The Draft Horse
Journal, winter 1989,1990
Author: Maurice Telleen
Sixty years ago this November (Nov.29) a likeness of the Belgian stallion, Rubis, graced the cover of the BREEDER'S GAZETTE. When the GAZETTE chose a sire for this signal honor, whether he be equine, bovine, or ovine you can be sure that it was an animal who had proven his right to be there not just once or twice, but "again and again," as FDR use to say.
The cover page story was written by D.J. Kays from Ohio State and he could not resist the temptation to make a good story even better. Perhaps they should have had someone from Michigan State write it. Kays started out by suggesting that when Pervenche, Rubis' most famous daughter, first hit the ring at the Ohio State Fair as a two-year-old in 1923 the railbirds had to ask one another who this Rubis, her sire was.
In view of the fact that Pervenche had already been reserve junior champion at Michigan and Chicago the year before as a yearling...And that Rubis had sired the bulk of the registered colts at the Prairie Farm, owned by the Owosso Sugar Co. at Alicia, Michigan ever since his importation in 1913...And that Owosso was a regular exhibitor at the Michigan State Fair and occasional exhibitor at Ohio and the International in Chicago where, in 1921, they won one first, two seconds, and one third--plus the fourth prize Get of Sire--on Rubis' colts, I doubt very much that Rubis was quite the unknown quantity that Kays made him out to be.
True, although he was selected as a two-year-old at the great national show in Brussels, Belgium, where he did well, he had not been shown much, if at all, in the United States, so he had no great show record of his own providing him a short cut to fame. And true, after standing at the head of the Owosso stud for almost ten years he was sold to John E. Skeoch of Coral, Michigan, who was not a prominent Belgian breeder. Kays says, "As a matter of fact, the stud career of Rubis was so disappointing and the old horse had grown so stale and second hand in his underpinning that Mr. DeGeus sold him on May 29, 1922." Maybe. But by that time Owosso had a lot of his daughters on hand and was using his best-known son, Garibaldi, quite heavily. I really doubt that Mr. DeGeus, the manager of Owosso, would have continued to use a "disappointment" heavily for almost ten years and then carry on with one of his sons. And it is true that the best known of Rubis' offspring came along when the horse himself was well along in years...but this sire was neither as unknown nor as unappreciated as the Ohio horse professor implied.
So when Professor Kays says, as he did in that article, that "this stallion was literally unknown prior to the time his famous daughter (Pervenche) arrived on the scene" (presumably, the Ohio State Fair was the "scene") I think he was overdoing this show ring drama business. I would surmise that Rubis was relatively unknown to D.J. Kays before Pervenche showed up. The story of Rubis is interesting enough in its own right, without that kind of help. Even the place that Rubis came to is interesting.
THE GREAT PRAIRIE FARM - owned by the Owosso Sugar Company
It was located in Saginaw County, Michigan. The reason it was not homesteaded, as was most of the Midwest, is that it was a huge marsh, unfit for cultivation. But this "muck land," much of it lying only three feet above the level of Saginaw Bay, was tremendously rich, serving, as it did, as the settling basin for thousands of upland acres. It was a delta that had to be won from the water, foot by foot, before it could be farmed. It was a job way beyond the tools and strength of any homesteader.
The first efforts to make the marsh into farmland were attempted in the 1880's by three men named Camp, Brooks and Smith. They were a realtor and two lawyers...not the homestead types. They had large ditches cut through, enclosing three or four hundred acres of tillable land at a time and thus, they were able to have much of it farmed. Eventually their holdings came to about 10,000 acres of this prairie marsh. While they had, more or less, proven the practicality of the scheme they had problems aplenty. Spring floods, even with the ditches, would delay work and it was difficult to keep workmen on the isolated farms. Their efforts had been a partial success.
Eventually they sold out to the Saginaw Realty Company which had more financial muscle with which to push the drainage work further and place the project on a sounder financial basis (i.e., more money was available). Even so, the flooding and help problems continued, making it apparent that diking on a large scale was necessary as well as drainage if this giant marsh were to be farmed with any real success.
