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Gurniss Tapley: The Story of a Man and a Horse

Jean Otten Moore shares a photo of Gurniss Tapley, who sold his horse, Colonel, to her father, Franklin Otten. Gurniss subsequently worked at the dairy farm just west of Hannibal, Mo., from about 1932 until he died. The dog is Bess. They're standing by the milk house and a water vat at the Otten farm. The photo was taken after Jean's marriage in 1943. CONTRIBUTED


For the Courier-Post

Franklin Otten needed replacements for the aged team of dappled horses on his dairy farm during the early 1940s. He placed an advertisement in the local newspaper, and was first able to acquire a roan horse. Still needing a teammate, he advertised again. This time, Gurniss Tapley, a man of color, answered the call for assistance. The two men struck a deal, with one caveat.

“Gurniss would deliver ‘Colonel’ the next morning and stay until ‘Colonel’ was adjusted (on the dairy farm,” Jean Moore – Franklin Otten’s daughter – remembers. “If he did not think our farm was a good place for Colonel, the deal was off.”

Jean was just a child, but recalls the story of the connection between Gurniss and Colonel.

“Colonel had been born a thoroughbred to be raced, but he received an eye injury and was blind in one eye, rendering him ineligible for the track,” Jean says.

In the meantime, “Gurniss was the man who had the very dangerous job of setting dynamite for a (quarry) when a large amount of stone needed to be moved to find a better product. It was hard to find anyone who could and would do this dangerous job,” she remembers, and believes he learned this skill while serving in the military, perhaps during World War I.

“A fast horse was furnished to speed up his escape before the lode went off,” she says, and “thus Colonel entered the picture. Colonel loved to run and he served his new master well. Thus a close bond was formed.”

Gurniss developed arthritis, Jean says, and he was nearing retirement age. “He could no longer make those fast get-a-ways, and Colonel was getting old, too.” So when Gurniss retired, Colonel went with him. “The problem was that Gurniss lived in town just off Market Street, and Colonel needed more room to graze. Gurniss came up with an idea of a way to sell him,” Jean remembers.

The next morning, “The two of them arrived as promised, and Gurniss stayed all day, and the next and the next. He brought little treats for Colonel each day and made himself useful around the barn. He started helping milk, and cleaning out the barns, and next he learned how to sterilize bottles and wash them. Meanwhile he noticed how little the horses were used and how well animals were treated there. Colonel could stay. Everybody was happy with the arrangement,” Jean says.

“Still Gurniss kept coming at dawn and working hard, so a paycheck was offered. He accepted the offer but refused to be picked up every day. Instead he bought a used bike and rode it to the farm, unless the weather was bad at which time my Dad met him in town before he could leave on that bike.

“Gurniss was a good person. He and my father became good friends. He had good morals and was nice to take the time to talk to my brother and me, and taking an interest in our activities.

“He called his (partner) his Cook and she cooked the o'possoms and greens that he found on the farm. He made the boiler room his lunch room and often cooked things by opening the boiler door. He made himself pillows by stuffing gunnysacks with straw to rest his arthritic back. With his glasses down his nose he read the daily paper over his noon hour.

“On his weekends off Gurniss had a great time and often came back to work a bit ‘happy’. He would be back in the barn singing at the top of his lungs. The song was often ‘Just Molly and me and Baby makes three. I'm happy in my blue Heaven.’ He had a good ear for pitch.

“When I was married he refused an invitation for his Cook and him to come to the wedding, but he came out as I was leaving for the church, with his glasses on his nose to check out my wedding dress, and had me turn around several times all the while wishing me happiness. “On a trip back home, I was able to visit Gurniss for the last time at his home. A little bungalow with a perfectly manicured lawn and a "clean as a pin" house, He was propped up in bed with his beloved Cook near by.

Gurniss’ funeral was held in the old Stone Church near the junction of Market Street and St. Mary's Ave.

