The (nearly) lost legend of the mighty Joe Young

Before the gorilla movie, there really was a mighty Joe Young. He was the magnificent, world-class trotting horse stallion, a harness-racer, that crowds came to see in Peabody.

Yes. Peabody, Kansas.

But the world portrayed in Joe Young’s era of the 1880s and 1890s does seem a place far, far away.

Joe Young’s remains are still there, reportedly buried under a lilac bush in a farmyard on a place known to locals as the Dorothy Craig Farm now overseen by Terril Eberhard a mile and a half west of Peabody on U.S. Highway 50.

The race track is still in Peabody City Park, and the old Charles E. Westbrook farm, where champion pacers were grown, is still south of town.

Joe Young makes a statement even from the grave. Muriel Wolfersperger, a member of the Peabody Historical Society, said the horse was buried in a standing position rather than laying down, a rite “supposedly reserved for very famous horses.”

It seems his memory nationally is obscured-not necessarily by time, but by the performances of his own descendents.

Giving his name to researchers at the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y., elicited no excitement until it was realized he was the grand sire of Joe Patchen, a horse foaled at Peabody.

Joe Patchen was the sire of the famous Dan Patch, a horse that trotted the mile in less than two minutes at 1:55.25. That’s one minute, 55 and a quarter seconds; done long before any human broke a four-minute mile.

Peabody and all of Marion County were dynamic, changing places during the time of Joe Young. According to records from the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, the number of horses in Marion County had gone from 407 in 1870 to 13,246 in 1891.

The 1870 census showed 663 persons in Marion County, but by 1890, the county had 20,137 residents. The county had the highest concentration of foreign-born persons of any county in Kansas in 1895 with one in four born in other nations.

Peabody, as one of the centers with a higher concentration of American-born residents, was also slated to be host to what was an American-born tradition.

According to the historical record, harness racing gone out of style with the decline of the Roman Empire. The sport was revived in America as rural residents desired to see who had the fastest pacers in races down country roads.

According to the Goshen museum’s records, in an article written by John Hervey in the 1930’s for “The Harness Horse,” Joe Young was coming from the new harness racing tradition before he ever saw Kansas.

His records are further verified by the “American Horse Breeder” of New York and Boston of March 1895.

Joe Young was foaled in Minnesota, sired by “the inbred Morgan horse, Star of the West, and out of a mare by Green’s Bashaw,” Lady Gregory.

Green’s Bashaw was the son of Vernol’s Black Hawk by Long Island Black Hawk, son of Andrew Jackson, and so on showing that the racing tradition was getting well established through long genealogies before coming to Kansas.

“Star of the West was a horse that was trotted extensively for a period of some 17 years taking a record of 2:26.5, acquiring a reputation for speed, endurance and gameness, and until within a few years was regarded as one of the very best in the Northwest,” the 1895 article states.

The stage was set for Joe Young to come to Kansas, for Westbrook to pay a big price for him, and for trotting enthusiasts to seek a horse that would break the two-minute mile record.

The museum record says, Joe Young, a black horse with “quite extensive white markings,” was sold as a weanling for $200 and taken to Texas. There he was sold when seven years old for $3,500, and when 10 years old for $10,000- “which would certainly indicate that he must have been a horse of far more than ordinary value.”

According to historical records at Peabody, “Mr. C.E. Westbrook purchased Joe Young, then three years old, of William Ward, who had led him behind a mover wagon from Minnesota to Texas and then back to Kansas. Mr. Westbrook liked Joe Young, as did Mr. Ward, so he gave Mr. Ward 80 acres of land with $500 worth of improvements, 22 cows, and $500 (cash) for Joe Young, which was a big price then (1890s).

“Mr. Westbrook made Joe Young a world’s champion. When 20 years old, hitched to a high wheeled sulky driven by Willis Westbrook, he made a record of 2:18 (no other record was found for Joe Young), which is a world record for a horse of that age.”

The year was 1896, computed from records that say C.E. Westbrook was 63 at the time. His obituary said he was born in 1833.

