Preserving Rare Breeds

rare breeds

Recreating the past in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area is a matter of hoofs and horns as well as bricks and mortar.

Learn more: "Rare Breeds"


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes,” when 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 Richard Nicoll, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he’s the director of coach and livestock programs. And the obvious first question is, what does the director of coach and livestock programs do?

Richard Nicoll: Basically, I oversee all the carriage, horse, and livestock programs. So that includes sheep, cattle, poultry and everything to do with that.

Lloyd: Poultry, too?

Richard: Poultry, too.

Lloyd: I would not have put that together.

Richard: Well, they are livestock.

Lloyd: Oh, really, are they?

Richard: Yeah.
Lloyd: I’ve been reading some 17th-century estate – 18th-century – estate things and they don’t list fowl at all.

Richard: Well, they occasionally will, but normally it’s not in an inventory, it’s…if they do, if there’s great numbers, they’ll just occasionally talk about a turkey house. Occasionally they’ll talk about maybe a chicken pen or a chicken coop. But the actual animals in there, no. 

Lloyd: Anyhow, I found that strange. I was reading these farm inventories and it just occurred to me I never saw any fowl and that’s not possible.

Richard: No, there was a lot of poultry.

Lloyd: Now, the coach part. What’s that part to it?

Richard: That’s all to do with carriages: carriages, wagons, carts, harness, and horses. 

Lloyd: So you’re responsible for taking care of all of that?

Richard: All that.

Lloyd: Keeping it repaired…
Richard: Keeping it repaired, keeping it running. And so I work very closely with the harness shop, and with the wheelwright operation, and with blacksmiths.

Lloyd: Ok, now, the coaches going up and down Duke of Gloucester Street: they’re yours?

Richard: Yes. Well, they belong to the Foundation, of course.

Lloyd: Well, you have to -- but you take care of them, right?

Richard: Yeah, I take care of them.

Lloyd: You’re the guy they come to if it breaks down.

Richard: Absolutely.

Lloyd: How long does a coach run before it needs repair?

Richard: It all depends. It could be ten minutes; it could be three years. On the whole, we’re maintaining. We’re cleaning them every day they’re being used, so we’re overseeing what’s happening. What you have to remember is we’re putting our carriages through much heavier use than they would’ve had in the 18th century.

Because we’re doing maybe 15 to 20 rides a day, so the steps are being taken down and put up maybe 40 times in a day. Well, steps never had that kind of wear and tear in the 18th century. We’re running up to 20 miles a day, maybe a bit more on the street, so with that kind of wear and tear, the axles, if they were as they were in the 18th century, would wear out. The tires on the carriages wear out, if they’re in fairly heavy use, within two to three years.

Lloyd: Now, tires in the 18th century and tires today are not the same thing…

Richard: Same thing. They are the same thing.

Lloyd: They are, really?

Richard: The metal rim outside of the wooden wheel.

Lloyd: Oh, OK, so, except for replacing the metal with rubber, it’s…

Richard: Absolutely, most carriages of an earlier type, or even the 19th-century type, the majority still have steel wheels.

Lloyd: Oh, OK. The livestock: the horses pulling the coaches, making that many trips. Do you run them every day?

Richard: The horses work every – they work a full day, but they work, like, three hours in the morning, and then they have about an hour and a half off for lunch, and then they work perhaps two and a half hours in the afternoon. Some of them work again for two hours in the evening. So they have breaks in between.

Lloyd: Oh, OK, so it’s not constant, all day…

Richard: It’s not constant.

Lloyd: OK.

Richard: No.

Lloyd: Since I don’t know, I’ll just have to bluntly ask you: What’s the biggest problem you face?

Richard: Maintenance. Just day-to-day.

Lloyd: Just day-to-day, nothing dramatic?

Richard: No, we have over 100 animals, so it’s from sicknesses to injuries to the horses needing shoeing to… like this morning we had a calving problem with a cow. To carriages with problems to harness falling apart to trucks and trailers with problems to pastures with problems to waterers with problems, and the list goes on.

Lloyd: So it’s just sort of a constant.

Richard: And it’s constant, and it’s 24 hours a day, and it’s seven days a week.

Lloyd: Well, that ought to make you tired.

Richard: I’ve been doing this for 35 – 36 years. I think if I went into it brand-new I would be exhausted, but I suppose I’ve conditioned myself fairly well.

Lloyd: There’s a thing I have noticed here. I think there’s a new book out called “Rare Breeds.”  Is that part of your …

Richard: Yeah, that was my idea, that book, and so I was the one that kind of pushed to get it put together.

Lloyd: Oh, OK.

Richard: Yeah.

Lloyd: What – dumb question – why do you have a rare breeds program?

Richard: Basically, we wanted livestock in the Historic Area. And when I first came here 22 years ago, we had some livestock, not as much as we have now, and basically if they wanted a cow, they went and bought a cow. If they wanted a sheep, they went and bought a sheep. But our point was it would be – back in the middle ‘80s, to the end of the ‘80s – I decided it would really be better if we had something more of an historic nature.

And the rare breeds program was just taking off in the United States. And a lot of the “rare breeds,” as we call them, tend to be older breeds, because they’re not so commercially viable nowadays. So that several of these older breeds really fit neatly into our picture of populating the town to have that appearance more of the 18th century.

