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Horse club galloping into the past

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2015 12:00 am

By Blythe Wachter Leader-Telegram staff



Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club

Mission: The club encompasses a variety of English and Western horse shows and teaches equestrian education.


Club grounds: 10409 W. Cameron St.

Meetings: In summer, members will meet at 6:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month on the club grounds.


Vision: “To promote the development of equine sports for the purpose of social welfare, charitable and educational purposes as well as encouraging national and international amateur athletics.”


Show dates: National Barrel Horse Association show, June 10-11, with tack-craft sale ; fun game shows, June 13, July 18, Sept. 12; Western Saddle Clubs Association pleasure -28, Aug. 8-9, Aug. 29-30; possible fall festival, to be announced.

Information: Email [email protected] or visit EauClaireBitAndSpur.com or facebook.com/​EauClaireBitAndSpurClub.


Bit of History

In 1925, 19 polo riders founded the Bit and Spur Club, naming it after their old organization.

After being inactive for three years during the Great Depression, the club reorganized in 1933.

The club’s first show took place in 1925 at the 105th Cavalry Regiment barns on U.S. 53 in Eau Claire. The first show at the club’s new grounds on Highway E, also known as Cameron Street, was held June 12, 1938.

The 1940 show featured equitation classes, open hunter, ponies, amateur owners, five-gaited, three-gaited, parent and child (with parent riding too), pairs classes (a man and a woman) and senior championships.

The Bit and Spur show grounds are six miles west of Eau Claire on Cameron Street. The clubhouse is a full log building that was constructed in the 1940s. Members formerly hosted dances, chicken and beef dinners, pancake breakfasts and smorgasbords there.

In the 1950s, club members met weekly for rides of two or three hours, with dinner and a social time afterward. In 1979, the club merged with the Eau Claire Trail Riders.

In the early 1990s, shows attracted competitors from Canada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota. The 80-plus-stall barn on the grounds was paid off in 1994.

In past years the Bit and Spur Club was the site of many breed shows, including saddlebreds, Morgans, Arabians, quarter horses and even Lipizzan stallions.

Some club members are third- and fourth-generations to belong, work and ride.


Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2015 12:00 am

By Blythe Wachter Leader-Telegram staff

Horses and history ride together on the Eau Claire Bit & Spur Club grounds.

To revive interest in the 90-year-old club and preserve its equestrian-spurred heritage, members are meeting with local historians and town of Union officials about the possibility of turning their log clubhouse into a museum while maintaining the grounds for horse shows and outdoor education.

The proposed museum primarily would focus on horses and the history of the club and the Elk Creek Lake area where it is located, said Bit & Spur President Kathy Wahrenbrock of River Falls.

Gordon Petschow, a town of Pleasant Valley resident who serves on the club’s board and is chairman of its history committee, is among those taking the reins on the initiative. He is finishing a book on the history of the club and Elk Creek Lake this spring.

“I think it would really be great,” Petschow said of the proposed museum.

“It would be a very educational piece” promoting horses and equestrian riding, he said, and it would “bring people back to more rural thinking. People are so urbanized they can’t think what a horse looks like.”

Trail to the past

Horses are intrinsically tied to the club’s history, explained Petschow, who praised Lee Haskins and Cynthia Ziebell for their work on the history committee.

Stagecoaches once rumbled through the property, six miles west of Eau Claire on Cameron Street, en route from Caryville to Elk Creek.

In the 1800s, the club’s 31 acres belonged to Eliza Wilson — daughter of Capt. William Wilson, a wealthy lumberman and a founding settler of Menomonie; Civil War nurse and member of the 5th Brigade fighting regiment; businesswoman who operated a mill on Elk Creek near the Dunn-Eau Claire county line and raised purebred horses; and leader in the women’s rights movement.

Eliza Wilson owned about 160 acres around Elk Creek, and she attempted to develop the area into a cultural center based on recreation, Petschow said. However, the concept never came to fruition.

A section of the Yellowstone Trail — developed in 1912 when horsepower began moving ahead of horse power — rolls along the north edge of the property. The Yellowstone Trail connected roads in the first coast-to-coast auto route across the northern United States.

