Horses once munched oats in the building that now houses Spoon and Stable, one of the Twin Cities’ hottest restaurants. The name of the eatery, located in the historic North Loop, hints at its history, of course: Erected in 1906, the structure’s past is acknowledged in design details like the hand-stitched leather covers on the wine menus or the old wooden ladder hung on a wall.

Outside, however, little evidence remains of the horse culture that dominated the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul barely more than a century ago. Liveries and blacksmith shops used to populate the neighborhood, and the steeds that pulled horse-drawn trolleys were kept in a building a few blocks away.

Today, it’s easier to find remnants of the city’s pre-car era in the alleys of Lowry Hill — the small, high windows on carriage houses, from which stallions once peered; the porte-cochere tall enough to accommodate top-hatted drivers perched on spring-cushioned carriages.

In St. Paul, vestiges of the equine age are equally elusive: Only the keenest eye will spot the hitching post on Summit Avenue or the Brennan Livery sign on lower Grand Avenue.

Horses — and the businesses and infrastructure that catered to them — have vanished from our streetscapes. It’s an erasure so complete that it’s difficult to imagine that horses were once a common sight in both downtowns. Watering troughs and mounting blocks lined the avenues. Straw in the streets muffled the clamor of horses’ hooves. As late as 1918, according to a Minneapolis tourism guide, visitors could still board a horse or hire a carriage at a local livery.

Animal vs. auto

Horses were the muscle that moved people and goods and helped with vital services in early Minnesota. They pulled carriage buggies, plows, wagons, sleighs, cutters, road graders, sprinklers, fire trucks, paddy wagons, hearses, even trolleys on rails in the Twin Cities until the arrival of steam-powered streetcars in 1879. (Electric trams followed a decade later.) Local prototypes of horseless carriages popped up in America in the 1880s and an electric car appeared in Minneapolis at the 1896 Bicycle Show (in fact, many of the first cars in America were built by bike mechanics). But few thought that cars would replace horses anytime soon.

For starters, cars were expensive. Only the richest Twin Citians, like Swan Turnblad, publisher of the Swedish American Post and the first electric-car owner in Minneapolis, could afford such toys. Potential buyers waffled, noting that automobile maintenance costs were unknown. The maximum speeds weren’t all that impressive, either. Bored spectators at a time trial in Rhode Island famously jeered drivers with the insult “Get a horse!”

Rural residents especially loathed cars. Grangers outside Rochester dug up roads so automobiles couldn’t pass. A Minnetonka farmer whose horses were spooked by a passing machine plugged the offending driver with a bullet.

Many critics dismissed motor vehicles as ugly. A Minneapolis Journal editorial observed in 1899: “What a difference between handling the lines over a spanking team of well-matched trotters, and handling … an automobile! Verily, the horse for stirring, pleasurable driving purposes in park and on boulevards cannot be displaced by a metal storage battery and a mechanical lever.”

Horse vs. health

But horses were noisy, dusty, smelly, disease-ridden, unpredictable and difficult to dislodge when they suddenly died in the middle of the street.

Street-sweepers stayed busy removing manure from the Twin Cities’ downtown districts. Straw was required to soak up urine. “The horse is the chief source of litter in our streets,” public health advocate Harold Bolce wrote in a 1908 magazine article, arguing that a ban on horses in American cities would lessen pollution and stem disease. Bolce detailed social and financial benefits, too. For untold urban problems, cars were the cure.

Ultimately, though, it was a mix of fun and financial affordability — rather than public health concerns — that helped cars overtake horses. Driving an automobile was thrilling — just ask Thomas Shevlin, recipient of Minneapolis’ first speeding ticket, issued in 1902 for exceeding the city’s 10-mile-per-hour limit. Or Mrs. H.G. Goosman, who in 1909 made the newspapers for gunning her Speedwell up Minneapolis’ tony Kenwood Hill at 40 mph.

By then, it wasn’t just the rich who could afford to drive cars: Between 1908 and 1916, the cost of a Ford Model T dropped from $850 to $360. By 1910, Minnesota ranked ninth among the states in terms of car registrations — with more than 1,500 motor vehicles, up from just 260 in 1900. In 1909, more autos were reportedly sold in Minneapolis in ratio to its population than any other city in the country.

The vanishing breed

Horses didn’t immediately bolt from the scene, of course. The Minneapolis Fire Department was still using horses in 1907, when a fire engine hitched to four white stallions charged down Cedar Avenue to extinguish a raging blaze. Vegetables and milk jugs were carted to many homes by horse-drawn wagons during World War I. And the delivery fleet for Donaldsons department store included a handful of horse-drawn wagons until at least 1920.

Public sentiment eventually turned against the trusty steeds. Gripes about reckless drivers morphed into complaints about dangerous animals. In 1906, Minneapolis merchants groused that some downtown streets were essentially being used as stables, with horses left unattended for hours. “There are times,” the Journal noted, “when Nicollet and Hennepin … are lined with standing teams and autos, making them look like the streets of a country town on a Saturday afternoon.”

Fountains with high basins for thirsty horses, located on Lake Calhoun and behind the State Capitol, on Sherburne Avenue, were replaced or removed. Hitching posts were uprooted as streets were paved. Blacksmiths became auto parts dealers, and liveries transformed into taxi companies.

Today, we await the honk of the self-driving car. But as proponents and critics debate the technology’s value and ramifications, it’s probably worth noting that the changes to our urban infrastructure that will come with driverless vehicles are both unpredictable and unstoppable. The horse is already out of the barn.


Joel Hoekstra is a Minneapolis freelance writer.