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Archive for May, 2016

Recently, I was asked by The Chateauguay Valley Historical Society to write an article about my grandfather and his champion mare. It was a pleasure to write but also a very intense experience since, after I’d completed a decent draft my brother, Robert, discovered among my late mother’s papers a bill of sale for Topsy and a short text my mother had written in 1987, in response to a poem I had written about Grandpa and his beloved mare. I knew both of these artefacts existed but had never actually seen them. In particular, my mother’s narrative about her father and Topsy was moving and beautifully rendered, while bringing details of their story to the fore that I had not known.

Her politically incorrect name aside – a “topsy” was the term once used to describe a black woman in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – our Topsy was a Standardbred mare, reputedly one of the first of that breed to show up in the Chateauguay Valley in the 1920s. 

 

TOPSY NICO with Hilda Anderson. Photo taken by my grandfather, Carl L. B. Wheeler at Huntingdon Fair in Quebec in the 1920's/ early 1930's. Building in the background is a carousel where children took rides on wooden ponies.

TOPSY NICO with Hilda Anderson. Photo taken by my grandfather, Carl L. B. Wheeler, at Huntingdon Fair in Huntingdon, Quebec in the early 1930s. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

 

In our maternal family, the narrative of Topsy Nico had no equal.

My grandfather, Carl Leroy Boynton Wheeler, was born in Barnston, Quebec in the Eastern Townships in 1885, one of two sons of Hiram Nathan Wheeler and Lydia Abigail Melloon. He was a sickly child and even as an adult, was wracked by illness. The effects of illness still showed when, in the 1950s, his brother Harry came from Alberta to visit him. In the photograph commemorating their reunion, Harry towers over his tiny brother, who stood just over five feet tall.

It was a catastrophic event that brought my grandfather, his wife, my grandmother, Myrtle Beatrice (nee Chadsey) and their daughter, my mother, Myrna Carlene, to Huntingdon. After an unsuccessful bid at farming (likely due to Carl’s poor constitution) my grandparents moved into the tiny village of Ways Mills and took over the general store. But sometime between 1921 and 1925, despite the efforts of an untiring bucket brigade, the store burned to the ground. Almost everything the family owned was destroyed.

Grandpa, Gramma and my mother, circa 1920.

Grandpa, Gramma and my mother, circa 1920. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

 

The General Store, Ways Mills, Quebec. My grandmother has marked with an X the top window where the fire started that burned the store to the ground. (The other two Xs indicate where "Myrna fell down the stairs.")

The General Store, Ways Mills, Quebec. My grandmother has marked with an X the top window where the fire started that burned the store to the ground. (The other two Xs indicate where “Myrna fell down the stairs.”) Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

 

Topsy Nico appeared on the scene shortly before or after the tragedy, in 1925.

The filly was unruly and “no-one could do anything with her,” according to my mother. My grandfather, always a shrewd businessman, acquired her in 1925 with the exchange of a promissory note that was considered legal tender at the time.

Bill of sale for "the

Bill of sale for “the T.E. Gascon mare.” Copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

The bill of sale (above) indicates that the final transfer of ownership “in full for note” took place on February 10, 1926 in Coaticook, Quebec between my grandmother and G.C. Tillotson of the Sale and Exchange Stable for the handsome sum of $33.75 CAD. At this time, Topsy Nico was identified simply as the “T.E. Gascon mare.” It seems likely that it was my grandparents who named her: “Topsy” for her ebony coat colour, and “Nico” possibly from an individual in her lineage, perhaps her sire. The filly may have been given this name by T.E. Gascon if she was registered before she was sold, although no filly of this name appears in the records I have consulted to date.

It may have been that the promissory note, although legal, was arranged on the condition that my grandfather could gentle the filly, since it is doubtful that the Wheeler household could have afforded the luxury of a pretty horse that couldn’t be either ridden or driven. According to an unpublished text written by my mother in 1987:

“[Topsy Nico] was a Standardbred filly with a good bloodline, but her disposition caused the owner to offer her for a very low price. My father’s keen eyes noted her conformity, the bargain price and the challenge she presented. The vision of this delicate man managing the impossible creature was the subject of considerable amusement in the small village of Way’s Mills…”

 My mother goes on to say that “… she [Topsy] prolonged his life … The bond which developed between them was instantaneous. His patience and gentleness, coupled with her love for him, developed into a county legend … In the accomplishment of training her he had proved his manhood and his ability to judge a good horse when he saw one.”

