The drivers of downtown Lawrence's horse-drawn carriages contend with anxious traffic, holiday shoppers and, yes, horse poop.
Tom and Elmer are mammoths!
A mere whinny away from Budweiser Clydesdale size, their very hugeness is the first thing you notice when you get a close-up look at these majestic Belgians. Each tops 2,000 pounds, easily.
"There they come," said Rob Phillips, general manager of the Eldridge Hotel, 701 Mass., and co-proprietor of the Kansas Carriage Company, as the two clomp-clomped up Seventh Street with the trolley in tow. "That's a beautiful sight."
Beverly Ray, Phillips business partner and manager of The Victorian Peddler inside the hotel, was not quite as excited to see the duo.
Ray was a passenger in the stage coach, pulled by Tom and Elmer, that crashed Aug. 22 in a ditch on North Michigan Street. Phillips was driving. Glenn Hermann, the third driver for the Kansas Carriage Company, was injured in the accident while trying to untangle the reins. The ride, part of a weeklong Civil War Days celebration, still sticks in her craw.
Have they been forgiven? Ray shakes her head.
"No, they never will be," Phillips said, gripping the reins.
The incident was a shock. These horses don't scare easily. A ride with Tom and Elmer through afternoon traffic on Massachusetts street demonstrated that. However some things -- air brakes on a large truck, drums in a marching band -- can spook them.
"That's one of the things with horses, you never know what's going to freak 'em out," Hermann said. "You've got to look at what they're looking at."
Stepping back in time
On this crisp, clear November afternoon they were looking straight ahead, plodding along, workman-like. Near Ninth and Massachusetts, men in a crane wrapped holiday lights in the downtown trees. People smiled and waved.
Phillips and Ray waved back and said hello.
"I imagine back in the days when everything was horse-powered and you didn't have windows, you spoke to people," Phillips said.
A tug on the reins, a word or two, even a kissing sound can get them to walk, trot, gallop or stop on a dime. Traffic, generally, is patient. Some drivers leave an inch of space between the trolley and the bumper.
"Everybody for the most part is pretty gracious, they know what a boon it is for the downtown," Hermann said. "Every once in a while you get (in front of) someone in a hurry to go nowhere."
There are other reasons to keep your distance. At times, when the plastic bags attached to the horses' backsides get cold, a drop or two of manure can find its way to the street.
"A good rain'll take care of that," Phillips said.
Part of the festivities
The trolley, which can tote 25 people, will make its first official holiday appearance Thursday night, when Santa is rescued from the roof of Weaver's Department Store, 901 Mass. Beginning Sunday, the Kansas Carriage Company will provide holiday weekend rides through the streets of downtown. The rides are free, and will veer from the Eldridge Hotel down Massachusetts and back, with several stops in between.
"Our horses have become a part of the festive season," Phillips said.
Ray and Phillips started Kansas Carriage Company in 1992, after a trip to Waverly, Iowa, produced a carriage, harness and Patty, their first Belgian.
"I didn't think it would happen that fast," Ray said. "I thought it was just talk."
Phillips said growing up around horses motivated him to take the opportunity to buy one when it arose.
"I've had this love affair with horses all my life," Phillips said. "You just develop a relationship with them."
Patty and several other Belgians now roam a pasture in North Lawrence. Some 12 carriages stock the company garage.
The one-horse carriage seen in downtown Lawrence in the past was shelved this season because of low ridership. But the trolley will be making rounds in December, and you can always book a different vehicle for a special occasion.
Whether you hop on the trolley while you shop, ride with your new spouse after your wedding or just want a tour, you can find Phillips, Ray or Hermann at the reins.
"It's fun to drive, and it's really pretty simple," Ray said. "If I can do it, anyone can."