It’s summertime again. It’s time for vacation, hammocks, cookouts and lemonade. It’s also that time each year when I don’t feel the call to work long hours at the microfilm machine or reading dusty volumes of forgotten lore.
The heat makes me lazy and, of course, there’s also my hay fever. So each year about this time I take it easy by writing my article from stuff I find in the file cabinets in my office. In those folders are little snippets too small to stand alone so I combine them into a full article. Here are three snippets from my horse file.
In April 1906, Derry police Chief Albert Roberts got a telephone call from the Lawrence, Mass., police. They were asking Roberts to be on the lookout for a wagon and horse which had been stolen from the city. A reliable source had led them to believe that it was heading to Derry.
Searching through the town, the constable found the purloined carriage and team at Fred Brown’s stable at 57 West Broadway. The horse showed signs of being driven “very hard.” Soon, Chief Roberts located the thief who left the animal that morning hours before sunrise. It was an 8-year-old boy.
Quickly, the whole story came out. His father was in jail in Derry for public drunkenness. The boy missed his dad and late at night snuck out of a relative’s house while everybody was asleep. In the dark, he stole a wagon and team from a closed-for-the-night livery stable. When arrested in Derry, the young criminal wasn’t wearing shoes or stockings.
Roberts notified the Lawrence authorities and soon the horse’s owner came to Derry by train. He paid Brown the stable fee and drove his property back to the city. The barefoot boy was put on the 5 o’clock train under the careful watch of the conductor.
In Lawrence, the authorities charged him with theft. Because this was not his first brush with the law he was sent to the Massachusetts reform school. I haven’t checked with Chief Garone, but this is likely the youngest criminal ever arrested in Derry.
In Derry toward the start of the 20th century, the place to be was the Beaver Lake Pavilion. For a dime, you could ride there on the trolley and, for another dime, spend all day swimming at their beach, bowling or visiting their tiny petting zoo. You could also buy a light lunch in their restaurant or lose money in their “one-armed bandit” slot machines. At night, you could part with more money by buying a ticket to dance to their orchestra in their Venetian ballroom or take in a vaudeville show.
In August 1899, the featured act was “Professor Edwards and his celebrated horse Bonner.” For a tenth of a dollar, one silver dime, two nickels or even 10 red copper pennies, you could see the show.
“Bonner can write words and figures as plainly as a man and will answer questions given him by the professor.” The professor’s show also included trained dogs and monkeys. The trolley company was putting on extra cars to handle the crowd that the pavilion anticipated to show up.
In the 19th century, when horse power really meant something powered by horses, the locals took great pride in their mares and stallions. Some farmers took their draught horses to local fairs to show how much they could pull. Others challenged all comers in races on a track on the site of today’s Highland Avenue in Western Derry. There were often hundreds of spectators cheering the riders on. Lots of money changed hands in side bets.
The fastest local horse I’ve found so far on a long distance run was a trotter belonging to 25-year-old Charley Cross of Londonderry. He knew his horse Scrub was fast and had stamina, but had never measured its speed over a long distance.
Charlie decided he had to test Scrub to prove his boast that he had the best horse in town.
In April 1889, Cross and a friend rode in a carriage over a measured course starting at the bridge in Hudson and ending at the railroad depot in Londonderry. The horse cantered the 14 miles in just 60 minutes.
While it’s true that a quarter horse can gallop at 50 mph, that’s only for short bursts. It’s doubtful even the great Secretariat could equal that speed for such a long race pulling a carriage with two passengers.
I wonder if Dr. Butterfield would like to see if his team today could equal the time set by Scrub 124 years ago. I’ll ride shotgun.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.