By Kesley Colbert
I took a road trip. Which is pretty rare for me these days. For lots of reasons: I enjoy being home. I don’t travel “as good” as I once did. The price of gas makes going less fun. It’s hard to get a good pimento cheese sandwich at most any roadside eatery. And our cat doesn’t like it when we leave.
But I felt compelled to go. It was like Wartrace, Tennessee, was calling me! And don’t think Twilight Zone here. Nothing or nobody had control of my mind. I just wanted to see the tombstone, and pay my respects, to a horse that is buried there.
I don’t think Wartrace is exactly a Destination City. Nothing was open on the Monday we showed up. There was no one at the Town Hall. The Pick and Parlor, which housed Hillbilly Willy’s ice cream and antiques, was closed. It was the same for the Whistle Stop.
And the Tennessee Walking Horse National Museum didn’t open until Wednesday. I liked everything about the town immediately! It obviously marched to its own drumbeat. And “warp speed” definitely was not in its nomenclature.
We couldn’t tell if the Walking Horse Hotel was open or not. We were the lone car in the parking lot. And there were no signs of life in the place. The fact that it is well documented to be haunted might have been the reason for the dearth of people.
Of course, we drove up in broad daylight. I wasn’t trying to wake up any haints; I was simply looking for Strolling Jim’s grave. He was the reason for the trip. And I had it on good authority he was buried in the field behind the hotel.
Let me refresh your memory. Strolling Jim was the first ever Tennessee Walking Horse to be crowned World Grand Champion. This was in 1939. That might not seem earth-shattering in most minds today, but believe me, being the first in what has become a fairly big deal in the horse world is nothing to sneeze at!
Strolling Jim was born in Viola, Tennessee, in 1936. Viola was founded before 1800, mostly by a group of Separate Baptist. I don’t know if the “separate” meant they chose to dissociate with the world entirely; they were trying to distance themselves from overt sinners down at the feed store; or they didn’t want to be confused with those snake handling Baptist over in East Tennessee.
But I digress…..
The town was originally named Blue Springs. It was changed to Viola (after a character in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”) when the post office opened there in 1853. But that, like the Separate Baptist, is another story altogether….
Strolling Jim’s original owner had him plowing a field when a Wartrace horse trainer by the name of Floyd Carothers spotted the tall, magnificent gelding. 350 dollars lighter, Carothers took the horse back to Wartrace and began to work with him. And, as they say, the rest is history.
I don’t know how many Walking Horse shows you have been privileged to attend, but they truly show off the beauty, handling and separate (no pun intended) gaits of each individual animal. It is way more than a three minute race to the finish line.
And I love to hear the announcer say, “Let’em rack on!”
Mr. Carothers’ widow owned the Walking Horse Hotel in the late ’40’s. When Strolling Jim retired from the Horse Show business he was returned to Wartrace and given to Mrs. Carothers. She kept him in a pasture behind the hotel until his death in 1957. Jim was laid to rest beside the old stables.
I couldn’t fine the grave marker! I walked across every inch of land behind the hotel. I tiptoed over the neighboring “private property” fence—apparently I wasn’t the only fan of Strolling Jim—for a closer inspection. I crawled under the big tree with the spreading branches to make sure I left no stone unturned.
Maybe it was the land behind the hotel that was haunted….
We circled the town thrice looking for a place to eat before finding “The Depot.” The younger of the two sisters running the place took our orders and shook her head when I asked about Strolling Jim’s grave. “Oh, I heard somebody removed the marker. I never did hear why.”
Well, at least I had paid my respects. And, if I wasn’t at the exact spot, I was awfully close. Both me and Jim had to settle for that.
We were leaving when the other sister reminded us of the “RC Cola and Moon Pie Festival” held just up the road in Bell Buckle every June, “You ought to come back for that; I promise we’ll have a pimento cheese sandwich on the menu when you do.”
That might be enough to garner another trip…..
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