It’s nothing short of a fairy tale, really, except that it’s true.
Once upon a time, there was a place called Webb Riding Academy on a dirt road called Trenholm.
Today, in the same block of the busy four-laner – an area which straddles the line between Forest Acres and the city of Columbia – you’ll find a dry cleaning operation, a senior living establishment and a day care center.
But back in the day, beginning in 1930 and for the subsequent 32 years, a man named Hughes Webb Sr. operated a little piece of heaven for those who loved horses.
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“As a boy,” said Laura Dennison, Webb’s granddaughter, “he was very much interested in horses. He wanted to be able to share that love with children.”
And so, he did.
At the age of 28, after trying his hand at several vocations including work as a salesman, he went into the horse business. He bought the property on Trenholm Road, near the intersection of Brennan Road, for about $2,000.
Neither Dennison nor her brother, Bill “Billy” Webb, are sure of just how much property their grandfather purchased. But it was enough to establish the Riding Academy, replete with a hay barn, stables, a riding ring and a small, clapboard home.
“Grandaddy,” Dennison said, “was very frugal, having lived through the Depression. He did business on a handshake. He knew everybody in town. He always took the time to do anything for anybody, with patience.”
What I learned at Webb’s has driven my life ... As I am writing this, I am in a truck taking a mare to Kentucky to foal. What an amazing life I have led and it started at Webb’s.”
Billy Webb recalled his grandmother, Nellie, saying that her husband’s “whole world was horses. He was the encyclopedia of horses … He was a very gentle man, yet he had a very dignified, strong presence.”
So the sturdy man who wore thick-rimmed glasses and who so many Columbians called “Mr. Webb” established a stable full of horses, guided by a heart equally full when it came to sharing his life, his land and his love of four-legged creatures with others.
“I like to work with horses because I love them and I love people and I wanted to ride all the time,” he told a reporter for The State almost 40 years ago.
Fast forward to today.
When I asked readers several weeks ago to share their memories of the riding school with me, I hoped for enough recollections to put together a good story.
Little did I expect the landslide of retrospection – from across the country - that came my way.
On the face of these memories, Webb was a rider and a riding instructor.
“He was a firm, but wonderful teacher,” said Jane “Brooksie” Marshall Mays, who began riding at Webb’s when she was 10 years old.
Many of those youngsters who learned to ride at Webb’s went on to have accomplished careers in the equine world.
Joanne Dew said she spent “most of my youth” at Webb’s, where, when she was 9, she got her first horse, Topper. Today, she raises Thoroughbreds for the racetrack.
“What I learned at Webb’s has driven my life ... As I am writing this, I am in a truck taking a mare to Kentucky to foal. What an amazing life I have led and it started at Webb’s.”
But lessons at Webb’s went much deeper than just learning about horses or how to ride them; they went to the heart of life skills – patience, kindness, discipline, generosity, how to work hard, how to play well.
“Riding was a small part,” Dew said. “Hard work would lead to achievements. Friendships were important. Teamwork and being reliable were how you got to where you wanted to be.”
So with no further ado, I offer you a selection of readers’ memories. They speak for themselves.
They speak for the man. For the place. For a simpler time. For experiences, both on and off the back of a horse, that helped to mold a significant number of young, Columbia lives.
“I spent every free minute at Webb’s from about 1958 to 1963,” said Peggy Synder Salters.
“I have so many good memories from that time – riding on the golf course on Trenholm Road, riding to the drug store in Forest Lake Shopping Center for a Coke float, riding to BeeBee Harper’s house to take the horses swimming in Arcadia Lake, and riding past the chain gang camp between Atascadero and Covenant roads.”
Warrington Williams said he and his boyhood friend Eugene “Mac” MacGregor “would walk or bike to Mr. Webb’s where Mr. Webb would designate horses for us to bridle and saddle and we would usually hit the trail at the rear of the property and go up through the swamp … On a hot day, we’d swim the horses across the water…These lakes were later named Lake Katherine and Lake Lelia … Then, a return along what became Brennan Road to Webb’s where we were expected to cool down the horses, curry them and muck out their stalls.”
At Webb’s, you could rent a horse for the day for 50 cents or you could board your own horse at the barn. You could take riding lessons. You could compete in horse shows and in games on horses, called a gymkhana.
Or, you could just hang out.
That’s what Jamie Edwards did when he was a boy.
“Jamie, as a youngster, often hung out at the Academy as he enjoyed watching the horses,” said his sister, Peggy Sessions. “Mr. Webb would have him haul hay, do small jobs.”
