Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Loula Long Combs

Loula Long Combs, daughter of lumber baron R.A. Long, was a world famous equestrienne and owner of Longview Farm in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. She dedicated her life to raising and showing horses but she was well known throughout the community as a philanthropist and passionate animal lover.

There are two other presentations on Loula Long Combs that have focused on her personal history and as a carriage collector. I will discuss Mrs. Combs as a woman of her time, who came of age during the era of Progressive reforms and who reflected the cultural milieu of that time.

Local historian Jane Flynn included Loula Long Combs in her book, Kansas City Women of Independent Minds, a collection of short biographies of prominent women in Kansas City history. Mrs. Combs, known primarily for skills as a horsewoman, might seem an unusual choice since most of the others in this collection were known for their work in social causes, political reforms, or as artists, educators, or in other professions. However, Loula Long Combs was definitely a woman with an independent mind and one that was attuned to the changes going on around her.

The Progressive era, from roughly the 1880s to around 1920, was one characterized by reform movements of all kinds. The best known of these is the suffrage movement which culminated with gaining the vote for women with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. However, there were other reforms as well: prohibition, children’s welfare and prevention of cruelty to animals. Mrs. Combs played a role in each of these movements.

While she never expressed any interest in politics that I found in the Museum archives, she did advocate equality for women in the world she knew best - the horse show ring. One of the first steps she took toward gender equity was discarding the traditional side saddle and its habit of ankle length skirts to riding astride like her male peers. Like the Bloomer girls of the late nineteenth century who traded skirts for those voluminous pants in order to take part in a more active, athletic life of riding bicycles or playing tennis, Mrs. Combs wanted to be able to play polo and jump horses. She found the sidesaddle handicapped her ability to do her best. She adopted the split skirt and later jodhpurs and coats so that she could compete equally.

Even as a young girl, Loula Long was an aggressive horsewoman. Early in her life in the show ring, she ignored the accepted rule that women should ride in ladies classes only. She competed in, and won, open roadster classes that were usually for men because of the strength required to manage the horses. In London, England in 1910, she drove her prize winning horse, The King, as the only woman in the open roadster class, and won first place at the Olympia Horse Show. She won again in 1913 in Madison Square Garden where she shocked the more sedate Eastern men by racing her horse Aspiration in Midwestern style around the ring. Often turning corners on two wheels and flying past her competitors to the cheers of the audience. Her showmanship gained her recognition from Barnum and Bailey who asked her to join the circus, a request she found amusing but declined.

Loula Long displayed her sense of equality in her personal life as well. As a wealthy young woman who travelled the horse show circuit at home and abroad, she was sought after by many with marriage proposals that she consistently refused. When a European nobleman travelled to Kansas City to ask for her hand, she took him to the stable to meet her horse, The King. The King expressed his displeasure by trying to nip him. Miss Long turned him down as well.

Finally on April 22, 1917, when she was 36 years old, she married Robert Pryor Combs, a man she had known for years, the son of the minister of the Independence Boulevard Christian Church where her family attended services. Several years her junior, an age difference that was unusual at that time, she wrote in her autobiography My Revelation that she decided to marry him when she observed him helping a team of mules haul a heavy wagon on a hill after being abused by their owner.

Their relationship was one based on equality and respect. As she wrote: “Very often, after women are married, their husbands object to their doing things that keep them away from home, or to having them in the public eye… But Pryor has always been most understanding….He encouraged me to go on and enjoy my horses and my shows. He even suggested that I show under my maiden name, but we decided the entries would be made in the name ‘Loula Long Combs.’” Pryor Combs later sometimes received mail addressed to Mr. Loula Long Combs.

Following in the family tradition, Loula Long Combs attended church services every Sunday. Like many Progressive reformers, she was a firm believer of temperance and did not drink alcohol, smoke, dance or swear. She practiced charity by providing clothing and toys to children of farm employees as well as making sure they went to school by using Farm vehicles to transport them every day. Every year she hosted a horse show and the proceeds usually went to the organization that was closest to her heart, the Animal Protection Association.

The Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Kansas City recognized Mrs. Combs with a luncheon in her honor on October 13, 1953 at the Hotel Phillips. They presented her with a plaque with this inscription: “World Famed in horsemanship, Mrs. Combs whose activities also extend into philanthropic, cultural and religious fields, participates as well in civic affairs for the community.”

In 1967 she was elected to the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame. The honor was given to 88 outstanding competitors, two from every sport. She shared the equestrian honors with Major General Guy V. Henry, Chief of Cavalry, United States Army.

Loula Long Combs died in 1971 at Longview Farm. Most remembered her for her showmanship in the ring, wearing elaborate hats and driving her high stepping hackney ponies. She represented the best of an earlier era and a fading class and culture that placed value on an old adage that to whom much is given, much is expected. Other reformers from the Progressive era tried to make the world a better place by giving women equal rights, by helping the poor and ending cruelty to humans and animals alike. In so many ways, Loula Long Combs was very much a part of that world.

Information about Mrs. Combs was acquired from the Community Curator and the Kansas City Museum. 


Valerie said...

This is a really neat piece of history, especially for someone who is a graduate of R.A.Long high school in Longview, WA. I never heard anything about his daughter, and would have been very interested to know she was horse crazy :)

Stephanie Ford said...

I've always loved your historical posts. Another great one, thank you.

Anonymous said...

As you young girl I used to visit Longview Farms and eagerly listened to stories about the farm from the trainer Dave Smith. My parents bought a Longview heavy harness hackney for me to show in 3 gaited classes. That world was so special, so rich with elegance and was disappearing even then in the late 1940's. The stable was carpeted and the trophy room was full of exquisite silver cups and walls of Championship ribbons. Mrs. Combs had the spokes of her fine harness carts painted red because she thought the chrome was too flashy. I was at the American Royal one time in the warm-up area when she was getting ready to go into a class. At the last minute one of the grooms had to race back to the stalls for tan gloves because the ones that had been provided for her to drive with were the wrong color. The gate was held open until the proper gloves were produced. I miss those dear people who took me into their world. Many years later I went by the stable and found Dave Smith still there with 3 show horses and a non existent show schedule. He took my friend and I out for dinner. We had a grand time reminiscing. He had great respect for Mrs. Combs and apparently it was reciprocated. The farm is gone now, cut up for a housing development. A few landmarks are preserved but the barns, fences, rose arbors and excitement are all memories.

Thank you so much for providing a platform for a true horsewoman as she surely was.

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liily ann timlick said...

that at the top is not loula long combs

lilly ann timlick said...

ugly girl she ugly