The Story of the Germantown Charity Horse Show
Former Master of Fox Hounds (MFH) Bart Mueller inspired the founding of the local Oak Grove Hunt, which led to the formation of the Germantown Charity Horse Show. Mr. Mueller had experienced fox hunting in Maryland and South Carolina and gave visions of this ancient sport to the neophytes of West Tennessee.
Former MFH Walter N. (Sonny) Foster, Sr. recalls that the Saturday hunts and Sunday afternoon trail rides led to organization of the Oak Grove Saddle Club in 1946. “On Thanksgiving Day of that year, we invited everyone we knew who would like to trail ride to come to a barbecue at the Scout Hut of Germantown School. About 75 people showed up with nearly as many horses. The response sparked the whole idea for a horse show.”
The first Germantown Horse Show was held in 1947 at a new privately-owned show ring and barn located at present-day 7930 Poplar Pike. Three gentlemen from Jackson, Tennessee were invited to manage and participate in the show: Emmet Guy as show manager and announcer, and Jimmy Exum and Haskell Belew as hunter/jumper exhibitors. Out-of-town guests called for hospitality, so a square dance was held in the loft of the barn the night before the show — the first exhibitors’ party. Traditions were being established, and the dream was taking shape.
Three events in 1948 were important to the creation of the horse show as we know it today. Mr. Foster continues: “With the encouragement of Audrey Taylor and Ray Firestone, the LeBonheur Horse Show of Memphis added a Local Working Hunter Class, which drew a number of Germantown entries.
This brought nationwide recognition of the new sport in our community.” In addition, the Oak Grove Saddle Club became the Oak Grove Hunt Club, with Raymond Firestone and Mr. Foster as Joint Masters. Steered by Bart Mueller’s experience, the hunt soon became recognized.
The third event that supported the development of the show was the alliance of the Oak Grove Hunt Club with the Germantown Civic Club. The Civic Club had long been aware of local interest in gaited and walking horses and the two organizations perceived that joining forces would benefit the whole community. Committees from both groups worked together to stage the 1948 horse show at the Ralph B. Hunt Field of M.C. Williams High School in Germantown. The official program stated that proceeds would go to carry on projects of both organizations, and that “a large portion will go to pay for the lights under which this show takes place tonight.”
Local merchants, friends, and many businesses in Memphis placed ads in the 36-page program. Some space was used to explain the sport of fox hunting, to encourage the participation of children, and to welcome exhibitors. One quarter page advertised: “Germantown, Tennessee founded in 1836: 16 miles to Memphis, the Cotton Metropolis of the Americas, a city of 343,000 well satisfied citizenry.”
Ten afternoon classes were designed to appeal to novices and youthful riders. Here the traditional costume class began. Three hunter classes were interspersed as well. The ten evening classes established the all-breed tradition by scheduling classes for hunters, jumpers, three-gaited, five-gaited, fine harness, roadster, and walking horses.
The First Charity
After the conclusion of a very successful 1948 show, the Horse Show Committee from both the Hunt Club and the Civic Club agreed that benefiting a charity would increase public interest and participation. Gailor Hall for Boys (later called Boys Town) was designated as the recipient of proceeds from the 1949 show.
The delay did not dampen enthusiasm for food and drink and the Civic Club concession stands did such good business that the decision was made to abandon their annual Germantown Carnival in order to concentrate all efforts on concessions for the proposed annual horse show.
By the 1950 show, the Germantown Charity Horse Show Association had been chartered by the state. Oak Grove Hunt Club and the Germantown Civic Club each elected five members to be directors of the Horse Show Association. These ten directors would choose an eleventh member.
Oak Grove Hunt elected W.N. (Sonny) Foster, Sr., Daniel E. West, Winston Cheairs, Gordon Meeks, Jr., and Claude H. McCormick.
Newspaper accounts from the 1949 show report that 5,000 people were expected at the May 21 evening show and 140 horses from six states were on hand to compete.
Germantown Civic Club elected John R. Stivers, George M. Chapman, Boyd Arthur, Sr., Bill Spangler and Art Hawkinson. Judge F.M. Henderson was elected as the eleventh man.
