Whisper on the Wind – The Tom Bass Story – December 2008
Read part one of this story here: http://horseconnection.com/
CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS
If you missed part one of Whisper on the Wind you can read it HERE
Before Jackie Robinson ever donned a Dodger uniform
– there was Tom Bass.
Before Rosa Parks ever demanded a seat in the front of the bus
– there was Tom Bass.
Before Martin Luther King ever had a dream
– there was Tom Bass.
Before Barack Obama ever ran for President
– there was the legend of Tom Bass – the black horse whisperer.
Born a slave, the friend of Presidents, the most famous Black American horseman this country has ever known, today his story is consigned to oblivion. Yet, once his name was a household word synonymous with equestrian feats of unparalleled beauty
But he didn’t start out famous. He started out in chains.
AN UNEXPECTED GUEST
Tom Bass was too stunned to answer at first. He had discovered Columbus when he was just a colt, frolicking in a field full of cows. He had paid $100 for the gangly young gray. And now here was the famous Buffalo Bill Cody standing in his parlor asking to buy him.
He stood there mute.
“Money’s not an issue,” Cody said.
Tom Bass hesitated, remembering how he and Columbus had brought down the house when they cantered backwards at the famous St. Louis horse show. He, the first black American to ever ride there had won on this gray dream of a horse.
“He’ll get the best of care,” Cody said.
Columbus was more like a son to him and Angie than a horse Tom thought.
“Well Mr. Bass,” Cody asked.
Tom Bass drew a deep breath.
“Lets step outside Colonel Cody,” was all he said.
HORSE TRADIN’ POKER
If there was one thing Tom Bass knew well it was how to play horse-tradin poker. He had learned at the hands of old Joe Potts, his white mentor and the most influential horse trader in Missouri. Tom had seen plenty of men go all shaky at the sight of a beautiful horse, reach for their wallets and to hell with the cost. Tom wasn’t one of them. He kept his secrets well.
As they walked to the barn trading small talk Tom recalled what he knew about Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody. Why the man was a genuine American hero, rode for the Pony Express, fought in the Civil War for the Union in the 7th Kansas Cavalry, later awarded the Medal of Honor by Congress for fighting Indians and now he was traveling around Europe showing kings and queens and commoners the sights and sounds of the legendary American West.
But what settled it for Tom was Cody’s seldom known role as a friend of horses. The Colonel had quietly brought Clydesdale, Percheron and Cleveland Bay stallions out west to his ranch in an effort to help breed up the horses of the western range. He had a reputation as an expert rider, derived from his years as a stagecoach driver, scout and outdoorsman. He was above all a Horseman.
Tom had Columbus brought out. He put him through his paces, while an astonished Buffalo Bill stood at the side of the ring shaking his head in amazement. Columbus did the Spanish Trot, changing his leads on every other step. The magnificent gray leaped and landed like a tiny ballerina. When Tom cantered Columbus backwards around the training ring Colonel Cody clapped wildly.
None of that mattered. Tom had already decided Columbus should go to the Colonel. His cherished equine friend had a bigger part to play now. As always, Tom put the welfare of his horses before his own financial gain. Money was exchanged. It didn’t matter. A friendship was begun. A trust passed on. Columbus left with the setting sun.
Tom Bass had reached heights of fame as a horse trainer and show ring rider that he could never have imagined as a barefoot slave child. His reputation for fair dealing and phenomenal results brought rich and famous men from all over America to his training stable in Mexico, Missouri.
Theodore Roosevelt journeyed to the small Missouri town to ask Tom to provide him a well-trained mount for the New York saddle paths. Every Missouri governor was now a friend of Tom Bass, and quite often seen riding a Tom Bass horse.
Being black in the lily-white world of the show ring had taught Tom early that the one thing all horsemen understood and respected was results. In an era riddled with open bigotry, his training stable was free of racial antagonism. He employed both whites and blacks with the understanding that they were all horsemen first and Black or White second.
His brother-in-law recalled years later that Tom Bass never considered a man’s color, just how the fellow treated Tom’s horses.
“His theory was that one should be efficient and forget about race. He worked both white and black men. It made no difference. The main thing he was interested in was results. He became so absorbed in the art of training he forgot all about a man’s race,” Joe Harris said.
