A horse of another color
Late on a cold December night, a pickup truck towed a two-ton horse through downtown Athens. The sides of the truck were covered with cardboard so that no one would recognize the owner, whose company name was painted on the doors.
About 20 miles down Ga. 15, the truck stopped and the horse was unloaded. It was left in the spot in which it got stuck in the mud, its rear end facing the university that shunned it.
The year was 1959.
Now, more than 50 years later, the campus is coming to the horse. This past spring the Curtis family, which owns the land on which the horse has stood since its final move, sold 660 acres of its property to UGA for horticulture research. However, they kept the 400 square feet around the horse and an easement from the highway to the statue.
“It’s an integral part of us,” Jack Curtis (AB ’55) says. “I personally saw it being built, and consequently I’ve always thought it was a part of me.”
Jack Curtis (AB ’55) was a student when Chicago artist Abbott Pattison created the two-ton sculpture. Four years after the horse was removed from campus, Curtis and his father, L.C., requested that they be allowed to move it to their farm. The family has since used the horse as a logo for their gravel and sand business.
Curtis was a UGA student when the 12-by-12 foot iron horse sculpture was built for the university. Lamar Dodd, then director of the School of Art, commissioned Chicago sculptor Abbott Pattison to do the work. Pattison, who died in 1999, previously had chiseled a granite sculpture he named “Mother and Child,” which still sits on campus behind the Fine Arts building.
Iron sculpture made its debut following World War II and was still a new concept. When the “modern art” was erected on campus near Reed Hall in May of 1954, it immediately drew outrage from students.
“It was an oddity,” Curtis says. “There had been nothing at the university like it before.”
Students gathered around the statue that evening. They climbed it, put hay in its mouth and manure at its rear. When night fell, someone placed old tires around the horse and set them on fire. When firefighters arrived they had to turn their hoses on the 500 to 700 students rioting near the horse to get them to settle down.
“There was no rhyme nor reason for having the turmoil,” Curtis says now.
In the 1980 documentary “Iron Horse” that aired on PBS, Pattison expressed shock at the student’s reaction.
“I welded it so it would last against the elements, but had no idea of the human element that would be involved,” he says. He viewed the riot as a form of lynching, and was devastated to see something he had created with pride so hastily rejected by the student body.
“The nature of the sculpture was unconventional. It didn’t look like a bronze horse that was cast in the Middle Ages, but we were living in another day, and my horse was a horse of another color,” he says in the film.
Within a day the horse was loaded on a truck and taken away from campus, the first of three moves. It was initially stored in a barn out of sight of the public. When the barn fell in on the horse, the statue was carted to a wooded pasture. In 1958, Curtis and his father, L.C., wrote to Dodd asking that they be allowed to move it to their farm. Dodd agreed, and roughly one year later the horse made its final move to a cornfield along Ga. 15 owned by the Curtis family.
“We’ve had it for quite a few years,” Curtis says. “Clarke County has lost it. If possession means anything it’s ours. I like it where it is.”
Since taking ownership of the horse, the Curtis family has used it as a logo for the family-run gravel and sand business. It’s on a sign at the road leading to the business, on the company letterhead and business cards. The office is adorned with photographs and paintings of the horse.
UGA student William VanDerKloot (BS ’74) knew nothing about the horse until someone mentioned it at a party. He drove out to see it that very night.
“I was just awestruck by it,” says VanDerKloot, who founded VanKerKloot Film and Television in Atlanta. He produced and directed “Iron Horse,” which won a Gold Award at the 1981 Chicago International Film Festival. He shot the film on the Curtis’ property, using fraternity members to recreate scenes from the campus riot.
John English, associate producer of the documentary and professor emeritus at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, says they could never find out who made the decision to remove the horse after its first night on campus.
About a decade ago, there were discussions on campus about bringing the horse back, but English says it’s in its rightful place.
“It’s in a beautiful location,” he says. “I don’t see any place for it on campus.”
It has become a popular site for students. Listed in the UGA Alumni Association’s G Book as a destination not to be missed by students, many make the trek down Ga. 15 and through the cornfields to see the horse. Visible most months of the year, it can be difficult to spot come summer when the corn is almost as tall as the horse.
“Mother and Child,” a granite sculpture that sits behind the Fine Arts Building, also created by Pattison.
“We know it’s a good crop if we can’t see the horse’s head,” Curtis says.
When Curtis tills the land around the horse he’ll notice passers-by look toward the sculpture as they round the curve. Once, a boiler inspector lost control of his truck and flipped over while staring. During football season, scores of people call to ask if they can get pictures with the horse.
“Some people will say they know they’re home because they see the horse,” Curtis says.
And while it remains off campus, the horse’s legacy still resonates with lessons to be learned.
“The horse is a perfect example of how we should all be tolerant of new and interesting ideas,” VanDerKloot says.
“Some things don’t change,” Curtis says. “The Chapel bell hasn’t changed. It’s nice to say the horse hasn’t. The older things get, the more you’re going to revere them.”