Alex Tolliver “You Can’t Beat the Horses”
Submitted by Lorna Marks
Ironton Tribune, 6 March 1938
Perhaps it was on the court house wall, last time you saw Aleck TOLLIVER. It may have seemed the aging, bent colored man was just “sittin” but through old Aleck’s mind usually runs a panoramic review of events that historically portray the birth and growth of a nation.
A film of those memories that pass through old Aleck’s mind these days would be worth something. For he thinks about those times when he spent his early boyhood in slavery with the PAUL family near Russell, the underground slave tunnel into Ohio, sanctuaries for escaped slaves, in and near Ironton, hectic days following the war and the newly found freedom of colored men, slaughter of Union troops near Guyandotte, groomer of proud horses for F. C. FISHER and Nannie Kelly WRIGHT, realization that the “horses” can’t be “beat”.
Many residents will remember the Aleck of other years: those years when Sixth street was unpaved and Mrs. Nannie Wright owned the best pair of horses in the city. Aleck was proud coachman of the Wright stables and day after day he drove the horses up and down Sixth street training their every step, marveling in their beauty and proudly disdainful of the envious glances of those who watched the parade go by.
Always Horseman: From the first Aleck was a horseman. He was born to it, for even in slavery his father dealt in horse trading and was so adept at it that he made enough extra money to buy his freedom for $500 and that of his wife and daughter. After gaining freedom the father remained in Kentucky and was road boss at old Amanda Furnace. Aleck crossed the Ohio river into Ironton and started work at the age of eleven years, first with the late F.C. Fisher of Yellow Poplar Lumber Company, then with Hiram CAMPBELL and finally with Mrs. Wright. He served the latter for twenty years and the era upon which he looks back with most satisfaction are those spent in her service. He purchased the horses in Maysville, brought them here and daily gave them –ation and exercise.
Aleck was born to horses, in addition to working with them he “played the ponies” and at the time was regarded as the best race “picker” in the valley. In those days he always carried his own “library”, a collection of racing forms and sheets, to which he was ever referring. But even in this great passion came disillusionment and Aleck approaches the declining years of life after having learned the great lesson “you can’t beast the horses”. His experience should be a valuable lesson to those residents who today are still unconvinced that it is so.
“I quit betting and quit the ponies” said Aleck yesterday “because people are too crooked. The only straight races anymore are the stake races. The best horse usually wind there barring accident.”
Aleck was born in what is now Russell on September 3, 1857. It was eleven years later that his father purchased freedom of his family and then Aleck moved to Ironton. He had never married but he had three full brothers and two sisters. He and Fanny Tolliver are the only ones left. Neither is married.
Aleck remembers establishment of a colony at Macedonia by a Paducah slave owner who brought his thirty seven former slaves to Ohio and set them up in their own homes; he remembers the escape of slaves from Kentucky into the northland via the “slave tunnel”; he remembers that John CAMPBELL, city founder, assisted in the work and at times concealed some of the escaping humans in the attic of his home.
“Why I remember” said Aleck, “how old man RANKIN, a relative of Colonel GRAY and Mr. Campbell, helped some slaves escape to freedom. After his death they always found a bouquet of roses on his grave every anniversary date. It was always delivered at night by an unknown man; but everybody knew it was from a former slave he had helped.”
Aleck’s memory of slavery isn’t so unpleasant but he says days of the war and immediately after the war were terrible. He remembers how Union soldiers were invited to church at Guyandotte, checked their rifles and were in— when rebel forces barricaded the bridge, attacked and massacred the “northerners.” That affair was avenged by General Ziegler in a march on the community.
“Rebel” is Chased: When President Abe Lincoln was killed, bells were tolled, whistles were blown and everybody quit work. One —- sympathizer was located in the cooper shop here and to information that Lincoln was dead he replied “what’s the matter, did he swallow a nigger’s boot.” The man was badly beaten, finally escaped, and frantically made his way across the river into Kentucky.
Aleck remembers that his old “master” is now buried on Amanda Hill and he also remembered brutal treatment of Negroes and whites at old Clinton Furnace where wages were fifty or sixty cents a day and a beating was the reward for grumbling. But Aleck missed most of that due to his early escape from slavery.
Today Aleck is rich only in the vivid pictures that flash through his mind; pictures of the complacency of a happy home, flashes of rebellion; war-torn refugees, galloping horses; prancing horses and horses on paper. There’s history and wisdom packed away inside those memories.
We first remember Aleck as the driver of those high-stepping, prancing horses of Mrs. Wright. Next our memory finds him sprawled under the shade of a tree, diligently fingering through racing records. And now he shuffles here and there…with his memories.
Aleck should know, so take his word for it, you can’t beat the ponies.