Thursday, April 8, 2010

Old Sam, Thoroughbred Trotter (1955)

Old Sam, Thoroughbred Trotter

Don Alonzo Taylor, il. Lorence F. Bjorklund

1955, Follet Publishing Company

This book is mostly about what happened after we got to our homestead in the Dakota Territory, but I guess I better begin before that and tell how we got Old Sam and how he came to be crippled.

John Scott is 7 when a stranger passes by his family's Mississippi farm with a beautiful grey trotter tied to the back of his buggy. The horse slips on a bridge and breaks a leg, but when the stranger asks John's father to loan him a gun to put the horse out of his misery, the Scott children beg him to reconsider. The owner, already heartbroken, agrees to give them the horse, who makes a partial recovery. He has a crooked and shortened leg and a limp, but he does get back the use of the limb. And for a crippled horse he's surprisingly useful, able to pull a plow and a buggy.

Three years later, in 1882, the family moves west, settling on 480 acres on the Dakota prairies, in a region then known as "The Great American Desert." The family is relatively well-off, and with 12 other horses to do the grueling work of breaking a prairie into cultivated land, the grey is left to his own devices.

But Sam was not idle. He was always on the go - all over the place. He didn't follow us like a dog any more than we did him, for there were times when he would attract my attention with a short whinny and I would see him standing in the distance, his head up and his ears cocked forward, looking in my direction. That could mean only one thing, and I would call to Lee, "Hey, Lee, come on! Sam is waiting for us." He was just one of us, and that is how we treated him.

The cousins John and Lee have various adventures, usually involving Sam.

In the morning, a strange world was spread out before us. The day before, the prairie had been the light faded color of last-year's grass. But in the morning, as far as the eye could reach, the prairie was black as coal. No - not all of it was black. There was something else that attracted immediate attention. Standing out in sharp contrast to the black background were the white bones of thousands of buffaloes, a tragic reminder of the ruthless slaughter that had cleared the plains of these majestic animals in just a few years.

After a prairie fire, John and Lee get lost collecting buffalo bones (used back East as fertilizer and in sugar refineries) and Sam is called upon to find the route home. The horse does, reliable as a watch. But it's two years after the move that Sam moves back into his old world of racing. The boys, challenged by their family's conviction that their victory in an impromptu race was just a kind gesture by their adult opponents, secretly enter Sam in the Fourth of July trotting race against a field of adults driving sound, young horses, including the favorite, Chestnut Prince. When they get to the starting line, however, a combination of distaste for the spectacle of a crippled horse drawing a bulky farm wagon and an uneasy awareness that said crippled horse has a certain reputation for speediness provokes the other drivers to demands Old Sam's withdrawal. The cousins sadly comply, but when the starter shouts "Go!" Sam takes off.

This is far more a pioneer book than a horse book. The horse plays a recurring role and ties the stories together, but this was originally a series of stories the author told his children with the intention of recapturing his pioneer youth, and it's clear that his interest was largely in that experience. This in itself is an interesting story, of course, but it's a little disconcerting when you go in expecting a horsey book. The stories Taylor told his kids became a book when his grown daughter, Hazel Hohanshelt became a teacher and repeated the stories. Inspired by their interest, she began editing them into a book.


The book was reissued in 2008 under the title Old Sam: Dakota Trotter by Bethlehem Books.

About Don Alonzo Taylor


Married Jennie Anderson in 1901, and moved to Oakes, North Dakota. They had four children. In 1924, they moved to California, settling in Alpine, near San Diego.

About Hazel Taylor


Married Forrest Hohanshelt and taught school in Alpine, California.


On Google Books

Bethlehem Books

1882 Map of Dakota

Man standing atop mountain of buffalo bones

Buffalo bones being loaded onto train

Ellendale, North Dakota today

Alpine, CA Chamber of Commerce

Hazel Hohanshelt's obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune


Old Sam, Thoroughbred Trotter

Old Sam And The Horse Thieves (sequel)

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