Keeping the horse-era alive

Brookings County Now & Then

Saturday, athletic horses in colorful regalia will show their stuff at the Swiftel Center while 7 miles away, four life-sized fiberglass steeds stand around in sweat-soaked collars, sagging fly nets and rusty hames greeting hundreds of the curious at the new Trygve A. Trooien Horse-Drawn Museum at the Brookings County Museum complex in Volga.

Distant relatives of the horses who pulled this area forward (although horses actually push) during the late 1880s into the 1940s will be the stars at the Swiftel’s Dakota Royal Charity Draft Horse Show.  

The more than 60 Percherons, Clydsdales and others with fancy pedigree are the elite of the draft horse universe.         

The fiberglass horses stabled in Volga are just your plain garden-variety plow horses that contributed so much to the greening and growth of this area. Pet, Tiny, Molly and Jip are all harnessed up in their workday best in the only museum in the state paying them homage.

Kids love them. They add variety to an otherwise odd line-up of vintage farm equipment, other early contraptions and fancy wheeled and skid conveyances. The museum’s horses and displays are sparking memories of our state’s brief but very important horse-drawn history.

In the late 1920s, South Dakota had nearly as many horses as people. The horse was so ubiquitous that it became part of our lives and our language. 

We still talk about dark horse candidates, horsing around, eating like a horse, backing the wrong horse, beating a dead horse, horseplay, gift horses and on and on.

While it is the common workhorse and the hard-working horse farmer that are memorialized in the county museum, the lowly ox isn’t completely forgotten. 

That’s because the horsepower most Dakota Territorial homesteaders hitched up to help smooth the prairie’s rough edges and square up its contorted corners was actually ox power. But slowly, the faster horse won out.

One horse could plow six acres in a 10-hour day. Hitch up two and 12 acres could be turned. Meanwhile, the ox plodded dutifully into the history books. 

Census takers in the 1880s counted oxen on the farms dotting the 148,000 square miles of Dakota Territory. They came up with 36,000 in 1885.  In Brookings County, assessment records listed 4,550 horses and just 563 oxen. 

By the 1900 census takers didn’t even bother counting the ox. They did count nearly a half-million horses on South Dakota’s 52,622 farms. Nearly 11,000 of them were in Brookings County.

The 1910 Brookings County horse census was 13,000. The county’s peak horse population was in 1920 at 15,214. Horses helped pump up the economy in Brookings County towns and elsewhere not only by helping increase crop yields. Horses attracted a large support staff of blacksmiths, harness makers, livery stable operators, wagon makers, breeders and more.

By the 1920s the state’s horse numbers increased to more than 700,000. But before the decade ended horse numbers began to ebb. By 1930 with the Great Depression rolling in on dark clouds, horse numbers in the state were just 612,343. 

That drought and the economic times were something of a blessing for many South Dakota’s horses. Hard times and nostalgia for the “good old horse days” convinced farmers to cancel tractor orders and dance another round or two with the horses that “brung ‘em.”

In Brookings County, the horse population by 1930 dropped to 12,774. By 1950 only 2,797 Brookings County horses were counted.

Today, there are probably fewer than 500 in the county.

Along came the tractor, and the era of the workhorse ended, but it is not forgotten. 

The Swiftel horse show tomorrow, and the Trygve A. Trooien Horse-Drawn Museum are keeping that memorable horse-era alive.

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