The socio-historical context in which my grandfather bought Topsy is known as the “Golden Age” of horse racing, both here in Canada and in the USA. The pacer Dan Patch had become an American legend during the first decade of the twentieth century, and in 1920 one of the most famous thoroughbreds ever born, Man O’ War, was blazing his own trail to immortality. My grandfather followed the exploits of Dan Patch and Man O’ War on the radio and in the press. He could tell stories about Man O’ War and other great thoroughbreds as though he knew them intimately. Too, his passion for the Standardbred never waned, and especially for the great Greyhound and the filly, Rosalind. Closer to home, Blue Bonnets racetrack, first opened in 1872 in a suburb of Montreal, was well-established as a popular venue for thoroughbred racing. Too, there was Connaught Park (later known as Hippodrome d’Alymer) established in 1913 in Aylmer, Quebec where thoroughbred and harness racing, as well as steeplechase events, were showcased. My grandfather may well have attended events at one or both of these venues.

BLUE BONNETS race track in 1907. Photo and copyright, The McCord Museum, Montreal, CA. Used with the permission of the McCord Museum.

BLUE BONNETS race track in 1907. Photo and copyright, The McCord Museum, Montreal, CA. Used with the permission of the McCord Museum.

The mystique of the horse had incited Carl Wheeler’s imagination throughout his life, making it probable that he took one look at the proud, beautiful filly and knew that Topsy was meant to be his. Was he in the market for a trotter, pacer or thoroughbred of his own? Perhaps. But his choice to show Topsy rather than race her would indicate otherwise. Too, for a man who had just lost a business and most of his family possessions, the cost of maintaining a racehorse would have been unthinkable.

At any rate, after the fire and sometime between 1925 and 1926, my grandfather hitched Topsy Nico to a buggy and drove her to Huntingdon. There, he would find work as a milk inspector for the Elmhurst Dairy and subsequently move his wife and daughter into a house at 184 Chateauguay Street. We know that the Wheeler family had resettled in Huntingdon about this time, since my mother, who was born in 1919, started Grade 1 at Huntingdon Academy and, in keeping with the admittance age of the day, was 6 or 7 years old.

Of the journey from Ways Mills to Huntingdon, my grandfather simply said, “Topsy got there without raising a sweat. We trotted most of the way.” It was a distance of 150 miles: Topsy made the trip in three days.

The house at 184 Chateauguay Street is still standing, but when my grandparents lived there it looked rather different. Facing the street it boasted a large balcony covered with ivy on one side and an enclosed sun porch, mostly used in warmer weather, on the other. The exterior was whitewashed shingle crowned by a shiny tin roof. Attached to the house at the back was the Elmhurst Dairy store, where Huntingdon residents came to buy milk, cream, butter and ice cream. And behind the house was a small barn, where my grandfather kept Topsy and the Hackney ponies that he acquired some time later, when my mother was older.

TOPSY NICO standing in front of the Wheeler home on Chateauguay Street in Huntingdon, Quebec CA. Hild Anderson holds the reins. My grandmother is nearest to the camera. Photo taken by my grandfather. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

TOPSY NICO standing in front of the Wheeler home at 184 Chateauguay Street in Huntingdon, Quebec CA. Hild Anderson holds the reins. My grandmother is nearest to the camera. Photo taken by my grandfather. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

Once settled in his new home, my grandfather was determined to show his mare in harness and under saddle at the annual fairs in Huntingdon, Valleyfield and Ormstown. He wasn’t a vain man, but my grandfather was unquestionably smitten with his elegant coal black mare and her potential. I wager the horse folk of Huntingdon admired her immensely, and may well have been responsible for putting the idea of showing Topsy at local fairs into his head in the first place. At this time, agricultural fairs were a cornerstone of rural life – a place to look over bloodstock, meet up with neighbours and celebrate the fruits of another year’s labour, be that a fine dairy cow or a beautiful quilt or an exceptional horse.