Tapley biography

Gurniss Tapley was born in 1882, the son of Robert Tapley, who worked as a sand drier for the CB&Q Railroad for 26 years, and his wife Susie, who worked at the Depot Hotel.

Gurniss married Beulah Wilson, and they had two daughters, Naomi and Evanglee. Gurniss died in 1946, and Beulah died in 1951. He is buried at Robinson Cemetery, and Beulah was buried at the Old Baptist Cemetery. At the time of his death, Gurniss was a boarder at the home of Vina Britts, a widow living at 1032 Lindell Avenue. Beulah’s brother, Maceo Wilson, was a noted and highly regarded jazz musician.

When Gurniss registered for World War I service on Sept. 12, 1918, it was noted that the index finger on his left hand was missing. Jean Moore remembers this detail, and wonders if it was a repercussion from the years he spent igniting TNT.

“I remember the smile on his face when he wouldn’t let me kill the chicken we were planning for dinner. He always did it for me,” Jean remembers.

The Otten farm

Imagine an old red barn all outfitted with a hay loft, surrounded by dozens of new, upscale homes built of brick. A blending of old and new, past and present.

The “new” in this reference is the Hummingbird Estates Subdivision. The “old” is the dairy barn that stood for many years near what is now the subdivision’s entrance.

Today, where houses stand, was the pasture where cows grazed during the 1940s and 1950s, and the pond where they watered. There remains a 150-foot-deep well, well disguised by landscaping, and a seed house – a structure remaining from the proud Otten dairy farm of the 1940s.

Franklin Otten, as he was known to his friends, and Ussie Otten were parents Jean Otten Moore, now 93. She lives in Pennsylvania, and has very fond memories of growing up in Hannibal.

After the Depression, “We moved on Highway 36 and my father worked for Fred Atkins. They were such nice people. Eventually, Dad bought the farm from them. Atkins was not versed in good dairy, and he couldn’t get good help,” she remembers.

On the Atkins farm, “We lived in a very small shack, to be sure, but the barn was beautiful and cows were lovely and fat and sassy.

“I lived on the dairy farm until I married. Mother lived there until her death (in 1966.) She died in her sleep. Father died in that barn (in 1959.) Both died on the farm that they loved so much

Memories of the farm

“We had a really pure field,” Jean remembers. “We had a lot of water; the dogs would bring up the cows and send them around the door, they couldn’t come in until they drank some water. The dogs would see that they got into the right sanctions; the dogs saw that they got out of the barn before they got rid of the water; that kept the barn clean.

“At 4 a.m. the dogs would round up the cows; here would come the cows. The dogs were all offspring of the same dog, all the dogs named Betty. Milked twice a day, 4 o’clock in the afternoon; milk was bottled and delivered right after the morning milking, and it was refrigerated overnight from the night milking.”

Ornery cow

“On the farm in the summer time we always wore hats as a protection from the sun,” Jean recalls. “Sometimes they were straw from Mexico and they came with ball fringe around the brim which I removed. But this year, when I was about nine, my Mother made my hat of yellow pique and lined it in white. The brim was wide and was scalloped all around. She heavily starched the brim the way they did in those days, with cooked starch. She had put a lot of work into it. I really liked it.

“One day I was over in the hickory grove hanging by my knees on a trapeze when a curious calf came over to check things out. Then suddenly she darted over, grabbed that hat off my head and ran with it. Cows don't have many teeth but she managed to shred my new hat before I could get to her!!!

“I guess she was just a fun-loving calf having a good time - at my expense.”

This seed house is the only remaining structure from the Franklin Otten dairy farm, once located on Route MM, near the entrance to what is now the Hummingbird Estates subdivision. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY, WITH ASSISTANCE FROM MIKE RICHARDSON

Landscaping disguises the cover to the well, which served the Franklin Otten dairy farm, near what is now Hummingbird Estates subdivision. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY, WITH ASSISTANCE FROM MIKE RICHARDSON

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