MY TIME WITH DON HEERS
By Bill Pulos
I’ m 55 years old. Some of my earliest memories involve Don Heers of Almond, New York, beginning 50 years ago. Let me explain.
My dad had 2 farms on Jericho Hill in the Town of Alfred on the south side of Alfred Village. My parents purchased the first farm in 1952 and I was born in 1955. My brother was born in 1957. Although we both worked on the family farm, I’m writing this from my perspective.
The farm had a big red barn that was a fixture on top of Jericho Hill, across from the Kenyon Road. The farm was 2200+ feet above sea level (one of the higher elevations in Allegany County) and it got cold in the winter. The driveway leading to the house from County Route 12 seemed like a quarter mile and it drifted with snow (big time) in the winters of the ‘50’s and the 60’s. My AA classmate Jim Schwartz visited in the early years and we’d get lost in the snow banks because at the time we were about “knee high to grasshoppers”. His brother Bill Schwartz joined us later building forts in the barn.
Our dad began raising white (albino) Arabian horses on the farm. He had a herd of white horses for at least 20 years, in addition to a herd of Shetland ponies and a smaller herd of albino ponies.
Our dad and a geneticist from Cornell University formed a partnership of sorts to experiment with the recessive albino gene in the Arabian horse. Our dad did the field work (the horse farm) by breeding the white stud to the white mare and keeping records (year over year) of the color of the foals. The Cornell geneticist applied the science of the field to the farm results. Their work and results were published in 1968 and circulated worldwide. I’ve told many since that our dad had the “front end of the business” and that I had the “back end of the business.” Everyone seems to understand that phraseology.
Most of the white mares were not broken to ride. They were big, strong, extremely difficult and dangerous to handle in close quarters. It wasn’t a dude ranch. From time to time, the horses required handling and trucking. That’s where Don Heers came into the picture.
As well documented elsewhere, Don Heers’ reputation as a horse trader, i.e. the famous Almond Horse Trader’s Convention, was known far and wide. What is perhaps lesser known to the public was Don’s skill in handling trucks, buses, people and horses. For instance, he was a loyal and trusted school bus driver for Alfred-Almond Central School for over 20 years, I believe.
Don, of course, had the well known farm on the (Almond) Village side of Whitney Valley road for many years. Don was also engaged in the livestock trucking business, for himself and as a contractor for others. Somehow along the line, our dad met Don Heers. As time went along, Don and Our dad began dealing, trading and trucking horses and ponies. Their business relationship lasted at least 20 years, from the middle ‘50’s to the middle ‘70’s.
Generally speaking, our dad would keep the white horses that were born on the farm for his on-going field laboratory project. However, since only about 1 out of 4 foals were white (from a white stud and white mare), there were many foals of all different colors that needed homes after weaning and there had to be a method of transport.
Don Heers had a method of transport and a market of sorts for some of our farm’s offspring. Of course, that meant that Don and our dad would have to get together on some kind of deal to make it happen.
Many locals knew or knew of Don Heers, through the Horse Trader’s Convention, through his Almond farm and trucking or through his many years driving school bus for Alfred-Almond. I knew Don in all those capacities.
Likewise, many locals knew or knew of our dad, through his teaching at Alfred University, through farming or through his many years working with teachers, including those at Alfred-Almond. Obviously, I knew my dad in all those capacities.
One might think at first blush, as I believe many did, that the two of them couldn’t have been much more opposite. As a kid, I was fascinated with the interaction and interplay between them.
One common public perception both Don and our dad shared was that neither was taken for a fool and each could be tough to deal with. My guess is that there were few people around at the time (and even fewer now 40-45 years later) that really understood how well both Don and our dad knew each other. Many would be surprised. You’d have to know them both to understand what I’m trying to say.
Periodically, our dad would need Don (and his various colleagues, of which there were several) to move horses from here to there; between our farms, or trucked off our farms to various places including buyer’s farms, sometimes to Don’s farm, once in a while to the circus (whose representatives periodically would come calling to our place looking for the white Arabians for the circus tent). White horses weren’t exactly garden variety equines. They were hard to find across the world.
My first recollection of seeing Don Heers was when I was about 5 years old on the Jericho Hill farm. It always seemed Don had a big livestock truck (he was hauling horses after all). You could see him coming a long way away. It was exciting for me. You never knew what to expect between Don, his associates, our animals and my dad when Don showed up. I was an eager observer and later, a more active participant.
