Her name was Sugar. She pulled a wagon during the Great Depression, delivering bread and baked goods in the small towns east of Springfield, Massachusetts — Palmer, Three Rivers, Thorndike.
That’s the real New England says my Yankee-Irish horsewhispering boyfriend (YIHB for the purposes of this post), contrasting it with the state we live in, Connecticut. Even though where we live, it certainly looks like New England — antique farmhouse, dirt road and driveway of cinders, ancient maples and miles of stone walls, and the reticent charm that comes from not spending money.
This photograph does not come from a family album. There are no photographs of Sugar, just stories passed down. I have an image of Sugar in my mind — dapple grey, with large, round hooves that clip-clopped down the paved and unpaved streets, a thick ivory tail, fuzzy ears, a soft, plump muzzle and large, brown eyes that said she knew more than she was telling.
My YIHB’s father had taken his bride for a flight in a biplane on his honeymoon, in 1931. Then, the two adventurers had traveled to Nova Scotia.
When they returned to Massachusetts, four children followed in succession, each two years apart…long before the “surprise” arrival of the fifth, now my YIHB. Life got harder with each new addition to the family, as the Depression stole stability and hope from everyone.
Every day, my YIHB’s father (that’s the Yankee side) left the house to go to work in the dark and returned home at night to the same darkness. He was lucky to have a job, even if it didn’t pay him enough to support his family.
Each day of the week, the wagon pulled by Sugar took a different route, delivering different goods to different houses, and Sugar knew all the routes by heart. It was a good thing she did, because Sugar drove herself while my YIHB’s father got his sleep.
Sugar knew when it was Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Saturday, and knew what houses to stop in front of, on what days. Sugar stopped in front of each house rather abruptly, in order to wake up the driver. And if the driver didn’t awake, Sugar would shake her harness until he did.
In 1938, a hurricane and the resulting flood ravaged the area. The small towns east of the Pioneer Valley were cut off from services and supplies. But my YIHB’s father knew the back roads over the mountains and Sugar was strong enough to pull the wagon through.
We don’t know what either of them had to do to get bread to the families who had nothing to eat for days. Because people are what people are, there were people who wanted to buy all the bread on the wagon, but my YIHB’s father refused. He wanted to make sure that everyone had bread.
Seeing an opportunity, competitors got to some of the customers before Sugar’s wagon could, charging as much as a dollar a loaf. Once the repairs had been made, and things returned to what was normal, my YIHB’s father had customers who would never give their business to another. As much as anyone could in those days, my YIHB’s father and Sugar had tenure.
It was from the stories of Sugar, no doubt, that my Yankee-Irish horsewhispering boyfriend came to believe in the intelligence, kindness and generosity of horses. It’s too bad that, today, horses seldom get to demonstrate these qualities quite as effectively as Sugar did. The world would be a happier place for people and their horses if every horse were like Sugar.
When the rural route was finally retired and the work of the wagon subsumed by the truck, Sugar was retired on a farm somewhere in New England. There, she was visited, year after year, by my YIHB’s father, who brought carrots with him for the very special horse that had toiled alongside him, a true helpmate, through the darkest hours and days of the Great Depression.