Monday, November 28, 2011

Saving the Nation's Oldest and Largest Public Saddlebred Horse Stable

Stable of dreams

Mexico group working to save nation's oldest and largest public stable

By SUSAN DENKLER - (Excerpted from the Nov 2009 edition of the Cattleman's Advocate.)

It’s not just that the 254-foot-long stable is the oldest and largest public U.S. stable in continual use as a horse facility. It’s the feel of the place, the repository of memories, the echoes in each stall of that anticipated next trip to the show ring when the bright lights of the arena would once again slam on to showcase the greatest names in Saddlebred equitation. That’s the history. That’s the vision.

Bobette Wilson stands next to Grand Barn renovations in progress

MAKING HISTORY: Bobette Wilson is eight years into a crusade to save Simmons Stables, a hallmark of a time when Mexico reigned as Saddle Horse Capital of the World. As much as anyone, owner Art Simmons had a hand in making this barn’s reputation, training and trading some of the world’s foremost Saddlebreds. (Advocate photo by  Susan Denkler)

MEXICO, Mo. - If you build it, they will come.

This line from the movie "Field of Dreams" could describe an ongoing effort to save an historic old horse stable that for many epitomizes an era when Mexico, Mo., rivaled the Bluegrass State as "The Saddle Horse Capital of the World."

It's been an uphill battle - and a Herculean one - to preserve this stable, and to burn the dream of what it could mean into the hearts of those who should care the most. The fact Simmons Stables is still standing is largely because the handful of citizens rallying to save it is a stubborn lot.

"Let me tell you, this has been a roller coaster ride," says Bobette Balser Wilson, co-president of the Simmons Stables Preservation Fund with Mary White Littrell. "Every time we hit a low spot, somebody calls and we hit a high spot. But I've never intended on quitting this project. And the others are just as bullheaded as I am."

Perhaps too many people have forgotten how to daydream.

A diminutive woman with a whirlwind spirit and giant vision, Wilson possesses the ability to daydream much like the girl who grew up attending church across the street from Simmons Stables. In those days, she'd peer out the windows of St. Matthew's at the teeming activity right across the Boulevard, and fantasize.

What must it be like to sit astride a sleek Saddlebred horse with long lean lines and a flowing tail, or to ride in a cart alongside the master as he jogged one of his world champion harness horses around a cinder track?

The visionary got her chance to find out, for at age 21, on a trip into town, this cattle woman who knew nothing about Saddlebreds decided to pull her pickup over and watch the aging master once again.

"The master" was Arthur Simmons, internationally-known breeder, trainer, showman, judge, and salesman, who had racked up more ribbons and trophies in the ring than most anyone in the Saddlebred business.

Simmons had a hand in training, trading or stabling some of the greatest names in Saddle Horse history, and along with his counterparts, helped put Mexico and Audrain County on the map as a veritable rival to Kentucky's Saddlebred heritage.

Art started the American Royal's Heart of America Saddle Horse Sale, the nation's premier auction for Saddlebreds, and garnered a raft of professional recognitions during his career.

And when this man competed in the ring - whether it was for one of the athletic county shows of the agriculture states, or the popular state fairs of the South and the Midwest, or the highest of society affairs in places like Kansas City, Denver, Houston, Chicago, and Lexington - his stature parted the way.

Would someone like that notice Bobette?

"That day I was coming down the street and saw him in his two-wheeled cart and thought, by gosh, I'm gonna stop and see if he'll wave at me." She got more than she bargained for.

The Grand Barn of the Boulevard in 2001


RACING AGAINST TIME: This 2001 photo of Simmons Stables (above), pictured next to a recent shot of the unrestored half, displays the stark ravages of time. The building was in such bad shape that an emergency stabilization was needed to anchor the building with steel cross-ties and cables. (Advocate photo below by Susan Denkler/Courtesy photo above)


Extreme wear requires special efforts to preserve Grand Bard Boulevard


Roughly $700,000 is needed to complete the project, including the stalls on the first half of the stable, and the entire second wing. Other district structures they hope to preserve include a farrier's building, a back barn, granary, the Hook Barn and open lot, and Art Simmons' home.

Before she knew it, Art had slowed down, waved her into the cart, and was taking her for the ride of her life. Who could've dreamed she was really in for the long ride, and that 22 years later, after Art passed off the scene, she would embark on a mission to save the trademark barn that still bears the Simmons name?

