116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: Wilson & Co.’s Clydesdales
Jun. 6, 2016 8:00 am
CEDAR RAPIDS - In 1917, the Jarard family of Clyde Valley Farm in New Sharon sold a pair of Clydesdale geldings to Thomas E. Wilson, head of Wilson & Co. meatpackers and Wilson Sporting Goods. As part of an aggressive marketing campaign, Wilson formed a Clydesdale six-horse hitch to promote the company's meat products at parades and fairs around the country.
The Jarard horses were added to four more geldings Wilson personally chose from the best Clydesdales in Canada, Scotland and the United States. Wilson raised Clydesdales himself on his farm near Chicago. Horses were acquired when they were about 2 years old, and trained at the Wilson farm until they were about 5 or 6.
The farm was home to as many as 16 horses in training to replace those on the hitch that became too old to travel.
The hitch was entered in the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago in 1917 and won. The hitch repeated its wins in 1918 and 1919.
The Wilson horses soon became famous. By 1956, they had won 22 international championships in the event's 37-year history.
To qualify for the team, each horse had to be a bay with white markings, and at least 5 years old.
The lead horses were the smallest, standing about 17 hands, one inch. (A hand is four inches.) The swing or middle pair reached 17 hands 3 inches, and the wheel horses measured more than 18 hands high. It took three and a half pounds of steel for each horseshoe, and the show harness for each horse, made of top grain leather trimmed with solid brass, weighed 110 pounds.
The team pulled an orange 4,400-pound wagon that was once used to deliver meat from the Chicago stockyards at the turn of the 20th century. When loaded, each wagon could carry as much as 12,000 pounds of meat products into the Chicago loop area. The original wood was carefully preserved and the wagons were repainted each year.
The team was featured at the Wilson & Co. exhibit at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.
Wilson considered putting the annual tour of his Clydesdale team on hold when the country entered into World War II, but decided that the team's popularity could be an asset to war bond sales. He was right. After appearing in more than 150 cities and towns, including Cedar Rapids, from 1942 through 1945, the Clydesdales assisted in the sale of more than $15 million in bonds.
The Linn County War Bond Committee, headed by B.T. Perrine, sponsored the world-famous six-horse hitch for 'A Horse on Hitler” day in Cedar Rapids, Oct. 26, 1942. The horses were billed as the 'main attraction in a show to unhorse the Nazis' ‘man on horseback' through a quickened sale of war bonds and stamps.” The program started with a parade and ended with a performance in a parking lot at Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue SE.
Wilson bought the T.M. Sinclair meat packing plant in Cedar Rapids in 1913, but didn't change its operating name to Wilson & Co. until 1935. It became the company's largest plant in 1950s when the flagship plant in Chicago stopped production.
The team had appeared in every state by 1953, when Harry E. Jarard, who had moved to a farm southeast of Palo in 1947, sold another champion Clydesdale to Wilson's team. By then, trucks transported the horses and five handlers to the cities in which they performed.
The children at University Hospitals and students at the Hospital School for Severely Handicapped Children were delighted with a Clydesdale performance in the parking lot between the two buildings on July 21, 1954. Before coming to Iowa City, the horses performed in and around Cedar Rapids for two weeks.
Because of Cedar Rapids' important connection to Wilson & Co., the team made numerous promotional appearances in the city. They appeared in the Shrine Horse Shows, at the All-Iowa Fair, and in grocery parking areas.
In a 1966 appearance at the All-Iowa Fair, the big horses were guided through their paces by driver Menzo Yearian, formerly of What Cheer.
Harlan Conley, who served as field secretary of the Iowa Horse and Mule Breeders Association, managed the team in the 1950s and 1960s. Harlan's roots were in Eastern Iowa.
'You should see Menzo handle those Clydes,” Conley told The Gazette in July 1966. 'He can do things with that big hitch that I've seen only one man ever do before with six horses. He brings the horses into the ring at a moderate trot, puts them through figure eights at each end of the ring at a smart lope, then winds up with a fast circle in the middle of the ring.”
Finding replacements for horses in the hitch was a constant job, because horses meeting Wilson's standards were rare, Conley said.
Horses were retired when they were about 10 years old and often sent to Western ranches to be used as feeding teams. When one was sent to a Kansas City zoo, other zoos soon requested horses. One Clydesdale, on loan to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, was a major attraction.
The original Budweiser Clydesdale 6-horse hitch was purchased from Wilson & Co. in 1933. August Busch Jr. and Adolphis Busch III bought them for their father to celebrate the repeal of prohibition. The horses were boarded on a custom rail car and transported to New York to deliver a case of beer to former Gov. Alfred Smith, who had consistently fought against prohibition.
Wilson & Co. was sold to Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) in 1967, and the Clydesdales were phased out.