The Ringo and Tom Bass

By Joan Gilbert
Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles

Crane logo The Historic Ringo House, Tom Bass and more. Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Joan Gilbert.
© copyrighted horse article.
"The Ringo": those words resounded with special reverence in many of the late John T. Hook's horse world stories. He said that it was the favorite meeting place of local horsemen in Mexico, Missouri's early days of becoming "the Saddle Horse Capital of the World." It was also invaluable to them as a place to "put up in style" clients who came to town on horse-buying visits. These often were people of great wealth or of importance far beyond the horse world. A few who are on record as visiting Mexico are Teddy Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill, William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, and William Taft. It was a great asset to breeders and trainers to have at hand a hotel that could never be dismissed as a dinky country town hostelry. The Ringo's size and accommodations - including its restaurant's cosmopolitan menu - rivaled the best of St. Louis.

Uncountable horses and dollars changed hands in the Ringo's lobby, restaurant and saloon. It was also the place sought out by any visiting horseman - or other travelers - who came on their own for horse sales, business or other purposes. The Ringo gave special attention to the privacy and security of female guests. It advertised itself as being open all night and having a particularly skilled and serviceable staff. After some 1910 renovations, it boasted electric lights and a telephone in the lobby.

This establishment, of course, has its share of horse world legends. According to Hook, it is the place where Tom Bass made his entrance into immortality, and it at one time housed the remains of Rex McDonald. There has to be much more we will never know about this fabled place. For instance, was Ringo himself a horseman? Ransom and Susanne made no mention of him except one bare reference of an animal named Ringo's Taylor who was among ancestors of a good Kentucky harness horse and breeding stallion named Bourbon Tucker. There may or may not be a connection between this horse and The Ringo's creator.

But first, to round out background, we must go to a book written by Mexicoan Leta Hodge. It is called A Gathering of Our Days, subtitled Selected Writings on the History of Mexico and Audrain County, Missouri, The Audrain County Historical Society published the book in 1997.*

Hodge tells us this about the Ringo, properly known as Ringo House: It was built in 1866 by a man named A.R. Ringo, who came to Mexico, probably in 1860, apparently with more than average financial resources. He took an active part in the town's recovery from the war and was, for awhile, Hodge says, called "a walking bank." Seeming to keep all his assets on his person, Ringo made personal and business loans from his pockets. In 1861, however, he established The Mexico Savings Bank, which continued as a fixture for many years.

The Ringo Hotel, built at a cost of $65,000, was only one of his business ventures, but it was a notable one. It was an impressive three stories, all brick, and could accommodate 60 guests. It had the aforementioned remarkable restaurant, and everything was slated as much to the enhancement of life for Mexico's residents as for people from out of town. For instance, it offered monthly rates ($4.50 to $6.50) for "permanent boarders," and had ideal spaces for meetings of social, cultural and business groups. The Ringohad a ballroom and a billiards parlor and the ground floor was rimmed with shops offering things travelers and residents alike might especially need (jewelry, gifts, clothing, a barber, etc.).

Now for some of the history made at The Ringo: According to Hook, the connection between Bass and the hotel began when slaves were freed. As a teenager, Bass appeared in Mexico and got the job of driving the hack that brought arriving guests from trains to The Ringo. Hook credited the teenager with enough smarts to have reasoned that this hotel was the best place in town for gaining attention from local horsemen and getting a job in one of their barns, a job that could give him entre to more than just mucking and rubbing.

Hook didn't say how the youngster got the hack assignment. Maybe his unusual abilities were obvious to anyone who saw him with a horse. Local horsemen may have known and respected the credentials of a man named Gray, Tom Bass's maternal grandfather. All sources seem to agree that Gray held a position of authority on the vast Bass plantation near Ashland, Mo.

Some say that Gray was head coachman, entrusted - among other duties - with driving women of the family wherever they needed to go. Some say the title also meant that he was in charge of the whole horse operation, overseeing everything pertaining to the use and well-being of Bass equines. If so, and considering his grandson's circumstances (semi-orphaned by the fact that his mother's good position as a house servant kept them apart most of the time), the boy probably had the best of instruction in every aspect of horse keeping.

Hook said merely that Bass cleaned and polished the Ringo's workaday hack and induced the horses to set themselves and move with arresting elegance. Bass himself, Hook said, "sat like a ramrod, his whip equally erect, its tassels swinging above his head. He made it an ornament, demonstrating that he had no other use for it." Nobody got into any other vehicle, Hook said, until the Ringo's hack was full.

It was a longtime trainer named Joe Potts who took young Bass on as an employee, delegated, no doubt, at first, to the most menial work. But his abilities took him smoothly from groom to exercise rider, and eventually exhibitor, even though blacks were banned from the show ring at that time. Whatever the details of Tom Bass's success may be, there seems no doubt that it all began for him in the Ringo Hotel.

And when he achieved international acclaim for his show wins and his training skill, was Bass ever among the horsemen who gathered at The Ringo for business and chitchat? It would be fascinating to know. The odds are against it, though we have a few stories of how adroitly he dealt with the racial prejudices of his time.

Another area of the Ringo's fame rests on facts (hard to find now) and myths about Rex McDonald as resident. There seems no question that the hide of the famous animal stood for a number of years as attraction and object of honor in The Ringo's lobby. Taxidermied Rex was said to eventually have been delegated, for some reason, to the attic of the building. Did the hotel have an elevator that would have made this feasible? And was the hide in the attic because it had been damaged or had it just deteriorated past beauty?

Was there more than one fire in the Ringo? This question arises because of a persistent story that when the hotel was burning, presumably in the 1918 fire that was to be its doom, that everyone, even strangers in the street, turned to helping carry out valuables. We're told that one newcomer in town came out in a panic, saying "There's a horse in there, but I couldn't get it to move...Somebody who can handle horses needs to go get it." If that happened, it might be evidence of more than one fire in the hotel. It doesn't seem likely that a stranger in town would have made his way to the attic of the large building. So had damage from an earlier fire delegated Rex's remains to the attic, if they were ever there?

Hook indicated that in its last years, when Tom Bass had the hide in his barn, it showed fire damage on one side, a side which had been turned to the wall. If it was in the hotel on April 19, 1918, the hide was probably damaged by fire, because on that date The Ringo burned to the ground taking with it many nearby business buildings. Nobody died or suffered serious injury in the fire that ended The Ringo's half century of admirable service.

So, so much for Ringo facts and fables. It was apparently a noble place with a great deal of history that is lost forever, some of which deserves to be ferreted out and recorded, even if we can't be sure how much is strictly true. Often myth holds its own kind of truth.

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