So, in 1903, enter a group of Pittsburgh investors who owned a controlling interest in the Owosso Sugar Company. Today, I suppose we would call it "venture capital." Attracted by the immense fertility of these muck lands, and prepared to spend even more serious money, they went about the business of diking in a major way. The average height of the completed dikes was 17 to 18 feet, while the ditches were about twelve feet deep, with a gradient of three inches to the mile to carry off the excess water. When the entire 10,000 acres were enclosed there were 36 miles of dike and it was along the top of those dikes that roads, surfaced with stone and oil, were laid out. This, for the first time, afforded dependable communication and transport between all parts of the big farm and eliminated some of the isolation that caused employee problems. At the lowest point on the farm a pump house was erected housing four centrifugal pumps which, in time of high water, were used day and night to lift the excess water from the canal (which at that point was big enough for small boats) and discharge it into the river. They had created "a bit of Holland in Michigan" and it worked.
Alicia village was a place that could boast a population of 300 to 350 in the summer work season and about 75 in the winter. It contained 80 yellow framed cottages, a general store, a boarding house, an assembly and/or dance hall, several large barns for stock and other buildings for machinery, wagons, and tools, a post office, and a large grain elevator and mint distillery which were situated on a spur track connecting the farm with the railroad six miles away. It was a company town, and the old photos suggest that it was as drab and dull as you might expect a company town to be.
It was said that the inhabitants of Alicia led an isolated and monotonous life, especially at flood time. I can believe that. Many of the workers were immigrants from Europe and as soon as they had a stake of a few hundred dollars, would move on. I can also believe that. It is further said that when World War I cut off this supply of ambitious European peasants (many of them Slavs) the Sugar Company began hiring Mexicans, and were the first to do so in Michigan. Since I am believing everything else, I may as well believe that too. Alicia was located one mile from the "Mosquito Road" entrance to the farm. The name tells you something too.
So after about 30 years man had "triumphed over the marsh." The seven-foot marsh grass had become fields of sugar beets, corn, peppermint, and rye and the "worthless swamp" had become "worth" $80 to $90 per acre. At least that would be the general assessment of the thing. I imagine that conservationists, duck hunters, ecologists, and the ducks and muskrats --along with a few other creatures--might take a somewhat dimmer view of the whole undertaking. I have never interviewed a duck, nor do they leave any written record to refer to as we do, but I would expect an old retired duck from the state of Michigan to remember the triumph as a disaster and to say something like this; "Down around Saginaw, we really had a nice place once. Then these damn fools (people, I believe is what they are called) came along and for 30-odd years dug, drained, graded, made a lot of commotion, worried about going broke --whatever that means and just wrecked the place. It isn't even fit to live in now." (End of interview with the duck.)
Let's see, this thing is supposed to be about the Belgian stallion - Rubis. OK.
In 1905, just two years after the Owosso Sugar Co. bought this tract of land a man named Jacob DeGeus came to work for them. He was Holland born, trained in agriculture in that country, a good stockman and farmer, ambitious and smart. He quickly advanced to the position of general manager and held that position until he retired in 1924. It was he who put the purebred herds and flocks on Prairie Farm; Belgian horses, Holstein-Friesian cattle, Hereford cattle, Duroc Jersey hogs and Delaine Merion Black Top sheep. This did not happen overnight. Needless to say, hundreds of horses were used, and while they were good horses they were not good enough to suit this Dutchman. So in 1913, Jacob DeGeus traveled to Belgium, seeking foundation stock for the Belgian breeding stable he wanted to establish, partly to upgrade their own work stock and partly to serve as a purebred breeding stable.
He reached Belgium at the time of the big Brussels show. His quest was to buy the best two-year-old stallion he could find and twenty mares. There were 230 two-year-old stallions at the show in Brussels that year. His choice of whole lot was a chestnut colt with some roan hairs named Rubis. Rubis landed in fourth place in the show. (Editor's note: Several second, third, and fourth prizes were given at those big pre World War I shows in Belgium and France ...a fact that most importers conveniently "forgot" when marketing the young stallions over here.) Anyhow, Rubis was a good one and he was the choice of Mr. DeGeus. The owner shared Mr. DeGeus' opinion (that the judges had missed him) and he did not want to sell. So he bided his time, bought his twenty mares, and then returned to his negotiation on the horse. With the help of a considerable amount of money and some champagne (this is, again, according to Mr. Kays who wasn't there either) the deal was consummated and Rubis found himself on a train bound for Antwerp and was shipped to America with the twenty mares. They arrived at Alicia, Michigan in October of 1913 and a stable that was to play a prominent role in the breed for about 15 years was established.
