TRUE TALE

A ride over the grounds of this sto­ried es­tate brought back mem­o­ries of peo­ple and horses who changed my life.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Hope El­lis-Ash­burn

Re­turn to Milky Way Farm: A ride over the grounds of this sto­ried es­tate brought back mem­o­ries of peo­ple and horses who changed my life.

Rarely have I looked for­ward to a trail ride as much as I did that day. The weather was just about perfect as I pulled out of my farm on my way to pick up two friends and their horses. To­gether we would make the 125-mile trip to a place I’d been yearn­ing to visit for years: Milky Way Farm near Pu­laski, Ten­nessee.

Es­tab­lished in the early 1930s by Frank Mars of Mars Candy Com­pany, and named for the candy bar that made his for­tune, Milky Way Farm orig­i­nally en­com­passed 2,805 acres and em­ployed more than 900 peo­ple. The prop­erty had more than 50 miles of white plank fence and 30 barns, most painted the sig­na­ture green and white of the Milky Way wrap­per. The farm was renowned for its live­stock op­er­a­tions---Here­ford cat­tle, a com­mer­cial dairy, Hamp­shire sheep, cham­pion show mules and Thor­ough­bred race­horses. Gal­la­ha­dion, win­ner of the 1940 Ken­tucky Derby, trained here.

To­day, Milky Way farm spans 1,100 acres, and it’s open to tours, events and trail rid­ing. But a visit meant much more to me than a pleas­ant out­ing on a lovely prop­erty. My own per­sonal his­tory is deeply in­ter­twined with this place, and even at my ma­ture age, I could hardly con­tain my ex­cite­ment as we turned off the main high­way and ap­proached the farm’s en­trance. I was awash with the emo­tions at­tached to a thou­sand mem­o­ries, both good and bad, of horses and peo­ple who had long since slipped into my past.

Nearly 30 years ago, at the age of 16, I wrote an es­say that would change my life. An Ara­bian horse club was spon­sor­ing a geld­ing give-away con­test. I didn’t think my es­say was es­pe­cially grand, but it was se­lected to re­ceive one of the top awards. As a re­sult, I formed a life­long friend­ship with the own­ers of Kim­brook Ara­bi­ans, who had do­nated one of their geld­ings to the con­test---my prize was a horse who would be­come my com­pan­ion for the next 25 years.

Two years after the con­test, I was of­fered a job at Kim­brook, which then oc­cu­pied a por­tion of the for­mer Milky Way Farm. The job came with the op­por­tu­nity to live in this amaz­ing place, and I jumped at the chance.

I grew up on a farm, so I was used to hard work, but at Kim­brook I learned to be in charge and to make my own de­ci­sions. I was to be­come at least par­tially re­spon­si­ble for 50 Ara­bian horses. I cleaned 27 stalls daily, turned out stal­lions and fed and groomed. I hauled shav­ings and hay. I swept the barn aisle. I emp­tied, scrubbed and re­filled wa­ter buck­ets. I be­came leaner and stronger than ever be­fore.

On mem­ory lane

Once parked, we un­loaded and tacked up our horses, then headed up the main drive, past the hitch­ing post where Frank Mars once tied his per­sonal rid­ing horse, Bad News. We con­tin­ued past the Tu­dor-style manor house, a sprawl­ing stone, stucco and tim­ber struc­ture. Although I had seen this house many times be­fore, my friends’ re­ac­tions helped me to ap­pre­ci­ate it anew through their eyes. I re­mem­bered the first time I had been in­side the house, which was run down at the time. Still, as my foot­steps echoed through the empty halls, it was easy to en­vi­sion the grand man­sion as it once had been. To­day, it is fully re­stored, and we be­gan mak­ing plans to re­turn just to tour the house.

Far­ther down the road we passed a group­ing of di­lap­i­dated barns. Although the his­tory of ev­ery struc­ture isn’t

known, these may have housed the Mars fam­ily’s per­sonal rid­ing horses. The cur­rent own­ers have pledged to re­store as much of the prop­erty as pos­si­ble, but some of the barns seem to be be­yond re­pair. Still, even in their present state of de­cay, hints of their for­mer beauty re­mains.

The horses hes­i­tated as we ap­proached a stone and con­crete bridge lead­ing away from the main sec­tion of the farm un­til one brave soul crossed first. With that, we left the main prop­erty and moved on so that I could show my friends the barn where I had worked.

The Thor­ough­bred show barn is be­lieved to have once been home to Gal­la­ha­dion along with other long-ago Stakes win­ners. From the late 1970s to the early 2000s, this was one of the barns that housed Kim­brook Ara­bi­ans. The barn has been fully re­stored, and en­ter­ing it to­day, it was easy to re­mem­ber how I felt the first time I saw its beau­ti­ful stone walls, chan­de­liers and the wind­ing stair­case to the up­stairs apart­ment where I would live---this was op­u­lence on a scale I had never seen.

As we passed each stall, mem­o­ries flooded back, and I shared sto­ries of the horses who once lived here---the stal­lions who snorted and pranced their way down the barn aisle on their way to turnout, the lovely brood­mares I groomed each day. One in par­tic­u­lar be­came spe­cial to me. A sweet, ma­tronly mare who was the dam of my own trea­sured geld­ing. Be­ing able to work with her al­lowed a glimpse into an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion and the breed­ing that had cre­ated my horse. I also came to know my horse’s grand­sire while feed­ing him his daily mashes and work­ing the tan­gles from his long mane with my fin­gers.

In 1989, not long after I had moved out to attend col­lege, a fire broke out that very nearly de­stroyed this beau­ti­ful build­ing and claimed the lives of sev­eral horses. For many months after­ward, I re­turned on week­ends to help the Kim­brook own­ers re­build. With great pride, I pointed out to my friends which stalls I had helped con­struct and which win­dows I’d in­stalled.

With the re­build, the num­ber of stalls was cut in half, and the own­ers in­stalled an in­door round pen and an ex­pan­sive in­door rid­ing arena. While the barn was never the same to me, it was still part of my his­tory, even in its new form.

Kim­brook Ara­bi­ans moved out years ago, but that’s a tale for another day. To­day the barn stands empty. The cur­rent own­ers of­fer it as a wed­ding venue.

We con­tin­ued our ride, through miles of woods and shady trails along fenced-in field crops. Along the way we passed the re­mains of the dairy op­er­a­tion, some worker cot­tages and a sin­gu­larly beau­ti­ful hay barn, its roof a unique com­bi­na­tion of bar­rel and gam­brel ar­chi­tec­ture.

Fi­nally, on our way back to the trailer, we ar­rived at our last stop---the Thor­ough­bred train­ing track and the site of one of my pri­mary goals for this trip. It had long been a dream of mine to gal­lop my horse on the same track where a Ken­tucky Derby win­ner had once worked. My heart pounded with an­tic­i­pa­tion as we drew near.

Our horses were get­ting tired, though, so in­stead of gal­lop­ing we opted to can­ter over about half of the mile-long track. Still, our horses were an­i­mated and seemed to en­joy the op­por­tu­nity to stretch out and run a lit­tle after a day of walk­ing se­dately on the trails. Amid our shouts and laugh­ter they snorted and blew as they pulled up, all of our ex­cite­ment echo­ing what it might have been like on an ac­tual race day.

Even as we packed up for the ride home, my friends and I be­gan mak­ing plans for a re­turn trip. I had so en­joyed show­ing them this place, which meant so much to me, and yet there were still so many sites we wanted to visit and trails to ex­plore. Rid­ing the Milky Way may be some­thing we do many times in the years to come.

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