“As a friend:” Old Joe, a heartfelt memorial in County Runnels
BALLINGER – There’s a sentimental story people tell around these parts, the cozy kind that most never tire of hearing. It’s the one on Old Joe.
Old Joe was not a person, or at least a person like you or me. Old Joe was a horse, and while you might think it’s odd to distinguish him as a person rather than an ordinary farm animal, it’s not that simple.
Old Joe was owned by a country doctor named Walter Weber Fowler, known more simply as “WW”. They both lived and worked in Runnels and Concho counties over 100 years ago. But what elevates their long-standing relationship is the result of a simple act of respect.
A simple white fence
This is something you may have noticed yourself if you drove north on US Highway 83 to Ballinger. Maybe on the east side of the road, about four miles south of town, your eye caught a simple monument in a field, and you wondered.
As far as monuments are concerned, it’s a small thing. You might not even think it’s a monument, just a square space separated by a white picket fence about 100 yards from the shoulder of the highway.
It is still a monument. This is Old Joe’s last home.
Tony Multer has been operating the field where the grave is located since approximately 2005. He leases the acreage from the owners, Bobby and Carol Jennings, and has made a family tradition of maintaining the fence.
Multer has built a personal record of the story of Dr. Fowler and his horse’s grave. One of the documents is a one-page survey written by Jean Ringle, a curious young girl who wrote down what she learned in February 1962.
The newspaper reads like a report card, which it probably did. Young Jean interviewed several people who had direct knowledge of Doc Fowler and his horse, including Hederick Shelburne.
Old Joe remembered
“According to Mr. Shelburne, Dr. Fowler could sit in the back of his stroller, wrap the reins around his hands, back up as hard as he could, and” Old Joe would get to where he was going “as fast as he could. a cat might blink, âshe wrote.
When the doctor let go of the reins, Joe stopped dead, looked around, and immediately brushed against anything nearby.
“When Dr Fowler was late and wanted to go home, he would say, ‘Come on Joe, let’s go home,'” she continues. âDr. Fowler would get in the buggy (and) fall asleep. When he woke up, he would be home.
From her great-uncle Bob Richardson, she learned that Old Joe was “a black-legged buggy horse with a white face and a short tail.” At the end of a long, difficult journey, Old Joe appeared to be white from the foam that had formed on his body from running so hard.
Earlier in the document, Jean recounts how she first asked her mother about Old Joe and her mother poorly remembered the horse as being white. Richardson’s description of a hardworking Joe and his boy was probably the source of this memory.
“We thought old Joe was the fasting horse in the county,” Jean continued. âQuoting Uncle Bob, ‘He could go from here to Eden and come back in a very short time.’ It’s a good 30 miles.
Old Joe died at the age of 31. Jean wrote that the doctor loved his horse so much that he buried it on his land just off the “Paint Rock Highway” south of town, then erected a fence around it. Fowler died on March 14, 1929 at the age of 70 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Ballinger.
A nourished memory
Over the years the fence has been slowly repaired and replaced, first by subsequent owners Norman and Pam Halfman, and more recently by Multer and his family.
I came across a rumor while researching this story that the maintenance of the grave was written as a clause in the original deed for the land, but Multer didn’t know.
âWhen my landlord asked me to cultivate, he didn’t mention (a clause) and I said, ‘Well, that won’t be a problem,’ Multer recalls. “Whether it is or not, we’re going to keep (the grave) and maintain it, because I think it’s a very unique thing.”
As her three children grew older, each Christmas they gathered at the picket fence to give it a fresh coat of paint.
âWe came here and the children wanted to paint. You know how children are, go for it! Multer said laughing. “I’d go somewhere to buy the cheapest paint and let them have it, man.”
Sometimes a stake needs to be replaced, or the weeds inside the small perimeter need to be cleaned up, and Multer turns to him. He once found an old horseshoe nearby and placed it on the fence, a feature that sparked heated discussion among a group of visiting school children.
âThe kids asked if it was from the horse? I said, ‘Well let’s suppose it was,’ âhe said with a laugh.
Milo was the most recent crop surrounding the fence. A few years ago it was cotton and at the time someone had mysteriously hung a Christmas wreath on the fence.
But that’s not the only time something like this has happened. On occasion, a bunch of flowers may find its way to the fence, or even balloons.
Who would place them, nearly a century after the doctor’s death? It’s a mystery Multer doesn’t hesitate to contemplate whenever he drives his tractor past Old Joe.
In this regard, Old Joe’s grave has become not only a monument, but also a tradition.
âI think now it’s a solid monument. It is the one that we must maintain as part of our history and the history of Runnels County, âhe said.
âLike I told those kids, history doesn’t have to be wars and all that is what happened before us. This is what happened here – in fact here – and those people who came before us.
Never “just a tool”
But Old Joe’s grave, and the care taken over it by subsequent generations, is also an echo of the distant past of what a horse has become to someone like Dr. Fowler.
âThat he was more than just a tool,â Multer said. “I think it commemorates that pioneering spirit, the spirit of doing the right thing and working hard.”
Animals – and horses in particular – lived their lives intertwined with the people who cared for them.
âThey were just a big part of your life,â Multer said. âIt was really cool to see how this horse would bring him home.
âNot as a tool. Like a friend.”
Ronald Erdrich is a photojournalist and columnist for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you enjoy local news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.