When it was time to move some livestock, our dad would call Don and they would set a time for Don to arrive at the farm to take care of business. Because I was so young at the time, I was never really privy to their deals; particularly when it came to swapping horses and ponies.
Before Don arrived at the farm for the transfer, it was my job to help secure the animals that were to be moved. They had to be rounded up and put in stalls, in effect staging them for transport.
It was then my job to wait at the barn door watching for Don’s truck to arrive. I started doing that when I was a young boy. When I was very young, the barn door was hard to handle. Easily half of the times Don arrived, it was in bad weather on Jericho Hill: the ice, the snow, the mud and the slop. Often times the barn door was stuck or frozen shut. Many times it was a fight to get it open.
So there I would stand at the barn door and when I saw Don’s big truck lumbering down toward the driveway, I opened the door and then helped Don when he backed the truck up to the barn. Don didn’t need much help from me backing the truck up to the barn door but he always waited for me to give him the high sign before he parked the truck. Made me feel important. He had that way about him.
So then I could anticipate some more fun. Inevitably, Don would get out of his driver’s seat leaving behind his Dalmatian dog that always rode on the jump seat. Then, (at least in the early days for me) more often than not, Lloyd Corey would get out on the passenger side. Lloyd was a lot older than Don, or so it seemed. It was never clear to me why Lloyd was riding along on these adventures and it was never explained; I speculated it was because 1) Lloyd and Don were in business together and/or had a joint venture going with some of my dad’s livestock, 2) because Don enjoyed his company and/or 3) that Don relied some on Lloyd’s advice when dealing with my dad.
In any event, there were Don and Lloyd. Several times a younger man by the name of Jack “Red” Halsey would accompany them, particularly it seemed whenever some “rassling” with the horses was required. It could be very dangerous work. Sometimes it was very difficult. Our dad always remarked (and for him it was a compliment), “Jack is not afraid.” The whole program was pretty macho, for sure.
That said, Don knew horses and he was very humane. Although I occasionally saw him snap his horse whip, I never, repeat never, saw him mistreat any animal. It was more of an attention getter than anything else. The horse whip always had my attention and I believe it helped me pay attention. Looking back, it’s pretty clear now it was one of Don’s teaching tools. I learned.
The guys would come into the barn and I was there to greet them and most of the time my dad was there as well. I remember Don Heers at the time to this day as friendly, jovial, with a wry smile and a corncob pipe. It didn’t matter what the weather was or how bad the farm/barn conditions were. When I was small, I wasn’t big enough or strong enough to operate the rugged apparatus needed to secure or loosen the drop down door from Don’s truck that served as the entry ramp for the livestock, so I watched Don and his associates work the mechanism. Down on the ground it would come.
The ramp, when in the down position, usually had about a 40 degree angle from the truck to the ground and the horses would be reluctant to jump up the ramp from barn level into the truck. So over the years we would develop methods involving gates to make the loading process go easier.
In the early days of our dad’s farm, when my brother and I were too small to wrestle with the animals or machinery, our dad had college students working on the farm. Sometimes there would be a couple of college students on hand to “help load the horses.” Being college students, many didn’t know much about livestock, so the round-up horse loading process was foreign to them. Unfortunately for them, they aroused Don’s ire on occasion.
In the last years of Don’s life I would see him occasionally at Wegman’s in Hornell and even saw him in front of his driveway one morning with Jen Hanks Wright, AA Class of 1973. Whenever I would see Don, he always would reminisce about one of those difficult times loading horses on the Jericho Hill farm back in the day and recollect telling my dad at the time, in a way only Don Heers could tell: “Doc, get those @#$%^&* college students the hell out of the way. Your boys and I can load these horses!!!”
I do remember Don’s colleague Lloyd Corey emphasizing the various points that Don made at times in conversations with my dad in the barn with streams of Red Man tobacco juice, adroitly and timely discharged during the bargaining/discussion sessions they had.
As I got older, I took more responsibility in the livestock operation. As I got bigger and stronger, I was able to handle the mechanism for the rear door/ramp on Don’s truck. You see, there were tricky moments when the ramp-door operator was standing behind the truck ramp being hoisted in the air and risked the full force of charging horses jumping through the door down off the truck once they were loaded. They weren’t always happy to be on the truck.
