Draft animals are those used for pulling or drawing things. Horses, mules, and oxen were widely used as draft animals in West Virginia through the 19th and early 20th centuries in agriculture, transportation, logging, and mining. Draft animals are still bred by enthusiasts today and still employed in useful work.
Draft animals were common on farms well into the 1940s, with mules more often found in southern West Virginia. Oxen, which are castrated bull cattle, were mostly used in earlier times. Although oxen worked more slowly than horses, they usually did not need shoes, ate about half as much, and required only a homemade yoke instead of an expensive harness set. They worked better than horses in rough, muddy, and steep terrain.
Oxen of the American milking Devon breed, medium-sized, red cattle, were used for fieldwork and hauling on farms as settlers began moving into the region. As the name implies, Devon cattle could also be milked and provided beef for the pioneering family. Other oxen breeds used in West Virginia included beef and dairy types such as Aberdeen Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, Ayrshire, and Holstein.
By the 1870s, the larger draft horses were employed in farming throughout the state, although seldom as purebreds. The influx of Percheron and Belgian stock increased the size of working horses used in the fields. Mules were also popular among West Virginians for working garden crops, cultivating potatoes, and plowing.
Freight-hauling teamsters traveled the early roads with horse-drawn wagons. Such wagons served as the main land transportation in the region until railroads were built in the latter half of the 19th century. Stagecoach lines operated along the Midland Trail and other turnpikes, including a Lewisburg-to-Charleston line whose coaches were pulled by four to six horses.
After the Civil War, as railroads replaced turnpikes in West Virginia, draft animals supplied the muscle for conveying cargo to and from the railroad terminals. Draft horses were used extensively to distribute goods in towns and cities during the 19th and early 20th centuries, with breweries, meat packers, and dairies often using fancy delivery wagons. In West Virginia cities during the 1880s, there were several horse-drawn streetcar lines whose cars were later replaced by electric trolley cars.
Draft animals, especially oxen and horses, were important in early logging. Before the mechanization of woods work draft animals were the only practical means of getting logs out of the deep hollows. Loggers used heavy chain and a variety of hooks, grabs, and couplers to fasten logs to the horse’s harness and to each other. During the 1990s, Daniel Richmond used oxen for selectively logging his land in Raleigh County, finding that oxen have a minimal impact on the land compared to industrial logging.
Early coal mining used several types of draft animals. Mules bred from large draft horses were known as ‘‘mammoth mules’’ and worked in high coal seams or pulled heavy loads on track outside the mine. Oxen and Belgian horses also worked in the higher seams. Smaller mules were used in the lower seams. They sometimes worked at a crawl and did not panic when their ears touched a low ceiling. Miners also used Shetland ponies in the low seams to pull carts loaded with coal. Animals lived underground in some mines and were blind upon returning to the surface.
The oil and gas boom of the 1890s in northern West Virginia employed teams from livery stables and local farms to haul drills, pumps, and pipe. A compressor base hauled from Macfarlan to Smithville, Ritchie County, in 1914 required two dozen heavy horses. Horses also hauled large timbers to field sites for construction of wooden oil derricks.
By the 1950s it was considered backwards by many in West Virginia to own horses for farm work. In many cases, owning draft horses could keep a farmer from qualifying for a farm loan. However, there was a renewed interest in draft animals around the state during the 1960s and 1970s. The West Virginia Draft Horse and Mule Association was formed in 1984, with ownership of draft animals experiencing a revival that has continued into the new century. Kept as a hobby by many, the animals are also in practical everyday work by those sensitive to the impact of heavy machinery in logging and farming.
This Article was written by Scot E. Long
Clark, Nancy. Midland Trail. Wonderful West Virginia, (Dec. 1979).
Goodwin, Jacqueline. Gentle Giants: The Draft Horse Revival. Goldenseal, Summer 1986.
Millimet, Lisa Gray. 'All They Knew was to Pull and Get It': Daniel Richmond about Then and Now. Goldenseal, (Summer 1997).