|The following is extracted from the chapter about my father's job at Pine Tree Farms and my being named for Five-Gaited World Grand Champion Lady Jane in 1939. My upcoming book is entitled "Art Simmons: Legendary Horseman of the 20th Century - A Daughter's Memories."
Those who worked at the huge Illinois horse and cattle facility knew their employer, William R. "Billy" Skidmore, had close ties to notorious gangster Al Capone of Chicago. Even though Capone had been found guilty of tax evasion and was still imprisoned in 1938 on "The Rock" of Alcatraz, many of his cohorts came and went at Pine Tree Farms as guests of Mr. and Mrs. Skidmore.
My father worked in 1938 and part of 1939 at Pine Tree Farms, which was a premiere horse operation covering six different farms, each with its own barn. Its trainers included Lloyd Teater and Harry Lathrop, as well as 25-year-old Art Simmons. All on the payroll were well aware of the owner's circle of associates. Dad told me his employer "packed a matched set of pearl-handled pistols" on
his hips, and "a bodyguard came with him to the barns."
A book I read by John Kobler on the infamous Capone described gang member Skidmore as "a bondsman, gambler and saloonkeeper." The Chicago Daily News described Skidmore as a "gambling czar, junk dealer and gentleman farmer," in a February 22, 1939 article I found. When mobster Capone divided Chicago into "territories" at a meeting in the Hotel Sherman in the 1920s, a group, that included Barney Bertsche, Jack Zuta and Billy Skidmore, was "given" the city's West Side. Gambling dens, roadhouses and brothels in their West Side territory generated incomes that sustained all of them as multi-millionaires. These roaring amounts of cash continued to flow into their pockets throughout the Great Depression - which started with the stock market Crash of
1929 and lasted for over a decade.
"Billy" Skidmore purchased Pine Tree Farms in 1937 and immediately set about to create a show place of champion horses
and cattle. He bought the property two years before his gangland comrade Capone was released from prison in November 1939.
The Skidmores' Mansion faced the southern shore of Pistakee Lake. Within view of the huge house was Barn #1, which also
still stands, along with many of the other original structures.
Skidmore determined in 1937 that one way to have his newly acquired Pine Tree Farms quickly become a show place was
to hire skilled and talented help, and find and buy champion horses - Suffolk Draft Horses, Percherons and Saddlebreds -
and purebred cattle - Brown Swiss and Holstein. His dairy was the most modern in the area.
In the spring of 1938, Skidmore learned about a champion show mare to be auctioned in Topeka, Kansas, at the dispersal sale of Georgian Court Stables. Before the sale, owner George Godfrey Moore reportedly had refused offers of $30,000 for his mare named Lady Jane of Georgian Court. The July sale was a bargain for the buyers: "31 horses were sold for a total of $31,003," according to the July 1938 issue of Saddle & Bridle. Almost half of this sale income was generated by Lady Jane's selling price. The bidders on Lady Jane included "John Hook, Harry McNair, Howard Hurwith of Chicago, and Bob Bonds of Ft. Worth, Texas," reported the July 1938 article. These horsemen did not know the man who had out-bid them. The $14,000 cash purchase of Lady
Jane by Pine Tree Farms, as the story goes, was a horse deal right out of the movies.
Lynn said he based his account of Lady Jane's 1937 purchase on "a story by horseman Charlie Huston." Georgian Court's sale personnel, Lynn wrote in 1981, requested "a $5,000 deposit," since no one knew "the bidder, Henney Finklestein of Chicago,"
and $14,000 was a lot of money in 1938. Instead of giving over a mere deposit, Mr. Finklestein just "pulled a wad of money from his pocket and counted off fourteen $1,000 bills." The bidder, paying for the mare in cold hard cash, was acting on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Billy Skidmore. At the same sale, the Skidmores also purchased the black three-gaited mare, Night Storm, formerly known as Black Narcissus. These two horses were transported to their new Pine Tree Farms home in McHenry, Illinois - a small town about 35 miles northwest of Chicago.
Living on Farm #6 of the six farms' 1,200 acres in the fall of 1938 were 25- year-old Art Simmons and his wife "Ollie." Mom and Dad lived in a small white frame house on the sprawling estate's rolling pastureland, which encompassed the half-dozen adjoining Skidmore farms.
Dad ran Farm #6's Barn. Amazingly, I found this barn still standing in April 2003 on my book research trip to McHenry. The barn, with its windows boarded up, stood within the Eastwood Manor housing development, which was built around it in the 1950s.
I traveled to McHenry County Illinois to find what ever might be left, if anything, of my first home. I was born in the nearby town of Woodstock in the Public Hospital's Bentley Wing Addition, which now is a Rehabilitation Center. I was told the frame house was gone, but I felt total gratefulness in finding "Dad's barn" and "my hospital" and "my baptismal church." I was a happy researcher!
When Lady Jane arrived at her new home in Illinois, she took up residence in the main Barn #1. Lady Jane was a bay mare with a blaze on her face and a white sock half way up her right hind leg. She came into the world as Shasta Maid in Lee's Summit,
Missouri, on March 4, 1930 at Longview Farms. Her "dam was the famous Katherine Grigsby, by Montgomery Chief (a full
brother to Bourbon King)," according to Lynn, "and her second dam was the equally famous matron, Lena Jemison, by Highland Denmark." More breeding information came to me from Cynthia Hecht, Historian/Archivist for the American Saddlebred Horse Association in Lexington. Cynthia told me Lady Jane's sire pedigree boasted Rex Denmark 840, Rex McDonald 833, and McDonald Chief 1451. This beautiful mare was a championship winner at such shows as the American Royal in Kansas City, the Chicago International, and the big shows in St. Louis and Louisville, among others.
