A Knoxville woman’s quest to answer a family member’s question led her on a 12-year journey that resulted in a book about one of the county’s most famous equine residents.
Ellen Williams recently released “Out of the Woods: From Deerfield to the Grand Circuit,” detailing the impact of her ancestor’s stallion, Old Dan, who bred multiple winning standardbred race horses.
Williams, whose mother’s maiden name is Wood, went through a horse phase as a young girl. She recalls bringing home a Marguerite Henry’s children’s book, “Born to Trot” about the famous standardbred race mare, Rosalind. One of her parents said that “someone in the Wood family had a horse like that.”
She thought little about it until years later at a family reunion when someone asked her, “Are the stories I heard about Wood’s Hambletonian, are they true?” followed by “You should find out.”
What she found out was not only did the family once own the stallion, but the rich and powerful, horse racing enthusiasts beat a path to the Deerfield Township farm to purchase the offspring.
The peak of the trotting era ran from 1860-1920, about the same time as railroads, mining and tobacco farming were all playing a role in re-shaping the nation. People wanted horses, fast smooth moving trotters that could pull carriages quickly from one point to another.
The standardbred horse was bred from a variety of horses — thoroughbreds, Narragansett pacers, Morgans, Norfolk trotters and hackneys — with one qualification for registration: being able to trot or pace a mile in less than the standard time of two minutes and 30 seconds.
Rysdyk’s Hambletonian was a foundation sire of the breed and the grandfather of Old Dan, which became known as Wood’s Hambletonian Jr.
“Someone knew these stories before us. We didn’t know and it was not all pulled together,” said Williams.
Her search took her 10 years, digging into genealogical archives on family trips, learning the ins and outs of standardbred racing and lingo, along with discovering online archives that filled in the gaps of the story. She kept color-coded notecards of the various horses in the book, listing the name, bloodlines and race records — pink for mares, dark green for stallions and light green for geldings.
Standardbred racing in the early years was a roughneck sport. An 1877 article on a race at the Oneida County Fair details how two horses owned and trained by the same man were fraudulently entered in the same race, another horse was “held back” to allow a horse with higher odds to win, and a third horse had been “painted” and entered under a different name as a ringer. Entries were disqualified, heats re-run and the pay-offs made.
The Wood men — father, son and grandsons — stayed closer to home, passing the stallion down through generations. Old Dan was an active progenitor, breeding race horses for the Vanderbilts and Wall Street stockbrokers, as well as horses for local residents that could pull plows during the week and the family to church on Sunday. Several of his offspring also made their mark on local racetracks at Knoxville, Tioga and Wellsboro.
Williams’ book details the story of several of Old Dan’s offspring on the Grand Circuit, the top tier of the harness racing world. The Woods men did attempt to enter the Grand Circuit, but in little more than a year had returned home, disillusioned by it all.
Writing and editing took another two and a half years.
“It’s been fun and I would have had no idea that a family I thought was regular farmers were producing animals that connect us in that way to the Vanderbilts and Mark Twain,” said Williams.