For Wilson and those on the preservation team, it's not just that the 254-foot-long stable is the oldest and largest public U.S. stable in continual use as a horse facility. It's the feel of the place, the repository of memories, the echoes in each stall of that anticipated next trip to the show ring when the bright lights of the arena would once again slam on to showcase the greatest names in Saddlebred equitation. That's the history. That's the vision.

For Saddlebred enthusiasts, the legacy of this stable begins long before Art Simmons. It extends back to the mid-1800s when settlers were coming west to Missouri and bringing their horse stock with them. Among these horses was the intelligent, versatile breed descending from the Narragansett Pacer, the American version of the English Pacer. Kentucky breeders had crossbred the Pacer with Thoroughbreds to get the first American Saddle Horse, also known as the Saddlebred.

"Kentuckians wanted horses that could plow the field, jump streams and fences for hunting, pull fancy carriages to town on Sunday and also win races at the county fairs," explains Earl Farshler in his history entitled, "The American Saddle Horse."

Prized for their finely-chiseled heads, large bright eyes, long fine necks, prominent withers and matchless stamina, these beautiful, high-stepping "picture perfect" riding horses quickly became the most popular riding horses in America.

As more Saddlebred owners arrived in Missouri from states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, they became effective champions of the breed: training horses, holding sales, and vibrantly promoting horse races and shows. Saddle horse sale barns and horse breeding organizations began popping up.

With the boom after the Civil War, Mexico began developing rapidly along with the county's surging population growth, and by the 1870s, hundreds of horse trainers were plying their trade all over Audrain and neighboring counties.

Banker and lawyer Cyrus F. Clark, an active Mexico farmer, rancher, and horseman, joined with his brother-in-law Joseph A. Potts, who had grown up in the tradition of Saddle Horses, to develop the breed. The two partnered to form the Clark and Potts Combination Sales Company, and held horse sales several times a year.

In 1885, the pair began the post-and-beam construction of a massive stable on West Boulevard Street to house their horse trade, and with its completion in 1887, "The Big Barn on the Boulevard" was born. From that moment until Arthur Simmons slid into town with his trailer of horses on an icy 1949 day to take over a new era of ownership, a string of people connected with this barn made history under its imposing roof.

"This building probably has the richest history of any stable in the United States," proclaims Bobette, who can count down a list of top horsemen who received their start here. One was the phenomenal horseman Tom Bass.  Additional horsemen connected with the stable include the noted trainer John T. Hook, who first worked as a groom at the great old barn and later operated his own stable right across the street. Hook is said to have developed more outstanding riders and champion horses during his career than perhaps anyone on record at the time.

Two other noteworthy denizens of the stable were the famous Lee Brothers - Bill and George - who operated the barn as a sales and training stable, and supplied horses to the police departments of New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other large cities. According to accounts, this pair contracted with the biggest Eastern dealers to supply the carriage trade, and sold horses and mules by the trainload to the U.S. Government.

As for the horses connected with Simmons Stables, writers and historians of the Saddlebred world have long searched for adjectives eloquent enough to memorialize the kind of show horse talent once quartered there. They involve a litany of stars, including Forest King, Belle Beach, Roxie Highland, Miss Rex, Thornton's Star, Senator Crawford, The Replica, King Lee, Sea Beauty, Meadow Princess, Ann Rutledge, Bugle Ann, Tashi Ling, and six-time world champion Colonel Boyle. What would the 36 stalls of the "Big Barn of the Boulevard" be without them?

In addition, those entrenched in the industry can recite by heart the names of the celebrated horsemen associated with the onetime big red barn. In addition to Bass and Hook, they include stable owner Robert G. Steward, who painted the barn white and renamed it Dincara Stables; trainers Splint Barnett, Hugh Dempsey, Del Holeman, Lee Butler, Ross Drake and Jim Hitte; noted talent finder, trainer, judge and stable owner Bill Cunningham (who once advertised the barn as "The Best Saddle Horse Sales Barn in America"); owners and operators P.W. Woodruff, Jack McCracklin, B.B. Tucker and Joe Graham; and in more recent decades, the esteemed Art Simmons and his son Jim.