During the early years at Owosso, Rubis shared stud duty with another horse named Sans Peur de Hamal, who was a three-time champion at the Michigan State Fair. This could be one reason Rubis wasn't campaigned...his stable mate was better, at least, better to look at.
Mr. DeGeus had some very pronounced opinions on stallion management. He said, "Our stallions worked the year around. Many times I saw surprised faces when farmers came to breed a mare, when we told them the stallions were working on the field but we could call the one they preferred to use. Both our stallions, Sans Peur de Hamal and Rubis, were at least earning part of their living and kept in good health and breeding condition. The results of those working sires were a great satisfaction to me."
He fed the stallions clean oats and dust free hay three times a day, and a bran mess (or mash) twice a week. If they were not as vigorous as he wished then he would add twice per day, three pounds of hemp seed mixed in his grain and cut the oats by the amount given in hemp seed. He said, 'this is not dope, just a helpful feed. Do not give coarse dry feed to a stallion in service or let him fill up on too much water. Give the dry, course feed only at night. All kinds of dope to improve a stallion for breeding cannot take the place of work."
That is the regime that Rubis was under for his first nine years in America. And even though Owosso was campaigning their horses at some fairs, including a few state fairs and the International now and then, it wasn't a "glamour" type stable To Jacom DeGeus the ultimate goal was better work horses for Prairie Farm, and in Michigan generally. The purebreds were a means to that end, not an end in themselves. It is interesting to note that while Rubis is remembered primarily as a sire of mares, he is also credited with siring many top geldings, including the champion at Ohio in 1926 and the heavyweight pulling team that was considered to be the national champions of 1927, weighing in at 1990 and 2010 pounds, they won the BREEDER'S GAZETTE sweepstakes harness for the "pullingest team of 1927."
It would seem to me that Rubis had served notice to American Belgian breeders that he was a sire to reckon with at the 1921 International. Owosso Sugar won second on an aged stallion by him, from his first crop of Michigan born colts in 1915, a younger son was second in the stud foal class, and two daughters stood first and third in the filly foal class...the one in third being Pervenche. So, when he was sold the following May (after serving some of Owosso’s mares) I doubt that it was because he had failed them. His roan son, Garibaldi, might have simply pushed his sire off the driver's seat. Most of the foals registered by Owosso in the years immediately following the sale of Rubis were by Garibaldi.
Then, in 1924, something else happened that would call additional attention to the old chestnut horse. While in the ownership of Mr. Skoech, two daughters of Rubis registered as Manitta de Rubis and Naome de Rubis were foaled by mares belonging to Wm. Brown, Howard City, Michigan. Michigan State, having fantastic success with Pervenche, might well have been looking for more Rubis daughters. I don't know how the horsemen at East Lansing got onto these foals but they found them and bought them as foals, giving them three daughters of Rubis.
In the meantime Pervenche, the college's first, last, and greatest daughter of Rubis had become the toast of the breed. Bred by Owosso, she was purchased by the Michigan school as a yearling. They promptly showed her to first and reserve junior champion at the 1922 International. The following year she came back to be junior and grand champion and then in 1924 she made it three in a row...senior and grand champion mare. With Jack Carter fitting and showing her she went undefeated in class those three years.
Whether this was a case of cause and effect I don't know...all I know is that in the spring of 1925 the Owosso Sugar Company bought the old horse back. By then he was 14 years old. Maybe there was another Pervenche in his loins. It was worth a chance. Promptly bred back to Qunea, the mother of Pervenche, they came very close. In 1926 she foaled Syncopation, full sister to Pervenche, and she did go on to become another winner at Chicago. Together, she and Pervenche would win the Produce of Cam class at the International in what proved to be Owosso's last appearance at the Chicago show. Let's talk about those 1926 and 27 Chicago shows right now. The '27 show was Rubis' finest hour.