The 11 directors were already friends and neighbors and many were members of both organizations, so the dream and drive were unified. The extent of the unification is documented in The Huntsman’s Letter of October 5, 1947. A notice read, “Wanta’ Swap? Judge Henderson will get a hunter if someone will buy one of his gaited horses!”
John R. Stivers was elected the first GCHSA President in 1950, and the Memphis Union King’s Daughters sponsored the show for the benefit of the Home for Incurables, a King’s Daughter’s project. “This is truly a community project,” Mr. Stivers said. “Everyone in Germantown has pitched in and tried to make it a success.”
Show manager was Eddie C. Eggert, who for the past four years had managed the American Royal Show in Kansas City. Box seats were installed around the temporary ring with the judges’ stand forming an island in the center.
Author William Faulkner and his family came from Oxford, Mississippi to see the show. In 1951 a three-year contract (was signed) by officers of the Horse Show and the Memphis Union of Kings Daughters to continue their successful partnership.
GCHS Featured on Crosstalk
This episode of Crosstalk, the award-winning show produced by Germantown High School TV was produced during the 2016 Germantown Charity Horse Show. It is a 30-minute in-depth look into the history and organization of our all-breed show and the contribution our event makes to the community.
Close Calls Signal a Need for Change
Experience began to reveal weaknesses in the facilities and the dreamers began to envision the perfect horse show ring. For instance, the judges’ stand in center ring shielded horses that broke their gait from being seen by the judge on the opposite side. However, all show rings had the judges’ stand in center ring, so we wondered, “Do we dare change?”
An incident involving the temporary ring revealed the need for a safety hub rail to protect the bikes. The ring was made of fencing stretched on metal fence posts. In one roadster class, the announcer had just called “Turn ’em on” and the roadsters-to-bike leaned on their traces. The pace picked up to a furious rate, when suddenly the hub of a bike wheel hung in the wire fence, jerking the wheels free from the bike and leaving the driver on the seat with shafts and reins still attached to the horse. The driver reined in as quickly as possible, while the announcer intoned in a calming voice, “Go at ease, go at ease.” By this time, the driver was running behind his horse, reins in hand, and the secretary’s stand breathed a sigh of relief.
On another occasion, a high-spirited jumper took all the jumps in the ring and, not satisfied with that success, jumped the gate that enclosed the ring, scattering right and left spectators who clung to the gate. At that point, the dreamers planned an in-gate and out-gate, two lanes to control horse traffic. So it was that the momentum picked up and the GCHSA forged ahead to find a new site for the show.
“This is truly a community project. Everyone in Germantown has pitched in and tried to make it a success.”
— John R. Stivers, First GCHSA President
The Perfect Show Arena
Just east of the high school football field was a l6-acre tract owned by Earl Dickey. Mr. Dickey had allowed members of Oak Grove Hunt to construct a three-quarter mile track around this property for the purpose of holding the Oak Grove Spring Mule Races. The racetrack had been constructed on a rim of a natural bowl, with a levee built up on the low side. With the eye of a landscape architect, Bart Mueller saw that it would make a unique and perfect horse show arena, and he suggested enlarging the already low area to make a bowl with natural stand on three sides.
Mr. Dickey was approached about the idea, and he agreed to sell the property to a responsible group if it guaranteed that the land would be used only for community recreation. Directors of the horse show invited representatives from Oak Grove Hunt, Germantown Civic Club and the City of Germantown to meet at the schoolhouse to discuss the possibilities and responsibilities of building the perfect arena.
Experts in various fields were asked to report. David McGehee gave a presentation on construction; C.C. (Bubba) Burford discussed the city’s interest in a custodial relationship, and John Stivers represented the horse show in discussion of legal and financial aspects. As a result, the Horse Show Association became the vehicle for producing a community park, which includes tennis courts, playground and picnic grounds, and horse show facilities.
… the Horse Show Association became the vehicle for producing a community park, which includes tennis courts, playground and picnic grounds, and horse show facilities.
