Chuck Wood loves working with horses and people every day driving carriages in the Historic Area.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This stuff is new and you won’t hear it anyplace else. This is Behind the Scenes where we let you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Chuck Wood, who is at Colonial Williamsburg, where he is a coachman.
Lloyd: I guess the first question is what’s a coachman?
Chuck Wood: A coachman is somebody who drives a carriage. In the 18th century, we would work or be owned by somebody of great wealth, and we would drive them wherever they wanted to go, i.e., I’m a chauffer.
Lloyd: Oh, okay, I was going to try 18th-century bus driver.
Chuck: Well, no sir, bus driver would be somebody who is driving a stage wagon. A stage wagon, you buy a seat on and you go in stages to another town. That’s public transportation; that’s the 18th-century bus. I work for a very prominent family, and I am a chauffeur.
Lloyd: Who do you drive now?
Chuck: We here in Williamsburg drive visitors that wish to see the town. We give them rides about town in authentically reconstructed 18th-century-style carriages pulled by various teams of horses.
Lloyd: Horses. Do you have anything to do with those?
Chuck: Well, my job here starts at about 8:30 in the morning, when I start cleaning them up. I get them ready, anything from brushing to a total bath. My job also is to get the harness on them and to make sure the harness is safe to do the day’s work. We don’t start our rides until about 10 of the clock. So, from 8:30 to 10:00, our job is to get the horses and ourselves ready to meet the public.
Lloyd: So, it’s a pair of horses, right?
Chuck: That’s correct; we drive a team of two.
Lloyd: That much I knew by observation.
Chuck: Pretty easy to tell. (Laughs)
Lloyd: And you talk to the people about Colonial Williamsburg?
Chuck: That is correct, sir, I introduce myself, talk to them about the carriage, what kind of carriage they are riding in, about the type of people in the 18th century that would own it, talk to them about the speed that we can go. There is a speed limit in Williamsburg. We can drive no faster than what the average man does walk. It’s a darn nuisance, but it is the law. I explain to them that the streets are not paved, so that in town, we normally use four horses to get about in the 18th century. And on the highways and byways, where we can do all of 25 miles a day â€“ good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise â€“ we use anything from four up to eight horses to get the job done.
Lloyd: But here it’s strictly two?
Chuck: Strictly two, because we have the paved streets.
Lloyd: Something I’ve been curious about, you’ve got the horses, and you are going around Colonial Williamsburg. Have you ever had anything like a dog run out to bite or nip at the horses’ legs, or does that just not happen?
Chuck: Oh yes, we have instances quite often, and it is more with two-legged, than with four-legged instances we have. Most of our horses, dogs don’t bother them at all. They’re pretty good on that, but it’s when childrenâ€¦I had one child almost ride his bicycle under one of my horses. Now that, I’m a little too old for that â€“ that kind of scared me. Things like that happen, not routinely, but you always are expecting that to happen.
Lloyd: Have you ever had a horse sort of run away? I don’t know exactly what I mean, but go faster thanâ€¦
Chuck: Yeah, I understand what you are saying. Personally I had one of my teams â€“ their names were Bert and Ernie by the way â€“ got afraid of a regiment of soldiers, and they started to get out of hand. Fortunately, I was able to get them back in hand before anything really happened.
Lloyd: Where did you learn to control horses and drive a coach?
Chuck: Well, I first started with my father’s farm. My dad was a farmer, and of course his father before him. So he is the one who taught me horses, and basically animals in general. And, then, I have driven horses elsewhere. So when I came here, it was mostly a transition from other styles of driving to the proper way of doing it the Williamsburg way.
Lloyd: What do people ask?
Chuck: Most-asked question is, “What are your horses’ names?” Second-most question is: “How old are they?”
Lloyd: And the answers are?
Chuck: Well, in my case, I am fortunate to have the best team in Williamsburg, of course. I am driving Black Ben, who is about 12 years of age, and Chief. Chief is about five years of age.
Lloyd: Is that done intentionally â€“ to get an older horse with a younger horse?
Chuck: Correct. Normally you’ll put an older, experienced horse beside a younger one, and he’ll be a steadying influence. Chief, when we started with him, was a little bit more unsettled than maybe some other horses might have been. But Ben has straightened him outâ€¦Ben has not only straightened him out, but he also keeps me straight, too.
Lloyd: The horse has a lot to do. (Laughs).
Chuck: He certainly does, sir.
Lloyd: When you are riding around, do you ever notice things that people don’t ask you about that you just tell them anyway?