The Tom Bass stables were conducted along the lines of a New York finishing school for girls. While Tom still trained equine outlaws, as boarders he only accepted the best aristocratic and pureblooded horses. The fees were a steep $30 a month and the horse was required to stay a minimum of ten months.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Tom Bass however could not hide at home. As his records mounted in the show ring he was forced to confront the ugly racial bigotry he had been quietly fighting since his illegitimate birth forty years before in a Missouri slave cabin.
Through it all he retained a sterling reputation as a gentleman both in and out of the show ring.
He won the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893.
After a winning round in the show ring, a white antagonist asked him if the famous Tom Bass bit, which he had invented, was named after his former master.
He rode the famous mare Miss Rex to the championship at the St. Louis Fair Championship Stake.
A list was circulated among Missouri show horse riders, urging them to petition that Tom be barred from the ring because he was black. Several white friends crushed the idea.
He was the first black American to ever ride in Madison Square Garden, the guest of the Vanderbilt family.
When he went to Los Angeles to compete and win at the annual Pacific National Show, he traveled in a private railroad car provided by the train company’s owner, in order to circumvent the Jim Crow laws that would normally have forced him to ride in a second-
Most difficult to deal with was the fact that many of the same men who competed against him in the show ring expected him to present himself at their back door when he came to discuss training their horses.
The cruelest blow came when he showed up to compete at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. He was told all blacks were barred from competing. An unknown white contestant had complained to the Fair board that he felt uncomfortable competing in the show ring against a black man. Tom quietly loaded his horses back on the train and went home.
Meanwhile outrage grew across America at the injustice inflicted on the man the Canadian horse world called “the greatest living competitor alive.”
The Fair rescinded its ignorant decision and the next year Tom Bass came back leading a string of quality show horses. The Tom Bass onslaught at that year’s Fair is still remembered. He went on to win more ribbons and break more records than any other competitor in history. His overall record for winning still stands.
Despite the prejudice he encountered Tom Bass achieved a degree of racial immunity largely unheard of in his day. President William McKinley came to his home, as did the famous statesman William Jennings Bryan. On one of his visits to the Bass home, Buffalo Bill Cody brought along a young Oklahoma cowboy named Will Rogers, who earned his supper by doing rope tricks.
As the new century began Colonel Cody briefly returned Columbus to Mexico, Missouri so that Tom could show the gray gelding in the 1902 Mexico Horse Show. By this time Columbus had toured Europe and most of America. School age children in dozens of countries had seen the wonderful horse canter backwards with the equally legendary Buffalo Bill Cody on his back. The little gray colt Tom Bass had brought home as his first brag horse, was now the world’s most preeminent equestrian star.
There in the Mexico show ring, with an expectant crowd holding their breath, Tom asked Columbus to rear up and stretch into a perpendicular stand. For some unknown reason the mighty gray toppled backwards, crashing down and crushing Tom Bass beneath him.
Before the horrified audience Columbus scrambled to his feet. Seeing Tom on the ground unable to rise, Columbus tried to render assistance. He pawed at the ground, and then tried to lift Tom with his teeth. It was no good. Tom Bass, America’s foremost equestrian rider was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
COLUMBUS TO THE RESCUE
Tom Bass was told he would never ride again. His pelvis was crushed and he was lucky to even be alive. The news had traveled around the world. Even the London Times wired the Mexico, Missouri newspaper inquiring about Tom’s health.
For twelve pain-filled months Tom was house bound as he slowly healed. He told his wife Angie he could recall how Columbus had looked down at him with bitter regret after the accident.
“I’ll never forget that look. He looked at me with as much concern as any person would have,” he told her.
The next year word came to Tom regarding Columbus.
The Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show had come to Columbus, Missouri for a two-day show. As usual an equestrian parade through the town’s main street preceded the opening of the show. A vanguard of cowboys led a contingent of mounted Indians, Cossacks and Arabs. Connestoga wagons and the Deadwood stage rumbled along behind.
Coming down Broadway at the head of the Conestoga was Columbus. He was mounted on a large flat wagon drawn by three teams of horses. He stood on the wagon with his hind feet on the floor and one fore foot perched on a two-foot pedestal. The other forefoot was on an even higher pedestal, giving the gray horse a classic circus pose. Mounted on his back sidesaddle was a beautiful young girl who was waving at the crowd. Despite the jerky action of the teams and the cobble-stoned road Columbus stood like a statue.