Moreover, it provided a sound program for financing the park. Germantown Charity Horse Show Inc. issued bonds and offered them for sale to local citizens. Some of the facilities were built with these funds and proceeds from the annual horse shows.
Upon the redemption of the bonds, the Horse Show Association was free to lend the Civic Club the necessary $2,000 down payment on the property purchase. The Civic Club then deeded the park property to the City of Germantown with the warranty that it would forever be used for recreational purposes. For the Horse Show Association to make permanent improvements, it was given a 50-year lease with the understanding that by mutual agreement the lease could be renewed indefinitely.
The Civic Club continued to operate all concessions and, in addition, received a share of the profits from the horse show. With these funds, an additional 16 acres between the arena and woods was purchased. This area was needed for parking and eventually for more rings and stabling tents.
The show ring was graded and enclosed with a board fence, whose hub rail was placed at the correct height to protect the bikes. A stand for judges, announcers, and the show secretary separated the in-gate from the out-gate. Director and architect David McGehee oversaw the design, drainage and construction of auxiliary buildings. This arena, the first of its kind on the horse show circuit, has served as a model for other rings.
In 1954, the show was scheduled to open on Thursday, May 28. The rains came. The fresh-turned clay in the bowl became a sea of mud; even the grassy upper level was soggy and soft. Drastic measures were initiated to get ready for the show. During a lull in the rain, the ring was plowed all night in hope of turning up dry soil; truckloads of sand were added to the arena and sawdust was shoveled into pathways, all to no avail. Opening night was delayed until Saturday night.
The ring was decorated with red, white and blue bunting (another tradition), but the weather had no regard for such niceties. However, one feature could not be harmed: the white iron grillwork on the judges’ stand, which had been loaned by an ornamental iron company. All parties hoped it would become a permanent fixture, but when the final figures were in, an additional barn had a higher priority.
Growth and Progress
The horse show grew and more days and nights were added to accommodate classes for more horses. A greater variety of breeds was introduced and crowd-pleasing exhibitions were added. These included such acts as the Curtis Candy six-pony hitch to a miniature stagecoach, the Miss Budweiser World Champion jumper, the 1st Calvary Horse Platoon from Ft. Hood, Texas, and Dinwiddie Lampton & J.V. Renfroe vintage driving carriages.
Events that appealed to different interests were added on a trial basis, such as a tennis tournament, a Horse Show Queen contest and a Grand Ball. The tennis tournament was eliminated, but the Queen’s Ball is still a highlight of the social scene. In 1950 women served on most, if not all, committees, although they were not members of the association. They were exhibitors, secretaries, publicity writers, photographers, decorators, trophy buyers, ad-sellers, hostesses and grooms.
When it became apparent that the secretarial work was needed year round, an executive secretary position was created. Bess Barry held that position from 1952. Her father, Jack Barry, had been mayor of Germantown for 26 years (before mayoralty was a salaried position) and he promoted and aided the horse show.
The Suburban Garden Club also has played a role in many horse shows, with its members decorating the ring, the entrance, the jumps, and the area for the exhibitors’ party. Many dedicated exhibitors have stood behind GCHS.
Abe Atfater, who entered the first show on a walking horse and later switched to a roadster, was on hand at every show. The late AW. Lasley of Jackson, Tennessee was proud to say that he brought his roadster to the first GCHS and had entered every one since that day. If he ever took a blue ribbon, it was not at Germantown, but still he came every year, only to place second or third. He loved his sport, and he loved contributing to the joint effort of producing something good.
Individuals are dedicated to the GCHS, and the show is dedicated to the sport. In order to continue to be successful, certain guidelines have been engraved into the building stones:
- There is no show without exhibitors; therefore, their comfort, accommodations and entertainment are of top priority.
- There is no profit without generous contributors and sponsors; therefore, every honor, acknowledgment and thanks should be given to these silent partners.
- There is no excitement without spectators; therefore, the show must be entertaining, lively and on time. There should be horses or exhibitions in the ring at all times—one class entering the ring as another leaves. The next class is called to the warm-up paddock as soon as the in-gate is closed.
Story by Betsy West