It was Jim's decision in 2001 to move his stabling and training operation to the family farm outside Mexico that set off the crisis of conscience that has propelled Wilson and the preservationists ever since. Just knowing this last hallmark of Mexico's Saddlebred ancestry might be bulldozed into the ground caused Bobette to confront Simmons with all the heartfelt enthusiasm a novice could muster.

"You can't tear this building down."

What clinched it for her was the discovery of two picture frames hanging on Jim's office wall in the stable, where she had taken her children for one last look. As she wiped the dust and cobwebs from the glass, she noticed each frame was stuffed with yellowed news clippings and photographs that trumpeted the renowned achievements of the stable, and the men and horses that graced it. Suddenly the history of the thing swept over her in a wave.

"I said, 'Perhaps I'm stepping out of my bounds, but you just can't tear this building down. I mean, everyone that's come out of these stables has been amazing. Presidents came here to buy horses. The horses from this place showed at Madison Square Garden. This place provided halter horses during the war ...'

"I really don't know anything about Saddlebreds," she'll admit to anyone. "I own horses but I don't own Saddlebreds. But for me, it's about the history, it's about the stable, it's about all the people that have come out of it. It's about the whole area - Mexico, Audrain County, Callaway County. There were just big stables all around the area."

Simmons Stables is the last of the old soldiers standing.

Interior View of Renovated Simmons Stable Grand Barn Boulevard


A WORK IN PROGRESS: This shot of the interior wing of the stable shows a glimpse of the progress so far on the roof, haylofts, catwalks and stalls. Restoration contractors dug fresh footings and poured new concrete foundations to support the posts, and although the roof required a total replacement, they were able to use original vertical sideboards for the barn’s exterior. (Advocate photo by Susan Denkler)

Its preservationists envision a time when the barn and its adjoining facilities could become a National Saddlebred Hall of Fame, a museum, an educational site, and a focal point for visitors from across the nation. They foresee a training facility and riding academy, agricultural exposition, farmers market, pioneer and crafters village, equine seminars, gift shops and a host of other possibilities. Yes, that's the vision.

Although a lagging economy makes fundraising harder for the remainder of the project, the committee remains undaunted.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information, or to make a donation, contact Simmons Stables Preservation Fund, Inc., at 573-581-8873.)

Related Pages:


A Saddlebred Horse Groom Tells of the Life

Inside the stable: A look at the inner workings of historic Simmons Stables

The story of a groom's life at the Big Barn on the Boulevard

(from the November 2009 Issue of "The Cattleman's Advocate" - by Susan Dinkler)

Tom Usnick Saddlebred Horse Groom - Simmons Stables

FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE: Tom Usnick can point out various stalls that quartered world-famous horses, drawing from his experience with the inner workings of the barn while working as a groom when he was a youth.
(Advocate photo by Susan Denkler)

(Publisher's Note: The life of a groom is where all the great trainers started. Tom Bass, William Lee, John T. Hook - all started out in the Grand Barn on the Boulevard, usually at young ages, learning to care for horses and how they were trained. When they showed skill at training, they would work their way up to training and showing these horses for the stables. This interview, tapping the unique insight of Tom Usnick, is perhaps the only written history from someone who has been a groom at the Big Barn.)

MEXICO, Mo. – How did a stable – that’s become a monument to the Saddlebred industry – really operate under Art Simmons?

Like clockwork.

Mexico native Tom Usnick, curator of the American Saddlebred Horse Museum, worked as a groom at Simmons Stables for a time as a youth, and his behind-the-scenes experience gives insight into how the barn became so prominent.

Tom was a friend of Simmons’ son, Jim, and got his start at the stable doing odd jobs.

“I went to work for Art the summer I turned 13. I started painting fence, and on rainy days when we couldn’t paint, I’d come into the stable where Art had me walk hot horses. We’d just walk in circles ‘til we cooled those horses out. After that, I did a little more horse, a little less painting.”

The renowned stable drew premium Saddlebreds, owned by people who traveled in the upper stratospheres of wealth and society. They wanted their horses boarded and trained by the best. And so they got Art.