“He was sold for $10,000 to Willis Westbrook and (Charles) Rathbone, the first horse foaled west of the Mississippi to sell for that much money.

“Joe Young was the (record says sire; corrected to grand sire because of materials from museum) grand sire of Joe Patchen, who had a record of 2:01.25, and was known as the iron horse. He was sold away from Peabody and went on to set many records. Joe Patchen sired the world’s greatest horse of all time, Dan Patch, who made the record of 1:55.25, a record unbeaten for 30 years. Dan Patch was sold for $60,000.

“There were many other horses raised in Peabody that made racing records in Kansas, Missouri and elsewhere: Silverthorne, Gold Dust Maid, Thornfield, Willis McKinney, Ray McKinney, Silver Sign, all trotters, and produced by the Westbrooks.

“Silverthorne sired four trotters in the 2:10 class, including Kirkwood Jr., bred at Peabody. He won two years in his class, and was taken to Austria where he was for three years the best track horse in Europe.”

C.E. Westbrook, according to his obituary at the New York museum, regarded Silverthorne, at 2:12, his greatest horse, but still regarded Joe Young fondly as his first great trotter.

The Peabody Record states: “But for old-time horse fanciers of Peabody, Joe Young was the favorite. Folks would attend the racing events just to see Joe Young race. He was injured in a storm, and had to be destroyed.”

Shreves Avery, president of Peabody State Bank, and the last descendent of the Westbrook family to still live at Peabody, said his family really didn’t hand down any stories about Joe Young or the other horses.

“All I know about horses is I don’t even like to make loans on’em,” Avery joked.

Avery’s grandfather, Willis Westbrook, didn’t maintain an interest in horses. Instead, he may have started Avery’s own tradition when he was president of the the First National Bank of Peabody.

Willis retired in 1931, and Avery said the owners in California decided to discontinue the bank without him. All he knows about Joe Young is that the horse must have been profitable in the races he won and prolific in progeny for his grandfather to share in paying $10,000 for him.

The Goshen records say Joe Young sired Josephine Young, a natural trotter, who was bred to Patchen Wilkes, a stallion from the Cheney (Kan.) ranch purchased by Erie County, N.Y., millionaire stove-manufacturer Henry C. Jewett.

Hervey wrote that Patchen Wilkes was a black horse of remarkable beauty but ugly disposition, “being a natural man-eater…after he had been taken to Kentucky, he became so savage that he was kept chained in his stall, his feed was shoved in to him from a respectful distance, and when it was necessary to bring him out, several grooms, armed with pitchforks and other persuaders were required for the job.”

Nevertheless, the breeding of the black horses with white feet and face stripe, produced the birth of a similar looking offspring, Joe Patchen.

Hervey wrote: “That event took place on the farm of Charles Rathbone of Peabody, a small farmer of limited resources whose place was improved by the usual run of buildings to be found on small Kansas farms 50 years ago; those seedy, shambling, grief-stricken structures that were depressing just to view in transit, and typified the struggles their owners were experiencing in the effort to keep half-a-jump ahead of the sheriff.

“Once upon a time a Kansas man sent me a photo of the crazy weather-beaten stable in which the immortal Joe first saw the light of day. As the cradle of a king, nothing more humble could be imagined; and as one surveyed it one could only meditate upon the marvels which proceed from the most unlikely origins.”

Joe Patchen was the first pacing stallion to go as fast as 2:03 in 1896. His various track records, which were numerous, stood until Dan Patch broke them.

It was difficult to find more information from old newspaper files other than a brief mention Sept. 26, 1889, that “Charley Westbrook’s horses are known on all the important race tracks….”

Westbrook died in 1911.

As for Peabody, its status as a racing center with a race track grandstand adequate to seat 2,000 people, plus seating space on the grass, helped enable it to host one of two state fairs in 1885.

In addition to the regular horse races at the fair, a daily Roman chariot race was held with each chariot pulled by four horses. One was driven by a woman.

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