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Lost L.A.: Saddle up for this horse tale

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From the TV glory days of "Mr. Ed," we know that horses have a lot to say if given a chance — not a surprise considering they were hard-working, come-rain-or-shine mass transit for millenniums before being run out of Dodge by Henry Ford. And don't forget the insults — horse glue, horse meat, horse trading, horse play and horse you-know-what. The sardonic Ed once remarked to Wilbur, "Some way to treat your friends who helped conquer the West."

Ed's descendents revere one Angeleno for his unfailing devotion to the hoof. Capt. William Sanford Banning was the oldest son of Phineas Banning, the Yankee booster for a Los Angeles harbor at Wilmington. Historian Tom Sitton recounts in his forthcoming history of the family that Phineas built a business running carriages and freight carts to and from the harbor. After his death in 1885, William controlled the family interests and continued to promote horse travel even as cars took over the road.

Middle-class horses bunked in barns, but Banning mounts lived in a manor. Around 1920 the captain picked up 15 acres in Compton and built Halfway House, a modest bungalow for stopping on the trip from downtown L.A. to Wilmington. His horses, however, had a veritable Monticello, a shingle-roofed, vine-covered stable with column and pediment windows. The Banning team, family to an owner who never married, looked out over a sunny garden.

At a time when Americans were converting stables to garages, Banning's equine devotion was eccentric. Horses were at the top of urban renewal lists for the emerging modern metropolis. They outnumbered human residents in growing cities, leaving unsalable manure that attracted swarms of flies spreading typhoid and other disease.

Citizens blamed the era's nervous disorders on the din of horse shoes on cobble stones and left thousands of horse carcasses to rot in public streets. At first government planners expected that railroads would shrink urban horse populations, but freight from stations to warehouses relied on horse-drawn carts. The bus with horse teams and then the electric streetcar brought relief until real change came with the automobile. It was the technology du jour, all good and no evil. Safer, cleaner and cheaper to run than their four-legged competitors, cars encouraged long-due road regulation and made commercial delivery dependable.

Not surprisingly, Banning declined to join the board of the Los Angeles highway commission. He never drove a car and remained until his death in 1946 an advocate for horses and coaches. When in L.A., he lived at his main house, called the Barn, at what used to be Hoover and 31st streets. It was a large white manse with, of course, a separate accommodation for 13 horses.

East of downtown in what today is Walnut, the captain built a riding and exhibition ground where he kept his collection of vintage carriages lent out

for nostalgic, civic parades. In 1920 at the Los Angeles auto show, he proudly displayed

a newly restored coach in a

booth next to a shiny Cadillac limousine. By then, Detroit horsepower was overtaking horse power.

Today, Halfway House and the Barn are gone, and the horse as faithful family friend and transport is a romantic memory. Next on the way out is the oil-fueled motor car that roared along the road to progress, bringing solutions to one generation's environmental crisis while creating a new one for ours.

As for Mr. Ed, he had a final quip: "I told Wilbur his Studebaker was trouble, but he was always stubborn as a mule."

Watters' column runs on the first Saturday of every month. Past columns: latimes.com/lostla. Comments: home@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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