THE TRUE STORY OF A GREAT HORSE
To my great grandmother Mary Ida who gave me horse fever.
One Finding Danny
Three The Bear
Eight A Baby Boy
Nine Separation & Reunion
Ten The Last Goodbye
Building The Cabin
Bob and I had decided to build our cabin on the ledge above our stream that ran through a fifty-foot deep gorge. The land rose on either side of this hollow of hemlock trees. Our site had the advantage of being flat so we could not only build the cabin there but I could imagine the garden we would plant. It was a very cozy place, and we later found out that it was called Indian Hollow for the tribe that had once lived there.
The first work we needed to do with Danny was clear the road that led to our building site. There were two roads, one was an old town road that went eight miles northeast into Winchester. We called that the “upper road” because it ran across our plateau and was uphill and a quarter mile to the west of our cabin area. The lower road was the shorter distance to the town road we camped on. This is the one we cleared first. It ran along the stream and was very rocky and overgrown with small trees. A few large trees had come down in storms to block the way. Bob cut trees with his chainsaw and measured them into eight-foot lengths. We weren’t sure how much weight Danny could pull. Bob wrapped a chain around the log and hooked it to the whipple tree (a stout bar of wood with hooks on either end and a ring in the middle that connects to the load). The middle ring is hitched to the load and the end hooks hitch to the harness trace chains.
Danny lunging forward to get a log moving.
I drove Dan up to the front of the log and backed him up to the whipple tree. As soon as Bob hitched the trace chains Danny exploded forward and in one great thrust had the log moving. That lunge is called “the snap” and Danny had a good one.
We were not ready for it the first time, but then we learned that he had to do that to get the dead weight moving. Danny was teaching us already. Danny pulled all the logs out of the way. For the big rocks I would dig around them and hitch a chain. Then Danny would drag the rock off the road or to wherever I wanted it. This just happened to be a good way to start out working Dan because he could rest while we cut trees or prepared the next rock for him to pull. He sweated some but not too much and never came up lame all during that week. After work I brushed him down and gave him more liniment, a blanket, and dinner. The next day we were ready for Danny to start pulling in the building supplies.
After work I brushed him down and gave him more liniment.
We wanted to build our cabin on the edge of the gorge to be near the water and on the closest edge of the land to the town road so we would have the shortest route. With his chainsaw, Bob cleared the dense forest, opening up enough space for the cabin, a garden and a shed for Danny. I stacked the brush he cut into piles. My brothers, Tyler and Wilbur, and my brother-in-law, Reed, came up to help us start building. Out by the road, they helped us load plywood and two-by-fours onto the pallet sled Bob had built which Danny could pull to the building site at the other end of the logging road.
We started with four pieces of plywood and a dozen two-by-fours to make a light load for Danny. I hitched the trace chains to the pallet sled and jumped onto the top of the load. He took off just like he had at A.C. O’Connel’s, neck arched, ears up, and prancing out. What a thrill to see him move like that!
We loaded plywood and two-by-fours onto the pallet sled Bob had built.
It was a long, mile-and-a-half, uphill pull, made more difficult because of the snow and, in places, mud up to his knees. I stopped Danny halfway to let him catch his breath, but he pawed the ground and wanted to keep going. When we got uphill to the hollow where our cabin would be, I said to Bob, “This horse is great! He loves to pull! He won’t even stop to rest when I ask him to. I have to make him rest by holding onto the reins until he stops breathing hard.”
I was so impressed with Danny, to see a horse that had been so neglected work with all he had now. He looked worn out when he wasn’t hitched but put him in harness and his pride and power came right back. A.C. O’Connel was right: this horse had heart! My doubts about him vanished that first day. I was still plenty nervous about my own lack of knowledge of working in the woods but I was confident in my work horse and in Bob. I was careful not to strain his legs while we eased him back into working. By the end of the third day he was pulling more than his own weight. He did it over and over until we got all the supplies to our cabin. He also had to pull his own hay and grain in.
Our tent, Danny’s lean-to and the cabin being framed.
