Letter head of the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation from the files of the Ramsay Archives at Wabash College.
While researching in the Wabash Magazine, a short note about an alumnus knighted by the King of Belgium caught my eye. Intrigued, a little digging turned up a Wabash man with a passion for horses who lived his entire life in Wabash. Of course that is a bit of a trick, since he was born and raised in Wabash, Indiana. This town, and its county as well, are named for the river which runs through them.
Short side note here, you may ask why Wabash College is not in Wabash, Indiana? The answer is simple, when our college was founded this entire area was known as the “Wabash Country” as all the streams in this part of Indiana drain to the Wabash River. We are in Crawfordsville as that was where Williamson Dunn had land to donate to this audacious startup.
Back to our Wabash man. James D. Conner, Jr. was the son of a prominent lawyer and the first boy to graduate from Wabash High School. He came to Wabash College as a member of the 1876 “Centennial Class.” While here Conner lived and boarded on Wabash Avenue. That he was ALL Wabash did not go unnoticed as the college gossip column in the student magazine of the time noted the oddity too.
Conner intended to follow his father into the law and at commencement his speech was on a legal theme, “The Genesis of our Republic.” Following graduation Conner returned to Wabash, Indiana and in that same year, 1876, he passed the bar and went to work with his father. Conner junior was a highly successful attorney and it was through his work as a lawyer that he became familiar with the Belgian draft horse as a special breed. An entry on the Find a Grave website [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=39754146] gives much more detail taken from A History of Wabash County, Indiana [Clarkson Weesner, pub. 1914, pp 495-496]. According to the short biography it was through his work for a client that he first became aware of the Belgian draft horse. He was so taken with these horses that he established the first registry of the breed. In 1887 he created the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation for the purpose of registering these magnificent horses. As Mr. Conner said himself in a letter from December 8, 1937, he served as the Secretary Treasurer of the, “Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America, the only place in the United States where a pure bred Belgian draft horse can be registered.” That association continues today, it is still the only place to register such a horse and it is still headquartered in Wabash, Indiana. Here is a link to their website: http://www.belgiancorp.com/
These horses are evidently quite impressive and it was as a reward for Conner’s protection of the breed that King Albert of Belgium honored Jim Conner as, “a Sir Knight of the Order of the Crown of Belgium” in 1928.
Horses weren’t his only love, he also organized the Wabash County Historical Society. It seems Sir Conner kept busy his whole life. In the same letter from 1937 Conner notes, “I am 84 and working harder than I ever did.” When he died at the age of 87, Conner left behind a legacy that has survived for over 125 years.
An amazing legacy, what a life for Sir Conner of Wabash.
All best, Beth Swift Archivist Wabash College Crawfordsville, Indiana