In 1926 Michigan State showed Manitta de Rubis to first prize 2-year-old and junior champion mare. Owosso (remember they had brought the old horse back in time to use him the previous year) stood second in the filly foal class with Syncopation, full sister to Pervenche, and the second and fifth in the stud foal class with sons of Rubis. The "Gets" of Rubis and Garibaldi stood second and third for Owosso to the Ergot "Get" shown by C.E. Jones, Livermore, Iowa. That was just the warm-up for 1927...when it all came together for the old chestnut horse out on those reclaimed marshes in Michigan.
Chicago 1927 ... and seldom has one sire ever so completely dominated the Belgian mare classes. Aged mares... Pervenche, under Michigan State's colors, champion in 1923 and 24 comes back to win her fourth blue at Chicago, then goes on to reserve senior and reserve grand champion. Four-year-olds...Albine Farceur, a granddaughter of Rubis (through his son Garibaldi0 wins second for Owosso Sugar. Three-year-olds...Manitta de Rubis and Naome de Rubis stand first and second for Michigan State, the Manitta goes on to be senior and grand champion. Yearlings...Syncopation, full sister to Pervenche, wins the class for Owosso and goes on to junior champion. Five classes had been shown. Daughters of Rubis had won three of them and claimed one second; a granddaughter had picked up another second. Foals...Ravenche, a daughter of Pervenche, wins the class for Michigan State, Owosso is in third with a daughter of Rubis. The Rubis daughters claim five of the six purples for Belgian mares. Then Michigan State wins Best Three Mares and Get of Sire on Pervenche, Manitta, and Naome. Owosso borrows back the mare they bred, Pervenche, puts her with her yearling full sister and wins the Produce of Dam. No wonder Rubis rated the cover of the November 1929 BREEDER'S GAZETTE.
I suppose you might expect that this was the beginning of a great dynasty of horses at Michigan State, built on these magnificent mares. That didn't happen, at least, not quite that way. The International was always a market as well as a show. A lot of horses changed hands in Chicago, and the horsemen at East Lansing were businessmen as well as showmen. They had to "cash their dividends" once in awhile and with victories like that it was market day.
On December 1, 1927 (which would have been during International week) all three of the great Rubis daughters belonging to Michigan State were sold; Pervenche to Earle Brown, Brooklyn Farm, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Manitta and Naome to G.N.Dayton, of department store fame and also from the Twin Cities. The Daytons were laying the foundation for their famous Boulder Bridge Farm stable at Excelsior, Minnesota and they did it with Rubis and Farceur bred horses, the very best money could buy. The following February they also obtained Syncopation, putting the four Rubis daughters that had brought national fame to the old horse, all in the state of Minnesota.
Pervenche was repurchased by the college from Brown in1932 and ended her days on the East Lansing campus, where she did found something of a dynasty. She was our featured brood mare in the winter 1975 issue of the DHJ. In that article Jack Carter, long-time horseman at Michigan State, is quoted as follows: "Pervenche was the complete draft horse. There wasn't a mare like her and there hasn't been one since. She was a great-bodied mare with great muscling. On the top she couldn't be faulted. She had the best feet, legs, and ankles I ever saw on a mare and she could move just like a machine. She was a grand mare! When she came back from Browns she wasn't quite the same mare. She had had rough use in the hitches up there at Browns. Her feet and legs were all banged up from being use in the hitches so much."
Under the capable management of Les Wilson, the Rubis daughters wasted no time in putting the new stable known as Boulder Bridge into the front row of Belgian breeders and exhibitors. The three daughters won the "Get" class for their sire at the 1928 and 29 National Shows in Waterloo. Manitta was first prize 4-year-old in Chicago for them in 1928 and grand at Illinois the following year. Naome was first prize four-year-old at the National in 1929 and continued to tramp on in the show herd for four more years, rarely winning the championship but always challenging. Syncopation was grand at Iowa and reserve junior at Chicago for Boulder Bridge in '28, won the three-year-old class at Illinois in '29 and the four-year-old class at Minnesota and Waterloo in 1930.
