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Cuba's Block Barn

Transcribed by Crist Middaugh

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Cuba's ‘block barn’

Cubas Block Barn Photo 1 of 3

The massive barn William Simpson built for his famous colts still stands, but in disrepair

By Francis X. Sculley

More articles have been written about the great new work pawn shop established by William Simpson over a century ago, than any other financial institution in America. World renown for scrupulous integrity plus the ability to loan tremendous sums of money on jewels, art collections and salable manuscripts, the Simpson firm has achieved immortality.

Yet in Cuba, New York, where few of the population have ever hocked their watch or war medals, the name William Simpson will forever be remembered as part of the village’s most colorful history. Simpson and his son will also be recalled as the creator of one of the area’s most imposing structures - the famed “Block Barn.”

In 1856 William Simpson and his father-in-law, Joseph McGraw, had erected a huge form near the tiny community of New Hudson - a hoot and a holler from Cuba. Simpson has a consuming passion for rock pigeons and began to raise the cooing birds, now known throughout America. That the great financier was a success as a pigeon fancier would be an understatement of this century. All one has to do is walk through the alley next to the former Elk’s Club. While Simposon’s beautiful birds were not progenitors of ll the pigeons now extant in North America, they played a part.

Simpson then introduced the beer-bellied Shetland pony to the New Hudson farms. The small horse had always been used as a working animal in England, and over the course of centuries had developed a grotesquely disproportionate figure. Through the process of selective breeding, Simpson brought the species to is now exalted state. So widely heralded with the Englishman’s success with the Shetland that he became founding member and president of the American Shetland pony Club. Then the ingenious man began experiments with the hardy Icelandic pony.

When Simpson began importing cattle from the Channel Islands to Cuba, the villagers for the first time saw the sleek Jersey. Naturally, it was only a matter of brief time until the pawnbroker was bedecked with blue ribbons. (at least one line missing) finest in America. With such a long array of fantastic achievements behind him, it is not wonder that it was said he could cross “a centipede with a turkey” thus producing a bird with dozens of drumsticks.

But Simpson had been dreaming of racing horses and a stable of the finest trotters in the world.

Simpson’s 12,000-acre farm with its sprawling pastureland soon had a covered quarter-mile track and training barns, plus a number of horses. But Bill Simpson found that breeding racehorses and producing winners are two vastly different fields. Within a matter of a few years he almost squandered the almost limitless family fortune on the “bangtails.” But a horse named McKinney pulled the New Yorker out of the mire, literally by his bootstraps. Along with tis stablemate, Axworthy, the pair became the most invincible ‘one-two’ combination in the history of racing. The sons and daughters became the most widely sought after colts in the nation.

In 1905, Simpson purchased the Eldridge Farm on the south end of Cuba. During the midst of an electrical storm, the Empire Farms was struck by a bolt ad the ensuing fire leveled the great structure. Most of the McKinney colts were destroyed in the terrible fire, which many felt would be a death-blow to the Simpson estate.

The grief-stricken financier vowed that the strain would never perish, and he planned a structure to be named in memory of the great equine, to be known as the McKinney Stables. It would be on the site of the Eldridge Farm - and it would be absolutely fireproof. No expense would be spared to make the finest stable in the land.

An avid reader, Simpson had learned of a new process for making building blocks out of concrete. It sounded practical to the horse fancier. All he had to do was contact its inventor - a complete unknown. It took some doing for the Simpson interests to track the young man down. The flabbergasted youth explained to Simpson’s son that he had not as yet received a patent of his machine, and he lamely commented that it would only make a block at a time. Neither he nor the machine were “ready for the big (again something cut off)

So he wound up in Cuba with his machine. Laboriously turning out blocks along with supervising the laying of them, the youth began to gain confidence in himself. Not only was the outside made from the blocks, but also the inside, the between the rooms on the upper floor and the division of the horse stalls. Simpson had to admit as he watched the building take shape, that John Coxhead had done a magnificent job in his planning.

Cubas Block Barn Photo 2 of 3

Fred Simpson, volatile son of the aged financier, acted as superintendent, foreman and purchasing agent. A “chip off the old block,” young Simpson was able to persuade the ceramics division of Alfred University that the making of the orange-colored tiles for the stable roofs was within the realm of possibility - albeit a monumental undertaking. They remain to this day, a lasting tribute to the university.

Simpson then had a power plan installed inside the barn which would provide light for the stables, the tracks and the family home at 79 South Street. Simpson suddenly recalled he would require a press to publish his works on horse breeding, training and cattle raising. Naturally he installed a press in the new structure.

Cubas Block Barn Photo 3 of 3

In 1909 the magnificent McKinney Stable was completed. It measured 347 feet from end to end, and was 50 feet wide. It had both an indoor and an outdoor track. It had cost $200,000 a princely sum in that period of history. It was the most imposing horse barn ever built in New York, and one of the finest anywhere on this earth.

The grand opening attracted every “blueblood” associated with the sport of Kings. If Simpson missed Bradford’s Hugh Grant, it was because he was not born - but everyone else was there. Simpson had a lavish dinner reception at the Kinney Hotel on that warm spring evening of June 10, 1909 that was the talk of the village for half a century. Rare and costly wines were Brough to Cuba by the case. But despite the fact that many millionaires were present Simpson never forgot that the structure had been built entirely by local artisans. The gracious millionaire paid elaborate tribute to his fellow Cubans.

For a number of years the (cut off again).

(cuts in from previous) the older citizens recall the thrill of watching the training of a champion-to-be back when they were grade school kids. During the days prior to World War I, Czar Nicholas I and the Shah of Persia (Iran) both sent their best mares to Allegany County community, to be bred by the McKinney strain.

Simpson became the dominant name in the horse racing field, and his stables in Lexington, Kentucky and Cuba, New York had a feed bill of between $3,000,000 and $4,000,000 - a tidy little sum. Due to lack of facilities, the village applied to Simpson for solution of its power problems. The plant that Simpson had built was sufficient to supply the whole village with power. Busy as he was with his tremendous empire, Simpson never forgot the village that he loved. For years the town newspapers were also published in the Stables - a claim that not other town in America could make.

In 1916, William Simpson went to his reward, and ‘this said even the horses sensed his passing. The management of the Stables was left to Fred, while William Jr. took over the management of the fabled pawnshop in New York. A few years later, the Empire Farms were sold, and the famed McKinney Stables remained open for a few years, only to accommodate the village newspaper and users of electrical power. Then the Boulton Press and the Cuba Electric Company cease to be - and the end was in sight.

For years the great building was vacant, and the well kept lawn soon became knee-deep in burdocks, mullein, golden rod and other weeds. Outside of scores of birds’ nests under the cornices and over the top of the windows, there was no sign of life.

For a number of years, the building knew the whinnying of horses, as W.G. Saville rented saddle horses, and in 1948 Christopher Biddle, a well-known horse trainer, rented the building - but remained for but a year.

The history of the Block Barn for the last three decades is a sad one. Frequent attempts have been made to reopen it as a horse training stable, and at one time serious thought was given to creation a nursing home. The facilities for such a venture are made to order. As time has passed, the weeks have reclaimed the land, and birds fly in and out of broken windows, and in early dusk, large colonies of bats emerge from the building to take up their pursuit of insects or mice.

It is difficult to visualize hundreds of well-dressed people gathered around the perimeter of the outside track, clocking some hopeful - but yet it happened. It is equally hard to believe that next to Kentucky, Cuba, New York was once recognized as one of the leading centers for the providing of horseflesh for the “Sport of Kings.”

But so it was.

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