Because of their intended function, horse blocks were accessible to anyone and there was no reason to guard them — except for one night of the year. Pranksters annually targeted them in several ways on Halloween: flipping them if they were too heavy to carry off, piling several on the property of an unsuspecting owner, or placing them in unusual locations, like in the middle of road intersections.
A drastic change in transportation technology — the automobile — marked the beginning of the end for horse travel and several related items that were present just about everywhere: horse blocks, hitching posts, and watering troughs. Progress required the removal of many horse blocks, which had become obstructions to pedestrians and were frequently struck by cars, sometimes causing fatalities. (Driving skills were seriously lacking early on, and there were few regulations, so accidents were common.)
As early as 1917, when many rural North Country churches were installing fancy new blocks for parishioners, the Mechanicville Saturday Mercury noted that on Hill Street, “a useless stone horse block affords a stumbling place for pedestrians.” During the next two decades, while rural use persisted, thousands of horse blocks were removed from the streets of cities, towns, and villages as cars began to dominate traffic.
Expressions of nostalgia sometimes accompanied the process. In 1925, the Greenwich Journal and Fort Edward Advertiser wrote: “One of the last horse blocks in town, positively the last one in the business section, has retired from business within the past few days…. the big stone block which has for nearly thirty years stood sentinel in front of M. Sonn’s clothing store…. it was a noble monolith of blue granite weighing about three tons.” Wishing to somehow retain it, the owner buried it with the engraved side up, which read, “M. Sonn, 1896,” marking the year he moved into the building. In 1999, the Salem Press reported that “it remains today, still bearing the name, M. Sonn.”
In 1929, the Greenwich Journal noted the removal of another well-known horse block. “One more sign that the automobile is slowly pushing out the horse and things connected with him was shown in Lake George last week when an old carriage block, which had stood for so long in front of the county clerk’s office that it was almost a landmark in the village, was removed…. The stone interfered with the running boards of automobiles when they drew up to the curb.”
The elimination of horse blocks accelerated in the 1930s, when urban areas (Rochester and Glens Falls are two examples) passed laws ordering their removal. But whether laws were passed or not, it happened everywhere out of necessity. They interfered with foot traffic, cars, and sidewalk construction, so they had to go. Most of the ones that endured were retained as monuments to the past.
Their passing was lamented in more editorials. The Massena Observer noted that, “Time was when every community had its hitching rails, and every house had its hitching post and horse block.” Most of the commentary was aligned with the following, which appeared in the Ogdensburg Journal in 1933, comparing the arrival of suitors in their slick automobiles to the previous era of fancy buggies and spiffy-looking horses. “The honk of the roadster proclaims the arrival of the young swain at the house of the girl next door, whereas, in her mother’s day, the sleek-coated horses slowed down and came to a stop at the horse block. We boys surveyed the outfit while the young gallant, with a show of great dignity, climbed the front steps and rang the bell. Everything about it told eloquently of the meticulous care bestowed on the horse, buggy, and all accessories.” Which is to say, just as guys showed off their classy cars to anyone interested, young men once did the same with horse-and-buggy units. To impress a date, elaborate preparations were in order, with the results on display when he parked aside the horse block.
Until the early 1900s, horses were critical to most components of life — local travel, wars, the pony express, stagecoach lines, and an agrarian economy, to name a few. Railroads made an impact, but the two technologies co-existed: trains could go many places, and horses could go anywhere, so one mode of transportation complemented the other. The internal combustion engine, however, was a difference maker, and while it took decades for automobiles to fully permeate rural America, the initial impact on horse travel was immediate and enormous. In the end, it was personal motorized vehicles, and not the iron horse, that entirely changed the face of our transportation system.
Since ties to the past have always been important, some communities managed to retain elements of the horse age. While we love museums and seeing how things were once done, certain artifacts are more effectively displayed in their natural state. A good example is the series of carriage blocks on the streets of Lafayette Square in St. Louis, where many were incorporated into cement walkways. Take a look from the street, courtesy of Google Maps, which makes it easy to imagine a surrey pulling up and offloading passengers. (Using “street view” on the map, you can drive along and see other blocks as well.)
Whenever you’re perusing old photographs, keep an eye out for horse blocks and hitching posts that might otherwise have passed unnoticed; it adds a little more fun to the process. Preserved horse blocks exist in some places today as historic relics, but the concept lives on in modern versions, referred to as equestrian mounting blocks. They take several forms, but the majority look like molded stepstools. They are used mostly by nature-trail riders and equestrians.
Photos: Carriage block, Alabama (1940, Library of Congress, by Stanley Mixon); Headlines, Post-Star, Glens Falls (1930); Carriage block, Alabama (1934, Library of Congress, by W. Manning)