Naome produced a son, Boulder Bridge Naomarq, by Marquis de Faceur, that was a consistent winner and was used extensively at Boulder Bridge. Manitta produced three daughters by three different sires that were all consistent winners at the major shows. They were Boulder Bridge Manet (by Marquis de Faceur), Boulder Bridge Victoria (by Victor de Bois), and Boulder Bridge Mirza (by Gerfaut Ophain). Needless to say, Boulder Bridge won the Produce of Dam class with those girls more than a few times. So the Rubis daughters did breed on, both at Michigan State and Boulder Bridge.
I'm not going to pursue this bloodline any further, for it was along time ago, but you can rest assured that "Rubis lives on" in those of today's Belgian horses. I felt his story was worth retelling for a couple of reasons. First, to convince today's young Belgian breeders that "in the beginning" there was more to it than Farceur, Elegant du Marais, and Conqueror. Second, to point out that recognition doesn't always come quickly to a good sire. And third, that if you wish to have a reputation it helps to live a long time and to keep on breeding right up to the end... just like Rubis. And that, in turn, gets us back to the old horse himself. I think we left him, back in the possession of the Owosso Sugar Company for the second time, at the age of 14 in 1925. That was the year he sired Syncopation.
The 20's and 30's were not good years for Owosso's Prairie Farm. The 20's were not good for agriculture generally. As the big farm experienced more and more problems the registered Belgian herd became expendable. Their last appearance at Chicago was in '27, the following year most of the Belgians were transferred to Pitcairn Bros. from Alicia. I don't know what sort of arrangement this was because Alicia was the company town and there was a Pitcairn station, or some such thing on the big farm. It might have been sort of an "in house" arrangement, or they may have been renting ground from the company. Make your own guess. In any event, Rubis --along with several of the other--was transferred to Pitcairn Bros, Alicia, Michigan in 1928. He was later leased to Michigan State and finally, in April of 1933, at 22 years of age, he was officially transferred to the college. His daughter, Pervenche, had again found a home at Michigan State and it was here, at East Lansing, that he would serve the balance of his life, breeding mares up until two weeks before his death at the age of 24.
Dan Creyts, East Lansing, Michigan loaned me a centennial book of Albee Township, which has served as my chief reference on the Owosso Sugar Company's Prairie Farm. It states, concerning the declining fortunes of the big farm in the late 20's that " selling the horses didn't help and matters got worse." (Now that can be said of a lot smaller farms in the country too!) Anyhow, a plan to sell the remaining livestock and equipment and lease the land to neighboring farmers on a crop share basis was put into effect. According to this book Dan's taxes had gone unpaid for as long as four years...it really was a mess.
It was about that time (1928-30) that the rest of the country was invited to the depression that the farmers had been experiencing for some time. That didn't make things better either and in 1933 the leasing plan was scrapped and the Big Prairie Farm changed hands again. And what a change it was.
The leader of the group that bought Prairie Farm was Joseph J. Cohen, a Russian born Jewish Rabbi, who was active in socialist reform groups. He envisioned, for Prairie Farm, a "collectivist society, a free organization uninhibited by demands of any manmade rule. Wow! No manmade rules.
In spite of the record of allure of many such rural utopias in our own brief history, he got the thing cranked up and the resulting Sunrise Cooperative Farm Community on the old Big Prairie Farm in Michigan was one of the last of its kind in many years. He had some unconventional ideas but it was 1933, half the country was out of work, and any message was better than despair. Each family contributed $1000, the farm was bought, and new shareholders poured into Alicia. There was one big problem. Hardly any of them know how to farm. Cohen solved that by hiring former workers on the Prairie farm and coaxing Jacob DeGeus out of retirement to serve as advisor.
Things did not go well. In the second year 14 of the families packed up and left. The first "deserters" were just that, the first, they were followed by others. But the ones who left weren't the only problem, as Dan's centennial book states, there were some that stayed and didn't want to leave such as "individualists like 'Preacher Hyman,' who thought the Sunset Community would benefit from his won doctrine, and the lazy guitar player, who refused to do his share of work, were continually creating difficulties and raising complaints from their fellow workers."
In the meantime, the Sunrise Community had entered into an arrangement with the Farm Security Administration in 1936, whereby the Sunrise Community people would be given first pick of the land to farm cooperatively, but the land was owned by the government. The price was $270,629 for the whole parcel and it was now Uncle Sam's. This didn't work either. Twenty-five families hung on for two years and then left. Utopia simply didn't work, even with the government as the landlord.
