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Simmons Stable Preservation Fund buys a piece of history

Editor’s Note: The following article was published
January 24, 2006 in The Mexico (MO) Ledger.



Ledger Staff Writer

There isn't a nook or a cranny of Simmons Stable that Bobette Balser-Wilson doesn't know about - and that goes for the building and its history.

Balser-Wilson knows that the 36-stall, 254-foot landmark horse barn is one of the biggest and best Saddlebred facilities of its kind. She knows that one of the men who built it, Joseph A. Potts, started the national Saddlebred registry. She knows that the Lee brothers who later owned the stables, used to judge horse shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City. She knows about Rex McDonald, the Auxvasse-sired horse that trained at the stables, and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Saddlebred horses.

"I've got history coming out of my ears," admits Balser-Wilson.

Balser-Wilson also knows what's next for Simmons Stables. Her group, the Simmons Stable Preservation Fund, recently purchased the land the stable sits on, and they plan to use it to remind the entire world that
Mexico is "The Saddlebred Horse Capital of the World."

"It's going to become the International Saddlebred Hall of Fame," said Balser-Wilson.

The group purchased the 3.88-acre lot on which the stable sits from Jim Simmons on Dec. 29. The purchase will allow them to begin spending the roughly $200,000 they have raised to restore the stable to its 1940s heyday. The Preservation Fund hopes to one day purchase the rest of the lot the stables and other structures sit on, and host an annual society horse show there, as well as Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

Balser-Wilson said the group is far from a definite timetable for all this, but she hopes the renovation of the main stable can be done in a year.

Built in 1887 by Cyrus F. Clark and Joseph A. Potts, Simmons Stable was
Mexico's brush with greatness.

They helped make
Mexico "The Saddlebred Capital of the World,"; a place where dignitaries and celebrities from presidents Taft and Theodore Roosevelt to "Star Trek" actor William Shatner stop to buy horses.

Like other horsemen, Clark and Potts put their stables in
Mexico in the wake of the economic boom seen in the region after railroad lines linked up Audrain County in 1858 and 1872.

They sold the stables to the Lee brothers, George and W.D. in 1906, By this time,
Mexico's reputation as a center for quality Saddlebred horses was secure. The horses that came out of Mexico helped define the breed and the horsemen that trained in Mexico dominated the field for decades.

"Every person that came out of that building was known across the nation," said Balser-Wilson.

's most storied Saddlebred man, Arthur Simmons, purchased the property and gave it his namesake in 1949. His son, Jim Simmons, kept horses there until April of 2001, when he moved them to his family farm outside of town on Highway 15.

When Balser-Wilson heard that the stables were going to be torn down in a few short months, she feared
Mexico would lose an irreplaceable icon and that she would lose a cherished childhood memory.

"This building is the history of
Mexico," she said. "I laid in bed for two weeks every night thinking, 'I cannot believe I'm not going to look out the church windows and never see that building again.'"

"Since she was born" Balser-Wilson said she attended St. Matthews Episcopal Church across the street from the stables, There, she would stare out the windows, watching Arthur Simmons train his award-winning horses, wondering what it might be like to be known as one of the best horse trainers in the nation.

When Balser-Wilson was 21, she worked up the courage to meet Simmons.

"I thought, 'People all over the world know this man, by gosh. I'm going to meet him if it's the last thing I do,'" she said.

She was only hoping for a friendly wave from the renowned horseman, but Simmons saw her gawking from behind a fence post, and offered her a drive in the two-wheel horse cart he was riding in.

If Simmons ever forgot about that day, Balser-Wilson did not, and her reverence for
Mexico's Saddlebred history has become a self-renewing prophecy: the more she's learned and accomplished, the more her interest and enthusiasm has grown.

Among the countless hours of work and research Balser-Wilson has done since she started the Preservation Fund four years ago, she traveled to the "other" Saddlebred horse mecca of
Lexington, Ky. to compare the two places' Saddlebred heritage. In Kentucky, the horsemen she met with were all familiar with Arthur Simmons and his stables.

"That's when I realized
Mexico was on the map," she said.

And across the globe - Balser-Wilson has heard of interest in her proposed International Saddlebred Hall of Fame from as far away as South Africa.

What Balser-Wilson has learned is that, all said and done, there is no comparable horse barn that is larger, older or more historically significant than Simmons Stables. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it was the largest public horse stable in continual use.

To get horses, and people, back into the stables, it's going to require the financial support of local residents, as well as the sponsorship of government grants, and Paul Day, of the Preservation Fund is responsible for coordinating the flow of money for the group.

Day, who grew up two blocks from the stables, said he couldn't imagine
Mexico without the stables.

"If that thing was gone, there would be something missing from my life," he said.

With Day's help, the Preservation Fund brought in grants worth $250,000 and $350,000, both of which will match government money dollar for dollar with each private donation. These grants also entail a 70 percent tax credit, so that private donors can get back 70 percent of their donation.

For example, if a private donor gives the Preservation Fund $1,000, the government will match these funds for a total donation of $2,000, and the donor will get $700 back. In this way, local donors will only need to supply 15 percent of the cost of renovations.

With these matching grants, Day said the Preservation Fund has raised $125,000 from October to December of last year.

Martin Jones, another member of the Preservation Fund, said getting potential donors to understand how the grant and tax credit works has been one of the group's most challenging tasks. Jones also said the group has had to overcome skeptics who questioned the feasibility of renovating the stables.

"It's been a long struggle to convince people it's worth saving," he said.

Among these was Jim Simmons himself. Balser-Wilson said her first calls to Simmons asking about renovating the stables were met with doubt and resignation. He felt the effort and money required to fix the stable might not ever justify the final product.

For Jones, his efforts to save the stables were inspired by the loss a piece of property he couldn't prevent. He remembers an old barn on the family farm he grew up on that blew away in a tornado.

"That was close to home in my own family," he said. "I didn't want to see that happen (to Simmons Stable)."

That wasn't the only time Jones remembers watching history slip away. He remembers seeing the old Liberty Theater come down at
Liberty and Jefferson streets, and the demolition of the gothic McPheeter House, at the current site of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Clark Street.

Mexico is going to have any historical references for the future, we'd better start saving some of these things," he said.

Dana Keller, executive director of the Audrain County Historical Society, said saving the stables could bring much-needed tourist revenue to the area. She envisions no-vacancy motels and packed tour buses, all bringing people into
Mexico to explore the town's unique Saddlebred horse heritage.

To do this, Keller wants to coordinate the exhibits of all area historical attractions. These include her
American Saddlebred Horse Museum at the Historical Society, the proposed Hall of Fame at the stables, as well as other area historical attractions, some of which are still being developed.

"We're really a lot more culturally inclined than people realize," she said.


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