November 1992

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The Mutual Horse Vigilance Society

Henry Smith, who lived a short distance east of Corning, missed his horse and buggy the evening of September 8, 1886. The next morning they were spotted crossing a bridge at Tioga, Pennsylvania. Apparently a band of men working together had taken them.

There had been other horses stolen in the area—some thought a horse-thieving gang operated from Corning. Editorials in the Corning Democrat encouraged horse owners to protect themselves by banding together to search the countryside whenever horses were missed.

On September 9, 1886, the Mutual Horse Vigilance Society was formed in Corning, and it is still in existence today. A. J. Gilbert was elected the first president, Jared Pratt, secretary, and William Wormley was made treasurer.

Members paid an initiation fee based on the number of horses they owned: for 1 to 5 horses the fee was $3, for 5 to 10, $5, for 10 to 20, $10, and up to 40 horses, $20, if the horses were not for hire. Livery stables paid a higher fee. If future assessments were necessary, they were to be proportional to the number of horses owned. To become a member, a person needed to receive approval from four-fifths of the members present at a meeting. The group started out as a secret society, and admission to meetings required knowledge of a password.

The Society stipulated that all horses, 3 years old or more, owned by members, must be branded on the inside of the right front foot just below the hair. Harness and wagons also needed to be branded in specified places to enjoy the full benefits of membership in the Society. New brands were not to cost more than 75 cents each.

Whenever a horse was reported missing the officers would decide whether to send out riders to find the horses. The men who rode were cautioned not to reveal their purposes or destinations when they were pursuing horses and thieves. They were to report only to the proper officers of the Society.

The Board of Managers of the society could decide to offer a reward for the recovery of a horse and equipment. If a member of the Society captured a stolen horse or property for which a reward had been posted, he received one third of the money amount, two thirds remained with the Society. If a horse, or harness, or vehicle were not recovered, the Board of Managers could pay two thirds of the cash value of the lost property, but not more than $200 for a single horse.

The widows of members in good standing continued to enjoy the same benefits their husbands had, as long as they fulfilled the requirements of membership and didn't remarry. All of these provisions are spelled out in the constitution and by-laws of the Mutual Horse Vigilance Society.

Membership reached 600 at one time and extended through Chemung, Schuyler, and Steuben counties in New York and Tioga and Bradford counties in Pennsylvania.

Meetings at first were weekly. Later when telephones became more common and communication better, meetings were less frequent—only monthly. Gradually as horse stealing declined the society evolved into a social club. Now the members get together once a year in the fall to have a good meal, swap horse stories, and maybe hear a talk on horses. But they still keep track of the horse population—check out any rumors of stolen horses. Some of the members are descendants of the original riders. This year they got together in Corning for their 106th annual meeting on the evening of October 22. About 90 were present. Paul Smyers from Caton was elected president and Richard Cornell of Bath, vice president. Tom Coleman from Corning is secretary, and Don MacNaughton from Corning is treasurer. There were reports by outriders from 16 communities in New York and Pennsylvania. No horses missing this year.

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