My grandfather with the family's white Boston Bull Terrier, appropriately named "White Teddy" ("Teddy" after Teddy Roosevelt)

My grandfather with the family’s white Boston Bull Terrier, appropriately named “White Teddy” (“Teddy” after Teddy Roosevelt)

However, before he could show Topsy, my grandfather needed another experienced handler. Now standing at least 16 hands tall, Topsy was beyond the capacities of the Wheeler women. And she was an individual who had “a mind of her own,” according to both my grandparents.

My grandmother knew horses and, despite her tiny stature, was not one to be intimidated by them. But although there are photographs attesting to her relationship with Topsy, the history between the mare and “CLB,” as my grandfather was affectionately called by his friends, made her a whole different horse for a less-experienced handler. “She was wilful,” my grandmother once said, “but she wasn’t mean. Still, I was afraid to drive her … she was so strong. And she was high-spirited.”

My grandmother upon her graduation from McGill University, circa 1906. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

My grandmother upon her graduation from McGill University, circa 1906. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

Enter Hilda Anderson, a young woman who lived in Huntingdon at the time and boarded with my grandparents, who stepped in to take over the reins.

Topsy’s appearance at Huntingdon, Valleyfield and Ormstown fairs must have been spectacular. Late in her life, my mother recalled one occasion at Ormstown Fair, when the mare, in harness with my grandfather at the reins, received a standing ovation that went on for more than five minutes. “It was really something,” my mother added. “She was the star of the show everywhere she went. People just loved her. “

In the text she wrote in 1987, my mother described what it felt like to witness Topsy in the show ring:

“She grew into a breathtaking creature of unusual beauty. People stood in the arenas when she entered the show ring, competing against horses from Montreal and Toronto. Her performance was flawless, with her arched neck and high-stepping gait.”

A darling of the local horse show circuit, Topsy’s wins came one after another, in combination (driving and riding), line and pleasure classes. Her performance was a natural extension of her Standardbred blood – her feet were never weighted and her gait was “born into her,” as my grandfather would have said. Topsy was simply dancing out her love for the man who had changed her life.

Of equal significance was the fact that it was through Topsy that CLB gained entry into the small community of horseman in the Valley, and the relationships he forged were to last a lifetime. On at least two occasions, when he was a senior, I went with him to “look at a horse with a few problems,” at the request of its owner. My grandfather also remained active on the executive of Huntingdon Fair until shortly before his death in 1964. All this suggests that the horse folk in the Chateauguay Valley respected his knowledge and experience greatly.

TOPSY NICO and my grandfather, Ormstown Fair in the 1930s.

TOPSY NICO and my grandfather, Ormstown Fair in the 1930s. Photo taken by W.A. Strohmeyer Jr., a professional photographer from the USA who did the rounds of county fairs in New England, Quebec and Ontario at this time. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.A. Strohmeyer Jr. Property of Robert H. Anderson and family.

When the show season was over, Topsy was usually sent “to the country,” to a farm where there were other horses. On one occasion, my grandfather was called and asked to come and collect her, since she had “stolen” a foal from its mother and, as Topsy had no milk for it, the foal’s life was at risk. Said my grandmother, “Your Grandpa had to go get her because no one could get near her. She was guarding her baby, as she saw it.” Topsy had never been bred, but the incident played on my grandfather. Finally, he decided to breed her, although, according to my mother, the mare was “really too old to be put through something like that.”

Topsy gave birth to a colt and the family named him “Happy.” Whether or not this was his registered name (if he was registered at all) is unknown, as is the identity of his sire. Initially, Topsy and her foal were kept in the barn at the back of the house on Chateauguay Street. Before Happy was weaned, my grandfather sent Topsy into a harness class at Huntingdon Fair. It would be the only “wrong turn” he ever took in his career as a horseman.

