Dark Horse: The life and times of M. T. Grattan
Wednesday, March 30, 2011 11:11 AM
When I met him a few years ago at the county fair, I doubted I'd find much to like about the guy. I took him for a pistol-packing horse trader who wore swagger like a badge of honor. Marvin T. Grattan was a man to be reckoned with and doggone if he wasn't proud of it.
An 1873 advertisement touting the bloodline of Grattan's horse, Black Tiger. (Fillmore County Historical Society Collection)
Grattan was born in Janesville, Wis., where his father served as editor of the Janesville Gazette. At the age of 15, he enlisted in the Navy near the close of the Civil War, and spent a dramatic year of service on a Mississippi gunboat. Afterwards he moved to Winneshiek County, Iowa, where he sold McCormick reapers and taught winter school at Washington Prairie.
Over the course of months that I researched and compiled a sesquicentennial history of our county fair in 2009, I was introduced to movers and shakers of the Fillmore County Agricultural Society. During its formative years Grattan popped up as a major player time and again. I've kept running into him ever since and count him as one of the most fascinating dead people within my acquaintance. He's been eager to tell his story. Before I share some of it, let's meet Hattie.
Hattie E. White is a preacher's daughter and, without dispute, the prettiest girl in all Preston. The 16-year-old boldly rides across Fillmore County on her handsome black mare. Owning an equestrian skill beyond her years, she takes top honors in the ladies races at the fair.
While on her way to weekly organ practice in September of 1868, she purposely steps out of the confines of parsonage life and onto the speed wagon belonging to M. T. Grattan. With a crack of the whip his powerful trotter speeds forth and the couple dash away from Preston in the direction of Brownsville. From there Marvin and Hattie board a boat to Prairie du Chien, Wis.
Back at the Methodist Episcopal Church parsonage, the Rev. James H. White, learns his daughter is eloped. The hard-boiled G.A.R. veteran he forbade his daughter to see - the rascal who belongs to no church and races and bets horses - is now his son-in-law.
Grattan returns his new bride to Fillmore County where he establishes the Preston Stock Farm on a 160-acre property located in section 36 of Fountain Township. After a friend purchases a pair of Morgan mares and breeds one of them to the Decorah stallion, Herod - King of the Morgans - Grattan takes a personal interest in the colt.
The young Herod passes through several hands before Grattan finally acquires him. Herod is, by all accounts, fond of women and children, but wary of men and dogs. Grattan initially passes the reins over to Hattie before entering the horse in a free-for-all trot at Mankato.
Matched against racing legends General Hancock and Lulu Judd, among others, the old black stallion's entry is considered a joke. Competing with racers worth thousands, Herod earns the last laugh by winning first money. His next race is the stallion event at the Minnesota State Fair where he easily pulls ahead to top place.
Through three seasons, Herod acquires a string of victories and track records. Grattan sells the horse's progeny far and wide. The United States Remount Service is comprised of more of his descendants than any other stallion in the country. Herod is prominently pictured in both Sander's Breeds of Livestock and Battell's Morgan Register.
Holding the reins
As a result of Grattan's determined efforts, the trotting and carriage horse is championed locally. He races fast trotters, as well as introduces novel features to the racing program while single-handedly promoting its development.
When Grattan serves as president of the Agricultural Society in 1905, he appeals to James J. Hill, the famous Empire Builder, to address the grandstand. Hill and Grattan have horseflesh in common, owning mares from the same sire. Hill owns Mabel Bates, by Cupid, a son of King Herod, while Grattan owns her half sister, Lady Brazell.
Despite widespread skepticism that a man of Hill's stature will visit our little corner of the state, Hill accepts the invitation and arrives by private train at the Preston platform. Grattan, as head of the reception committee, ushers the distinguished guest through the fairgrounds and hooks up a team enabling the two horsemen to dodge the crowd so they can talk horse, of course.
Not everything in Grattan's life runs as smoothly as his horses. In 1890, he and Hattie bury their 6-month daughter, Eva, at Crown Hill Cemetery following a brief illness. Five years later, son Richard - freshly graduated with honors in veterinary medicine from Ontario's McGill University, and intent on starting his professional practice - returns home. Suddenly stricken with paralysis of his lower limbs, all the advanced treatment his parents procure him fails and he dies at the age of 23. He shares a stone with his baby sister at the family plot in Preston.
Harry, the firstborn Grattan, leaves Minnesota to become a local boy made good. As a renowned architect in Brooklyn, New York, he builds artistic cottage houses near Ditmas Park.
