Monday, January 04, 2021

For Auld Lang Syne: New York's forgotten landmarks of hoof history

I have always wanted to organize a tour of New York City for horse and hoof history, but this might be as close as I can come until life gets back to normal.  Consider this a warmup, inspired by the New Year's Eve traditional celebration in Times Square. 

This article will cover midtown landmarks -- or "hoofmarks", as I call them -- around Times Square and Central Park.

First, a salute to Russian immigrant-with-an-anvil Jacob Starr, who forged the first (and many subsequent) ball of lights to drop on the stroke of midnight in Times Square. That first one of Jacob's, back in 1907, was iron and weighed five tons!

The place to start might be New York's Central Park. Back in the 1700s, a meadow in the 800-acre park was the site of a blacksmith shop, adjacent to Fort Fish. This was the "Hamilton" era, so popular in New York for the past few years. Even Hamilton had to have this horse shod.

New York blacksmith shop
In this print from the New York Public Library, you can see on the left the old blacksmith shop atop the hill at the northern end of what would become known as Central Park. George Washington used these pastures during the Revolutionary War.

Technically speaking, there's still a blacksmith shop in Central Park. The city has a block of maintenance shops on 86th Street; Larry Hagberg, the city's longtime farrier-turned-blacksmith, worked there for 30 years before retiring in 2014.

Manhattan's last shoeing shop

The streets lining one side of the beautiful park are the plush apartment blocks of Central Park West, some of the highest-priced real estate, per square foot, in the United States. But 50 or so years ago, this is the neighborhood where Irishman Pat Scannel had his farrier shop, thought to be the last horseshoeing forge for a self-employed man in Manhattan. He also shod for the nearby Claremont Riding Academy and the New York Police Department in the midtown area. 

Scannel also had a shoeing shop at the Madison Avenue Squadron A Armory, which had a large indoor 200-ft riding arena for the Troop's ceremonial traditional cavalry unit. The huge building stabled 100 horses underground, many of them privately-owned polo ponies who played indoors in the winter. 

In this photo, Pat Scannel waves his hammer to say good-bye to some of his best customers, the New York City Mounted Unit, on New Year's Day in 1956. 

Pat Scannel wasn't the only horseshoer working for the NYPD. The force employed no less than six full-time horseshoers as recently as 1964, when the city had 261 horses on patrol. That works out to 42 horses per shoer. 

When two places opened in the police forge in 1964, 43 men applied; 28 finalist horseshoers competed to win a job, which paid $25 a day, or $6,000 a year; their skills were evaluated with a civil service shoeing test overseen by retired cavalry veterinarian David Ehrlich.

Pat Scannel emigrated to New York from County Cork, Ireland in 1901. He was interviewed in 1949 by the famous journalist, Edward Robb Ellis, who seemed to remember his after-hours expedition to a local Irish bar with Pat Scannel as much as his visit to the forge. The farrier felt so at home at the bar that he went into the kitchen, put on an apron, and cooked a hamburger for the reporter.

Ellis summed up a day with Scannel this way: "Lack of a formal education is one thing, while native intelligence is a horseshoer of a different color."

Mr. Mahon's shop was one of many in the Times Square neighborhood, which was once home to William K. Vanderbilt's huge American Horse Exchange auction barn and arena. It looks like he had a nice summer alternate workshop among the stately summer homes of Lenox in the Berkshires, much as American farriers today might follow their clients to Saratoga or Del Mar in August or to Florida in the winter. Notice he didn't have a phone in his shop on 41st Street but listed what might have been his home number.   

Times Square was known as Longacre Square through the 1800s; it was named after London, England's thriving horse market area by that name. The square became the city's hub of horse sales barns, saddlers, carriage dealers, and horseshoers. In 1904, the New York Times moved into the square, a subway stop went in, and the name changed. Shortly, Vanderbilt was leasing his giant horse sale arena to the Schubert theater group. It was home to the Ziegfried Follies. In the 1980s, Broadway's longest-running musical, "Cats",  was staged in a theater that was once a horse arena.

A mystical clock on Park Avenue

Head south from Times Square and you might miss a treasure of a landmark if you keep your eyes on the sidewalk. Park Avenue South near 33rd Street has a landmark that people walk beneath every day. But do they look up?

On top of this unusual clock is a figure who looks like a wizard. He is Zoroaster, “the mastermind and doer of all things”. At his feet lies a silkworm cocoon and behind it, a blacksmith “slave” who is hard at work with hammer on anvil.

When the clock strikes the hour, Zoroaster waves his wand. The obedient blacksmith rises and hammers upon the cocoon, and the elegant “Queen of Silk” emerges from the cocoon, holding a tulip.

Zoraster is either waving a magic wand over the blacksmith slave or beating him. Manhattan's silk merchant clock is a mystery.

A stone's throw from Times Square and its countdown clock is the massive Madison Square Garden. Can you imagine the excitement--and shock--inside that building at the National Horse Show in 1962, when a horseshoer-turned-rider from Brooklyn, Ben O'Meara, made the formally-attired audience gasp as he sealed a championship season with his home-trained horse?

But Ben wasn't the first horseshoer to create a stir inside the Garden.

When the anvils rang and the chorus sang in Madison Square Garden

The National Horse Show, held each year at Madison Square Garden, was a banner week on the social and business calendar in New York City beginning in 1883. 