Then something spooked the teams. The wagon starting careening downhill, the driver unable to hold back the six rushing horses. Cowboys and Indians charged in pursuit, ran alongside the runaways and finally managed to drag them to a halt.
When the wagon was stopped the town’s eyes all turned to Columbus. The fantastic gray had not budged. The girl was scared but unharmed. Columbus had saved her life as well as his own by not moving an inch during the emergency.
Later Buffalo Bill sent Tom a special letter expressing his pride and thanks for allowing him to own such a remarkable and courageous horse.
When Tom heard the news, he told Angie, “I’m getting up.” Still racked with pain, he walked slowly to barn and mounted a horse. Tom Bass would not quit.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
At the tender age of nine Tom Bass had taught the family mule to canter backwards. During the course of his lifetime he owned, trained or rode many of America’s premier horses. Today names like Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Mario Andretti are recognized in any American household. In Tom Bass’ day the horse was the hero and any small child would have recognized the names of Rex McDonald, Lou Chief or the Hambletonian Stud.
However next to Columbus, Tom Bass is most closely associated with one of the most famous show mares ever known in America, the legendary Belle Beach.
It had been two pain-filled years since his accident on Columbus, when word reached Tom that the famous show mare Belle Morris had foaled a black filly with a white star on her forehead. Tom hurried to the barn of his old employer, the shrewd horse trader Cyrus Clark. Twenty years before Clark had been opposed to letting Tom work in his Mexico Horse Sales Company because of his race. Clark’s partner and Tom’s friend, Joe Potts, had overruled Clark arguing that Tom Bass was the finest judge of horses he had ever known.
Now Potts was dead and here was Bass anxious to buy Clark’s newborn mare.
The haggling went on for days, with the price always creeping up, not down.
It didn’t matter to Tom.
He knew his bloodlines. This little mare was born to be special. Her daddy was Forest King. She was running almost purebred Denmark blood. Tom Bass knew that this tiny mare was the culmination of decades of careful breeding.
But Clark finally priced her so high Tom had to reluctantly withdraw. At three years of age Belle was sold for an astronomical price to an Army captain who wanted a buggy mare for his wife. A few months later, after having tossed said wife through a plate glass window, the captain sold the high-strung Belle Beach to the patient Tom Bass.
Belle was named after a famous debutante society girl of the Gay 1890’s. She was one of the fastest gaited mares anyone had ever seen in Missouri. Word began to spread that this one was different. This one was special.
Tom Bass prided himself on his humane training methods. He spurned the whip, the spur, the club, and even a harsh word. Instead he brought Belle along gently, coaxing, giving her enough to hold her interest, and then quitting. He never tired her, treating her instead like a puppy, to be loved and handled with the gentlest of care.
She took to basic training like a lady.
Tom decided that she was not going to be just another winner. She was destined to be the best.
While not keeping her a total secret, Tom kept Belle’s training closely guarded.
When the time for her debut arrived the horse world was impatiently waiting to see what Tom Bass was hiding.
“Tom Bass on Belle Beach,” called out the announcer. The show ring went quiet as the beautiful black mare cantered gracefully into the ring. When Tom brought her to an abrupt halt, the band started playing softly. Belle reached for the sky, rose up on her hind legs and stretched to her full height. With her forelegs high above her head, she made a dainty full circle. It was the task Columbus had attempted before falling back on Tom.
She came gracefully to the ground and began a collected Spanish Trot that was perfect. Then she trotted backwards around the ring. The crowd went wild.
Bringing her to a halt in the middle of the ring, Tom slid out of the saddle and faced Belle. The band started playing the waltz, “After the Ball was Over.” To the crowds amazement Belle started waltzing to the music, dancing and gliding in time with her master. Then the band struck up “Turkey in the Straw,” and Belle gave an equine hoedown. As the music concluded, Belle kneeled to the crowd.
No one had ever seen or heard of such feats from a horse.
Tom Bass had trained many a horse. Years earlier a British colonel had appeared at the conclusion of one of his spectacular wins and personally invited Tom and his horses to sail to England, where he would be the honored guest of Queen Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee in London.
Tom gracefully declined the honor, telling the colonel, “I’m sorry sir. My horses and I are poor sailors.”
Now many years later, after Belle Beach’s initial remarkable debut, a special delegation from France had arrived to inspect the talented mare and see if she was, as the Americans claimed, “the greatest high school horse in the world.”
