For our readers who like to follow stories that have been published in our previous issues, we’ll re-introduce an article from our April 2015 copy, then called Horse N Around Magazine. In it we introduced the early beginnings of the Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club. This copy, under our new masthead, Equine Monthly magazine, takes it from that beginning and brings us to current times, as we document the continuing success of this popular local organization.
As people hustle through life, fifteen or twenty years can go by without batting an eye as to what has passed before them. When we stop to consider one hundred to one hundred and fifty years in the past, we may struggle to understand what all has taken place, and whether we may have any heritage or history with this past. It is at this point that we try to determine whether our lives were affected, and what traditions have been carried along by time.
There is an equestrian saddle club dating back as far as the 1850’s that continues to maintain their foothold in history. The Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club’s roots are closely related to prominent figures that were tied to the old growth timber harvest and lumber mills of the area.
It could be argued that the pinnacle of change came early in the 1800’s. It is at this time that the move from horseback, as the main means of transportation, to alternatives, such as the riverboat occurred. This provided quicker, more direct means of transportation up and down rivers such as the Chippewa and Mississippi.
Located in the center of historic Native American lands in central Wisconsin, the Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club is rich in history. The early pioneers of the Elk Lake area where the Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club is currently located remains a mystery. Captain William Wilson envisioned the possibility of unequaled wealth in the production of lumber from the acres and acres of mature, old growth timber covering much of the northern part of Wisconsin.
In the 1840’s David Black was trying to sell his lumber mill in Menomonie, WI. Not having enough money to make the purchase, William Wilson partnered with John (Holly) Knapp, who had recently acquired an inheritance. The mill became known as the Black & Knapp Company.
Sawmills became a crucial aspect of the local economy due to the massive amounts of timber being brought into the area. Andrew Tainter entered the scene to coordinate the cutting of the logs and getting them to the mill. He purchased Oaklawn Stock Farm at the east edge of Menomonie, and from his accumulated wealth and investment success he bred trotting horses and other livestock.
The four partners, Wilson, Black, Knapp and Tainter accumulated many acres of agricultural and forest properties over the next fifty years. Wilson alone purchased over 400 acres of land in the area of the current location of the Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club.
To maintain business growth after the death of David Black, Wilson and Knapp acquired an investor in 1853, a successful banker from Dubuque IA, named Henry Stout. The business name then became Knapp Stout Company.
During the 1870’s, changes in the lumbering business began to appear. The partners started to sell 275,000 acres of acquired land. Careless management in the forests caused many wasteful fires, competition from other firms began to appear, the former estimates of an inexhaustible supply of timber proved incorrect – creating a diminished supply of logs, plus the age of the founders all contributed to the closing of the mills by the 1900’s.
With the “endless forests” mostly gone and logging fading from the area, families began moving from the countryside to an urban environment for employment in the new industries found there. Those that remained purchased cutover forest land and tried to eke out a living by farming. However, the one thing that did not change was the common love of horses – even as their use dwindled, gradually changing from purely agricultural and work to that of pleasure and recreation. The love and respect for the horse remained strong, and horse loving people started to gather for organized horse riding and carriage driving events.
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, both riding and driving parks were established to satisfy people who admired and liked the recreational aspect of horses.
William Wilson’s daughter, Eliza, born in 1834, was the only family member among the four founders interested in taking over any aspect of the remaining lumbering business. After watching Union soldiers parade through Menomonie on their way to war, she joined the Union Army and served as a nurse in 1861, ministering to wounded troops. An excellent horse person, she rode thoroughbred horses and dressed in brown Turkish uniforms. During her attachment to the fifth regiment, who fought against Robert E. Lee in Richmond VA, her efforts prompted a wounded soldier to exclaim, “She seems to bring sunshine with her everywhere she goes.”
In 1876, her uncle Robert Wilson was killed in an Elk Creek mill accident. With his death, William Wilson purchased all of the Elk Lake properties Robert had purchased from the Somermeyer brothers in 1871, appointing Eliza manager of all the properties. In spite of several setbacks, Eliza was determined to develop this area, hiring William Bartlett, a local architect, to guide her in her plan. She developed a stagecoach house, boarding house, barn, gristmill and a dam. The gristmill served over 150 customers throughout the Elk Lake area.
Receiving additional Knapp Stout timber acreage in the Town of Union, Eliza went on to raise cattle and hogs, becoming known for the quality of her horses, noted to have the finest blood lines in the area. In 1877, her father William built a house and barn for her, and through the years they enjoyed an active social life, entertaining many visitors, including Susan B. Anthony.
During this growth period Elk Lake was living in the sunshine of activities, but there was change on the horizon in the form of railroads.
