TULARE, Calif. — The San Joaquin Valley’s infamous Tule Fog still hung in the air at mid-morning the final day of the World Ag Expo in early February. It was cold, and the ground fog made it even colder.
It was a short walk from the parking lot into the show grounds, but I was walking briskly toward the relative warmth of the tent where the Western Farm Show booth was set up.
Someone called my name.
It was Danny Locke, a local farmer I have known for several years, riding shotgun on the Clark Brothers Draft Horse Trolley.
"Climb aboard," Danny invited. Teamster Allan Clark reined in the horses and I joined Danny and Allan on the wagon seat.
The invitation was ironic and readily accepted. Clark and his Draft Horses have been on my to-do story list for a long time. However, the time was never there during busy farm show week.
Allan has trailered his Draft Horses and trolley to the farm show for 15 years. Natchez, the larger of the two Draft Horses in the hitch on a cold Thursday morning, had been there for 14 years. His hitch mate was Mariah. It was her first year at the show. Her head was always slightly tilted toward Natchez, making sure she followed his lead.
"Natchez knows where he is on the show grounds all the time. Watch him whenever we turn toward the back of the grounds where we have the corral. He’ll pick up his head and start prancing his feet," said Allan.
Natchez is a renown showman with the West Coast Draft Horse crowd. "People who come to the shows walk into the barn and say, ‘Where Natchez?’" Allan said.
"Step Out!" Allan calls out firmly to the team of horses weighing a combined 3,700 pounds resuming their serpentine journey through the show grounds.
Milk horses knew
"You know when they used to deliver milk with horses, the horses would know which day of the week it was and which houses to stop at on each day of the week," smiled Allan.
Allan and Danny are history buffs. That is how Allan got into draft horses. He started buying antique carriages and wagons 20 years ago. After a few years he decided to buy horses to pull the collection.
Danny is 67, and Allan is 64. They are cousins. Their mothers were sisters. Allan’s father died in a plane crash on the Locke ranch when Allan was 9 years old.
They grew up on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. Allan in Dos Palos. Danny in Firebaugh. Danny has always been the cowboy. Allan’s only cowboying growing up was in the summer at Danny’s family place, always getting stuck with the mean Shetland pony.
"He was so mean if you went bare footed he’d try to bite your toes," chuckled Allan.
"And he would try to drag you off anyway he could."
Danny laughed at Allan’s story. Older cousins are like that.
Allan’s girlfriend normally helps out at the farm show where Allan brings his horses and every year free. Signs, "Clark Bros, Inc. Dos Palos, CA." are painted on the trolley advertising Allan’s family-owned earth moving business. However, Allan doesn’t spend a week at the farm show for advertising purposes. It would be a lot less work and cheaper to buy an ad in the show program. He brings his horses and trolley to the show because he enjoys driving his team and letting people experience a little of California’s history amid all the brightly colored steel of a modern day farm show.
It’s a lot of work guiding the huge horses through the show grounds where as many as 100,000 people are meandering about. Many of them families with children. The looks on the children’s faces as they see his gentle, powerful giants makes Allan smile.
Walk up quietly
The horses walk right up behind several people, and amazingly they do not even know it until Allan called out, "Excuse me." The team stops inches from the pedestrians. When they would hear Allan, the people almost jumped out of the way, startled at the sight almost 2 tons of horses right over their shoulder.
Allan has an OOGA-horn mounted on the footboard on the wagon in case they did not hear his voice. That seemed a last resort. He doesn’t want to startle them.
"Excuse me, I am making a turn," Allan calls out politely as he swings the wagon wide to make the turn down one of the narrow farm show alleys. People step back and are in awe of the horseman and his horses.
"Can I pet the horses," people ask when Allan stops to pick up or discharge passengers.
"Sure," Allan responds.
Natchez likes the attention.
Danny is as big a history buff as Allan. A week before Allan had asked him to help at the farm show, Danny returned to California from an adventure wrangling wagon, horses and sixth grade students from Madera, Calif., on a wagon train trip through West Texas, tracing the path of a Texan turned California 49er who wrote a dairy about his journey.
"Did you go through Castle Gap?" I asked Danny. He looked surprised, wondering what an agricultural journalist from Fresno knew about a gap through hills in the far reaches of West Texas. Castle Gap was a major overland route near Crane, Texas, where for decades hundreds of wagon trains, cattle drives, outlaws, soldiers and anyone else traveling overland east or west passed through. He had been through the infamous gap on his trip with the kids.
"Did you look for Maxmillian's Gold in Castle Gap?" I asked. Danny did not hear the tale about Maxmillian’s buried gold supposedly buried somewhere around Castle Gap and Horsehead Crossing across the Pecos River. I told him the story about an old metal witcher I had written an article about years ago. The old gentleman had spent his life with a gold piece hung from a string he used looking for that the former Mexican Emperor’s gold.
He shared the stories of the wagon train and I had been to many of the places he had visited.
Natchez started to lather under the load of probably 30 folks reliving a little California history in a rubber-tired trolley. Steam encircled him as he stepped out on Allan’s command on a cold winter morning.
Surely Allan had a story or two about past journeys through the farm show.
Only one. Allan’s horses were hitched to a smaller wagon one year. As the wagon was turned, a man stepped up to get into the wagon. The wagon tipped over. Allan was flipped into the horses and the wagon came down on Natchez’s hocks. Natchez did not move. Allan was unhurt.
More talk about their families; growing up in the San Joaquin Valley; horses and hot rods. Allan is building a hot rod like someone else I know.
The talk distracts us from the cold. Allan turns the wagon into a wide alley bordering the show grounds. It is noticeably colder headed toward the northwest. I notice water on my coat. Reaching up find out where it was coming from, I discovered my mustache was soaked from the damp air.
Horses build roads
Danny shares more stories about his Draft Horses, like going to the Mid State Fair in Paso Robles each year to demonstrate how roads were built using horse-drawn earth moving and shaping equipment.
Easter weekend each year Allan hosts Red Top Draft Horse Days in Dos Palos. Fifty teams of horses show up for the weekend, capped with Easter Services.
Allan stops the wagon in front of livestock handling equipment exhibit. Danny was asked if he had had a chance to check out the farm show for the latest and best for his farm. "Been too busy helping Allan. Lot of the family is here, and they tell me about a lot of stuff I can do without. Don’t like going into debt," he said.
Allan turns the team back south, toward the corral where he beds down the horses each evening. Champion, a spare in case Natchez or Mariah needs a rest, along with Mariah’s colt is at the corral.
Of course, Natchez struts his stuff, He is going to lunch just like Allan and Danny.
A big crowd of relatives, including plenty of youngsters, is waiting at the corral. Lunch will be later this day as Allan and Danny offer rides to the excited kids. The families load up, and Allan turns Natchez and Mariah back toward the show grounds. Natchez is not prancing. Danny is back riding shotgun alone.
I thank Danny and Allan for riding along and visiting. The Allan Clark/Clark Brothers Draft Horse Trolley at the farm show story is off my to-do story list.
I eventually made it to the Farm Press booth an hour and a half later than planned with more than a story in hand. With it is an added appreciation for the folks in this business we call California agriculture.