The Mystical Iron HorseAs the first laser-like beams of morning sunlight shoot across the highest point of pasture at the Curtis farm on Highway 15 about ten miles south of Watkinsville, a huge figure begins to take shape in the misty dawn. This eerie sight has caused more than a few motorists to almost lose control as they catch a glimpse of the mystical vision. It is the oft forgotten, but world-famous “Iron Horse” of Greene County.
Even though the horse had only a brief stay on the University of Georgia campus, and was hidden at the time I arrived there during the late 1950’s, the stories of this legend were rampant in the Athens area. In fact, the one that I found to be the most-believable was that the University had bought the great horse from a famous artist and located it in front of Reed Hall. Since students at that time used the Reed Hall quadrangle for touch football and other outdoor pursuits, the huge iron statue seemed to cause quite a stir. The story continued that in spite of the fact that the large iron structure weighed nearly two tons, it somehow disappeared during the middle of the night and was never seen again.
In reality, the famed “Iron Horse” was created in the old Fine Arts Building on the UGA campus under the sponsorship of a Rockefeller Grant by the renown artist Abbott Pattison of the Chicago Art Institute. After completion, the horse was placed in front of Reed Hall, which was one of the men’s dormitories.
Within hours of situating the big metal artwork, student and faculty members began gathering around the object out of apparent curiosity. Opinions were voiced about their feelings on the introduction of the horse, and both faculty and students seemed to be split 50/50 on how they felt about it.
Soon, some of the students drove to one of the large animal barns on campus and returned with rope for a bridle, hay for the horse’s mouth, and horse manure to place under the rear section of the statue. Other students went into Reed Hall and found a couple of balloons that were blown up and placed between the horse’s back legs.
As darkness approached, the students became more hostile. They found buckets of paint and doused the huge horse with the multi-colored goo from paint cans. Soon the angry mob was chanting like heathen tribesmen and beating the horse with pieces of wood.
When the sun had set, the rowdy students placed hay, newspaper, and old tires around the horse and started a bonfire. As the fire raged around the horse, the more than 500 frenzied students chanted and cheered loudly.
The Athens Fire Department was finally called to insure that the blaze didn’t reach any of the dormitories, but the students tried to keep them away from the fire. It was necessary for the firemen to turn the fire hoses on the students to allow them to extinguish the growing flames.
In an effort to avoid another outburst from the angry students, the Iron Horse was put on a flatbed trailer the next morning and hauled away. It was hidden in the woods behind a large barn on the farm of one of the UGA professors until the faculty could decide what to do with this strange piece of artwork, and for several years the great horse was forgotten.
Dr. Curtis, however, had not forgotten the unique art object that Abbott Pattison had created, so in 1959, after four years in seclusion, the wonderful “Iron Horse” was moved to Dr. Curtis’s farm on the Greene/Oconee county line. For more than forty years, the horse has had its own place on a knoll in the middle of a gorgeous pasture on the Curtis farm……….but not without incident. Actually, when it first reappeared, UGA students would regularly come to the farm under cover of darkness and push the great statue over on its side, but that ended when it received a permanent base. The “Iron Horse” has been draped with flags on holidays, given wings like Pegasus, adorned with ribbons or wreaths at Christmas, and even painted like a tiger before a Clemson football game at UGA. Nevertheless, the stately animal sits on a high plateau where it sees the first rays of the sun in the morning, is silhouetted by blue skies during the day, watches the last flickers of light every day, and stands tall under a blanket of stars each night.
“For most of my life, I’ve seen that horse at the beginning of each day, and it’s the last thing I look at before going home each night,” said Alex Curtis, who is a third generation owner of the farm and L.C. Curtis and Son Sand Co. “I climbed the horse and played on it as a kid, and during nostalgic times, I still do it today.”
Anyone traveling along Highway 15 between Watkinsville and Greensboro can see the “Iron Horse” by looking to the left just after crossing the Greene County line. Its head will be facing towards the south and the waters of the fertile Oconee River less than 1/4 of a mile away, but you can bet that its rear end will always be pointed toward UGA and Athens where it was treated so rudely!