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Monday, December 24, 2007

'Twas the Night Before Horseshoes and All Through Poughkeepsie...

Somewhere in this engraving of the Phoenix horseshoe mill in Poughkeepsie, New York is the little house where "The Night Before Christmas" is believed to have been written. Double-click on the image to see an enlarged view.

Do your holiday plans include reading or reciting "The Night Before Christmas", also known as "A Visit from St. Nick"? It may well be the best-known bit of poetry ever written in America. But did you know that there's a horseshoe connection to the poem?

The poem is believed to have been written by a Poughkeepsie, New York gentleman, Henry Livingston, who read it to his children. After his death, the poem was published in a Troy, New York newspaper and attributed to the poet Clement Clark Moore.

The Livingston family has been fighting for the poem to be credited properly to their ancestor, but it has been hard to prove. One tidbit from their family web site is that the reindeer names may actually have been the names of Henry Livingston’s horses.

After Henry's death, the Livingston family’s home became the headquarters office of the fledgling Phoenix Horseshoe Company, whose massive factories soon lined the shore of the Hudson River. Phoenix and the Troy-based Burden Horse Shoes, an hour further up the Hudson River, dominated the horseshoe manufacturing world up until the World War II era.

Isn't it odd that the two leading cities of horseshoe manufacturing would also be the two cities of the Christmas poem's controversy?

After the turn of the century, Phoenix tore Henry Livingston's house down, but horseshoe moguls obviously believed in Henry's authorship of the poem. Phoenix carefully removed and donated the mantle and hearth, such a vivid setting for St. Nicholas in the poem, to the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Poughkeepsie chapter. It is supposed to be in the Clinton museum there.

I'd say that if the business of Phoenix Horse Shoes was conducted before that hearth, it is doubly of interest and worth knowing its whereabouts!

Wait, there’s more. While there is no written history of Phoenix that I can find, there do seem to be ongoing ties between the Livingston family and the fledgling farrier industry of the 19th century. The Livingston Horse Nail Company, headed by S. Otis Livingston, had an agent who also represented Phoenix. The Livingstons made rasps and aprons, as well as Livingston, Anchor, New Haven and Coleman brand nails. Henry Livingston was involved as an investor--or more like a modern-day venture capitalist/equity trader--in the Forge Village and Globe horse nail companies in Massachusetts.

According to an ad in the 1907 Horseshoers Journal, the company was founded in 1845, predating Capewell. At that time, farriers were sold "horse nail iron" from Norway, which they used to make their nails. Early manufactured nails were sold unpointed, especially from some of the firms that Henry Livingston invested in.

The Livingstons were an influential political family and a very wealthy one. They helped write and then signed both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. It was a Livingston who swore George Washington into office for his first term. U.S. Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush are direct descendants of the Livingstons of Poughkeepsie.

I know if I dig deeper (or someone in Poughkeepsie does it for me) I will find a more direct link between the Livingstons and ownership or backing of the Phoenix Horse Shoe Company. Then, this really will be the night before horseshoes.

But for now, let’s pretend that Henry Livingston was frustrated because his horses all needed sharp winter shoes to get around the icy December roads of Poughkeepsie. He imagined they could fly, all hooked to a sleigh. Perhaps his farrier gave him an idea, too!

Merry Christmas…and to all, a good night!

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