This page is here without permission. It was very helpful to me in finding out about the Prairie Farm. Pervenche, a daughter of Rubis, was a product of the Belgian breeding program there which gave us some very fine Belgians. Unless you count the many private farms that are using the land and maintaining the dikes and pumps, Belgian Horses are the only thing left of the great Owosso Sugar Company Prairie Farm. I am thankful this page was out there but don't know where I found it. I am also a little partial to MSU. KSH Please see the Rubis link for more Prairie Farm horse data.
© Cecil Darnell
published in The Draft Horse Journal, Spring 2001
In 1963 the last draft horse left Michigan State University (MSU). It wasn’t until 1999 that MSU had another draft horse on the 16,000 acres that fall under the MSU banner in East Lansing, Michigan. The draft horse industry was written off by many in the late 1930s and early 1940s as tractors began providing power to the family farm.
In those days, draft horses were used for glue, dog food and fertilizer, if any buyer could be found at all. There was no use, no market, no need for the loyal companions that once struggled alongside farmers working the soil. Horses required food, caring for and had to be replaced as they aged.
Mechanical power sources didn’t have such continual needs. Tractors didn’t use gas when they were idle. The decisions made were economical decisions only, yet there was a subtle emotional factor buried deep within the heart of the farmer.
One farmer noted, “I kept three horses on the farm for four years after they weren’t of any practical use. I just couldn’t imagine watching them go from where they had served so loyally. Keeping another three feeder calves would have been wiser but I couldn’t make that decision and act on it.”
The Stewart family, Fowlerville, Michigan, working in consort with Dr. John Shelle, who heads the MSU horse unit, changed things at MSU. In April of 1999, the Stewarts donated a team of Belgians to MSU. Dr. John Shelle accepted them.
Now don’t get the idea that MSU didn’t have horse programs. The University has long been an influence on those who have enough heart to enter the large animal care professions. MSU supports over a hundred light horses on campus, heavily populated by Arabians of Polish-Arab bloodlines.
At another location near Adrian, Michigan, MSU operates the Merillat Farm that was donated, along with a hundred Quarter Horses, to the University in the mid-1990s. Of the 44,000 students making up the MSU community today, somewhere between 300 and 450 are involved in some phase of large animal study.
Dr. Shelle didn’t have a lot of staff members who had draft horse experience. Russel Erickson was an exception. Russ was thinking about retiring when the draft horse lines were handed to him. To add to the early initial challenge, one of the original Belgians from Fowlerville was lost to cancer.
Russ Erickson and some of his students went to the Topeka (Indiana) Draft Horse Sale seeking a mate for their remaining Belgian. They couldn’t find the match they wanted, but they were able to buy two different Belgians that could work together. The programs went on.
Dan Creyts, a local Belgian breeder who resides near East Lansing, and also is the chairman of the Michigan Great Lakes International Draft Horse Show, donated a pair of bred registered Belgian mares to the MSU program. As of this writing, the MSU draft count is five, with two more expected this spring. The students appear as excited about the reemergence of the draft horse program as are the adults who are involved in it.
The Creyts’ Belgians now at MSU can be traced back to Pervenche, a benchmark mare at MSU six generations ago. This is a neat ribbon lacing the original MSU draft horse program of those early days to the current rebirth in draft horse interest.
In January, 2000, the new draft horse courses were offered at MSU. Twenty-one students registered. Since this was outside, in Michigan, in January, the student response was a pleasant surprise. Students from that first class lobbied to have an advanced class offered. Thirteen of those from the first class signed up for the advanced. The advanced offering would have been even higher, if so many students from the first class had not graduated.
The second time the beginning class was offered, again, twenty-one students registered. These students are not farm folks, they are from varied backgrounds and 86% are women. There has been a constant increase in the number of women within horse care disciplines, as well as all facets of training in the equine industry in recent years.
With the MSU advanced class, a couple of older people are driving to East Lansing from Battle Creek so they can take the class. This was a surprise bonus evolving from the new MSU draft horse beginning. These students already own draft horses. They want to learn more about them, how to drive better, take care of them and get the most enjoyment from them.
The Arabian horse program at MSU was started originally with a donation of horses from the W.K. Kellogg Company Ranch in California. The Ranch is now owned by Cal Poly Tech at Pamona. Dr. Shelle of MSU serves on the Cal Poly board and learned about an antique wagon that still existed on the ranch property.
The wagon came to East Lansing on a loan program and is now a part of the new MSU draft horse activities. The addition of this wagon, originally used by W.K. Kellogg himself, is another thread running from the plaid of the old to the new.
