Livery & Feed
by Seth Thompson
reprinted from The Farm, Summer 1948
I grew up right across the street from a livery stable and I remember it with nostalgia and affection. My parents’ hotel, the Union, faced Mr. Oscar Hudgins’ livery stable on Main Street. Each building had a long passageway running from front to rear, and we and our guests were acutely conscious of the establishment across the street. Once Mr. Oscar Hudgins was sitting on our big front porch when a city-bred cousin of mine remarked that she didn’t imagine our traveling men enjoyed the smell of horses very much. Mr. Hudgins replied, without rancor, that perhaps horses didn’t like the smell of traveling men either.
A livery stable, for the benefit of those who never heard of one, was an establishment which catered to horses. It boarded them, doctored them, and bred them, whenever any of these services were required. It also furnished “rigs” — a horse and buggy or perhaps a team, for anyone who wished to ride, rather than walk, about the town or countryside. This arrangement was about the same as the “U-Drive-It” system for automobiles nowadays. It was a popular service for traveling men who came into town on the railway train and wanted to call on customers in cross-road communities. Young swains who couldn’t afford a rig themselves rented them to take their best girls for a spin in the country. Father used to hire a “surrey” or carriage, with fringe on top and two shiny black leather seats, and take us all on a picnic or to call on relatives. He always brought his own buggy whip, a resplendent article of whalebone with gilt stripes and a mother-of-pearl handle. When he placed it in the whip socket it meant we were officially ready to start.
The Hudgins’ livery stable was conveniently located for our traveling men and other transients. I don’t know whether Mr. Hudgins erected his place of business across the street from our hotel or whether we erected our hotel across the street from the livery stable. The egg- or-chicken argument between Mr. Hudgins and my father was never settled, but each establishment was a perfect adjunct to the other.
As was so often the case with people in small towns in that beautiful age, Mr. Hudgins had several side-lines. Besides being the only veterinarian for miles around, he owned and drove the only hearse in town. He also had three deluxe equipages commonly known as hacks. These were low-hung carriages with doors and plate glass windows which could be raised or lowered. The driver rode on an elevated seat behind the horses. They were used mostly for funerals and weddings.
The hearse, however, was the show piece of the stable. It was a marvelous equipage indeed. Mr. Hudgins “ordered off” and had it made in St. Louis. It had a high seat in front, from which Mr. Hudgins managed the pair of white Percherons, Dot and Dolly, which might easily have been circus horses of the type which Mr. Poodles Hanneford and his illustrious family have made famous. The hearse actually looked more like a circus wagon than a bearer of the dead. When Mr. Hudgins drove it, he wore a top hat which he had bought from a vaudeville supply house. He was a big, red-faced man with a goodly growth of mustache under his big, red nose. Sitting in a commanding position on the hearse, which was painted a bright gray, he made a funeral procession something of a parade. To add to the illusion, there were golden tassels inside the hearse, and carved cherubs at each corner. For funerals Mr. Hudgins bedecked the Percherons with harness which he had made especially for him. This special set of harness was decorated with brass “spots,” red-white-and blue rosettes, and tall rust colored pom-poms between the horses’ ears.
Since my father, in addition to his duties as host at the Union Hotel, was the local undertaker, the location of the livery stable across the street was very convenient. Father owned no funeral vehicles and that end of burials was given over to Mr. Hudgins for a slight commission. He was often called to other communities and made quite a nice thing out of his decorative hearse and his hacks.
Lonzo Brizzalara, a local boy who joined the circus and worked his way up to general manager of the biggest show on the road, tried to hire Mr. Hudgins to be his horse-boss but Mr. Hudgins said he wouldn’t work for anybody but himself. He enjoyed the sense of power and importance which his seat on the hearse gave him and he always carried himself with becoming dignity. He preserved this dignity even under trying circumstances. Once, one of Mr. Hudgins’ hens made a nest on the cushion of the driver’s seat, and having failed to hatch her brood by the time the next funeral came up, rode all the way to the church, to the cemetery, and back to town beside Mr. Hudgins. Not an egg was broken.
When a new traveling man alighted from the train at the S.W.&W. Station on the outskirts of town, he had no trouble locating Mr. Hudgins’ place of business. It had its own aroma, as unmistakable an identification as the painted sign over the doorway, and far more effective at a distance. It was a blend of manure, harness oil, old and new leather, Sloan’s liniment, and hay in all stages of ripeness; occasionally there was an overtone of wagon paint and pine shavings, which were sometimes used for bedding instead of straw.