My mother, who would not have been much more than twelve or thirteen, was at the reins. However, as she told it, Topsy could hear Happy crying and quickly went from restless to determined in her desire to get to her foal, rearing up and overturning the buggy. Fortunately, neither my mother nor the mare was injured, although the latter charged out of the arena dragging my grandfather and the ruins of the buggy behind her.

TRIXIE FLAME, one of my grandfather's Hackney ponies, with my grandfather circa 1936. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

TRIXIE FLAME, one of my grandfather’s Hackney ponies, with my grandfather circa 1936. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

This incident heralded Topsy’s retirement from the show ring. “Topsy was never quite right after that,” my mother noted. “She wasn’t the same. She wasn’t even interested in the things Dad did with her. She’d act up. She’d had enough.”

In what must have been a difficult decision for my grandfather to make, Topsy was retired and shipped to a farm where she lived out the rest of her days. At some point, the mare died of an infection after foaling, likely sometime in the 1930s. Whether or not the foal survived and what happened to it is unknown. The fate of her first foal, Happy, is also unknown. This part of the narrative was never discussed, perhaps because it was too painful.

By the time I came along, Topsy had been dead for well over a decade and the days of showing horses had ended for my grandfather. The stalls in the little red barn behind the house on Chateauguay Street were rented out to other horse people in the community and on most weekends, the then-Postmaster of Huntingdon, James O’Hare, could be found grooming the horses. If I pestered him long enough, I could get “Uncle Jim” to tell me more about Topsy.

Grandpa riding TOPSY over the Walker Bridge in Huntingdon in the 1930's. This is my favourite photo of the two of them. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

Grandpa riding TOPSY over the Walker Bridge in Huntingdon in the 1930’s. This is my favourite photo of the two of them. Photo and copyright, Robert H. Anderson and family.

 

Every story began with “Now, Topsy … there was a horse … she was really something.”

One story had to do with the Walker Bridge. As Uncle Jim told it, “Now Topsy she wasn’t having any of that damn bridge. It has wood planks you know and horses, most don’t like that they move and make a clatter. And there’s your granddad with Topsy all harnessed up and she won’t move.

“And he’s jumping around and yelling and waving the whip at her. Nope. She’s not going to move. So your granddad takes off the harness. You know, the buggy and all. And he takes off his jacket and wraps it around her head so she can’t see. And across the bridge they go. Your granddad and that big mare, she just as quiet as a baby.

But then Carl realizes he can’t just leave her there and go back for the harness and all. So doesn’t he bring her back over again, hitch her up and put his jacket back on. Went up to her, pulled her head down into his chest and spoke to her. Smoothed down her forelock a little, like he always did when he was getting her ready. Then didn’t he get into the buggy and off they went.”

And then Uncle Jim laughed and shook his head. “It was the damndest thing. Across they went like it was nothing. Clickety-clack.”

 

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I wrote this poem in the early 1970’s. It is reproduced here as it appeared in 1973 in GOT POEMS IF YOU WANT ‘EM. (FYI: The spellings and punctuation disruptions are intentional.)

 

Topsy Nico

raven back mare

you are crafted into rooms of memory:

in a picture

framed with ribbons

carl leroy boynton and his tall lean horse

 

Topsy Nico

with sadset eyes

a nose as straight

as crows fly

from Ways Mills to Huntingdon

carl leroy small sicklechild

tripleggy filly whom nobody wanted

 

Carl Leroy in squarehat

pushed grease from his brow

laughed 

when he thought of you

 

(as hoofbeats

down country roads echo

as old leather

dying

 

of cancer

 

Over trophies more rust than silver

stand round legs under sadset eyes

of Topsy who paced from valleyfield home

leather reins sleep

across ravenback

 

Abigail Anderson, Montreal, Canada

 

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SPECIAL NOTE: I hesitated to use Topsy’s name for decades because of its rascist connotation even though it was she who first awoke my love of horses. In my grandparents’  day, terms like “a topsy,” “a darkie” and, of course, “nigger” were in common usage. They would not have associated any of these terms with the history or meanings they hold for us today. In this light, I hope my readers will appreciate my use of our beloved mare’s full name. Thank you, Abigail

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