Likely a chip off the old limestone, a history of Long Island describes Harry as an architect who "steadily adhered to his own ideas (and who) refused to be trammeled by the rules of any particular school ... or follow after the fad of the hour." The house he built blending Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles on East 17th Street in 1906 is a landmark yet today.
Out to pasture
After 50 years of married life in Fillmore County, Marvin and Hattie retire to live with grandchildren on East Broadway near downtown Decorah, Iowa. On July 21, 1933, Grattan stops at the post office to fetch mail, after which he continues his morning walk to the fairgrounds. He greets Claude and Wesley Meade who are readying their horse, Chestnut Frisco, to jog.
Grattan shows the men score cards and a news clipping he'd received concerning a horse named High Celia, claimed to have been driven by Dan Alleman with a balloon tire sulky. The Meades, having been present at that particular race, take issue with Grattan over the accuracy of the story and an argument ensues. Grattan is ordered from the barn.
Outside an alarmed grandson waiting for him hears shouting and enters the doorway. It is claimed that Claude Meade grabs a pitchfork and rushes forward, insisting both Grattan men leave. Grattan, who carried a gun since his Civil War days, draws a pistol and shoots Meade in the back. By nightfall the man is dead.
A jury finds Grattan guilty of first-degree murder and sentences him to life imprisonment at the Iowa penitentiary. The Supreme Court later reverses the decision and orders the case to be retried.
At the second trial Grattan pleads guilty to manslaughter and is given eight years. Due to his advanced age of 85, he is allowed to complete his sentence at the Old Soldier's Home at Marshalltown, Iowa.
Lobbied by G.A.R. officials, Ladies of the G.A.R., Sons and Daughters of Veterans, and the Sons of Veterans auxiliary, Gov. George Wilson pardons Grattan a few months shy of fulfilling his term so that he is free to attend the last anticipated national encampment of the "Boys in Blue" in Pittsburg that autumn.
To the end of his days, Grattan makes no apologies and shows no remorse. He maintains he killed Meade in defense of his grandson and protests he could not have held his head up in public had he refrained from firing the fatal shot. In September of 1940, at the age of 91, the soldier, horse breeder, and racetrack figure dies at Marshalltown. Two years later his wife of 72 years joins him in death.
Saddled with duty
In researching the lives and times of the dead, I'm intent on serving as impartial observer -taking notes, and taking pains - to get their stories right. I've felt this responsibility deeply as I've repeatedly bumped into Grattan.
I think of him whenever I drive past the fairgrounds in Preston. I smile to remember a rash fellow who stole the heart of a minister's daughter with nary a blush, yet - in endearingly human fashion - enrolled his own daughter in a strict seminary for young women. Atop the bluffs of Palisades Park in Decorah, I've stood at the overlook gazing down on the Winneshiek County fairgrounds far below. It's a hot summer's day during the Great Depression. A hot-blooded horseman is in his element among hot-to-trot horses. A hot argument breaks out and is punctuated by a gunshot. For weeks afterwards, news of the murder trial flies hot off the press.
Marvin T. Grattan, in spirit and mindset, never moved beyond an era when an unwritten pioneer survivalist code ruled a less civilized society. He was a man who lived long enough to find himself a foreigner in a cultivated world far removed from rough and tumble frontier days. Proud, obstinate, outspoken - Grattan lived life on his own terms, in his own time.
And the horses! When Grattan was interviewed from prison by the Milwaukee Journal in 1934, the reporter remarked that "leaving horses out of a story about Grattan would be like leaving the ghost out of a Hamlet play."
I think of the numerous advertisements I've come across in Fillmore County newspapers with Grattan bragging up the bloodlines of his stable. I think of the photographic postcard in our museum archives that he mailed out as a promotional tool - pushing the tabulated pedigree of Lodaller the Beautiful. I think of Herod's tail hung as a trophy in the Grattan barn and wonder what eventually happened to it.
I think of documents in the Old Soldiers Home archives at Marshalltown that record Grattan's increasing physical ailments and senility. I think of the modest marble gravestones in the adjacent cemetery that mark the resting sites of a Civil War veteran and his devoted wife.
Grattan's life passes before my eyes before it reaches my pen. Knowing him I know that whatever I write, I'd better get right.
I can almost hear him saying, "She damned well better."
Text © 2011 by Debra J. Richardson
The Fillmore County History Center and Genealogy Library in Fountain is open Monday - Friday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. and closed all major holidays. Call 507-268-4449 or check the website,