Mullison's Stables

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1993,
December 1993

Author: Grace Shackman

What went on at the fairgrounds the other fifty-one weeks of the year

For four days each fall from 1922 to 1942, Veterans Park was the site of the Washtenaw County Fair. The forty acres bounded by Jackson, Maple, and Dexter roads were filled with exhibits and events, including music, fireworks, and horse racing. The race horses were stabled near the track on the corner of Dexter and Maple, while show horses were on display in an exhibit barn near Jackson and Longman Lane.

The other fifty-one weeks of the year, the show barns turned back into Guy Mullison's riding stable. "Shorty" Mullison was only about 5 feet tall--so small, recalls retired U-M phys ed prof Marie Hartwig, that he looked incapable of governing a horse. "But the horse would do whatever he asked. You felt if he asked it to sit down and cross its legs, it would."

Born in 1876 in New York State, Mullison moved to Michigan with his family when he was five. As a young man, he ran the City Ice Company out of the barn behind his house at 326 East Ann (now part of the City Hall parking lot), using horse-drawn delivery wagons. He also had a part-time job taking care of the fire department horses, which were housed around the corner in the old fire station at Fifth Avenue and Huron.

Mullison started his stable in 1914 out of his home and for a while ran the ice company concurrently; he probably used some of the same horses. "It was popular," Hartwig recalls. "The horses were always out. I would get on a horse and go clopping through town until I came to the country. If a car came behind, I would get on the side. I remember being in some precarious positions until the car got by."

After the County Fair moved from what is now Burns Park to what is now Vets Park in 1922, Mullison moved the main part of his stable operation from his home out to the new fairgrounds. With the move, his customers no longer had to ride out to the country--they were already there. The Maple Village and Westgate shopping center sites were still farms, and even to the east there were open fields all the way down to the Eberwhite Woods.

When he moved, Mullison increased his stable from six horses to thirty. People who rode them still remember many of them by name: tall, plodding Ted, calm Barney, lively Jimmy McCracken, the beautiful Anne's Navy Girl, and the terrible Dickey Boy, who tried to knock his riders from the saddle.

Mullison also boarded a number of horses, including one belonging to the daughter of his vet, Dr. Lane, and Topper, which belonged to riding instructor Bertha Lyon. The boarders had their own box stalls, while most of Mullison's own horses were in standing stalls.

Mullison converted the box stall closest to the door into an office. A second fairgrounds barn served as an indoor riding area. Although respected as a good businessman (he counted Henry Ford and U-M president Alexander Ruthven among his friends), Mullison could not read or write--his wife, Gladys, did all the accounts.

Marty Ball, who as a teenager worked at the stable in exchange for a chance to ride the horses, remembers that people came every day, even in winter, to ride. If they rented the horse for an hour, they would usually ride in the area where Abbot School is now. If they had more time, they would go down to the Huron River, either straight north on Maple or out Miller to East Delhi--both Miller and Maple were still dirt roads with very little traffic.

Mullison also supplied horses for special events, including the National Guard's summer maneuvers in Grayling. Betty Smith remembers him painting one of his white horses red, white, and blue for a Fourth of July parade.

During the Depression, Mullison joined forces with horsewoman Bertha Lyon. Like Mullison, she had grown up on a farm and had always loved horses. (She told her daughter, Roberta Barstow, that as a child she used to tie horseshoes to her feet and pretend to be a horse.) Lyon arranged with the University of Michigan to offer riding in their physical education program. Hartwig remembers that the classes were very popular.

On Saturdays Lyon offered an all-day program for young people--mostly pre-teen girls at the horse-crazy stage, but some as young as five--whom she would pick up at their homes. Each would bring a bag lunch and dress appropriately in jodhpurs and boots. Dorothy Coffey still remembers Lyon's drill: "Knees in, heels down, back straight, hands up." In the summer, Lyon ran an informal riding camp at the DeForest farm, near Dixboro and Geddes roads (now Village Green apartments); she used six or eight of Mullison's horses, which she kept in a corral made of saplings. Students would ford Fleming Creek, ride through the woods and up a hill, and then canter across a field.

Lyon's alumnae rave about the experience even today. Coffey remembers how she waited all week for Saturday to come and how she would return home exhausted but happy. She says that Lyon "gave us a love of horses and fair play."

With the move, Mullison's customers no longer had to ride out to the country--they were already there. The Maple Village and Westgate shopping center sites were still farms, and even to the east there were open fields all the way down to the Eberwhite Woods.

Also fondly remembered are the excursions organized out of the stable: breakfast rides ending with coffee and doughnuts at the Mullison house on East Ann, supper rides ending at what is now Delhi Park to roast hot dogs, and moonlight rides--a favorite with the college kids. Lyon or an≠other stable employee would lead the expeditions, and Shorty and Gladys Mullison would meet them at the destination with food and supplies. Isabelle Reade, who began riding at age eight to strengthen her legs after recovering from polio, remembers a ride that ended up at a one-room school, where they played on the teeter-totter.

When it came time for the County Fair, Mullison moved his horses out of the barns, except for a few that might be needed by people entering riding competitions. Some would already be at Lyon's summer camp. Others were taken to a pasture on the Huron River near North Main Street.

Mullison died of a heart attack in 1941 at age sixty-four. The Jackson Road County Fairs lasted only a year longer. After the war the property was sold to the city for a park, and in 1955 the exhibit barns--by then considered a fire and health hazard--were torn down.

Bertha Lyon died in 1960. After she left Mullison's she set up her own stable on Joy Road, where she broke and trained many horses. She had a high reputation in the field, and her trainees won awards in shows all over the country, including Madison Square Garden. A horse named Cherokee Chieftain, who started out in Mullison's stable and was broken and trained by Lyon, went on to become famous as the Lone Ranger's horse, "Silver."


[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Left) "Shorty" Mullison on horseback at his Ann Street home. The riding stable grew out of an ice delivery business based in a barn behind the house. (Right) Mullison joined forces with riding instructor Bertha Lyon during the Depression. Lyon (top, far left) and students posed at Mullison's Stables at the county fairgrounds.