The first thing we did was build a lean-to out of logs for Danny to keep him dry for feeding and in rainy weather. We lived in a big canvas army tent next to Danny while we built the cabin. Our friends and family went home after spending two days helping us set the piers that the cabin would sit on. It started snowing then, turned to rain and then went back to snow again. We kept a big fire going to dry our coats out. I was worried about Danny being able to dry off enough after a hard day’s work. His run-in shed was too open and cold. One day our new friend, Edie, came by and offered her barn to keep Danny in. “We only use it for our chickens,” she said. “There would be plenty of room for Danny.” We thought that was a great idea and I told Edie we would be up at sunset. Later that day I unhitched Danny from the skid but kept his harness on. I packed a backpack with grain and hay for Danny’s dinner. I climbed up the side of the harness and started riding Danny through the woods up the mountain to Edie’s house. It was two miles through the woods or four miles by the road and the sun was setting. Being my first time I didn’t know the way through the woods but Edie had given me a hand-drawn map. In the twilight, snow started falling and I was getting cold. Danny was still hot from work and his back steamed. Through the dark we came out to a clearing and had to go around a small frozen pond. I knew we were on the right trail because Edie had told me to look for the pond. All of a sudden Danny took a sharp right turn into the pond, crashed through the thin ice, and waded into the cold water. I grabbed the brass knobs of the hames as he swam across the pond!
That was the first time I had discovered his love of swimming.
That was the first time I discovered his love of swimming. We came out the other side and found our future friends, Ralph and Lorraine’s cabin and just beyond that the road up the mountain to Edie’s, or so my now soggy map said. Almost there. A sudden snow squall came up. We had to keep going with little visibility in the dark, wind-driven snow. By the time Danny and I got to Edie’s barn, my blue jeans were frozen to the harness. I went to get off and found I had to jerk the dungarees from the harness. Edie laughed, she knew then that I was crazy. Danny wasn’t any worse for wear, but he did seem to like that warm barn with lights and chickens. Edie had a few hundred chicks in there and Danny was right beside them, a few older ones made it up to his steaming back to roost.
At that point, we had our big truck loaded with all our belongings and the small truck was stuck. So the next morning I carried a bale of hay on my back and a small bag of grain for Danny’s breakfast and supper that night. Edie told me later that she looked down the hill and saw what looked like an old woman, stooped from carrying a heavy load on her back up the steep road to her house. As I got closer, she realized it was me.
He did seem to like the warm barn with lights and chickens.
When I came into the barn it was quite the picture, three chickens sat in a row, keeping Danny’s back warm. While he ate I brushed the chicken droppings off, picked out his feet, put ointment on his hooves and liniment on his legs. Then I put his collar and bridle on and threw the harness up on his back, buckled the hames strap and pulled the britching down into place over his rump. We were ready for a day’s work and off we trotted through the woods to the cabin site.
Dan was small as Percherons go, but, at 16 hands, one inch, bigger than your average horse. At his shoulder, he was taller than my head. When I got him, he weighed 1,350 pounds and he grew in strength and girth to be 1,600 pounds when he was up to full weight. Because he was so tall, Dan was hard to jump onto, so he got used to me using the harness like a ladder to reach his back. A logging harness is surprisingly comfortable as you are sitting behind the collar and hames. If I rode him bareback I had to find a rock to jump off of or needed a boost up. Occasionally I was able to jump on him from the ground but I wasn’t too good at it. I rode him to Edie and Mike’s barn every night for the next month until our place was built and the weather turned warmer.
One day both of our trucks were broken down and we had no way to get into town other than ride Danny or walk. The first time I went, I didn’t put the harness on Dan because he made better time without the weight and the traces slapping his legs. I had a backpack to put groceries in and trotted Dan most of the way to the nearest store, the Northfield Variety about five miles away. When we got there, I tied Dan to a sturdy sign post and went in to buy food supplies. Dan drew a little crowd. Some older women reminisced about workhorses they had known as girls. When I came out the owner of the store also came to watch and chat with the ladies. I decided to jump on with the backpack loaded with eggs, milk, canned goods and bread. I put all I had into the jump and the weight of the backpack make me sail right over his back and land on the ground on the other side. Everyone laughed, including me. Dan just turned his head and looked at me. If horses smiled, I knew he would have. The store owner felt so bad for me he replaced the broken eggs and squished bread. He held the backpack while I jumped on, then he handed the backpack up to me, a much better plan.
