To Walk or To Ride?
19 Aug, 2011
There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coachlamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.**
It’s not often you see gentlemen in top hats anymore. It’s even more rare to see someone young sporting this classical piece of head finery. Underneath the fine, black top hat is a mop of dark, shaggy hair belonging to a stalky young man with long, lean limbs. A bicycle courier by day, Kevin Ward is a part-time coachman for Milwaukee Coach & Carriage. The top hat is a loaner, but Kevin’s hoping to track down one of his own. You’ve likely seen the elegant horse-drawn carriages as they clip-clop through the streets of downtown, circle Cathedral Square Park, and pick up fares outside Milwaukee’s downtown hotels.*
Kevin enjoys his work as a coachman (started in April 2010) because it’s a nice contrast to his day job where he rushes around, picking up and dropping off packages, managing “squawkbox” calls over the radio. When he’s driving the carriage, he settles into a comfy seat, enjoys his water and snacks, regaling passengers with Milwaukee stories and trivia: “I get to look at the city and its beautiful architecture and just let the horse do all the work.” The bartender, Jeff, interjects as he winks and hands over a brown paper bag, “the horses love Gardettos!” Kevin laughs, “They do love Gardettos – and apples and popcorn and cheeseburgers and carrots and anything you give ’em.” The hotel employees are fond of the horses, and even Joshua Wolter is known to visit them for a few minutes, offering up soothing pats (“It always helps me relax.”).
Wearing jeans and boots with his felt top hat, this lanky young man has the eloquent way of speaking that comes with being a natural storyteller. Though he’d never even ridden a horse until recently, Kevin grew up on a farm outside Fort Atkinson, with Holsteins. How long does it take to milk a Holstein, might you wonder? “As long as it takes,” he answers. Full of stories about wedding proposals and Harley motorcyclist passengers, Kevin clearly relishes the time he spends as a coachman.
Based out of a former Standard Oil building near 2nd & National with an outdoor paddock for the horses to play in, the sixteen horses of Milwaukee Coach & Carriage are mostly Belgians and Percherons with a few crosses. These draft horses were originally bred, centuries ago, to carry knights away from battle. Almost symbolically, many of the horses are leased to the Milwaukee Police Department’s Mounted Police Unit. The money from the city helps take care of the horses, giving them a high quality of urban living.
Many of them in their early to mid teens, at least one of the horses, Shamus, is nearly 35 years old! There’s also Wilson, a handsome 9yr-old who Kevin says is “very smart, in a boyish way. He knows the streetlights, but likes to test new drivers.” But nearly everyone’s favorite is Smokey. A half Belgian, half who-knows-what, Smokey has short legs and the fat body of a Belgian, making him look a little like a hippo. While not too bright, he’s the strongman of the bunch. He’s been known to run up Kilbourn while pulling the wedding carriage, the heaviest in the fleet, stop for a red light and look behind him at his driver, as if to say “Why are we stopped?”
The carriages operate year-round; even on wintry days, they will carry you on a tour of the city, sparkling in the snow – enclosed and warmed under a blanket. Kevin recently started reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and said the opening pages include a carriage ride which is reminiscent of his late winter and early spring drives, when he’s guiding a horse and carriage up Wisconsin Avenue towards the Pfister, slogging through slush as the cold washes over him.
A bellhop comes in and alerts Kevin that there’s an interested couple outside the front door where Shamus is patiently standing in wait. Kevin grabs a brown paper bag from the bar, tips Jeff, puts his top hat on his head and strides off to do amble the city streets, reins in hand, clucking away as the world slowly rolls by.
*Equine law in Wisconsin allows for horses to park anywhere and be tied to anything, except the Federal Building, of course. So, for those of you who live in congested urban areas where parking is a problem? Apparently you just need to exchange that car for hay-loving 1700lbs on four legs.
**Chapter 2: The Mail, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.