The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Williams, Charles W.
(December 4, 1856–February 2, 1936)

–businessman and horse breeder/trainer—was born in New York State, but moved with his family to Buchanan County, Iowa, when he was 11 years old. He was the son of George W. and Julina (Reynolds) Williams, a woman of Quaker stock. Williams went to school and helped around the family farm outside Jesup until he was about 16. At about that time, his father sold the farm and moved the family into Jesup. Williams, looking to make his own way in the world, took a job as a clerk in the Laird Bros. General Store. After economic woes caused the owners to sever his employment, C. W. (as all but his closest friends called him) found some temporary jobs and put aside some money until an opportunity came to go to Chicago and drive a milk wagon.

    The Chicago job didn't last long, but it did give Williams a head for business opportunities and some experience driving horses– both useful skills over the coming years. Williams moved back to Jesup and set about finishing schooling in the daytime and training as a nighttime telegraph operator in Independence. He turned 21, married, and went into partnership to start a creamery in Independence. He was soon shipping eggs and butter directly to New York and preparing to start another creamery. Williams was constantly on the go, driving over several Iowa counties setting up his businesses. His experience instilled in him an appreciation for a good road horse. All of his businesses being very successful, Williams decided to take some of his funds to buy some horses for breeding.

    Williams turned to Dubuque's "lumber kings"– Henry L. Stout and Frank D. Stout. Their Highland Farm facility was looking to weed out some stock that was not quite up to their standard, and Williams was the benefactor. Eventually, he sent two of the mares to Kentucky to try to get the best breedings he could afford. The non-Standard mare, Lou, was bred to the stallion William L., while the Standard mare, Gussie Wilkes, was bred to Jay Bird. Lou's foal, Axtell, and Gussie Wilkes's foal, Allerton, were to become two of the most influential stallions in early harness racing history.

    With set ideas on how to train the colts, Williams took upon himself all of the training and driving needed to prepare the horses for racing. In 1889, at the age of three, Axtell became the world trotting stallion champion, with a time of 2:12, a new world trotting record. Within days, Williams sold Axtell to a syndicate for a record-breaking $105,000. Retaining Allerton, who was also starting to set speed records, Williams took most of the $105,000 and built a new, kite-shaped racetrack in Independence; the entire breeding and racing facility, which opened in 1890, was called Rush Park. He also decided to build an elegant hotel and opera house (The Gedney) to accommodate the thousands who were clamoring to attend the upcoming races. To move the crowds he also built a trolley line out to the racetrack. For about three short years, Independence became known as the "Lexington of the North," before an economic depression collapsed the whole operation.

    Williams was able to hold on to Allerton and a few other horses, and moved to Galesburg, Illinois, where he was offered a position as racetrack manager. Allerton commanded large stud fees, and Williams was able to rebuild his resources. This time, though, he sent most of his money to Canada to purchase farmland, and sent his sons there as well, to keep them away from the drinking and gambling of the racing milieu. At this time in Williams's life, Carl Sandburg met him, and Sandburg mentions Williams in his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers.

    Williams retired from the horse business in 1908. In his later life he became a sort of self-styled evangelist, often preaching in the city streets. When he died in Aurora, Illinois, in 1936, he may not have fully known the impression he had made on Independence, Iowa, and on the trotting side of horse racing. His stallion Axtell's own son, Axworthy, became one of five foundation stallions of all Standard-bred horses. The descendants of Axtell and Allerton are still racing today.
Sources A fine overview of the Rush Park years in Independence is William J. Petersen, "The Lexington of the North," Palimpsest 46 (1965), 489–552. See also John Hervey, "It Reads Like a Harness Racing Fairy Tale," Harness Horse, 12/14/1960.
Contributor: Kristi Bennett