Polk County Horse Country: The equestrian tradition

The history of Polk County is the story of the horse. It is true, of course, that the early history of any area includes the reliance of people on horses for transportation and work, but in our community that reliance has continued to this day.

The first two ‘historical’ events of our area may be legend, but they make for good stories and just might be true.

In 1539, the Spanish conquistador, Hernan DeSoto, landed on the coast of Florida and marched inland. His line of march took him through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and western North Carolina, but did he pass through Polk County?

Clarence W. Griffin, in his History of Old Tryon and Rutherford Counties, says DeSoto ‘undoubtedly entered North Carolina by the now famous Hickory Nut Gap.’ If so, the Spanish adelantado could very well have marched through Polk County along the road bed of what is now Highway 9.What a sight that must have been! 600 conquistadors in shining armor and armed to the teeth with sabres, pikes, harque buses, cross-bows; a troop of perhaps 60 horses, a battery of light field pieces; a supply train of ox carts with tethered livestock; and a host of Indian allies…warriors, slaves, camp followers.’

The other early tale, perhaps mythical, perhaps factual, is the report that the first settlers to come into the area found herds of wild horses. If true, this would lend credence to the story of DeSoto’s passage; as native horses were long extinct, the Indians must have stolen them from the Spaniards.

Although the date is not recorded, these first settlers, led by Elijah Clark who later was a hero of the Revolution, began to move into Polk, Spartanburg, and Greenville counties around 1750. Also among the early arrivals were the Earle brothers: John, who built Earle’s fort on the north side of the Pacolet; and Bayliss, who created the fine estate, Four Columns, on the south side. The original Block House, site of the famed steeplechase of the same name, was built around 1756 for protection against the Indians.

There is no mention of horses in the early days but they were there as transportation, work horses, and mounts for the rangers who fought the Cherokee and finally defeated them at the Battle of Round Mountain in 1776.

Patriot cavalry gave chase to British dragoons and routed them after the Battle of Earle’s Ford in 1780; and without horses, the 900 Over mountain Men, who galloped through Polk County in October of that same year, would never have caught Major Ferguson and his Tory militia at King’s Mountain.

In 1812 and 1814, Polk and Rutherford Counties provided four infantry companies and a cavalry troop for service on the Alabama and Georgia frontier during the Creek Uprising.

All was not warfare for the men and their horses, however. The week the district court met was always a big occasion. Griffin states that ‘private accounts were settled, trades were made, and ordinarily there was much horse swapping and occasional trials of speed and other athletic events.’

It would follow that those with the means would begin training quality horses for sport. Griffin tells us the clearing of land for the railroads created race paths as well as eventual means of transportation: ‘About this time (1836) a group of sportsmen from lower South Carolina established a race course from near what is now known as the Dick Owens place in Sandy Plains, about three miles along the route surveyed for (this) railroad.’

Sadie Smathers Patton, in her Sketches of Polk County History, says, ‘Wade Hampton and many of his friends, coming to western North Carolina during the summers, brought with them fine horses which they matched “horse against horse and pair against pair” in driving from one resort center to another.’

These days ended abruptly with the tragedy of the Civil War and the harsh reconstruction thereafter. As a defeated South returned to the land to rebuild their lives, there was not time for horse sport for many years.

This brings us to the modern era, and here, the story of horse sport begins with the name of one man: Carter P. Brown.

Carter Brown was a gentleman from Michigan who first came to Tryon in the fall of 1917. He was a horseman and the man who put Tryon on the map as a horse center. He was the founder of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club in 1925 and its first President;. He also started a fox hunt, the Tryon Hounds, in 1926 and was Master of Fox Hounds for many years. He was the guiding light of the Tryon Horse Show and the father of Steeplechasing in Tryon.

The oldest of these events, the Tryon Horse Show, was founded in 1929. Today, it is a rated United States Equestrian Federation event. However, it was the old show format which was dear to the hearts of the folks in the county. It was held on a Wednesday; many (but not all) of the riders were local; and there was a huge barbecue, free for landowners who let the Tryon Hounds hunt their property. The event was so popular that the schools were let out and most businesses closed for the afternoon.

For most of its long life, the horse show was at Harmon Field but, in recent years, it has moved to the new facility at FENCE (Foothills Equestrian Nature Center). The Tryon Riding and Hunt Club also held another important show at Mr. and Mrs. Willis Kuhn’s Cotton Patch. This was the Junior Horse Show, now sadly defunct as the junior population has dwindled. The Cotton Patch also gained fame as the training site for the US Equestrian Team preparing for the 1956 Olympics. Such equestrian ‘greats’ as coaches Bert de Nemethy and General Tupper Cole; riders Bill Steinkraus, Hugh Wiley, Frank Chapot and George Morris trained here.

The Block House Steeplechase is one of the premier events in Tryon and one which supports much of the horse sport in the area. The first steeplechase in Tryon was run in 1934, a point-to-point at Harmon Field with a variety of stout fences, timber and brush, even a water jump. After three years, the race was discontinued but, after World War II, the first Block House Steeplechase was held in 1947 at the original Block House site. The ‘big race’ was run for a purse of $500. By comparison, today’s feature race carries a reward of $25,000 and the total purse for five races is $60,000.

Despite the attraction of the many competitive horse events: the Block House Steeplechase in the spring, a variety of horse shows and horse trials, dressage shows, and carriage events; the area’s greatest equine attribute is the sport of riding to the hounds.

There are two fox hunts in this area where, many experienced foxhunters will tell you, no better hunting can be found.

The senior hunt is the Tryon Hounds, established in 1926. The Greenville County Hounds, established in 1962, later became the Green Creek Hounds, which was established in 1988.

The commercial aspect of horse sport should not be overlooked. There are many first-rate show trainers and horse farms in the area. Fairview Farm, just over the Carolina line, is one of the finest racing facilities in the country.

Thus, the horse is all-important in Polk County. Horses provide sport, pleasure, entertainment, business and the good country living. Indeed, it can be said that horses are a way of life in this pleasant community in rural North Carolina.