Another Lady Jane story right out of the movies happened in 1938, according to Lynn Weatherman. The tale concerns her showing in Kansas City. Charges that Billy Skidmore had tried to "fix" the outcome of the Five-Gaited Championship Stake at the 1938 show at Kansas City's American Royal made headlines in the local newspaper. The paper's sport page headline read: "Gamblers Try to Beat Midnite Star and Fail," according to an account in a book by the owner of the class' winning horse. Leisure Hour Farm's Midnite Star, ridden by Frank Heathman, won the Stake. Lady Jane, ridden by H.C. (Slimmy) Bryant, Jr., was Reserve Champion,
according to Saddle & Bridle Managing Editor Mary Bernhardt, who verified these class winners. Amy Freeman Lee, who owned Midnite Star, gave her version of what happened in her vanity-press book she entitled: Hobby Horses. I read about this episode involving my namesake and her owner, in Lynn's 1981 article. Lynn wrote that in 1940, two years after the class in question, Ms. Lee published her book, giving her account of Billy Skidmores' alleged efforts to assure his mare, Lady Jane, won the Five-Gaited Stake.
Her story, Lynn said, goes this way: Skidmore made an offer to buy a horse owned by one of the judges of the Royal for a "ridiculously high price," asserted Ms. Lee. Then, she charged that a blow was struck to the back of her horse when the judges were not looking. Also, efforts were made to frighten her horse by having people around the rail "drop hats" or "make violent movements," and lastly, persons (who were positioned around the arena) were paid to applaud his horse and "hiss" her horse.
Lady Jane, later in 1938, won the mare class at the Chicago International show but lost the Five-Gaited Stake to gelding Jeb Stuart.
Even though the Great Depression was beginning to wind down by the holidays of 1938, times were still rough for the non-rich. That Christmas, Mom and Dad had a scarce pantry after sending holiday gifts to their families back in Missouri, and preparing for the arrival of their first child. Then, Mother told me, a gift for them arrived: a turkey. Mother often told the story of how she "baked that holiday gift turkey," and how she and Dad "ate and ate until we thought we'd pop." Both Mom and Dad always remembered that holiday meal and how grateful they ere. Mother told me it was that 1938 gift that inspired my father to present a turkey to each of his employees with a family every Christmas once he ran his own barn. My father, throughout his career, I learned over the years, also anonymously gave food to needy families as came to his attention, even when it was not Christmas time.
As Mom's due date for me neared, it was decided I would have at least one of my names be that of my maternal grandmother Elizabeth. However, it could not be my first name. Dad knew Mother wanted her children to "have single syllable names" and "all of them to begin with the same letter." Thus, when I was named after Lady Jane, any children after me were destined to have names starting with the letter J. Mom often said she wanted "a family of eight boys." I never heard Dad directly comment on how he felt about having such a big family. However, Art Simmons had been a self-made success since his early teens, so I think he felt he could feed how ever many children the Good Lord provided him and Ollie. My mother, who came from a family of six children, obviously thought eight was manageable.
Lady Jane's ownership by a Chicago gangster and her stay in McHenry would come to an end in two more years, when
Mr. Skidmore was himself facing income evasion charges by the federal government. In November 1940, Pine Tree Farms had
a dispersal sale, which was held in Chicago at the Union Stock Yards' Amphitheater. Harry McNair handled the sale that included
other consignments of animals in addition to Pine Tree Farms' stock. The Pine Tree Farms trainer at the time of the sale was Harry Lathrop, who went on to open his own barn in Hannibal, Missouri, leasing the stables owned by Dr. John W. Opp. Serving before him as Pine Tree Farms' trainer was Lloyd Teater. The first trainer hired, when Skidmore opened his place in 1937, was Walter Bush, who, according to Lynn, preceded Teater.
Lady Jane's trainers over the years also included J. Miller McAfee and Roy Davis, wrote Lynn. Garland Bradshaw at Longview Farm started her out as a twoyear-old fine harness winner at the 1932 American Royal, and taught her to rack, Lynn pointed out in his 1981 article. Lady Jane, under Colonel E.E. McClure's auction gavel, was sold for only $5,000 to James K. Robinson of Crebilly Farm in Pennsylvania. Her new owners sent in papers for her name to be Lady Jane of Crebilly, according to the American Saddlebred Horse Association's archives. However, her registered name throughout her remaining years remained Lady Jane in the official record books.
My namesake, when she became a broodmare, produced six foals, the last colt arriving in 1949 - the year Dad and Mom moved to Mexico, Missouri from Omaha's Almarel Stables. Lady Jane 30657 was the last of the Five-Gaited World Grand Champions sired by
Independence Chief. I am proud to be named after Lady Jane.
With the New Year of 1939, Dad, ever alert to advancing his career, learned of a job that would offer him more money and a better opportunity to use his riding and showmanship skills. It also would allow him to take his wife and newborn baby daughter out of the environment of bodyguards and a pistol-packing gangster employer. Mother loved that his new job would move them a little closer to both their families in California, Missouri. And so it was that the month following my baptism at the Catholic Church in McHenry, Art and Ollie Simmons tucked my seven-week-old, eight-and-a-half pound self into a cardboard box placed on the car seat, and drove south in March 1939 to Omaha, Nebraska, to begin their next new adventure together.
Dad had accepted the offer to be trainer for the Three Bar Farm, owned by George Brandeis. On St. Patrick's Day 1939, my father began a new chapter in a career that would lead to his being called "a legend in his own time," before his passing in 1995.