From 1938 up until World War II called more land into production, the big Prairie Farm was used only sporadically and piecemeal. During the war, of course, more of it was rented out but the eight years of government ownership were basically "years of neglect and deterioration. Buildings became dilapidated, canals broke up and dikes grew in need of repair."
On March 1, 1945, as the war was in its final years, the federal government got out of owning Prairie Farm by selling it to a group of local farmers for $265,000, slightly less than they had paid the utopians in 1936. Fourteen farmers then proceeded to go their separate ways. The big Prairie Farm, as such, finally lost its identity.
And that is all I'm going to tell you about Rubis, the Owosso Sugar Company, Jacob DeGeus, the Big Prairie Farm. I'm indebted to Dan Creyts, East Lansing, Michigan and Jim Richendollar, Belleville, Michigan for providing both pictures and background information of this story.
AN ADDENDUM TO "RUBIS"
The reputation of Rubis hinged, to a great extent, on four daughters--all dealt with in the previous article. That was his "national reputation." But up in the state of Michigan where he sired colts, non-stop, for twenty-two years you can be sure that a lot of sons had "local reputations." His importer, Jacob DeGeus was interested in "improving the work stock of Michigan" and you can be sure that Rubis made a mighty, if largely unknown, contribution in that respect.
Here is a little something that Bob Duton, Saranac, Michigan sent in about a Rubis son in his community:
"Undoubtedly many sons of Rubis were 'traveling men,' not in the sense of Constable, who served mares at one location for a short time and then moved on, but ones who traveled to several different farms in the same community...day after day, year after year."
"One such son was Major De Rubis, a strawberry roan with silver mane and tail. He was owned by Alford Wheelock (Fred) of Saranac, Michigan. This stocky built roan (most of them were stocky built) weighing 2000-2100 pounds was purchased as a four-year-old in 1929 from a man in Grand Ledge. Rube began stud duty immediately and continued for 20 years. Unlike some studs who walked from farm to farm, Rube traveled in style--in the early 30's he rode in a model T Ford truck and then later on in a model A. This allowed Rube to cover a 20-mile radius around Saranac. He would breed from two to four mares a day at the height of the season and serviced 100 to 110 mares during the season, which started in March and ended in July. Obviously, not every stop resulted in a service. Some farmers were confident their mare was in season but Rube knew differently. He grew to be cagey and was rarely kicked.
This gentle son of Rubis was broke but didn't work too much, especially during the breeding season. He did do odd jobs around the Wheelock place, like pulling a stone boat along when stones were picked from a field. Like many of the horses of that day Rube was an easy keeper, getting corn, oats and some wheat and linseed meal.
"Breeding contracts at that time were mostly oral, nothing written. Rube's fee for a live foal was $15. Mr. Wheelock would send post cards to his customers about foaling time, reminding them of their stud fee obligation. And though this was during the depression times, the farmers rarely failed to pay. Since there were few registered mares at the time, most of Rube's offspring were grades. And most of them were roans.
" Mr. Wheelock's house burned down in 1947 and any pictures of Rube were lost. Then Mr. Wheelock died in 1951. Two sons, Leo and Joe, remember the stallion business well. Joe, now 82, sometimes traveled Rube but Joe, being 12 years younger, was too young to take him on the road at the time."
--Bob Duton, Saranac, Michigan
In visiting with Dan Creyts about the Owosso Sugar Co. Prairie Farm he said one of the old employees of the place, when it was in its heyday, recalled that there were 27 miles of canals to ice skate on in the wintertime and provided much of the background material and several of the pictures for this article.
January 11,2003 observations;
Note: Pictures as such weren’t reproduced in Internet article. Back to the microfilm racks. If The Library of Michigan doesn’t have a copy of the magazine, MSU is sure to as they have recently reintroduced a draft horse program and Rubis and his daughter were so famous. I have shots of the Owosso Sugar Company factory in Owosso. It is/was butt-ugly. And cost 1.2 million back when that was a lot of money.
I keep correcting little mistakes in the
transcription of the article. Originally it was almost in E-mailese with
so much fat-fingering that a lot of it made no sense upon first reading.
This is another reason I would like to see the original. But we do seem to
have some good leads here.
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