The 105th Calvary Regiment, which disbanded shortly before World War II, practiced military maneuvers at the site. The unit of highly disciplined riders was instrumental in forming the club, Petschow said.

Bit & Spur, started in 1925 by 19 polo riders, held its first show at its new location on Cameron Street in 1938. The club was a close-knit community of members who rode and dined together.

In the club’s heydays in the 1950s and ’60s, its breed shows and other events drew as many as 3,000 people to exhibit or watch, Petschow said.

“We were known throughout the Midwest as the premiere horse show place,” he said. The grounds feature an 80-plus-stall barn and two open arenas along with the clubhouse.

“We are one of the few (saddle clubs) in this area who have a facility of this quality,” Petschow said.

In addition to the shows, the club teaches equestrian education with a focus on safety. Along with teaching members, the club has reached out to those who haven’t seen a horse up-close before.

Last summer some local Boy Scouts learned about horses and the history of the Elk Creek Lake area. They also got a chance to ride.

“They had a great time. Most if not all of them had never been on a horse,” Wahrenbrock said.

Petschow also wants to develop a natural resources education program. Club members are starting to identify different plants on the grounds.

He proudly noted the club converted to all-organic grounds for the health of the horses and environment and established a sanctuary for butterflies and other pollinators.

Jumping over barriers

To sponsor the kinds of shows that would attract riders from around the Midwest, members must surmount the obstacles of a dwindling membership and deteriorating facilities.

At one time around 60 horse enthusiasts belonged to the club. Now membership has dropped to somewhere between 25 and 35 people, Petschow estimated.

“I actually can’t tell you why,” Wahrenbrock said of the decline.

But Petschow pointed to urbanization and land-use changes as contributing to a declining interest in horses.

“It’s a lifestyle,” said Chris Grambort of Strum, who attended a recent meeting of club members.

Bit & Spur hopes to build its membership, which Wahrenbrock said would result in more volunteers to help with shows and more people with different areas of equine expertise.

To spur interest, the club is looking at possible future events such as a dressage show, an Arabian community show that would include classes for other breeds, dog shows, a reining clinic, weekday evening fun shows and a trainer’s challenge.

In recent years the club, which is affiliated with the Western Saddle Clubs Association, has sponsored mostly pleasure shows. “Our pleasure shows are intended to provide an opportunity for horses and riders at any level to compete,” Wahrenbrock said.

In the past three years the club revamped its back arena and also started offering game shows, she said.

While the grounds are well kept up, the club lacks money to fix up its buildings. “The club hasn’t had enough revenue to put back into the property to keep it maintained,” Wahrenbrock said.

The clubhouse requires major renovations and the barn stalls need new flooring. The projects probably would cost at least $40,000, she estimated, noting the clubhouse roof is beginning to leak, some of the logs need replacing and the bathrooms don’t work.

At the recent meeting, some members voiced interest in fixing up the building themselves, using logs from the club’s land.

In addition to the building renovations, the club would have to construct an indoor or covered arena to draw regional exhibitors to a breed show, Wahrenbrock said.

Move in future

For about two years now, members have been pondering what to do, Petschow said. The big question is whether to retain the clubhouse, and if so, can members figure out a way to come up with the money to restore it.

Members have met recently with the group interested in leasing the clubhouse long term for the museum. The club still could use the grounds for shows and outdoor education, and the group would make the necessary improvements to the building.

That would allow the club to focus on other projects.

Another option would be the club fixing up the structure and then leasing it for events such as weddings and family reunions, Wahrenbrock said, but that poses the questions of how to raise money and manage the events.

Members still are pondering the clubhouse’s fate, but they possibly may share the club’s history in another way.

If enough interest can be generated, members want to offer a fall festival that would focus on the importance of horses and recall the days of Eliza Wilson, Petschow said.

While planning still is in the early stages, some possible activities include horse-related demonstrations, a Civil War re-enactment, music, a parade, an old-time baseball game, carriage rides and a high-stepping saddlebred show.

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