Dan just turned his head and looked at me.
All the while that Danny and I were getting used to each other, the cabin was emerging as a real home. Since it was a simple, one-room affair, it didn’t take long to build. The main room was twelve by sixteen feet with a sleeping loft under the eaves. There were two used large storm windows in each wall. There was a ladder to the loft and a bookshelf covered two thirds of the west wall. We put Alice’s 1920 cream and light green wood cookstove at the north end of the cabin with a kitchen sink to the right of it. The south end of the cabin had two couches and a low table made from a section of sea driftwood we had found on the beach at my brother’s house. On the east side of the cabin, the stream side, we put on a six by eight foot porch and an enclosed pantry with a door into the sink and stove area. Food stayed pretty cold in there, when it was really hot we put milk and other foods in a washtub with a cover into the stream and the cool water flowed around it. We had no electricity or phone and our water supply ran from a plastic pipe that went six hundred feet up the mountain stream down into the cabin. That worked at least for five months of the year, when the water wasn’t frozen. The cold part of the year we filled water jugs at the stream, which was about fifty feet down the gorge and lifted them with a rope and pulleys to the cabin porch. We used candles and kerosene lamps for light at night. I used to sew and read with three lamps around me. Our music and news came from a truck radio and speakers Bob installed in the cabin. It ran on twelve volt batteries so we used our truck’s batteries to power it.
Dan and I cleared the rocks out of the garden. I wrapped a chain around each boulder and Dan would pull them to the edge of the garden patch where I used the rocks to build a stonewall. Dan pulled the small tree stumps out with one big lurch. The larger stumps we twisted out, using an eight-foot green log chained to the stump as a lever. I drove Danny in a circle around the stump until it broke all its roots and came out.
Once the garden was cleared, I shoveled all Dan’s manure from his stall into the soil and worked in some lime. The first garden was not very productive but the next year we had plenty of tomatoes, corn, beans, peas, squash, lettuce, spinach, and cucumbers. I put up many cases of tomatoes, pickles, green beans, and corn. Then I dried the kidney beans and navy beans for making baked beans later in the winter. I used the wood cook-stove for the cooking and canning. It took special wood to make the stove get hot
enough for canning so I usually used ironwood and rock maple when I could find it. For most cooking I used maple and oak.
At the end of a day of work, we let Danny loose to roam around the clearing, eating what he could find. He would walk around the cabin looking in the windows or stand with his head overhanging the porch to be petted and visit with us, he loved company. Danny was happiest at the cabin in the woods. Sometimes when I was working on something and wasn’t looking at Dan he would come up behind me and nudge me with his head. We had a game we played: I would jump up and spin around and say “Booo!” He would do a little rear and spin away and then come back for more. It was so funny to see a big horse play like a dog.
One day, Edie came to see me. She parked a couple hundred yards up our road and walked the rest, carrying a stew she had made. It was a big event to have a guest at our cabin. We ate heartily of the stew and had homemade bread to sop
up the gravy. We visited for a while and then with full bellies, we said our goodbyes.
Edie hesitated and said, “I’m not sure if I can get my car out. It seemed to be pretty icy where I parked.”
“No problem, I’ll bring Danny out and he can pull you up to the road.” We had done so much pulling, I was confident Dan could pull anything. Edie helped me harness Dan and we walked out to her car. Her green Volkswagen beetle was sitting just down over a small rise and was definitely on ice.
I chained the whipple tree to the car and hitched Dan to it. He looked back at what he was being asked to pull and his ears went back. I gave the command, “Get up!” and he didn’t move. I asked again and gave him a tap on the rump. He stiffened his legs and didn’t move again. The car was light. Unlike the logs and sleds he pulled all the time, it had the advantage of wheels. If he only leaned on the harness he could get it unstuck, but he just refused to do it. That was the first time I learned that he just didn’t pull cars or trucks.
Edie and I ended up putting branches under the tires and pushing as hard as we could. Finally the Volkswagen got to the edge of the ice and could get a grip. Edie was off for home and tooted goodbye, the empty stewpot on the seat beside her.
Watercolor of the cabin and garden done in 1977.
Stay tuned for the next chapter!
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