Petaluma’s Past: It was horses (as well as chickens) in the 1880s

Skip Sommer takes us back to the 1800s, before Petaluma was all about chickens|

Believe it or not, there was a time when Petaluma was mostly all about horses.

Yes, the “Chicken Thing” had been gaining strength, ever since David Wharff brought some chickens to Penngrove in 1852. But in the 1880s, the horse industry was the dominant one in Petaluma. Such major Petaluma names as Harrison Mecham, Theodore Skillman, Ezekial Denman, James McNabb, Hiram Fairbanks and John McNear were all importing, breeding and selling horses here in the ’80s.

And, of course, attendant industries were abundant.

For instance, we had the American Stables on Kentucky, City Stables on Western, and A.A. Spotswood selling buggies, carriages and wagons. There was Ellsworth & Northroup with harness, saddles, blankets, robes, whips and axle grease, plus G.P. McNear and Golden Eagle for feed and hay, J.G. Scott for “agricultural Implements,” and Bauer & Co. for the Oliver Steel Plow (best for Adobe soil). Julius Peterson could handle wagon and carriage painting. There was W.F. Edwards (“Colts broke to saddle or harness”) and don’t forget James O’Neill horse shoeing. Robinson & Farrell on Main had the Studebaker Wagon franchise and William Zartman also sold wagons. Both Zartman and Farrell, by the way, would become mayors of Petaluma.

Denman and Fairbanks eventually opened banks, and McNear would become … well, everything.

The most popular equine breeds here were workhorses.

All the major plowing, seeding, cutting, baling, raking and hauling had to be done by horse power. Ranchers wanted the biggest and strongest, and the four best breeds were Belgian, Percheron (from France), Shire (from England) and Clydesdale (from Scotland). All of these 2,000 lb. draft horses were not only powerful, but also docile - qualities that were considered very necessary for the pre-industrial farmer.

You likely have seen some of those Roman-nosed Clydesdales in Budweiser ads.

A popular crossbreed of the Percheron and the thoroughbred was the French Norman Horse. This horse was a shade smaller and speedier, but still big on endurance. They had become well known as the cavalry horse of the French army and were said to be “Showy in motion and very stylish.” They made excellent buggy horses, and this was the breed that Theodore Skillman imported to Petaluma.

At age 19, Theodore had sailed around the horn in 1849. He did not find gold, but he did open a successful bakery and general store in Nevada City. Ten years later, he came to Petaluma and settled 160 acres. Skillman wanted to raise Norman horses. It was not until 1876, however, that he was able to travel by the new cross-country railroad from Oakland to New York and thence by ship to France. He reversed that trip with a stallion and five mares and was to make that trek annually for some years, bringing scores of draft horses here from Belgium, France and England. Skillman’s “Magnolia Stock Farm” became famous for the French Coach Horse. Skillman Lane was named for him, and Skillman, James McNabb and E. Denman were co-founders of the Petaluma Stock Breeders Association.

In 1848, at age 15, Harrison Mecham drove a team of oxen to California, and he did strike it rich. In ‘53, he purchased a herd of 600 longhorn cattle and brought his gold and his longhorns to our town, buying a 7,000-acre parcel from Mariano Vallejo. Harrison drove those nasty critters right through downtown Petaluma, and eventually became our county’s largest landowner. His draft horse of choice was the Clydesdale, and he imported and sold a lot of them. Mr. Mecham maintained a trait, carried down from the gold fields, of always carrying a sidearm wherever he went (the NRA would have loved this guy), and Mecham Road is named after him.

G.P. McNear’s workhorse choice was also the Clydesdale. He named his stables “The Clydesdale Horse Co,” an adjunct to his giant McNear Milling Co. He charged $50 for the service of his champion stallions, and if the mare didn’t produce a foal, they could be brought back next season for another “servicing,” at no charge. Along those same lines, Marin County horse breeder P.J. Shafter advertised in our Weekly Argus that his stallion named Rustic, “breeds large and is a horse of great docility and brain. A boy can handle him. A lady has driven him.”

Wow … even “a lady?”

Rustic’s servicing price was also 50 bucks.

Hiram Fairbanks liked the Percherons, “Pedigreed in the stud books of France.” He claimed his horses were, “Young, hardy, large and rangy.” He had, he said in ‘86, “35 head of the grandest display, all in spacious fireproof stables. We will defy competition.”

Mr. Fairbanks also promised to,“sell our horses cheaper than they can be bought east of the Rocky Mountains.” His stud farm was an adjunct to his big Golden Eagle Milling Co., which he also built from his success in the gold fields. Mr. Fairbanks erected Petaluma’s largest Victorian mansion, and it still stands, on the Northeast corner of 8th and D Streets.

Petaluma’s population was 6,000 in 1886, and we had become famous for our cattle, our poultry, our dairy, our grain and … our horse ranches. The Argus bragged, “Our farmers never before took deeper interest and care in the rearing of horses, breeding with reference to muscle and power of endurance. Our county is widely known, because of the superior quality and excellence of our horses.”

Well, okay. But that same year we had also shipped out 98,000 dozen eggs via steamer on Petaluma Creek. Chistopher Nisson had started raising chickens in ‘68 and Lyman Byce had invented the chicken incubator here in ‘78. Indeed, we were, in ’86, starting to become “Egg City,” as well as the horsing-around thing.

Everything of course, was to change as we morphed into the early 1900s, and something called “The tractor” was soon to be seen pulling those Oliver Steel plows over our hard Adobe soil.

Oh well … the memories are fun.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary member of the Petaluma Historical Museum and Heritage Homes. You can reach him at

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