Vanishing herd

Exhibit pays tribute to the beautiful horses of Stilson Canyon

FRISKY COLTS<br>Ed Simmons says he wasn’t in much of a hurry to geld his young stallions, so they sometimes got rambunctious in competing for the herd’s mares.

Ed Simmons says he wasn’t in much of a hurry to geld his young stallions, so they sometimes got rambunctious in competing for the herd’s mares.

Photo By Michelle Davis

Ed Simmons is a man who loves horses. If people can be divided into two groups, those who know horses intimately and those who know them only as large, handsome animals grazing in fields, he’s solidly in the first group. He’s owned them, fed them, bred them and broken them for most of his life, and these days he’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 years old.

You wouldn’t know it looking at him, though. Oh, the horseman part is obvious enough, what with the Western boots and jeans he wears, the Southwestern twang in his speech and the ranch lingo that peppers his conversation. But he doesn’t look like a guy who’s old enough to have seen service during World War II. He’s lanky and fit and full of the kind of vigor outdoor life seems to promote. He’s still got his hair, too, though of course it’s long gone to silver.

If Simmons’ name rings a bell, it’s because he and his family have owned a good chunk of the land around Chico for decades now. It was Simmons who, back in 1995, along with the late developer Dan Drake, sold the south side of Big Chico Creek Canyon to the city to add to Bidwell Park. He still owns a major parcel of land east of town between Upper Park and Highway 32, land onto which development in the California Park area is slowly but surely creeping.

Simmons and his wife, Jean, have a ranch in Stilson Canyon, just east of town. Until fairly recently they ran more than 300 horses on their land, and motorists going up old Humboldt Road could see the animals out grazing among the lava rocks and oaks. Many of them were pintos, or paints, which are piebald horses bred for their lovely patchwork coloring. And these were indeed beautiful animals. People often would stop and gawk at them, and the horses for their part seemed to get used to being visited by two-legged critters.

Simmons was feeding the horses one day and took a spill from atop his haystack, landing in the pickup bed. One of his lungs deflated. That was when he realized he no longer could keep his herd.

When he sold all but 15 of them at auction, “I got more calls than I could shake a stick at,” he says. Folks liked those horses, he adds, shrugging his shoulders.

One person who liked them more than most was Michelle Davis. For several years she’d been going up on Simmons’ land and taking photographs of the horses, producing stunning black-and-white gelatin silver prints of them in their natural environment. When I showed some of the prints to Simmons, he was delighted. “Beautiful, beautiful,” he said.

LIFE AS A HORSE<br>Photographer Michelle Davis and her husband board horses at their home.

Photo By Michelle Davis

An exhibit of these photographs, entitled “The Stilson Canyon Herd,” is up at Cory’s downtown through Jan. 5, 2003.

A lifelong Chicoan, the daughter of a car dealer, Davis grew up in middle-class suburbia and, like many girls, was fascinated by horses.

“I remember at one point asking my dad if I could have a horse, but that was out of the question,” she says. So instead she drew them. She went on to study art and art history at Chico State University, where she graduated in 1985, and to obtain a master of fine arts degree in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2000.

She’s never ridden horses, she says, but she and her husband, Chico State art professor Manuel Fred Lucero, board horses at their East Chico home, and she’s developed “tremendous relationships” with some of them.

She’s been taking pictures of horses for 10 years now, but the Stilson Canyon herd presented a unique opportunity, she says. The horses were wild to the extent that the brood mares foaled outdoors, the herd went unshod, there were several stallions among them, and few if any of them had been broken for riding. And yet, because of their proximity to town and many visitors, they were used to people.

She abided by a strict “protocol” in photographing the horses. They grazed in small herds, and she always approached them slowly, stopping about 25 feet away until the stallion had time to come over, smell her, determine she was harmless and walk away. Only then would she unpack her camera.

Part of the attraction was the animals’ setting, among the lava rocks and oak trees of the lower foothills. The combination of elements—stones, trees, grass and the gorgeous animals—gives a textural richness to her pictures that is remarkable.

Her hope is that the pictures “trigger a visceral response to this beautiful and sublime animal,” she says.

This 16"x20” gelatin silver print, entitled “Reclining,” is part of Davis’ show at Cory’s.

Photo By Michelle Davis

“The horse is deeply embedded in the human psyche,” she explains. It’s so bound in our evolution that its image “has left shadows and impressions in us.” And yet we forget this, closing ourselves off from it. Her desire is to remind us of the thousands of years when humans and horses lived intimately together.

“There was no more satisfying work than the work that was done with the aid of an animal,” she explains. “He was a tool and a friend that could look you in the eye and show love. There has been no man-made machine that is equal in spirit. And spirit is the missing link many of us seem to be looking for.”

There was no good reason, economic or otherwise, for Ed Simmons to hang on to 300 horses. He knew that. He’d sell some every year, just to keep up with the 40 or 50 or more colts “dropping like Easter eggs” each spring, as he puts it, but he was no longer running cattle, so what need did he have for the horses?

Every summer he’d truck them up to pasture he owned in Childs Meadows, and every fall he’d bring them back to Stilson Canyon, several trips each time, “but the drive is so pretty, I didn’t mind it.”

And then there was the hay cost, $45,000 a year, not to mention the hundred bucks a day he paid a kid to help with feeding. He recouped some of the money selling horses, but it clearly wasn’t a profitable undertaking. More like a hobby. “The honest to God truth is that I enjoyed ’em,” he says, laughing.

He and his brother Darwin, who still lives in Chico, have been around horses all their lives. Their father, O. D., owned a ranch in Arizona but lost it during the Depression and, when Ed was just a boy, came to California, where he scraped by but barely, at one time trapping coyotes in the Stirling City area for the bounty. On at least one occasion, Simmons says, his father had to walk to Oroville to collect his money.

He ended up in Chico and got into real estate, and before long he owned “12 to 15 thousand acres in Butte County, much of it along the river,” says his son.

They raised cattle for many years. Shortly after World War II, O. D. bought some quarter horse mares and a good stud, and he and the boys set to breeding, breaking and developing cutting horses, work that takes tremendous horse savvy to do well. “I used to take a lot of pride in my corral horses,” Simmons says, the closest he’ll come to bragging.

“Then I decided it would be fun to have a few paint horses,” he goes on. It wouldn’t do anything to increase their cattle working skills, but it would sure make some pretty horses. He bought a good stud from a rancher on the river and mated it with his quarter horses. The result, over time, was the beautiful herd that roamed his land for many years.

He’s sorry the horses are no longer available for folks driving by to enjoy, but the herd just wasn’t feasible any longer. He and his wife still keep 15 horses, a manageable number. They’ve also got three grown kids (one, Christine Rowe, lives in Chico), nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

“Yep, we’ve been married 54 years," he says, smiling. "That’s tough on a lady like my wife." He laughs, then shakes my hand and heads back to the ranch.