When the Moorestown Fourth of July parade steps off today at noon, Percheron horses will be among those strutting down Main Street. But the horses mean more to Moorestown than simply participants in the parade.
Percherons, which originated in France, first came to the United States thanks to a 19th-century Moorestonian. Moorestown native son Edward Harris Jr., described as a gentleman farmer and natural scientist, brought the horse breed to America in 1839 after he visited France.
The Percheron horses Harris saw pull coaches struck his fancy and he decided to bring several back home. Percherons had everything Harris was looking for in a workhorse. The breed generally is enthusiastic about working, and their proportions make them ideal to pull heavy loads.
Harris, who lived at 12 High Street, in what is now the Smith-Cadbury Mansion, wanted to try out the breed on his farm.
But, Harris’ first attempt failed. According to the 1886 book The Percheron Horse in America, by Mason Cogswell Weld and Charles Du Haÿs, Harris first imported a stallion and two mares by boat. The stallion died in passage and one mare arrived quite ill. The other mare fell through the boat’s deck and was put down after breaking her legs.
Harris didn’t give up. He returned to France, again in 1839, and looked for more Percherons to bring back, according to the authors.
This time, he selected two stallions—Bonaparte and Diligence—and several mares. Although one of the stallions eventually went blind, the horses generally got on well and established the Percheron’s presence in New Jersey and America.
The book’s French authors don’t mince their opinion of this event.
“This importation was of immense value to that part of the country. Teaching the farmers by actual experience that a useful horse of good weight, great activity and nerve, coupled with great power of draft and absolute honesty of the collar, were more profitable to raise than the high-strung, weakly things they had been breeding from high-blooded horses, then fashionable as sires,” the authors write.
Harris also had nothing but praise for the breed. Cogswell Weld and Du Haÿs quote a letter Harris wrote to the Farmers' Cabinet newspaper in 1842. In it, he expounds on the positives of Percherons, especially his beloved Diligence.
Percherons, Harris wrote, were far superior to the English draft-horses more commonly used at the time for farm work.
“I have frequently been questioned as to my reasons for selecting this horse for farmers' use in preference to the English draft-horse. My reply has always been, that the draft-horse of England, whenever brought to this country, must prove a failure,” his letter to the newspaper reads. “He wants the go-a-head principle; he cannot move out of a walk, which is saying quite enough of him, without dwelling upon his defects of form, which can only be concealed by loads of fat, and not even then from the eye of the horseman.”
Harris embarked on breeding the Percherons, which produced replicas of the strong farm horses he sought.
“By 1930, there were almost three times as many registered Percherons in the USA as all other draft horse breeds combined,” according to a historical account supplied by Moorestown resident Margo Foster. “Harris’ imported Percherons had had a monumental impact on the farming and hauling businesses nationwide.”
Harris gave up farming in 1846 and ill health forced him to break apart the remaining Percherons in 1853. Several, including some of the original imports, went to a friend of Harris’ in New York.
In addition to appearing in today’s parade as a way to honor Moorestown’s past, the town’s garden club has proposed a pocket park at Main and High streets named Percheron Park. Design plans call for honoring the breed’s place in Moorestown history.