carts and drivers that became the accepted conveyances in harness races. The cart evolved into a stripped down buggy, a sort of a horse-drawn hotrod. Then the lightweight, four-wheeled sulky invented and used in England by doctors as a speedy, efficient way to visit their patients, crossed the Atlantic. In America, it lost two of its wheels, and the American sulky was created, also to be used by doctors and others who traveled by themselves. The harness racing set quickly realized this sulky’s advantages and adopted it. The name, by the way, comes from the English, and alludes to the notion that a carriage with only one seat would be inhabited by someone with an antisocial, standoffish nature; in other words, someone inclined to be sulky.
Like saddle racing with its Thoroughbreds, harness racing boasts its own breed, Standardbreds, the “standard” being the breed’s ability to trot one mile in two and a half minutes. The National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders coined the term in 1879 when it created the breed’s studbook. Standardbreds are even-tempered and are longer and more muscular than Thoroughbreds, qualities that are assets in horses that must maintain a single gait while trying to go faster than its opponents and, at the same time, execute its driver’s commands. Not confined to harness races, Standardbreds walk and gallop and jump like other horses. They are mounts in horse shows, on ranches and on trail rides and are even seen in Amish country where they are accomplished buggy pullers. Today’s Standardbreds claim descent from the sire, Hambletonian X, who was born in 1849, a descendant of Messenger, an English Thoroughbred brought to the United States from England in 1788.
One of the great Standardbreds of all time was Dan Patch, a pacer who never lost a race. To my mind this legendary horse is an American folk hero along with Johnny Appleseed and John Henry. He was so fast that many owners would not allow their horses to race against him, at times relegating him to a race against the clock. It is reported that he attracted up to 100,000 people whenever he appeared. Among his admirers were future president Dwight David Eisenhower (Ike) who was one of those spectators at the 1904 Kansas State Fair and Ike’s predecessor the young Harry Truman who wrote Dan Patch a fan letter. In his career (1900-1909), Dan Patch set nine world’s records; earned $1 million annually during his best years and endorsed toys, cigars, washing machines and other products. He’s a character in movies of the late 1940s, one of which bears his name, and is mentioned with respect in The Music Man. In addition, he is portrayed on a weathervane standing majestically, yet humbly, atop his metal rod. In spite of his celebrity and his accomplishments, throughout his life, the Great Dan Patch, as he came to be known, maintained a sweet disposition.
For millennia, weathervanes were necessities for farmers, fishermen and sailors, indicating the direction of the wind, predicting the weather and guiding cultivation and navigation. As objects that were both practical and decorative, they reflected the occupations and diversions of the periods in which they were made. The horse and sulky weathervanes are charming reminders of pleasant pastimes, of days gone by and of days to come. What a delight to see something useful and dependable, something that functioned as a guide to its owner’s life and livelihood, rendered in such an appealing manner! I am happy to report that the tradition flourishes today, and, true to form, reflects contemporary morés. Now, instead of going to a blacksmith to have a weathervane crafted by hand on the anvil, you can purchase one online. For those of you with twenty-first century tastes, the choice includes not only copper soccer players, male and female, but an entire series of NASCAR racers. Which way does your wind blow?