Like Tom Bass in his day, Art had shown a special talent for horses since a boy of 7, who hung out at the rural stables around California, Mo., where he grew up. Later taking on stable duties and horse training jobs beyond his years, Art came up in the school of hard knocks, sometimes bumping from house to barn to home after his mother died when he was 11. Not content to become an “alley rat,” as one acquaintance told it, Art had a vision for his future and it was bound to involve horses. By the time he owned his own stable in Mexico, he was among the best.

Simmons Stables had a certain rhythm, with everyone expected to pull his own weight. Art’s day started around 7 a.m.

“He’d come over here and grain first,” said Usnick. “It was just a ritual that he did every day. Each of these stalls had a light in there – probably a 40-watt bulb – and he would put the feed in the feed hole, and always flip on that light, look at that horse, turn the light off, and go to the next stall.

“Primarily he was looking to see if the horses had slipped their tail set,” which he explained as a special harness that supports the tail in an upright position, for a high tail carriage. After inspecting the horses, he’d leave to go out to a farm where he kept the brood mares and colts. Meanwhile, the grooms would clean out the stalls and water the horses. The barn was so huge that its two haylofts above the stalls, which ran the length of the stable, could hold a total of 5,000 bales of hay. Catwalks above the aisle on both ends allowed stable workers to access the hay, which they flaked off and dropped into the hay racks of each stall.

Tom Usnick Shows horse in renovated Grand Barn Stall

Red Oak Citation in one of the completed stalls at the Grand Barn.
(Photo credit: Brenda Fike of the Mexico Ledger

By the time the grooms finished up their morning duties, Art would be back and ready to train.

“Every groom had six horses on his string,” said Usnick. “A lot of times you’d clean their stalls out in the morning, and get one or two worked before lunch. Then you’d work the other four that afternoon. And those six horses were your responsibility as far as their care.”

It was the grooms’ job to keep the horses coming for the trainers, who worked them outside on the sawdust and cinder tracks.

“Most of the time, except for a harness horse, Art would ride one day, and jog them the next. A harness horse got jogged every day. Every day they got worked, and they got exercised every day.”

Perhaps Usnick, now a locomotive engineer for the Kansas City Southern, earned his precision railroad timing during these early years.

“A lot of times when they were out jogging a horse or riding a horse, then you’d come in and strip your next horse. You’d tie them up and take the tail set off, and start brushing them up; then you’d kind of peek out for Art or Jimmy to come back in, then go down and take their horse. If it needed walked, you’d walk it, and got your next horse ready to go. Yeah, it was a great time.”

Tom Usnick shows tailset for saddlebred horse training - Grand Barn Boulevard

Tom Usnick shows typical saddlebred tailset harness.
(Photo credit: Brenda Fike of the Mexico Ledger

Tom is still amazed at the caliber of horses that came through this stable. Pointing out different stalls, he said, “Tashi Ling was in the third stall. She was a world champion in fine harness. Courageous Connie was a five-gaited champion. She was a real light chestnut mare with a flax painted tail, and a great head set. She was in the first stall. Colonel Boyle was down at the other end of the barn. He was six-time world champion.

“Oh my gosh, there’s been so many ... Sea Beauty, she stood right along in here.” Recalling the night she won at Madison Square Garden, he added, “She could trot this high. As a matter of fact, an auctioneer once said she could trot higher than a woodpecker’s hole. A lot of motion, that trot.”

These finely-bred horses were in their element, showing at gaited events that became a spectacle of horsemanship, from the music and lights of the arena, to the exhilaration of the audience, to the high-stepping vigor of the animals, right down to showmanship of the trainer.

The horses were shown in both riding and fine-harness classes. Art had been known to take as many as 16 horses to a single event, where he, or Jim, or the horses’ owners showed them. There were three-gaited events – familiar to all horsemen as the walk, trot, and canter – and the five gaited events peculiar to the Saddlebred, which adds the slow gait and rack to the repertoire.

“A rack is a four-beat, man-made gait, and this is the only breed of horse that can do it,” said Usnick. “A rack is real smooth. Only one foot’s on the ground at a time. It’s real fast, and it’s really cool.”

He said the Saddle Horse makes this breed perfect for showing. 

Replica - Art Simmons showing saddlebred horse breed

"The Replica", Art Simmons up.
(Photo courtesy of Audrain County Historical Society

“They’re fine through the barrel, and they’ve got nice long necks that come right up out of their withers. And when they set their head, they look like a swan. Of course, that tail’s up over their back, and they have a big eye and animated way of going. They just don’t look like any other horse.”

