Rarely have I looked forward to a trail ride as much as I did that day. The weather was just about perfect as I pulled out of my farm on my way to pick up two friends and their horses. Together we would make the 125-mile trip to a place I’d been yearning to visit for years: Milky Way Farm near Pulaski, Tennessee.
Established in the early 1930s by Frank Mars of Mars Candy Company, and named for the candy bar that made his fortune, Milky Way Farm originally encompassed 2,805 acres and employed more than 900 people. The property had more than 50 miles of white plank fence and 30 barns, most painted the signature green and white of the Milky Way wrapper. The farm was renowned for its livestock operations---Hereford cattle, a commercial dairy, Hampshire sheep, champion show mules and Thoroughbred racehorses. Gallahadion, winner of the 1940 Kentucky Derby, trained here.
Today, Milky Way farm spans 1,100 acres, and it’s open to tours, events and trail riding. But a visit meant much more to me than a pleasant outing on a lovely property. My own personal history is deeply intertwined with this place, and even at my mature age, I could hardly contain my excitement as we turned off the main highway and approached the farm’s entrance. I was awash with the emotions attached to a thousand memories, both good and bad, of horses and people who had long since slipped into my past.
Nearly 30 years ago, at the age of 16, I wrote an essay that would change my life. An Arabian horse club was sponsoring a gelding give-away contest. I didn’t think my essay was especially grand, but it was selected to receive one of the top awards. As a result, I formed a lifelong friendship with the owners of Kimbrook Arabians, who had donated one of their geldings to the contest---my prize was a horse who would become my companion for the next 25 years.
Two years after the contest, I was offered a job at Kimbrook, which then occupied a portion of the former Milky Way Farm. The job came with the opportunity to live in this amazing place, and I jumped at the chance.
I grew up on a farm, so I was used to hard work, but at Kimbrook I learned to be in charge and to make my own decisions. I was to become at least partially responsible for 50 Arabian horses. I cleaned 27 stalls daily, turned out stallions and fed and groomed. I hauled shavings and hay. I swept the barn aisle. I emptied, scrubbed and refilled water buckets. I became leaner and stronger than ever before.
On memory lane
Once parked, we unloaded and tacked up our horses, then headed up the main drive, past the hitching post where Frank Mars once tied his personal riding horse, Bad News. We continued past the Tudor-style manor house, a sprawling stone, stucco and timber structure. Although I had seen this house many times before, my friends’ reactions helped me to appreciate it anew through their eyes. I remembered the first time I had been inside the house, which was run down at the time. Still, as my footsteps echoed through the empty halls, it was easy to envision the grand mansion as it once had been. Today, it is fully restored, and we began making plans to return just to tour the house.
Farther down the road we passed a grouping of dilapidated barns. Although the history of every structure isn’t known, these may have housed the Mars family’s personal riding horses. The current owners have pledged to restore as much of the property as possible, but some of the barns seem to be beyond repair. Still, even in their present state of decay, hints of their former beauty remains.
The horses hesitated as we approached a stone and concrete bridge leading away from the main section of the farm until one brave soul crossed first. With that, we left the main property and moved on so that I could show my friends the barn where I had worked.
The Thoroughbred show barn is believed to have once been home to Gallahadion along with other long-ago Stakes winners. From the late 1970s to the early 2000s, this was one of the barns that housed Kimbrook Arabians. The barn has been fully restored, and entering it today, it was easy to remember how I felt the first time I saw its beautiful stone walls, chandeliers and the winding staircase to the upstairs apartment where I would live---this was opulence on a scale I had never seen.
As we passed each stall, memories flooded back, and I shared stories of the horses who once lived here---the stallions who snorted and pranced their way down the barn aisle on their way to turnout, the lovely broodmares I groomed each day. One in particular became special to me. A sweet, matronly mare who was the dam of my own treasured gelding. Being able to work with her allowed a glimpse into an earlier generation and the breeding that had created my horse. I also came to know my horse’s grandsire while feeding him his daily mashes and working the tangles from his long mane with my fingers.
In 1989, not long after I had moved out to attend college, a fire broke out that very nearly destroyed this beautiful building and claimed the lives of several horses. For many months afterward, I returned on weekends to help the Kimbrook owners rebuild. With great pride, I pointed out to my friends which stalls I had helped construct and which windows I’d installed.
With the rebuild, the number of stalls was cut in half, and the owners installed an indoor round pen and an expansive indoor riding arena. While the barn was never the same to me, it was still part of my history, even in its new form.
Kimbrook Arabians moved out years ago, but that’s a tale for another day. Today the barn stands empty. The current owners offer it as a wedding venue.
We continued our ride, through miles of woods and shady trails along fenced-in field crops. Along the way we passed the remains of the dairy operation, some worker cottages and a singularly beautiful hay barn, its roof a unique combination of barrel and gambrel architecture.
Finally, on our way back to the trailer, we arrived at our last stop---the Thoroughbred training track and the site of one of my primary goals for this trip. It had long been a dream of mine to gallop my horse on the same track where a Kentucky Derby winner had once worked. My heart pounded with anticipation as we drew near.
Our horses were getting tired, though, so instead of galloping we opted to canter over about half of the mile-long track. Still, our horses were animated and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to stretch out and run a little after a day of walking sedately on the trails. Amid our shouts and laughter they snorted and blew as they pulled up, all of our excitement echoing what it might have been like on an actual race day.
Even as we packed up for the ride home, my friends and I began making plans for a return trip. I had so enjoyed showing them this place, which meant so much to me, and yet there were still so many sites we wanted to visit and trails to explore. Riding the Milky Way may be something we do many times in the years to come.
This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #481)