The 1898 National Horse Show program featured a large ad for a farrier named N.P. Nielsen, who proclaimed to be a practical and scientific farrier, working from his forge at 208 West 55th Street in mid-town Manhattan, a stone's throw from Carnegie Hall. Nielsen offered "correction of irregularities of gait and action, and the treatment of all kinds of diseased feet."

The Garden was taken over by horseshoers for a special performance during the 1914 National Horse Show, which benefited the International Red Cross, which was helping war refugees in Europe at the outbreak of World War I. Seven members of the International Union of Journeyman Horseshoers Union, dressed in red shirts and black pants, demonstrated the steps in shoeing horses while a 200-member choir sang, "The Anvil Chorus".

They also staged what must have been one of the first “live” horseshoeing competitions in America. Previously, horseshoeing competitions had been limited to shoemaking or to the "best shod" entry at a show. What most people seemed to remember about the spectacle was that it filled the Garden with coal smoke, to the horror of the formally-attired spectators.

From the New York Times report on the "Anvil Chorus" at the 1914 National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden.

The inclusion of the horseshoers' union in the program was a natural one. Manhattan's employee horseshoers made up Local #1 in the national union; their office was at 147 West 32nd Street, a block from The Garden.

The Manhattan chapter gained public favor in the city by being the first labor organization in the United States to offer services to President McKinley when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898.

When the horseshoer won the National Horse Show

You'll find a man named Ben O'Meara in the Showjumper Hall of Fame, but you won't find much written about him. His career was a brief flash of magic. 

Ben had to work his way up in the horse world; he dropped out of high school because his father was ill and his shoeing income was needed to support the Brooklyn family.

Ben apprenticed to the legendary hunter/jumper horseshoer Herman “Kappy” Kaplan, but as they went from farm to farm, he seemed more interested in becoming a master of horse trading than a master farrier. 

The stable where Ben O'Meara learned to ride near Brooklyn's Prospect Park is still there. In 1962, Ben took an 11-year-old retired racehorse named Untouchable to the top of the national showjumping scene, and then loaned the gelding to the US Equestrian Team for Kathy Kusner to ride in the 1964 Olympics. 

Ben's professional status in the horse world prevented him from being in the Olympics, which was for amateurs only then.

In 1966, Ben O'Meara had re-trained and sold enough jumpers to afford the showcase horse farm he had always dreamed of owning in Middleburg, Virginia. He learned to fly his own plane to get around between showing and selling his horses. 

Ben was killed when his plane crashed during landing near the farm. He was 30 years old. That was more than 50 years ago, but people are still talking about him.

You might have driven by his Colony Farm, now known as Fox Chase Farm, in Middleburg, Virginia. You might also recognize his sister, Jane. She's married to US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who was a Democratic candidate for US President in 2020.

Ben O'Meara got his friends to help him sell his great jumper "Jacksorbetter" by pulling a stunt confidently for this ad photo. If you enlarge the photo, you will see that that horse had quite a resume. Ben would also do things like ride a sale horse over jumps while sitting backwards in the saddle.

Remember me to Herald Square

The Zoroaster clock isn't the only clock to see in mid-town Manhattan. In Herald Square, near Macy's department store, a massive clock has hammered out the hours for all the publishing companies in the neighborhood where Broadway, Sixth Avenue ("Avenue of the Americas") and 34th Street meet. Sadly, most of the publishers are gone, including the Herald Tribune, for whom the square is named.

The centerpiece of Herald Square is a clock graced by a sculpture of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and invention. Her bell is rung hourly by two blacksmiths--called by some "Stuff and Guff" and by others "Gog and Magog", who come to live every hour and appear to hit the bronze bell with their hammers.

The clock, the bell and the statues were restored in 2017.

Herald Square's bell-ringing blacksmiths are watched over by the goddess, Minerva. Photo courtesy of Peter Roan.

A stroll around Manhattan is a chance to see American retail culture at its finest, or most bizarre.  No plaques mark the places where shoeing shops once stood, but the history of the city is so well-documented that plenty of information is available.

Using Google Maps Street View, it's possible to visit many of the landmarks of hoof history in Manhattan, right on your phone or laptop. This two-story building was once home to the Striffler horseshoe supply store on 45th Street.

It's even possible to hunt down the location of horseshoe supply stores. The largest, Edward C. Striffler on Ninth Avenue at 45th Street, boasted in its 1909 ads that it had the dealership for Burden horseshoes, made up the Hudson River in Troy, New York. 

Back in 1899, Striffler sold horseshoes for $3 per keg to the city prison system, records show; of course, the famous "paddy wagons" were horse-drawn in the 1800s. The jail-bound wagons got their name from the fact that almost half of all arrested people in New York before the Civil War were Irish. The ethnic slur has survived to the present day. 

New York City has five boroughs, and each is made up of countless neighborhoods. Each seems to have some connection to horse history or blacksmithing or horseshoeing.  This article covered just a few highlights in the mid-town section of Manhattan.

Lower and upper Manhattan are equally rich in horseshoeing history. Brooklyn's history, particularly through the union strike lens, is vast, including the (still there!) factory where Haybudden horseshoer anvils were made. Another area to explore is the way that African-American and Jewish horseshoers operated in an Irish-dominated profession.

The coronavirus pandemic may have us staying close to home, but the Internet can take us far, thanks to the increasing digitization of old records and photographs. Who knows what you'll find if you compare a location on Google Maps with what was there in the past?

Thanks for coming with me. 

Thank you to the New York Public Library and the deep archives of the New York Times for assistance with this article.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is the news service for Hoofcare and Lameness Publishing. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a headlines-link email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to
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