Horse Power

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a Luddite. I’m intrigued by the idea that working horses still have a job — despite the industrial and digital revolutions. Last weekend I went to the Small Farmer’s Journal 35th Annual Horsedrawn Auction & Swap. If a horse can pull it, chances are it will be on the auction block in Madras, Oregon. This year there were stage coaches, buckboards, surreys, freight wagons, sheep wagons, covered wagons, chuck wagons, gypsy carts, sulky carts, forecarts, sleighs, Amish buggies, wagonettes, chariots, a full-size hearse and that’s not the half of it. You could also find all the harness parts to go with whatever rig grabbed your fancy.

As I wandered around ogling the offerings, an antique black surrey caught my eye. Its red velvet seats showed wear and the red fringe rimming the roof had faded to pale pink. Generous wraps of electrical tape reinforced the rods supporting the top. To my eye, the old girl looked ready for a makeover or a museum.

Just then, a passel of Amish or Mennonite kids (hard for me to tell which) surrounded me like a flock of chickadees. Their plain dress set them apart. Two of them, a boy and a girl, climbed up in the buggy and tried it out. They wiggled around, operated whatever was operable, peered at various parts, then climbed out and headed to the next vehicle. I expected some adult to yell at them to get off the equipment, but no one did. Then I realized that these kids probably ride around in buggies all the time. Most of the Amish and some of the Mennonite religious communities have chosen to forego owning and operating automobiles. These kids didn’t think of that old surrey as a fragile artifact. It was just another second-hand horsedrawn vehicle to be put to good use.

I saw the sprawling wagon yard with new eyes. This was no Antiques Roadshow. There were lots of people here buying equipment who planned on using the stuff. Mixed in with the vintage rolling stock were brand new vehicles and harness, much of it made by the “Plain People.”

Being a provincial Westerner, I’m not too familiar with the Amish and “Horse and Buggy” Mennonite communities, so I did some research when I got home. I was surprised to discover that according to the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service, Amish farms are one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. farm community. (Their population more than doubles every twenty years.) More Amish farms means more horse-powered agriculture, logging, and transportation. Add to them the old timers, traditional loggers, historical reenactment devotees, bioregional back-to-the-landers, sustainable neo-Hippies, super-green organic farmers, and other born-again teamsters and what do you know? Horse power — as in “powered by actual horses” — seems to be making a comeback in America.

Maybe I’m not an atavistic Luddite after all? Or, if I am, I’m in good company.

(Suspect you might be a born-again atavistic Luddite yourself? Subscribe to the Small Farmer’s Journal and find out.)