April 1890: Gen. W. H. Jackson refuses to let his “famous five” go

In 1888, Judge Howell Edmunds Jackson, owner of Belle Meade Stud in triad with John Harding and Gen. William Harding Jackson, expressed his desire to retire from the breeding business.


The New York Times, 04/25/1890

Upon hearing this news, Harding and Gen. Jackson set out to purchase Judge Jackson’s interests; however, the three parties were unable to come to an agreement. Ultimately, John Harding would relinquish his interests to the brothers Jackson, leaving the two men sole owners of the property and bloodstock contained therein. Gen. Jackson then attempted to buy out his brother for sole ownership, but once again an agreement could not be reached, resulting in Judge Jackson suggesting that the farm’s stock be disposed of at auction, so that the public could set an appropriate value on each animal. Gen. Jackson, with no intention of losing his bloodstock, agreed to his brother’s suggestion, but stated that he would be an active bidder on the day.

The dispersal was initially set for the autumn of 1889, but was later delayed until April of the next year, the time of the farm’s annual yearling sale, where from April 24-25, 1890, sixty-one yearlings, seventy-six mares, and five stallions would appear on the auction block.


The New York Times, 04/26/1890

While heavily publicized and attended by somewhere between 500-600 individuals, the sale would be a dispersal in name only, as Gen. Jackson would buy back a total of fifty-two broodmares and stallions for $107,275, including his “famous five” of Bramble, Enquirer, Great Tom (GB), Iroquois, and Luke Blackburn, and broodmares Bric-a-Brac, Tarantula, Touch-Me-Not, and Tullahoma.

Now that the bloodstock matters had been settled, the issue of property remained, as Judge Jackson still owned a half-interest in the Belle Meade property. He would transfer his interests (under private terms) to Gen. Jackson in June 1890, at which time it was written that:

“Gen. Jackson has spent the best years of his life in perfecting and making famous this home of the high-bred race-horse. While he has encountered many difficulties, he has risen superior to all of them, and now finds himself the sole head of the most famous of American thoroughbred nurseries. At the sale in April he purchased the cream of the mares, wisely letting pass some of the more undesirable ones, thus greatly strengthening the stud.” (The Daily American (Nashville, TN), 06/14/1890)

“There was something pathetic in the summary dismissal of so many mares from the ring. They had seen their best days in the nursery, were now knocked down at one-tenth of the price they might have commanded in earlier years. This unthinking dishonor of self-sacrificing maternity, which had given up the glossy coat and symmetrical form in order that many offspring might rejoice in what the mother had lost, was strikingly contrasted by the spell of excitement which fell over the hitherto listless crowd when the last mare was led out and the great stallions were announced.

For a moment, whispered conjectures of the probabilities of the sale were interchanged, then there was a dead silence, and then a storm of enthusiastic applause as Uncle Bob entered, proudly grasping the halter of handsome Luke Blackburn.

Luke Blackburn at Belle Meade

Luke Blackburn and Uncle Bob at Belle Meade, date unknown.
Photo: Tennessee State Library and Archives

“You have before you, gentlemen,” said Capt. Kidd, hesitating as if out of deference to his subject, “a horse that is known and admired from Maine to California. He is the sire of Proctor Knott, and by many of the wisest turfmen and breeders, is regarded as the greatest horse in America, for he is certainly the most even and beautiful breeder. You have come from the East and the West. I see among you faces tanned by the breezes of the Atlantic and bronzed by the suns of California. You have come to witness and participate in the sale of this immortal stallion. How much am I bid to start him? Will you give me $20,000?”

The crowd for the most part was inclined to catch its breath at such figures. Some few sat coolly in their seats as if considering the proposition. The skillful auctioneer ran quickly down the gamut of possible starts until Ed Applegate, of Louisville, sang out $5,000. Uncle Bob’s large eyes rolled anxiously in the direction of his master, but already Gen. Jackson’s head had fixed the bid at $6,000. There was a lull. The spectators were excited, and Applegate did not seem inclined to follow his bid with another.

While the auctioneer was urging him to put up $500 more, their parley was interrupted by a calm voice near the canvas across the ring, saying, $10,000. It was Van Kirkman, bidding for Reuben Payne, of Knoxville, proprietor of Shepherd’s Bush Stud, in the county where Blackburn was foaled. Uncle Bob was in an agony of suspense as the bids were quickly interchanged, and there was no pause until Mr. Kirkman’s original bid had been doubled. Capt. Kidd talked on, but his eloquence was in vain. “Breeders of the United States,” he said, “you are being weighed in the balance.”

This appeal seemed to excite a little interstate pride, and there was a stir in the crowd. Uncle Bob watched until he saw nothing was coming of it, and then with triumph in every smiling wrinkle of his intelligent face, he called out, “Colonel, Colonel! The scales won’t balance!”

