Walla Walla’s Livery Stables
By Susan Monahan:
These days we take owning a car for granted and have trouble imagining how important a good livery stable was to a town up to the early 1900s. Livery stables were once essential to towns of just about any size, not just for residents but also for visitors. One could rent a horse or board one at a livery stable within walking distance of a hotel or home. Walla Walla had a number of good livery stables and we are fortunate that we can still see a couple of the finest of their time.
Livery is defined as the care and boarding of horses for a fee, and a horse owner could choose different boarding “plans.” One could pay just to have a horse housed in a livery stable but have responsibility for feeding and grooming it and even cleaning out its stall. Or an owner could subscribe to a more expensive plan where the livery stable did everything, in some cases even exercising or training a horse. A vital service was provided by these stables to those who did not own a horse. Liveries had coaches available for hire and even provided delivery and moving services. If one needed to move a piece of furniture, visit a relative in the country or just take a Sunday ride, it all started at the nearby livery.
In the 1880s one could board a horse downstairs at Mr. Small’s livery on Main Street and then go upstairs to take in a lecture or musical performance. The Small Livery Stables and Opera House is gone now, but its ornate appearance is represented accurately in the mural in Heritage Park. An imposing brick livery stable we can still see at 4th and Poplar was built in 1905 by Mordo MacDonald and housed 75 horses on three floors. Fires were common in livery stables; the Union Bulletin reports an especially big blaze in 1915 when nine horses died. Brick liveries were more likely to survive a fire and more likely to be repurposed rather than torn down. We still have a prime example at First and Poplar, the former McBride’s Livery. Mr. McBride boarded horses, rented carriages, and even provided an ambulance service. If one had an outing planned for a big group, an especially large “Tally Ho” carriage could be rented at McBride’s. Hack (short for hackney) carriage service was in demand around the clock. For night driving a hack was equipped with two ornate lamps lighted by sperm oil candles. Drivers at McBride’s were elegantly attired in navy blue uniforms and soldier-like caps. The brick building that remains was only part of McBride’s operation; large frame buildings stood where there is a parking lot now. McBride’s needed lots of space because they not only rented carriages, they built them; their finely-crafted hack carriages were sold in Walla Walla and Pendleton. A detailed article in the April 1908 issue of Up to the Times described McBride’s process of crafting a hack carriage and their photo of a McBride-produced carriage is pictured here.
In the early 1900s the livery business was starting to fade. The stables were threatened by the increasing number of automobiles and some even banned “horseless carriages” from their property. The McBrides gradually reduced their livery business and started to sell off their hack carriages. Charles McBride kept with the times by operating an auto taxi service out of his former livery business. It was probably with reluctance that Mr. McBride and other Walla Walla stable owners gave up their fine horses and stately carriages. It is fortunate that some of their buildings still stand and remind us that there was a time when we relied on livery stables to keep Walla Walla moving.