Jim Simmons describes his father as a near “workaholic,” and his sister Jane recalls their dad was often on the show circuit for weeks at a time. But Art knew a winning outcome could build status for the horses, and prestige for the stable.

Usnick went along to some of these events as a groom. What was it like?

“Hard work. No showers. You slept in a stall. We had canvass we’d put around a stall, and call it tack rooms or show rooms. We had cots, and you just slept in there. And we had to haul everything. Everything you needed for every horse, you had to take with you. It was just like taking the  whole barn.”

But the work paid off with ribbons and trophies, and they came pouring in for Art, who was a real showman in the ring. He was particularly colorful at the harness  class, especially when it came build time for the judge to turn the trainers loose by announcing, “Show your horse!”

“That’s when those guys whistle ‘em up, right? And Art, he would drive that thing,” grins Usnick. “He’d have his foot up there in that high harness buggy, hanging out the side (of the cart). I don’t know whether he was  showing that horse, or the horse was showing him.”

Usnick said a champion horse could be as big of a showboat in the arena as the trainer.

“You can just listen for that applause to follow that horse around the ring, and those horses get bigger, and bigger, and bigger,” he said, puffing out his chest. “There was a fine harness horse called the Lemon Drop Kid, and the more those people clapped, the bigger he got. He’d just look up in the crowd as he trotted by …and you couldn’t turn that horse’s head straight if you’d had a come-along.”

With the experience he gained at Art’s stable, Usnick went on to train and show his own Saddlebred and society horses, and personally owns a 17-year-old Saddlebred named Catch Me Sir, a mare he got from Jim Simmons.

He and Jim are still close friends, sharing a special bond that just happens to connect to a big white barn, and a man born with a special talent for horses.

“Art had a gift,” said Usnick. “I’ve had old trainers tell me that when you or I ride a horse, we’re just riding a horse. But Art would help the horse … with his hands, with his feet. While he was on that horse, he would actually help that horse go.  with his body, with his weight, And how he did it, no one knows.”   

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Some background for this story was taken from the book, “Arthur Simmons: American Icon of the Horse World – A Daughter’s  Memories,” by Jane E.B. Simmons.)


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Preserving Saddlebred Horse History - one barn at a time

Preserving the Irreplaceable in Mexico, Missouri

From The Little Dixie Weekender (

B B Tucker Management under RG Stewart - Grand Barn on the Boulevard

Simmons Stables when it was operated by B.B. Tucker

The little girl bounces merrily in the playground of the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. Amid her laughter and giggles, she is distracted by a beautiful saddlebred stallion trotting through the green fields of the bright white stable across the street. It is a fond memory that Bobette Balser Wilson often recalls from her childhood in Mexico. Watching the horses frolic at the Simmons Stables was a common past time of her youth, due to the pure majesty of the saddlebred mares, stallions and fillies kept at the stables and the legends that called its walls home. Now, many years later, Bobette is furiously working to save the treasured memory and piece of Mexico history.

In June 2001, the Simmons family moved its horses out of the heart of Mexico to its family farm outside of town, when it became too hard to keep the stables running. Without a set plan of what to do with the stables left in the center of the city, they were scheduled for demolition to clear out the space for sale or rent.

When Bobette heard the news, she took her kids for one last tour of the famed stables. Just as she was about to say her final goodbye, she noticed two dusty old frames hidden behind time and dirt on the wall. She brushed the dust off the frames to reveal a picturesque history of the stables from newspaper clips around the world. The international acclaim for the stables astonished her and she knew immediately they told a story that Mexico could not afford to lose.

“I could not imagine looking at this building for so many years, my entire life, and realizing that it wasn’t going to be there any more,” Bobette says, gazing over the Simmons Stables grounds on a bright, breezy fall day. “The history of this building is the history of our town. It was simply unfathomable to me that it was being torn down.”

Bobette sprung into action, and worked on her own for a year to save the structure. She researched how to get it on the National Register of Historic Places and how to go about preserving the buildings. With all the fervor in the world, she could not do it alone and realized she would have to write the final goodbye she was prepared to give a year before to the legendary stables. As she sent out its obituary, Bobette gained support from locals and equestrian lovers around the area. Things began to fall into place, and the Simmons Stables Preservation Fund, Inc. was created.

