Cincinnati Once Boasted America’s Largest And Busiest Horse Market

From about the 1830s onward, the eastern reaches of Fifth Street were dominated by vendors of prime equines.

It is mostly forgotten these days, but Cincinnati at one time boasted the largest horse market in the United States, with buyers arriving from as far away as England to bid on the quality steeds offered for sale here. Here is a summary from Daniel J. Kenny’s 1879 “Cincinnati Illustrated”:

“Cincinnati is the largest horse market in the United States, its sales exceeding by several thousand those of any other city. Ten thousand horses are annually disposed of at public auction at the seven sale stables, and the amount of money received for them is about $800,000. The horse market is on Fifth street, between Main and Sycamore, and is opened daily at 9:30 o’clock, and is often open until as late as 2 o’clock P.M. The stock offered for sale ranges in price from ten dollars to upward of a thousand, the general average being $80. Eastern agents are constantly in attendance; and much of the best quality of stock offered is purchased by them and sent to the seaboard. Government contractors purchase for the army; the express and street railroad companies, and other large dealers in horse-flesh, attend regularly and buy all suitable stock. The English Government is a large purchaser of mules in this market, and other foreign governments frequently have a purchasing agent here. The market is supplied mainly from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, but many fine horses are brought from more remote regions, attracted by the good prices usually obtained.”

As 10,000 animals each year passed through Cincinnati’s horse market, winning bids were announced by the auctioneer slamming a length of rubber hose on a wooden table.

From Cincinnati Enquirer, 9 October 1898 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Time for a little math. Your basic horse can be counted upon to poop around 30 pounds each and every day. Ten thousand horses a year averages maybe 40 sold per business day, producing just north of six tons of “horse apples” every week. Someone had a lot of shoveling to do and Fifth Street must have been eye-stingingly aromatic in the summer.

From about the 1830s onward, the eastern reaches of Fifth Street were dominated by vendors of prime equines. There were a couple of dedicated buildings, notably the Fox family’s three-story stable just east of Main Street, but most horse-trading happened right in the middle of the street. Auctions occurred daily, governed by a crier who beat upon a table with a length of rubber hose to catch the bidders’ attentions. Side deals and private showings competed with the raucous salesmanship surrounding the crier’s stand. On 18 October 1929, erstwhile horse trader Lee Quitman reminisced for the Cincinnati Post:

“During the days of the old Fifth-st. horse market, cable cars ran along Fifth-st. There were five auctions running at one time and the crack of the whip was a familiar sound as the horses were paraded up and down the street for the prospective buyers.”

Quitman recalled selling a lot of horses to the street car companies in the days before electric trolleys replaced the horse-drawn cars, and shipping entire herds to U.S. Army camps during the Spanish American War.

True horsemen calculated the value of a horse while watching a groom lead the beast through its paces. Amateurs were often fooled by cosmetic tricks.

From Cincinnati Enquirer, 9 October 1898 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The Cincinnati horse market flourished in the days when a man’s horse reflected his status. There were standard carriage horses of even temperament pulling the family surrey, dull old drays hitched to workmen’s wagons and high-spirited stallions flaunted by the playboys. Men measured other men by their equine knowledge. The Cincinnati Enquirer [9 October 1898] described the true horseman:

“You can tell a real horse lover by the expression of his eyes when he looks at an animal that pleases him. His glance is quick and exhaustive, taking in every detail of his idol’s anatomy from his fetlocks to the tips of his ears. He has in a flash counted every hair in his hide, measured his bones and his stride, noted the gentle droop of ears, the flow of mane and tail and seen the hidden ambition in his quiet eye. He has plumbed his shank and sounded his deep chest, peered through the transparent delicacy of his thin nostril, found how high his step is and figured out a mathematical problem that is more mystifying than anything astronomy holds for the waster of midnight oil. There is a horseman for you!”

The modern reader will be shocked—shocked!—to discover that some of the Fifth Street horse trading was less than honest. The Cincinnati Gazette reported in 1882 the case of a young man from Cynthiana, Kentucky, who was tricked out of a fine horse in a bait-and-switch operation. In 1893, Cincinnati Police arrested a 14-year-old boy who had stolen a fine saddle mare from an Indiana farm and rode through the night to sell it in Cincinnati before the loss was discovered. The Commercial Tribune complained in 1886 of the nefarious tricks some horse dealers employed to boost the salability of their nags, using lotions, potions and cosmetic applications that were often harmful to the animals.

Before 1900, Cincinnati boasted the largest horse market in the United States, with buyers arriving from as far away as England. This is Fifth Street east of Walnut in 1870.

Digitized by Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Wartime was good business for the Fifth Street merchants. Although many of the old-timers pointed to either the Civil War or the Spanish American War as the heyday of the Cincinnati horse market, mechanical competition loomed.

Some people predicted the market’s demise when the Traction Company swapped out horse-drawn cars for electric trolleys. Of course, automobiles also got the blame, especially the electric models that appeared in the early 1890s. Most people, surprisingly, pointed to the bicycle as the harbinger of doom, including the Enquirer [9 October 1898]:

“The market was crippled but still not done for until somebody got two wheels together, and made a bicycle. That was the straw that broke the horse’s back, and the farmer’s back, as well as the horse dealer’s back.”

Despite the predictions, the Fifth Street horse market hung on. Although the 1898 headline prophesied “Doom!,” the market survived until 1903 when the Cincinnati Post predicted the end as some of the bigger sellers relocated out near the stockyards on Spring Grove Avenue. Lee Quitman, quoted above, didn’t close up his dealership until 1916, after 40 years in the business.

As the Fifth Street horse market dissolved, adjunct businesses—notably saloons—drifted away as well. The legendary Bay Horse Exchange on Fifth Street relocated to Main Street as the Bay Horse Café. The legendary watering hole was fondly recalled in the 1943 WPA Guide to Cincinnati:

“On Fifth Street, by way of illustration, no less than 20 bistros flourished between Main and Sycamore Streets. This block-long oasis featured a horse market in the street; horse trading is a thirsty business; there stood the Bay Horse Cafe—to name one—where the bartender shook your gin fizz for 30 minutes before serving.”

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