Chuck: Oh yesâ€¦I try to point out buildings of interest, particularly things that would not be something you would normally find out in a visit. Or, quite often we have visitors that have returned on multiple occasions, and I try to pick out points that maybe they don’t know about, because there are some thingsâ€¦like the Ludwell Paradise House being the first property that Mr. Rockefeller ever purchased back in December of 1927, paying $8,000 for it; or the fact that the Prentis’ store at one time was something called a gasoline station, although I don’t really know what gasoline is.
Lloyd: Where do you get your training?
Chuck: Well, we have training here at Williamsburg, but a lot of my training over the last six and a half years has come from talking to other interpreters and reading.
Lloyd: How long have you been here?
Chuck: I’m an indentured servant, sir, and I’m on my last six months of my seven-year indenture papers, so six and a half years.
Lloyd: Six and a half years â€“ all the time as a coachman?
Chuck: No, sir. I started off at the Capitol, worked my way up to the military, and then finally arrived at what I originally wanted to do, which was drive horses at Colonial Williamsburg.
Lloyd: Is there a limit on how long you can do that?
Chuck: As long as you can climb up on that carriage and drive the horsesâ€¦you can drive.
Lloyd: What sort of skills does it take? Do you have to be able to feel the reins, what the horses are doing? I’ve always been curious about that.
Chuck: Well, we’re fortunate here, because our boss, Richard Nicoll, assigns the drivers and horses as a set, so you get to know your horses; you know when you are cleaning them up in the morning that they are just a little nervous, or they are just not quite right, for whatever reason. But you feel it in the reins, the horse’s gestures, the way they cock their ears, and the way they pull, will tell you an awful lot about the horses for that particular day. I always use a stop watch â€“ 18th century, of course â€“ to check my rides, because horses don’t have a speedometer. And they could some days go very fast, and other days they’ll go very slow. So, you need to watch the horses and their speed, so you make sure you give the visitor their proper times. And this could be a horse could not feel good, or bugs are bothering him real bad. Horses have bad days like people do.
Lloyd: And, all those little ear cocks, and how they pull will tell you it’s a bad day?
Chuck: That’s correct. Or, it’s a good day. Mostly with my horses, it’s a good day. But every once in a while, maybe they are just kind of feeling a little poorly, and need a little extra tender loving care and a few of extra mints to make them feel better.
Lloyd: Funny. It’s just like people, hmm?
Chuck: Sir, they are my children, and I treat them exactly like you would your children. I love them. I take care of them; I give them treats, and I scold them when they’re bad.
Lloyd: What are the treats?
Chuck: Well, most of us give peppermints. The little star mints. They are very easy to carry, and they are wrapped in paper, of course, and that’s what most of us give. Now, people will say, “Oh, I didn’t know horses would eat peppermint.” Well, some do, and some don’t, but also moderation is the key. You don’t want to give them a half a pound a day. I give them a couple during the day; sometimes we have carrots and apples, or I’ll bring carrots and apples from home, and give them a little treat like that.
Lloyd: The apples thingâ€¦you hear about in movies and things, that you always give them that. When you give a treat like that, is it at the end of the day after they’ve done a good day’s work, or do you sort of break it up?
Chuck: Oh, I give it to them all day long. You know, I’ll give them treats during the day, and then at the end of the day, if I have anything, I’ll give them a special treat. That’s when I live to give them the apples, when the bit is out of their mouth, and they are just getting ready to go out in the field. But quite often, or sometimes, visitors will give you an apple, and they want to see the horse eat it. I won’t let anybody feed my horses but myself, and that’s for their protection and safety â€“ of our visitor â€“ and also for the protection of the horse. So, I will then, when the customer really wants to see it, I’ll feed the apple to them then, but usually if it’s something like an apple, I’d like to give it to them at the end of the day, because it gets kind of sloppy.
Lloyd: (Laughs) So does a kid.
Chuck: Yes, but a horse has a mouth a lot bigger than a kid does.
Lloyd: Has anything ever happened so unusual that it took you completely by surprise?
Chuck: Well, a lot of unusual things happen; I guess the things I worry most about, or the most unusual, are the actions of people around horses, never knowing exactly what someone is going to do. Very rarely, somebody will actually try to scare a horse. Most of the time, people just don’t know. Children running up and grabbing the legs of the horses â€“ that really scares me.
Lloyd: Oh yeah, but people who’ve lived in a city all their lives don’t know how to treat a horse.
Chuck: No, they have no concept in the world. That’s just a big dog. And, that’s basically how some people treat them. But when I get somebodyâ€¦most people will come up and ask, and then I will tell them you pet him on the nose. Butâ€¦I’ve had one child one time run up and grab the rear leg of one of the horses.
Lloyd: That’s not smart.
Chuck: No, it’s not, but when you are two or three years old, it probably looked like something was there to grab on to. I think my heart stopped for about 30 seconds that time.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg Past and Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.