Although railroads didn’t become widely popular until the 1830’s they quickly expanded into the south and west to Iowa and Missouri. The public readily accepted railroads as they could travel in all types of weather across many types of terrain. Railroads could transport larger quantities of products faster than any other means of the day, making them popular for businesses and passenger travel. 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 greatly increased the amount of track that was being laid. Wisconsin began planning and locating sections of track with the Menomonie area lumber business in mind. It was thought that Menomonie would receive direct rail service, but due to the location of Elk Lake, rail service was moved north two miles, with Menomonie being serviced with only a spur line. As the rail line expanded west, the route took it north, bypassing the 1850 “Hudson Road” Stagecoach line that ran from Eau Claire through Elk Lake to Hudson. This had a negative effect on the stagecoach line that followed close to Elk Lake. It also dramatically affected all local businesses.
Both commercial and private ownership of horses, plus the love and understanding of horses have had a long history in this area. They became an integral component in the development of the Elk Lake area, helping to build the industry and agriculture as well as supporting the primary means of transportation. As time passed and the railroad gained popularity, horses became less of a beast of burden and more of a symbol of leisure and sport. Though horses still pulled carriages through the countryside and horse racing remained popular, they became more of a partner than a servant. Horse owners in the twentieth century discovered that understanding the horse and its inherent characteristics was a better and more satisfying way for both horse and owner to enjoy more peaceable means of working together.
On October 23, 1902, Eliza passed away from a heart attack at a friend’s home. She is largely remembered for her role in the Civil War and her work in the women’s suffrage movements.
It is ironic, and an honor for the Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club to be located on the property of this Civil War heroine, who also became an equestrian icon of her era. The Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club respectfully carries on and preserves the tradition on the land where this legacy began. Still dedicated to horses and equestrian legacy.
Henry Putnam and William Bartlett, prominent business men in the Eau Claire area, donated land to be used to establish fair grounds, racetracks, driving grounds and other sporting events. These donations of land were presented to the City of Eau Claire for the enjoyment of all the residents. The first of these series of parks was located at the top of State St. hill. It remained active until 1910 when it was moved to the bottom of the hill, east of the University of Eau Claire on Garfield Avenue.
A major segment of this property was heavily wooded and became a favored recreational driving park. It became so popular that Henry Putnam added a clause to the deed stating that this area was to remain natural – and of this date, it 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 to 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 was overrun by expanding residential subdivisions. With this loss of the track and stables, residents that lived in the Garfield Avenue, South Dewey Street area discussed organizing an informal riding club. This group of approximately 20 individuals became the original members of the new Bit and Spur Club, organized on October 10, 1925. They were primarily polo riders and named this new organization after their old club, The Bit and Spur Club. The first show of the Bit and Spur club took place in 1925 at the Cavalry Barns on Highway 53 in Eau Claire.
The second annual Bit and Spur horse show took place in 1927 at the junction of Altoona Avenue and County Road A. From an informal and unplanned future, the group was dedicated to building a quality organization.
The wife of George Ash, a local resident, 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 his wife and club members to assist in finding property where their activities could take place. In 1931 George Ash purchased land for this purpose on the corner of Buena Vista road and County Road E.
The newly formed equestrian group quickly associated itself with the U. S. Cavalry, establishing horse shows and sponsoring exhibition events for the members.
It was inactive for three years during the depression, and was reorganized in 1933. The first show at the new location on County Road E, also known as Cameron Street, 6 miles west of Eau Claire, was held on June 12, 1938.
The 1940 show had equitation classes, open hunter, ponies, amateur owners, five-gaited, three-gaited, parent and child (with parent riding too), pairs classes (man and a woman) and senior championships.
The current club house is a full log building that was constructed in the 1940’s and accommodated club meetings, dances, chicken and beef dinners, pancake breakfasts and smorgasbords.
In the 1950’s they met weekly for rides of two or three hours with dinner and a social time afterwards. In 1979 the club merged with the Eau Claire Trail Riders, another popular, long standing Eau Claire area equine organization.
In the early 1990’s shows attracted competitors from Canada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota. Not all Bit and Spur members ride, but nearly all have a history of riding. The 88 stall barn on the grounds was paid off in 1994.
In recent years, the Bit and Spur Club has been the site of many breed shows including Saddlebreds, Morgans, Arabians, Quarter Horses, and even the Lipizzaner Stallions. Some club members celebrate third and fourth generations of belonging, working and riding. In any given show you can see riders aged from three to 83. The club is committed to continuing this legacy and has become known as a prestigious equestrian organization.
The club celebrated its 90th year of operation in 2018. The club does not recognize the three years it was not in operation during the depression.
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, Gordon Petshaw and many others for their generous contributions to this article.