Mary White Littrell was one of the first to jump onboard. “The Simmons Stables are continually associated with greatness,” Mary says. “The community deserves to keep that history alive. Our children deserve to know the stories of the people that came through here and helped make Mexico what it has become.”

Constructed in 1887, the barns of the Simmons Stables were built at a time when horses ruled; they provided transportation, entertainment and hard work to the people of Little Dixie and around the world. Cyrus Clark and his brother-in-law, Joe Potts, built the barn as a way to house their budding business, Clark & Potts Sales Company. The stables took more than a year to finish and were built with the 2,000-year-old post and beam method popular in barns with large roofs and lofts. The structure was massive, measuring more than 250 feet of length and more than 40 feet of width with an interior that could house roughly 36 horses, and a loft that could house 5,000-plus bales of hay. Every detail was thought out, even down to the 20-foot-wide center aisle that was used as an indoor ring during inclement weather.

“The stables were known world wide,” Mary says standing in the rundown interior of the famed center aisle. “If people wanted to find a good horse, they came here to Mexico.”

“America’s #1 Sales Barn” played an indelible role on Mexico becoming the Saddlehorse Capital of the World. The town’s horse history is one of the most beloved in Little Dixie. “It is a major part of our heritage,” Mary says. “This stable needs to be more than just our history, it needs to be our living history and continue to tell our story.”

“You know, that fanlight window on the front of the stables?” Bobette injects. “That fanlight window was on everything when I was a little girl. It was one of the symbols of where I am from, and you know what, it still is. They redid the city logo not long ago and it’s on there.”

Stable Success and Succession

Throughout the years from its beginnings, the Simmons Stables told one of the richest stories of Mexico with the people and champions that walked through its doors and trained within its hallowed stalls.Ownership shifted several times throughout its hundred-plus years. Its early owners were the Lee Brothers, who supplied Mexico saddlehorses to presidents Taft and Roosevelt, creating a legacy that continued throughout the stable’s long life.

After the brothers, the stables changed hands to B.B. Tucker, followed by Bill Cunningham and lastly Arthur Simmons. Arthur, who took over ownership in the late 1940s, operated the barn for 52 years turning it into the most successful public sales and training stable in saddlebred history. His reputation as a trainer and salesman of quality equestrians only grew when he started the Heart of America Saddle Horse Sales at the American Royal in Kansas City. The annual auction was the nation’s premier public auction for saddlebred horses.

Beyond the owners, the legend of the Simmons Stables cannot be told without mention of the trainers, whose skillful hands and talents helped build its legacy. Many trainers passed through its doors including John T. Hook, Splint Barnett, Hugh Dempsey, Del Holeman, Lee Butler, Ross Drake, Jim Hitte and Arthur’s son, Jim Simmons. These trainers were the key that made the horses such a hot commodity to view, show and purchase in Mexico.

Tom Bass - legendary saddlebred trainer

Tom Bass

The most famous trainer in Mexico history to pass through Simmons Stables is undoubtedly Tom Bass. An African-American born into slavery on a plantation just south of Columbia, Tom learned his way around horses while on the plantation with his father and grandfather. A wonderful horseman in his own right, Tom’s father taught him the art of picking out and training the perfect championship horse.

Some time around 1870, Tom left the plantation and set out to work with horses in Mexico. He quickly found his niche and garnered a reputation as a gentle trainer with seemingly effortless effectiveness with the most troublesome horse. This gentle nature lead to the creation of the Bass Bit, a new bit that did not irritate the horse’s mouth when in use.

In a time when race created almost insurmountable barriers, Tom refused to let it hold him back. He struggled through discrimination, segregation and degradation to become recognizable worldwide as one of the greatest horse trainers ever to grace a pasture with his presence. His success and his nature made him beloved by the equestrian community all over the world, despite the race relations of the time. But Tom remained a humble man, and stayed true to his roots, even after winning world championships, meeting several presidents and riding in inaugural parades. Although he did not make the trip, he was even invited overseas to visit with the Queen of England.

