Visalia Cowboy, King of the Stable
Before arrival of the automobile, livery stables provided important services to communities. They gave the horses of local and out-of-town travelers access to food, water and shelter, and when visitors arrived by train or stage and needed a rental horse or buggy, the livery provided that option too. Visalia had many stables over the years, but there was one, probably the most well-known and oldest, that stands out from the others. It was the Overland Livery Stable and was owned by Jacob V. Huffaker.
Visalia’s Overland Livery Stable probably traces the origin of its name to the Overland Mail Co. – a nationally known mail and passenger service that had a stage stop and office in Visalia. When the famous stage line closed in 1861, it left its buildings and corral vacant on the east side of Court Street between Main Street and Acequia Avenue. Two local businessmen, Cady and Denny, purchased the property and opened what they called the Overland Stable. For the next decade, several different owners ran the business.
In March 1872, the stable burned to the ground. Flames were first spotted about 2 a.m. March 19 and, within a short time, “the building was one entire sheet of livid flames.” Firefighters worked hard to contain the blaze, but the wood-framed stable, owned by Claiburn Wright, was a total loss. All of the buggies, hearse, harnesses and robes were destroyed. About 35 horses were inside at the time of the fire, and only a few could be rescued. Sixteen perished outright, and many others, although removed from the buildings, did not survive their injuries.
It was called one of the worst fires in the town’s 20-year history. That fire ended the livery business there.
At the time, a young man named Huffaker was starting his own livery in an old existing stable. The exact location is not known, but regardless, within a short time, Huffaker had taken over the name Overland Livery Stable and set up his operation on the northwest corner of Court and Acequia, almost directly across from the burned-out business. For the next three decades, his Overland Livery Stable and the name Huffaker would be linked.
Jacob Vaughter Huffaker, an Illinois native, was a natural for the livery business. His mother died when he was an infant, so he was raised by his father. The two went to Texas, where the young boy learned the life of a cowboy and everything that went with it, including shooting, riding horses, and branding and herding cattle. He spent most of his young life in the saddle. In 1861, he joined a large wagon train heading to California and served as a scout and sharpshooter for the wagon master. By the time the 17-year old lad came to Visalia in 1862, he was already an experienced cowboy. So it was not surprising that when he first came to town, he worked as a “breaker of wild horses and a herder of wild cattle.”
By 1876, Huffaker had firmly established himself as a liveryman. He boasted that he had “fitted up the most complete livery stable establishment in this part of the state” and, according to him, he had “the finest turnouts and fastest teams ever brought to Tulare County.”
In 1871, he married a Tulare County woman named Palestine Downing. Throughout his life, he was active in civic affairs. He joined the Four Creeks Lodge No. 94 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, served as city superintendent of streets and was a charter member of the Visalia Fire Department. There was even a hint that at one time he was considering creation of a stage service to Mineral King. By 1898, Huffaker was a well-respected community leader and his stable laid claim to being the oldest and most reliable livery in town.
But in 1905, the old landmark business suffered a setback. The stable barn burned to the ground and shut down the business for a time. Huffaker rebuilt it and opened his stable again later in the year.
By 1906, Huffaker, now 61 years old, was considering retirement and his two sons, Will and Arthur, were willing to take over operation of the business. On July 1, the brothers took control and the senior Huffaker began making plans to visit relatives in Illinois.
For the next few years, the brothers ran the stable, then the Huffaker family was hit with bad news. Jacob Huffaker, the patriarch of the family, died on June 18, 1909, at the age of 65, and his wife inherited the estate. He was interred in the Visalia Cemetery.
By 1910, the family decided to sell the stable property. It was sold to Jesse D. Pritchard, who owned two other stables – City Stable at Court and Oak streets and Kaweah Stable at Main and Bridge streets. In May of 1915, Pritchard announced closing of the Overland Livery Stable. He commented that with more and more automobiles in use, the livery business was declining, and added that the old Huffaker property was showing its age. He sold the real estate to C.B. Lillie and R.F. Cross.
In January 1916, the property had another fire. By this time, the unoccupied stable was being called a fire trap and a breeding place for flies, so there was a push by the city to have what was left demolished. The owners considered repairing the buildings, but the city officials were not supportive and made it clear that the old wood-framed stable in the heart of town needed to go.
By the end of 1916, the city got its wish. The site was cleared to become an automobile parking lot. Huffaker’s stable was gone – the victim of progress and another sign that the car was replacing the horse.By the way, Palestine lived to be 95 years old. She died in 1949 and was also buried in the Visalia Cemetery.