It was a big moment for me when the animals jumped up the ramp and for the first time, I could grab the ramp-door, give it a heave up and lock it in place before the animals decided they’d prefer to jump back out of the truck, which happened more than once. On occasions like those, I’d occasionally hear more !@#$%^&* from Don. My AA Class of 1972 friends, Kris Evans and Mike Parker, found out one day when loading out their horse from the farm that loading horses onto trucks can be a tricky thing.
In fact, just about everything that could happen with trucking livestock occurred with Don Heers and my dad on our farm, mostly good and some bad. Through it all, my dad and Don kept coming back for more. They never quit. They enjoyed it and I enjoyed watching it.
So it was that I rode with Don in his truck on the rare occasion that my company was needed to complete his trucking mission. I enjoyed my time riding with Don in his truck over the road with his Dalmatian dog. He would always have a story and always have an opinion. It was the first truck I saw with a 2 stage differential.
As our dad got older, and transitioned out of the white horse business in the middle 70’s, I’d see less and less of Don Heers on our farm. That didn’t keep me from stopping in to see him in Almond on his farm once in a while when I was a college student, for conversation, for advice and for refreshments. I did so once with Tim Giedlin, AACS Class of 1974, and we found Don on a telephone pole doing some wiring for the next “Traders” convention. I enjoyed those times with him immensely.
As he would be the first to tell you, Don Heers didn’t go to college and he didn’t go to finishing school. But, he knew people and he knew how to treat people. He was smart and he was tough, but he could be very charming in a rough hewn sort of way.
Losing the Horse Traders Convention from his farm due to forces outside his control, I believe, was a big blow to Don Heers. I’m not privy to the details. However, I do believe that deep down, Don recognized that the time had come for the Horse Traders Convention to move on down the road. I never heard him complain about it.
He could have been vindictive afterward, he could have let his property deteriorate and he could have let his farm go to seed. It could have been an ugly scene. He didn’t do that. He did exactly the opposite. With the skilled, genius class work of sculptor-artist-farmer Glenn Zweygardt (no doubt on some sort of trade), Don’s barn was repaired, re-pointed and re-designed. It was literally transformed into a piece of contemporary architecture. Don’s farm always appeared clean and neat from Route 21 and it always seemed to fit nicely in the neighborhood, year after year. Don Heers didn’t have to do that, but being a man of the community with pride, he did. It was very unique.
Don boarded horses for more than one local family whose children enjoyed the opportunity to ride and learn to care for them, including the family of another of my 1973 classmates from Alfred-Almond, Ben Palmer. Don liked children and enjoyed encouraging their affinity with horses. He knew the kids would remember the experience for the rest of their lives, like I have. He was right. He was a teacher. It was a very positive thing.
I recently spoke to Dean Hurd, another of my 1973 AA classmates, about his time riding on the Alfred-Almond school bus in kindergarten (1960) when Don Heers was the driver. He said Don was extremely fair, but took no bull and handled tough kids in a tough way. There was no acting up on Don Heers’ bus. Any kid that acted up got to have Don grab them hard (without asking their permission in advance) and sit them down up front, right behind him. On the other hand, if you minded your manners, Don was great with you as a kid. Just like he was with me on our farm. He had everyone’s respect on the school bus and he was the boss. Is it still like that today?
That’s the Don Heers I remember: He was kind, gentle and friendly until an animal or a human roughed him up and he had to get tough. Make no mistake, the Almond Horse Trader’s Convention was not a temperance convention and some of the folks that passed through its gates on the Don Heers farm weren’t easy to deal with. Don Heers had what it took to deal with all kinds, from all walks of life. I saw him in action many times. He had rare skills and abilities. He was reliable, the people at Alfred-Almond school relied on him for many, many years as a superb bus driver with an excellent driving record and as a loyal friend. He always had a sympathetic ear for kids and he would help if he could.
So, it’s with this eulogy that I remember my friend Don Heers. He was a driver, he was a trucker; he was a farmer, trader, worker, teacher and philosopher. He was a man. He helped me, he helped all of us. He was my friend, our friend, the community’s friend. I miss him.
Alfred-Almond Class of 1973
Former Student of Don Heers