When Russ Erickson began checking with trucking companies, seeking someone to haul the old wagon from California to Michigan, he learned that if he needed the wagon in a hurry it would cost $700 for shipping. Russ decided he wasn’t in any hurry to get the wagon moved. The trucking company donated the transportation when they learned it wasn’t needed in East Lansing until fall. (It arrived in Michigan last July.)
The wagon’s undercarriage is 100 years old and was made by the Concord Company in New Hampshire. One of the books that makes reference to the Percherons at the W.K. Kellogg Farm also mentions the American Express Wagon. Restoration is now completed and the wagon is safe and the pride of the program.
South Dakota State University, the State of New York College System at Morrisville (who has an eight horse hitch they take on the road and exhibit) and now, Michigan State University in East Lansing offer draft horse classes. Are there other colleges or universities with draft horse programs?
Russ Erickson is taking the lead on the MSU program. He has been at MSU for 30 years. When the draft horse activity at MSU began, Russ’s retirement plans got pushed into an unidentified future. He grew up in Northern Minnesota, farming with horses, so he had some first hand contact with the drafts. While his current assignment was more by default than by plan, the student and public response has Russ excited as well, and he is having a good time.
There are 34 students in the beginning class in the spring of 2001. There has also been some interest from other older students who are considering the advanced classes. To permit the classes to increase “hands on” teaching, plans are under way to extend the advanced classes to three hours instead of the current two hours allotted. The extra time is needed to allow for harnessing and hitching the horses, along with the other class time considerations.
Sometimes long term plans come together in delightful ways. During the mid-1990s, MSU built a new Livestock Demonstration Pavilion. This new facility has attracted any number of events from auction sales to expositions. One of the new East Lansing presentations in this facility is the Michigan Great Lakes International Draft Horse Show (MGLI) which moved from the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit to East Lansing in 1996.
One of the rewards of this move to the middle of the Michigan mitten has been the huge crowds that now attend the show. This year a new barn was added to the property. Eventually the Pavilion will be expanded to better accommodate some of these especially well attended events.
MGLI is held just down the road from where the MSU draft horse activities are centered. Dan Creyts, who donated the team of Belgians to MSU, heads the MGLI. Dan has been encouraging Dr. Shelle to get some draft horse events into the MSU roster of activities. The crew that makes the MGLI work is proud of what they do and they want MSU to be as involved as possible.
Since moving to East Lansing, MGLI has expanded to include plowing competition, a barnyard horse pull and other activities that involve another group of draft horse people not interested in just the show classes. There wasn’t room to expand and experiment with activities like these at the State Fairgrounds in Detroit.
In olden draft horse days, there were a number of businesses that sponsored large hitches used for publicizing and promoting the business, much like Anheuser-Busch continues to do with their Clydesdales and Hereford & Hops is working toward with their Shires.
In the early 1900s, Pabst Brewing Company had a six horse harness made for their hitch . The harness was eventually split up. MAC, Michigan Agricultural College (what MSU once was) had part of it, and the MAC brasses are still on the harness and bridles from those early times. MSU changed its name from MAC around 1930.
The harness was used for exhibitions on campus. At least, there are no current records showing that MSU ever had a show team that traveled off campus for competition or demonstrations. In the early days, MSU was noted for their draft horse programs but their quality was measured in conformation in halter classes.
This harness had served the original Pabst Hitch, was used by a Detroit Lumber Company, The Owosso Sugar Company and also the Lansing Dairy before landing at the Creyts Farm.
Dan Creyts has loaned MSU the wheel set of that harness made in 1900 for the Pabst Six Horse Hitch. Dan’s interest in the draft horse industry goes back many years. The big hitches in the early 1900s were usually Percherons. These were the most available drafts in the early days. Following World War II, the Belgians seemed to gain in population numbers.
Oxen, the draft animals of choice in early Michigan, because of their power and deliberate speed, were replaced by horses as the land was cleared of the huge white pine trees that were lumbered off.
“I think it is great that MSU is taking the initiative to restart this draft horse program and provide classes in the areas where the students demonstrate that they have interests. Things have changed substantially for the better since I spent my time on the MSU campus,” noted Dan Creyts.
Students are excited about these developments. They are also excited about the foals expected in the spring. The level of energy and excitement that seems to be a big bright happy cloud covering East Lansing when the 800 draft horses attend the MGLI is high.
Draft horse people are just as high, as are MSU personnel. This is a high old time for an industry that was written off by many a half century ago. There are many of us who are pleased that those early predictions were wrong.
Russ Erickson and Dan Creyts and those they work with are also happy about the results of years of constant attention that has brought things to this point in 2001. This also proves that MSU can stand out while having driving lines in the hands, as well as a basketball.