And Uncle Bob was right. Urge as he might, not a bid was offered the eloquent auctioneer by the silent assemblage. “When my hands close he is a sold horse,” Capt. Kidd cried, and the hands slowly approached each other.” Long before the intended climax was reached, however, the eager stable boys had carried the dapper gallant of the stud from the ring, as if they were rescuing a loved one from death, and cheer after cheer resounded through the pavilion as Gen. Jackson was declared the owner.

Uncle Bob was ecstatic. “Three cheers for Tennessee!” he cried, waving his hat in the air, and every man there joined him. Gen. Jackson was called on for a speech. “I do not know which affords me the greatest pleasure,” he said, bowing, “the ownership of that noble animal or the good will you extend to me. I have labored twenty years to build up this stud, and nothing is more grateful to a man than to know that his efforts are appreciated by his friends.

It was evident after this that Gen. Jackson was determined to have the sale all his own way, and the burst of admiration that greeted the superb Iroquois as he entered the ring was not blended with the excitement of uncertainty that had trebled the volume of Blackburn’s applause. The auctioneer called a start for several minutes with no response.

Then Mr. William Easton, of New York, himself a wealthy dealer, and holding a commission to bid high on the famous Derby winner, said: “I will give $15,000 for that horse.”

The murmur from the crowd had scarcely subsided before a desultory war of bids began to wage thick and fast. It ended in a few seconds by George E. Wheelock, the bookmaker, and Gen. Jackson, being left alone in the fight, hurling $1,000 advances at each other with incredible swiftness and apparent disregard for any pecuniary considerations. The crowd was standing on tip-toe, breathless with interest. It was understood that the great “Lucky” Baldwin, the magician of the Santa Anita Stables, of California, was behind the nervy bookmaker, and there was no telling where the giant race would go.

It was already $26,000.

“Twenty-seven?” asked the auctioneer.

Wheelock took it.

“Twenty-eight,” said Gen. Jackson.

“Twenty-nine,” nodded Wheelock.

“Thirty,” said Gen. Jackson, and his antagonist promptly answered, “Thirty-one,” but when the auctioneer proposed the next move he faltered. Thirty-three thousand dollars – that was something to think about. He would not look at the auctioneer. Gen. Jackson sat serene and confident, ready to bid down any adversary. “Thirty-three thousand dollars, gentlemen,” said Capt. Kidd impressively – “Tennessee against America!”

There was a swelling in every Tennessee heart, and they lifted the canvas with their cheers. “Is there no further bid?” asked the man on the box. “Then I close him.”

Sam Nichol, who was holding the halter, cried out excitedly, “You make shore you close him on the right man!” and every citizen of Nashville echoed Sam’s appeal. The bookmaker turned and nodded his head.

“Thirty-three thousand,” announced the auctioneer.

Quick as a sparrowhawk Gen. Jackson said “Thirty-four,” and the fight was ended. Again the enthusiasm knew no bounds and Uncle Bob embraced the princely horse as he received him to his own again.

There was no more bidding. Everyone realized that Gen. Jackson was determined to keep his stallions at any cost, and when Enquirer and Great Tom were brought in there were only the praises of the crowd and the eulogies of the auctioneer, who had, in Great Tom’s instance especially, been selling from them ever since he had learned the arts of the block, but the bidders were silent and the fine old stallions walked out, coveted by many, but coveted in vain.

“No one need have had any anticipation of leading that horse out,” said Gen. Jackson, as Great Tom passed from view, “I had no more idea of giving him up than Iroquois.”

Some idle bidder seemed to have discredited this, for when Bramble entered he bid $1,000, but he was scared off at $2,500, and the last of the famous five went back to the old, familiar paddocks as if there were no such possibility as leaving home.

Thus closed the greatest sale ever held on the soil of Tennessee – probably the greatest in America – and on the brow of the old Volunteer State were placed the laurels of a new supremacy; $66,490 had been brought by the yearlings, $77,300 by the broodmares, $58,500 by the stallions. In all, $200,290.” (The Daily American (Nashville, TN), 04/26/1890)

Grave of Enquirer on the grounds of Belle Meade Stud. Photo: Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Grave of Enquirer on the grounds of Belle Meade. Photo: Tennessee State Library and Archives.

“Enquirer and Great Tom were not sold, the managers of the sale refusing to allow them to be bid on, after the crowd had shown no disposition to start them for $1,000. This was owing to their advanced years. Gen. Jackson said that he would take them himself at that price, keep them until their death, and then lay their bones beside those of Vandal, Bonnie Scotland, and other dead heroes of Belle Meade.” (The New York Times, 04/26/1890)


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