Some say trainers are only as good as the animal they have to work with, be that the case, the reverse, or rather a mix of both statements; Mexico was known not merely for its equestrian businessmen and trainers, but also for its legendary horses. Simmons Stables provided the resting and training place for a long line of champion horses, such as Miss Rex, Forest King, Columbus, Rex Blees, King Lee, Mr. B, Roxie Highland, Courageous Peavine, Ann Rutledge, Blarney Stone, Miss Lori and others. The legendary World’s Fair of Chicago had a connection to the heart of Missouri, as Mexico’s own saddlebred horse, Lee Rose 832, won its grand prize in 1893.

Simmons Stables famously produced many harness-class champions as well including six-time world champion Colonel Boyle, Tashi Ling, Stonewall Lee, Vanity Again, Perfect Stranger, Personal Touch and Gypsy Dream Girl, to name a few.

Restoring History

Bobette and Mary walked headlong into unknown territory when they took on the project of restoring Simmons Stables. The buildings had deteriorated badly throughout time resulting in a shifting building with weak side walls, a leaking roof and interior water damage.

“It is very similar to having children,” Mary says. “Sometimes it’s better if you don’t know what you are getting into before you start. Knowing all the difficulties and roadblocks can deter you from something that might be the most rewarding experience.”

The first project for the Simmons Preservation Fund was to get the stables onto the National List of Historic Places. Once that was done, they brought in inspectors and construction workers to bid the property and evaluate the situation. The restoration of the buildings and surrounding lands would cost an estimated $1.2 million. Through grants and fund raising the group raised roughly $800,000. In October 2008, construction began on the front stable when 5 Oaks Construction Co. of Centralia took on the project. “They are the key …the key that makes it all come together,” Bobette says, beaming with pride. “They truly have the heart for it. They aren’t here to merely build a new structure, they want to save what was here before.”

Restoring the Grand Saddlebred Horse Barn on the Boulevard

The first part of the stables is almost finished. With a complete exterior, signs of life are returning to the once rundown and almost forgotten stables. The construction team redid the roof and walls of the structure, but reused all the siding and loft floorboards they could to maintain its integrity. They incorporated a few advancements in design to give the structure a little more support including steel cross tides and cables to help sturdy the stable.
To recreate and refurbish the instantly recognizable entrance to the stables, the workers used the original fish scale shingles until they ran out of reusable tiles. To replace the unusable shingles, the workers pulled tiles from the back of the stable cutting and shaping each one by hand to match up on the front of the stable.

Although progressing nicely, the restoration hit its bumps in the road. Unexpected funds, a rough economy and harsh weather have all delayed the completion of the project. But Bobette, Mary and those involved in the restoration continue to fight.

“We may not know all the ropes, but we sure can learn them.” Bobette says. “We will do what we have to do to save this building. We aren’t above learning.”The Simmons Preservation Fund is coming up on a standstill after completion of the first stable. The onset of winter will slow down construction, but lack of funds could halt it completely.  “People see the stables and they take them for granted,” Mary says. “They have always been there and most people think they always will be, but they cannot remain there without a lot of work and a little help.”

Interior of the renovated Grand Barn on the Boulevard - Saddlebred History

Roughly $700,000 is needed to finish the other half of the project including the second stable, farriers building and back barn. Eventually the team wants to acquire the John Hook barn and stone Art Simmons house across the street from the stables to further restore the district. The group continues to raise funds for the project through grants, events and public donations. They sell stall space to help set up an endowment fund and hold an annual dinner social and silent auction.

Upon completion of the project, the team hopes to open the International Saddlebred Hall of Fame, which could draw visitors from around the world to Mexico. It will feature a museum to tell the story of Mexico’s rich horse history through exhibits, artifacts and educational activities. Having horses back in the stables is a priority, but they hope to incorporate them in different ways such as with a therapeutic riding school.

Before plans are put into place for the stable’s future, the team has to preserve the irreplaceable past. “This project isn’t a billboard for any one person or one family,” Bobette stresses. “We are here to honor all the horsemen and horses. It’s about the whole area …Boone County, Callaway County; all around us is so rich with horse history.”

It has been nearly 10 years since the stables almost found an untimely demise and the magic within its walls still resonates with those who enter it. “My husband asks me some days if I am going to go to those darn stables again,” Bobette says with a laugh. “I just have to tell him there’s something about it. They really draw you in. I just can’t get enough.” ~ Amanda Dahling