By Danny Crownover
Back in the old days, hundreds of horses and mules were sold in downtown Gadsden by auction. Most of the animals were driven through the country by what was called horse drovers. Sometimes the drovers were the owners but mostly they were professionals, men who knew how to handle a hundred or more animals on a long trek without exhausting or losing any en route.
It was always an interesting sight to watch a drove of horses or mules pass through town. A gray horse was usually the leader, for it is the nature of horse or mule to follow a gray animal. The drovers ferried the animals across the Coosa River and every animal was put across in safety.
Sometimes wild or adventurous animals would break for liberty on side streets, but the men in the saddles quickly rounded them up without ever halting the main procession. On the whole, the professional drovers had little serious trouble. They herded their droves onto narrow ferry boats and crossed streams without ever having a loss. There were no tricks of horse or mules that they did not know.
There were no automobiles, electric cars or motor buses in Gadsden to hinder the passage of a drove along any of the streets, but the dummy engines on the street railway system in the early 1900s frequently caused a mild stampede.
An early animal auction in Gadsden was held at the livery stable of B.A. (Ben) Kyle, which stood on the site once occupied by the old J.C. Penny store in the 500 block of Broad Street. The horses and mules were herded into a large lot that dipped down and under Tunnel Block, a depression caused by erosion.
In the late 1870s, a large number of Texas ponies, wild and unbroken mustangs from the great plains section of the southwest, were shipped to Gadsden by rail. They sold from $12 to $25 each. Every time a pony was driven or ridden, it had to be broken. Once it gave up bucking and jumping, the mustang proved to possess more stamina and could do more hard traveling than anything on four feet.
There were times when crowds got a lot of amusement in watching men and boys trying to stay on the backs of those mustangs. The most successful rider was Miss Nannie Hardwick, a member of a prominent family of both Etowah and Cherokee counties. Nannie was born and raised here but had moved to Arizona in early girlhood. She wore a medal for being the champion horsewoman of Arizona. Nannie could lasso and mount and ride one of those bucking broncos like nobody’s business. Not a one mustang ever came near getting her out of the saddle. Some of the men who had bragged about their “cowboy days” in Texas were not as successful as Nannie.
Many horse and mule auctions were held downtown in front of the Bellenger livery stable on Court Street. Buyers came from all adjoining counties and there was never a time that the drovers failed to dispose of every animal they brought to the area. Such public sales gradually decreased until there were few sales of any kind, since
the horse and the mule that once did the plowing in northeast Alabama were being replaced by gasoline driven tractors and reapers and the like.
Around 1903, this advertisement appeared in the local newspaper:
“We will sell at public auction a carload of extra good unbroken horses, weighing from 900 to 1,100 pounds at Gadsden, Saturday, October 31, at 10 a.m. – Sullivan & Bramlett.”
That same year, Sullivan and Bramlett found a good market in Gadsden for numerous carloads of horses and mules. Their stables at Fourth and Chestnut streets were frequently filled with Tennessee mules and horses, and the building frequently rang with the chant of the auctioneer.