They wore “beautiful brass bells, that made the prettiest musical sounds,” according to Houston, Minn., historian Ingrid Julsrud, referring to dray horses. A dray was a wagon and team of horses that unloaded freight and merchandise at the train depot for delivery to downtown merchants. Baggage might be taken to hotels. Railroads reached southeast Minnesota during the 1860s and 1870s. An era began with drays busy delivering everything from machinery to peanuts to pianos. Dray lines first and eventually the freight trains as well would be replaced by trucks.
Horses worked in every village, but in early 1900s Houston, the brass bells identified the dray horses. Drays operated mostly within city limits but only occasionally into residential areas to deliver coal, barrels of apples or trunks if someone was leaving town or coming home by train. The Sannes Brothers (Martin and Andrew) had a confectionary store in Houston and ordered a railcar full of apples from New York state, usually in November. The drays would deliver three-bushel apple barrels directly to homes. A barrel sold for $1.50 until the price skyrocketed to $3.75 during World War I. In 1918, $1.50 had the purchasing power that $31 does in 2022.
Apples kept well in the basement during the winter. Julsrud remembers a bowl of apples being brought up to the dining room table every evening. “As we did our homework, we munched on apples.”
The dray horses in Houston were named Sam and Moses. A third horse, named Barney, was available for special occasions, such as overnight snowstorms. The school day might start a little late while Barney plowed a footpath to school. The homemade snow plow “was no more than a three-cornered box made of heavy planks.” To add weight, the driver would stand on the box, which after descending into the snow would create a path to education. Children peered out the window waiting for Barney, who made good time going through the neighborhoods.
During the early 1900s, Nels Forsyth owned the dray business in Houston. In the 1890s in Spring Grove, Lars Grinager owned a dray line as did H. Braaten, the latter selling to Brady Foss in 1895. The Solberg Brothers were in business in 1897 and into the next century. In 1912, Knute Lee acquired a line he operated until 1936.
In Caledonia, as early as 1879, Ellis and Drowley had transformed a 5’ x 11’ wagon into a dray. A 1972 column by Caledonia editor Perk Steffen described some 1882 downtown drama when drayman Alfred Tompson was sternly chastised by Mrs. Frank Willis for repeatedly snapping the ends of the reins against the rear ends of a pair of gray horses who were “nearly belly-deep in muck” at the muddy intersection of Lincoln and Ramsey Streets near the depot. Shaking an accusing finger, she yelled, “Strike that horse again, I’ll have you arrested.” Tompson replied, “Mrs. Willis, if your bustle was made of the same kind of stuff that is in this horse’s rump, you wouldn’t much mind the sting of the lash.”
Four drays operated in the county seat between 1888 and 1890 – Walter Haines, Clem Hundt, William Cahill and John Schieber. During the 1890s, Haines was credited with catering to traveling businessmen who trusted him with their baggage. For years, he transported the mail from the train to the post office. John Kennedy, John Schieber and Nick Krier advertised in 1902 and 1903. In 1911, there were three dray lines in Caledonia – W. E. Haines, Matt McCormick and Mullaney & Krier.
In the 1917 Caledonia phone book, the Rask Dray Line advertised, “Trunks and baggage transferred on short notice. Prices reasonable.” Joseph Hofer returned from World War I and took over that business, which became Hofer’s Dray Line “with a wagon, a team of horses and a strong back.” He transported salesmen and their sample cases to and from the Williams Hotel. The average fee was 25 cents (about $5 in 2022 money). He later secured the mail contract. In the early 1930s, his horses were replaced by a Chevy truck. Hofer delivered six days a week, often with a cigar in his mouth and a friendly wave to all he met.
Sources: Remembering Old Times by Ingrid Julsrud and Caledonia Pride, edited by Alan Fleischmann