At the conclusion of her performance the Frenchmen told Tom, “Messier Bass, we have not watched a horse perform. We have seen instead a wave of water.”
Tom Bass had reached the pinnacle of his career. Queen Marie of Rumania made a special point of visiting St. Louis in order to see him ride Belle Beach in the program. President Calvin Coolidge invited Tom to ride in his inauguration parade. The bare-foot slave child had reached the top of his profession.
Earlier in his career a devastating barn fire had ripped through one of the largest show barns in his hometown of Mexico, Missouri. Tom and dozens of others hurried to form a bucket brigade. It was too late. The flames gutted nearly a block of downtown Mexico. But even worse was the sickening screams of the 30 horses trapped inside the inferno.
Tom never forgot the sound of those horses in agony.
From that point on, he saw that all of his horses were bedded down on special black earth he had brought in by wagon to his barns.
In the summer of 1910 Tom’s worst fear struck home.
His beloved Columbus burned to death in a barn fire in Augusta, Georgia.
To make matters worse Tom discovered Buffalo Bill Cody had sold the famous horse to the 101 Wild West Show, who had in turn leased him to “carnival people.”
The practice of leasing or lending out an act or an animal was a common practice in those days. It was a method of recouping some of the operating expense during the off-season.
It made no difference to Tom Bass. Columbus had become a living legend throughout America. His picture had graced countless circus posters and dime store novels, showing him and Buffalo Bill Cody racing after buffalo, saving helpless damsels from ferocious Indians or leading the Wild West show. He was America’s first equine legend and now he was dead due to negligence.
Shortly afterwards the Miller brothers, millionaire owners of the 101 Wild West Show, came to Mexico to try and buy another Tom Bass horse to replace Columbus. They expressed interest in Tom’s newest marvel, a legendary gelding named Louis A. who was winning blue ribbons in every category. He was similar in size and color to Columbus, another reason the Miller Brothers wanted him.
The conversation between Tom Bass, a man reputed to have never lost his temper and the Miller Brothers was not recorded. What is known is that they were astonished when he turned down any offer they made on Louis A.
None of his horses were for sale to the 101 Wild West Show he told them. In fact Louis A. was being sold to a young doctor for thousands less than what they were offering. The good treatment of his horses meant more to Tom Bass than money.
DEATH COMES RIDING BY
Tom ended the show season early that year. The doctors discovered he had lost most of the grip in one hand due to the accident with Columbus. He took it in stride. Every year he promised Angie it would be his last in the show ring. He and Belle Beach rode together until 1928, amazing crowds right until the end. She was known as the Dowager Queen and was still going strong at age 24 when she retired. That was the year the New York newspapers declared Tom Bass, “An American Phenomenon” and “American Horseman Emeritus.”
In 1931, at the age of 72 Tom Bass entered the show ring for the last time.
He suffered a heart attack while competing in the show ring. Friends who rushed to his side had to pry the old man from the saddle. They gave him a little whiskey, then hurried him home. He never fully recovered and never rode again. Belle Beach died in his barn the next year. Tom Bass followed his beloved mare less than a year later.
The country mourned the passing of its greatest horseman.
Tom Bass, the child born in slavery, the man who was told he couldn’t ride because he was black, the man who spoke to horses and always put their welfare before his own, that man was mourned by white and black Americans alike. He had been friends with five presidents and ridden in three presidential inaugurations.
Will Rogers wrote his eulogy.
“Tom if old Saint Peter is as wise as we give him credit for being, he’ll let you ride in on horseback and give those folks up there a great show.”
Soon after his death well-wishers came to the Bass home to check in on Angie Bass. Over the decades Tom Bass had given away hundreds of his blue ribbons as souvenirs to friends. Nevertheless the visitors started counting Tom’s pile of blue ribbons heaped in the bottom of Angie’s china cabinet.
With hundreds more to go, they stopped counting at 2,000.
To coincide with the publication of this article, The Long Riders’ Guild Press is proud to announce the imminent release of the inspiring biography, Whisper on the Wind – the story of Tom Bass, celebrated Black Horseman. This ground-breaking work was created by the noted African-American journalist turned author, William Downey. A portion of the royalties will be used by the Audrain County Historical Society so as to preserve the historic Tom Bass collection of artifacts, as well as to promote the astonishing legacy of this mounted forefather of equality. For more information about this forthcoming
title please visit www.lrgaf.org And for more information on Tom Bass visit www.audrain.org