BIT and SPUR
A second in a series
For those of our readers who like to follow the stories that have been written in Horse N Around Magazine for almost 25 years now remember our April 2015 issue when we introduced a saddle clubs early beginnings. This is second in a series and picks up as Eliza Wilson started to develop the area around Elk Lake, the current home of the Bit and Spur club. In 1876 she was appointed caretaker for the 400 acres of property that her uncle Robert bought from the Somermeyer Brothers from the Eau Claire area in 1871 and upon her uncles death that year in a milling accident her father William acquired this property and appointed this acreage to Eliza’s care.
Although there were several set backs Eliza was determined to develop this area and hired William Bartlet an architect who was acquainted with the land around Elk Lake. As it stated to grow buildings such a Stagecoach house, a boarding house, a grist mill, barn and a dam became a common site in this area. The dam powered the gristmill and Eliza served over 150 customers throughout the area that traveled in by horse. During this growth Elk Lake was living in the sunshine of activities, but there was change on the horizon in the form of railroads.
Although the railroads did not make it to the states until the 1830’s it was then the adoption of rail service quickly started to expand from the east coast south to Florida and west to Iowa and Missouri. Railroads were ready accepted because they could travel in all types of weather and not hampered by terrain. Rail also increased the speed of which products could be shipped and with larger loads making it overall cheaper to operate. Those who were in any kind of business saw the advantages and invested their own private wealth into railroads.
After 1850 the federal government began to help finance railroads and this financial help doubled the amount of track that was being laid. Wisconsin began planning and locating sections of track being laid with the Menomonie area lumber business in mind. It was thought that Menomonie would receive direct rail service, but due to the lake rail service was moved north two miles and a spur line was brought into Menomonie. As the rail line expanded in a westerly direction the route took it north and by past the 1850 “Hudson Road” Stagecoach line that ran from Eau Claire to Hudson. The affected stagecoach line followed close to the Elk Lake and upon rail service in the area it dramatically began to affect the local business there.
Horses and the love and understanding of horses have had a long slow history. They were an integral part in the development of the Elk Lake area helping to build the industry and agriculture as well as the main source of transportation. With time and the railroad they were slowly falling from the beast of burden to more of a status symbol. Horses still hauled carriages through the countryside and urban areas and horse racing carried over from the previous century. Horses however became more of a partner than a servant for man through training and patients of both horse and rider. Horseman in the twentieth century began to discover that understanding the horse and it inherent characteristics was a better and less dangerous way to get results from a horse. Consequently both horse and owner developed a more peaceable means of working together.
During the turn of the century industry and logging was fading in this area and families were faced with moving from the countryside and Elk Lake area to an urban environment for employment unless they had income to purchase farmland to begin dairy farming or a vegetable farm. However one thing did not change in this area was the love for horses as they became less of utility while people moved in and closer to the urban community. Quotes were often heard “ if I can’t look out my window and see horses I don’t want to live here on the farm”. So, with the admiration and upcoming status symbol for horses and people who liked the recreational aspect of horses for both riding and driving parks were established.
In the Eau Claire area various businessmen like Putnam and Bartlet donated land where fair grounds, racetracks, and driving grounds were established as well as other sporting events. These large land donations for parks were made voluntarily to the city of Eau Claire for citizens to enjoy. The first of these parks were at the top of State St. Hill and remained active until 1910 when it was moved to the bottom of the hill east of the University of Eau Claire on Garfield Avenue.
The outside area of this track at some distance was wooded and became the recreational driving park and requested by Henry Putman that this area was to remain natural. (Today most of this area still remains natural.) During the late 1800’s residents from the University area used this park mostly for recreational driving with horses. Some homes in this area still have carriage houses attached or existing on the property
In 1920 due the expanding needs for housing, the race track was moved back to the top of State Street hill where it remained for many years until it succumbed to residential subdivisions. With the loss of the track and stables in this area some local residents that lived in the Garfield Avenue, South Dewey Street area began to form an informal riding club after this closure. This group of approximately 20 individuals became know as the original member of the first existence of the Bit and Spur Club on October 10, 1925. The second annual Bit and Spur horse show took place in 1927 at the junction of Altoona Avenue and county Hwy A. From an informal and unplanned future the group was dedicated to building a quality organization.
From this group of individuals was a local resident associated with the group named George Ash. His wife was a member of the newly established Bit and Spur Club; George started a livery stable on Lee Street and was thought to have been approached by her and the members to assist in finding property where their activities could take place. So, in 1931 George Ash purchased land on the corner of Buena Vista road and Highway E. This newly formed equestrian group quickly associated itself with the U.S Cavalry who established horse shows for the groups and took members on exhibition events. This is the second part in a series please follow our upcoming issues for more of this clubs history as our next article will cover the time period of 1938 through 1968 during a period that solidifies the Bit and Spur Saddle Club as prestigious equestrian organization.
A heart felt appreciation to the owner of the Eliza Wilson boarding house and Stagecoach stop on Elk Lake, John Spares and to Mr. and Mrs. Merle Jain, Gloria Bloom, Fred Belly and Peetee, Dave and Roxie Stewart, Janice Brown, Susan J Makki and Gordon Petshaw for their contributions.