And also, it was a nice program because it really was helping conserve something. Most of what we’re doing is conserving buildings or items, but here, we’re actually helping conserving something live. So, it fit very well into the Colonial Williamsburg mission.

Lloyd: Do guests here get interested in that?

Richard: Very. Very, very interested.

Lloyd: Why, I wonder?

Richard: I think it’s the idea of conserving something. Everyone – most people – have a soft spot for animals. Most people enjoy animals. And I think in this day and age, most people aren’t so aware of where their food is coming from and how it’s being produced.  And that gives us a chance to talk about where their food came from in the past, and also how it’s being produced today and how we’re really homogenizing everything in this day and age. And it’s often not always known. An example we give is the dairying industry. Most people don’t realize that about 90 percent to 95 percent of all dairy cows are now of one type.

Lloyd: I didn’t know that.

Richard: No. Whereas if you’d gone back 60, 70 years ago, there were many, many types. So we’re concentrating everything. And the point about the rare breeds also is that once we allow these old breeds to go, that’s it. They never come back again. You never bring back the old breeds. 

Lloyd: When you were listing things, you didn’t list any pigs or swine.

Richard: We have pigs. We have some rare breed pigs, but we just bring them in from another museum, Mount Vernon. They raise these pigs. And then we use them for exhibit and then we use them for our kitchen programs later.

Lloyd: What’s the name of the horse I’ve seen a picture of, the rare breed horse?

Richard:  Would it be one of the Creams, perhaps?

Lloyd: Yes.

Richard: Yeah.

Lloyd: They look like they are heavier.

Richard: They are heavier.

Lloyd: Oh, OK.

Richard: They’re called the American Cream Draft Horse; a draft horse being a work horse. And when we got into the American Cream Draft Horses, it is the only American breed of draft horse. It’s a more modern breed from the 20th century. But they were disappearing very fast. So we basically helped bring that breed back a little bit. We don’t have many; we have a few of them.

Lloyd: How about cattle?

Richard: Cattle, we’re very much into the Milking Devons, an earlier breed, and probably one of the first types of cattle being brought into here in the 17th century. Both into New England and into the Southern Colonies.

Lloyd: I must admit one of my bigger laughs was walking around Colonial Williamsburg when a father was explaining to his son that if it had horns on it, it was a bull.

Richard: Yep.

Lloyd: And I just said, “Well, why don’t you just keep your mouth shut and keep on walking, son.” But that’s – do you get that?

Richard: Yeah, we get that a lot. What you have to remember is, as you move into this century there’s less and less people with any kind of rural background.

Lloyd: That’s right, isn’t it?

Richard: Most people are living in an urban situation. Now, our generation, perhaps our grandfathers or fathers were farmers, or perhaps our uncle was a farmer. But nowadays, most people are living in an urban, not a rural situation. So their closest thing that they come to animals is either in a petting zoo or maybe at a state fair.

But there’s often an enormous disconnect between what they see at the grocery store and what is reality. And the classic is, that seeing a calf drink from the cow that the people ask why would we let the calf drink the milk that the cow is producing for us. There is a disconnection between the idea of a cow having a calf and that’s why we get milk. 

Lloyd: That had not occurred to me that anybody would ever ask.

Richard: Well, why would they not ask is the thing because if you buy milk in a bottle, and you know it comes from a cow, but the calf is never mentioned in there.

Lloyd: Yeah, but if you have a dog or a cat, you’ve seen the puppies or the kitties get milk from the mother; why would the cow be any different?

Richard: Yeah, but you never see the milk.

Lloyd: Point. And also you don’t buy it in a bottle at the store, so…

Richard: Absolutely. So it’s simple things like that, just the point you’ve made: they’ve got horns. Even that we’ve been milking the cows and people saying they must be bulls, because they have horns

Lloyd: On the other hand, if nobody connects to the farm anymore, how would you know what the difference between a bull and a cow is?

Richard: Absolutely. And that’s why it becomes so important, our livestock programs. Not just because they’re there, but also because we can talk about these things.

Lloyd: Mm-kay…

Richard: And the sheer fact that you can lean over a fence here in Colonial Williamsburg and watch the sheep and there’s no signs telling you what to do and that no one’s telling you where to go and that people can go up to a pasture fence and have a horse right next to them. And you’d be surprised [for] how many people that is a very, very new experience.

Lloyd: In your job – it’s two sections, if I’ve got this right.

Richard: It’s about 30 sections.

Lloyd: Don’t ruin the next question. You’ve got coaches and then livestock.

Richard: Yep.

Lloyd: Which is more bothersome?

Richard: I wouldn’t say either one is bothersome; they’re both hard work.

Lloyd: Ah-

Richard: I’ve got a very good staff; it’s not me doing everything. I have to just make sure we keep on track.

Lloyd: I would imagine keeping track of all of that could be quite time-consuming and very detailed work. Is it?

Richard: It is. We keep a lot of records, and that’s why I rely on a very good staff. It is, again, you know, I suppose I‘ve been doing it for so long that I don’t think of it much that way. But I think if someone came in from the outside, I think you’d find it very confusing, to begin with, how to keep up with it all.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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