“We loved to go down to the stables and pat all the horses,” said Randy Slovic, who grew up near Webb’s. “Mr. Webb was a nice man. He was kind to us kids and he loved his horses.”
And he could be quite generous with those horses.
“Mr. Webb gave me my first Shetland pony, Little Colonel,” said Page Hodson. Webb raised the small, furry ponies and provided pony rides for children’s birthday parties.
“The best thing about Webb Riding Academy was that the ponies and horses were so gentle,” said Diane Gregory. “I even had one come to my home for my birthday party and we rode around the backyard.”
Webb also took his ponies to Valley Park, near Five Points, where he offered pony rides.
“I never went to Mr. Webb’s Riding Academy in Forest Acres, but I remember him another way,” said Mardi Valentino.
“I was about 5 years old when I fell in love with horses and I credit the beginning of that life-long affection to Mr. Webb. I lived on Meadow Street in the Shandon area near Valley Park (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park). On Saturdays, Mr. Webb brought ponies to Valley Park and set up rides near the old concrete outdoor stage. My father walked me down to the park to pet the ponies and enjoy the thrill of riding one. For a brief shining moment, I was transported to the western world of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. I even wore my cowgirl outfit, complete with boots and a six-shooter cap gun in a real leather holster!
“Mr. Webb was very patient with me and the other children who came to ride his ponies. He taught us how to slowly approach them, to feed them carrots, to gently pat their soft noses and to talk soothingly to them. Mr. Webb started me on a path toward a great love of horses, which I eventually passed onto my daughter.”
Speaking of eventually, development of the Forest Acres area eventually had an impact on Webb Riding Academy.
“The city (of Columbia) incorporated the area,” Dennison said, “and Granddaddy couldn’t keep the horses and chickens anymore.”
So, in 1962, Webb moved his operation to Hopkins.
But not before making dreams come true for many children, including Ellen Seastrunk Dozier.
“Mama usually drove me to my horseback riding lessons, but on this day, Daddy took me to Webb Riding Academy,” Dozier said.
“We pulled in near the stable and I remember Mr. Webb brushing a pinto-colored horse. Mr. Webb asked if I would like to mount the horse and Daddy nodded that was OK. Oh, it felt good and I asked the name of the horse. Mr. Webb muttered something under his breath and I said, ‘If this were my horse, I would name her Flicka!’ I honestly don’t remember a riding lesson that day because all I could think about was Flicka.
“A few weeks later was my 10th birthday and the tradition was my brother and I woulddive in my parents’ bed the morning of our birthday to open our gift. I will never forget seeing a small box about the size of a jewelry box and I knew right then a horse couldn’t fit inside. My heart was broken.
“(Then) I opened the box and there was a brown plastic horse attached to a poem which read:
‘My name is Flicka, I’m a toy ‘tis true. When you go to Grandaddy’s, I’ll come alive for you!’ I thought school would never end that day and the ride to Leesville took forever. When we arrived at my grandparents’ farm, there stood my Flicka, waiting on me. We would become the best of friends.
“And it all was possible because Mr. Webb found the right horse for a little girl.”
I have so many good memories from that time – riding on the golf course on Trenholm Road, riding to the drug store in Forest Lake Shopping Center for a Coke float, riding to BeeBee Harper’s house to take the horses swimming in Arcadia Lake, and riding past the chain gang camp between Atascadero and Covenant roads.”
Peggy Synder Salters
In 1979, Webb retired and closed the Hopkins stables.
But not before saving the life of at least one little horse in 1949.
According to an old, yellowed article in The State, a chestnut foal by the name of Carolina Bourbon was born at Webb’s, but its mother died three hours later. Webb consulted with a veterinarian who prescribed a special formula for the foal which, according to the article, “had to be fed him in a bottle, every hour, day and night.”
Webb’s wife made up the formula and Webb took up temporary residence with the foal in the stable.
“This was no easy job,” the article said, “but (Webb) followed the doctor’s orders to the n’th degree.”
The foal survived, thrived and, according to the article, was “sure in his own mind” that Webb was “his mother and follows him everywhere he goes.”
Webb died in 1995.
So, I suppose, the fairy tale came to a close but not before having a lasting affect on a lot of lives.
“(Mr. Webb’s) was my second home in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Angela Bowling. “It was my most favorite place in the world.
“Mr. Webb should be recognized for raising half of Columbia’s youth.”
Indeed, Dennison said, at her grandfather’s stables, “Children learned discipline and respect for animals. Granddaddy was the parent everybody should be nowadays. He gave children love, time, understanding, guidance and patience.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.