The Morgan Horses of Bolton’s Fernwood Farm

by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in Bolton Horizons, October 2009)

When you visit Fernwood Farm on Hebron Road in Bolton you can still see Morgan horses with their deep muscular bodies, lovely heads, and straight clean-boned legs flash by with heads high, eyes bright, and nostrils wide. The entire Massey family takes pride in Roberta Smith's horses. Nisa, Roberta Smith's daughter, often took their Morgan mare, Miss Roberta, through the paces. She was a gentle horse born May 14, 1966, and children could play with her.

The very first Grand National & World Championship Morgan Horse Show was held in Detroit in the fall of 1973. By that time Miss Roberta had already won many state championships. At that national show Miss Roberta won the titles Grand National Morgan Pleasure Driving Champion and Grand National Morgan Reserve Pleasure Champion. In pleasure driving Miss Roberta was hitched to a light cart and shown at a walk and two showy trots, all with an emphasis on her manners. In pleasure riding Nisa rode Miss Roberta under an English saddle showing her style and elegance.

All Morgan horses trace back to a single stallion named Figure, who was born in West Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1789. It was the year George Washington stood on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City and took his oath of office as the first President of the United States. Justin Morgan, a soft-spoken teacher, received the runt Figure, in partial payment for a debt he was owed.

However, the quality of Figure's ancestry showed in his straight clean legs, deep muscling over his quarters and shoulders, and fine, intelligent head with large expressive eyes and short, keen ears. Add to these his graceful movement, a thick but silky mane and tail, and arched neck, and you have the ideal light horse. Figure's exploits gained him fame because he was not as big as colonial workhorses were nor as tall and long-legged as racehorses, yet he consistently outperformed both in competitions. As the saga of Figure grew, countless mares were bred to him. So prepotent were the genes of this stallion that no matter what type of mare he was bred to, be she of heavy draft or refined racing-type, his offspring inherited his distinctive looks, temperament, and athleticism. Figure's ability to pass his characteristics to his offspring for generations to come allowed this single stallion to found an entire breed in his likeness.

The breed's trotting ability made it a favorite for harness racing by the 1840s. Morgans were used in the Civil War as cavalry mounts, including Stonewall Jackson's horse Little Sorrel. In the post–Civil War era, Morgans were used in the Pony Express and as mounts for the cavalry in the western United States.

The Connecticut Morgan Horse Association inducted Miss Roberta in its Hall of Fame in 1990. Today Miss Roberta's son Finn McCool and another Morgan mare enjoy the pastures at Bolton's Fernwood Farm. Nisa Callahan now lives at Valhalla Farm in Meriden.

Nisa and Miss Roberta are shown together at Bolton's Fernwood Farm in this picture taken in 1974.
Nisa and Miss Roberta are shown together at Bolton's Fernwood Farm in this picture taken in 1974.