It’s difficult to imagine now that those who preceded us on Wisconsin farms depended on oxen to do the heavy work – to pull the plows, drag logs out of the woods, do the hauling with carts and wagons, and yes to tote us to town and to church.

Well into the mid-1800s oxen were widely used for the heavy work on Midwestern farms. Red Durham became the breed of choice because they gave milk, provided power and could be used for meat; they were truly dual-purpose animals. A Red Durham ox might weigh 1,500 pounds or more; oxen don’t move quickly. One of the popular jokes in the 1800s was that oxen could do everything better than horses except transporting the farmer to church on time – there were few horses at the time. If farmers started for church Sunday morning they would probably arrive the following Tuesday.

In 1930 a fellow with the unusual name of Tap Snilloc told a writer for the Stevens Point Journal about his grandfather’s use of oxen.

“When I was a youngster my grandfather lived on a farm in the town of Almond (in Portage County) and it was his custom to come to (Stevens Point) in the fall and spring of the year, to do his semi-annual trading. He and my grandmother would start from the old farm early in the morning on the cumbersome journey to the county seat, behind a plodding faithful yoke of oxen named Buck and Bright. The journey occupied the greater part of the day.

“When they finally reached at our home (in Stevens Point) they were ready for the customary cup of tea that Mother always brewed on the arrival of this kindly old couple. After resting for the night they started out to do the trading for the family. Their purchases generally consisted of a barrel of pork, flour, sugar, coffee, tea, and calicos, ginghams and muslin cloth to make into dresses for the girls, and other household necessities, not omitting a generous supply of medicinal remedies every farmhouse carried in case of need. These purchases took up the greater part of the second day, and on the morning of the third, they loaded up their little store of provisions, and with Godspeed from our family, would start on the return journey to the home farm. This semi-annual trek to the city occupied three days and I cite this fact to emphasize the cumbersome methods the pioneers of the county encountered in their journeys to the trading points.”

Lars P. Larson arrived in Wisconsin from Norway in 1857 when he was 10 years old. He recalled some of his adventures driving oxen. One of his jobs when he was but 14 was driving a load of wheat from Ettrick to Trempealeau, a distance of 21 miles. It was a two-day trip.

“We would start at 4 o’clock in the morning and drive to a hollow near what is now the Herbert farm,” he said. “There were always a number of teams. The oxen would be picketed and then we would build a campfire as we camped there for the night. After supper there would be story-telling and sometimes songs before we rolled into our blankets. The next day we would pull into Trempealeau and deliver our wheat to the docks.”

By the 1850s and 1860s farmers were finding they could do considerably more work with horses than with oxen. A horse’s gait is about twice as fast as that of oxen and horses are more maneuverable. As more mechanized and complicated farm equipment such as the reaper began emerging, horses provided the steady constant speed such equipment required.

Soon draft horses had mostly replaced oxen on farms. Horses pulled plows, hauled heavy wagons and transported people from here to there. They pulled buggies for grocery shopping and courting as well as for going to church and stopping at a saloon. They did the work that automobiles, trucks and tractors do today. Horses did it quietly with no dependence on foreign oil to keep them going and no computer chips to monitor their behavior. No exhaust fumes polluted the air, if the smell of a little horse manure left in their wake is discounted. There was no screeching of tires and roaring of engines, although occasionally harsh words spilled from a driver bumped into by another less-careful one. To the best of my knowledge no horse rider was ever pulled over for drunken driving. When the rider became incapacitated the horse took over, bringing the over-imbiber home – oft times without his knowledge.

For many years it was a world of horses. People in town and country alike owned them, lived with them and depended on them. One found little horse barns behind village homes, where the horses were housed. Substantial horse barns were found on most farms; horses were pampered, more so than the cows, hogs or chickens. If the horses weren’t well cared for the farmer couldn’t do his work.

Every town, large and small, had a livery stable when someone could rent a horse and buggy, much as we rent cars today. Horses pulled fire engines; a horse barn was an important part of every fire station. Horses hauled milk-delivery wagons. Rural mail carriers used them to deliver the mail. Breweries had their own horses and barns. Urban literature includes the sounds of brewery horses hauling massive barrels of beer to a town’s taverns. A dray service was available in most towns – today it would be a trucking business. A dray service includes teams with wagons available to haul merchandise from railroad stations to various merchants, and to transport travelers from railway stations to a town’s hotels and boarding houses. Horses were taken for granted, much as we currently take cars and trucks for granted.

As late as 1919 publications such as The Old Farmer’s Almanac continued to encourage the use of horses for transportation, recognizing both the benefits and the challenges – even after the first automobiles had made their appearance.

“There are still, happily, many folks who take more solid comfort to riding behind a good horse than they do in rushing through the country in an automobile,” it stated. “They relish the sociability that is impossible when the road ahead must be watched closely and constantly, and they like the slow pace that affords a chance to see the surroundings. But there is not much opportunity for such to take pleasure in riding over the slippery motor-crowded main roads; they must perforce keep to the side and less-frequented highways.”

Our language continues to reflect when people worked with, lived with and depended on horses.

  • Get off your high horse – act like an ordinary person.
  • Quit horsing around – behave.
  • Don’t put the cart before the horse – first things first.
  • A dark-horse candidate means someone not expected to win.
  • Hold your horses – stop, wait and take your time. The phrase comes from the days of circus parades when horse owners were warned, “The elephants are coming; hold your horses.”
  • Straight from the horse’s mouth means hearing something directly from a dependable source.
  • Eat like a horse – eat a lot.
  • Work like a horse – work hard.
  • Back the wrong horse – usually used in politics, when someone backs a losing candidate.
  • A one-horse town means a small town where not much happens.
  • Horse sense means having common sense.
  • Horse trade means to bargain skillfully.
  • Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth means don’t complain about a gift.

Visit www.jerryapps.com for more information.

Excerpted from Jerry Apps, “Horse Drawn Days: A Century of Farming with Horses,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press. 

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a central-Wisconsin farm, is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 40 books – most on rural history and country life. Visit www.jerryapps.com for more information.