People & Horses: A look at Imogene Erb's lifetime with horses
Ninety-six years ago America was in the height of the “Roaring Twenties.” Prohibition was in effect and there was a surge of economic prosperity before the looming Great Depression. It was 1926, the year Imogene Erb was born in Memphis, Tenn.
Mrs. Erb has had a lifetime with horses. Her first memory of being on a horse was when her uncle lifted her up and put her on the back of a polo pony. They would ride down the streets in Memphis, near Central Avenue. Poplar Avenue was a gravel road at the time and most children in the area learned to ride on old polo ponies at a riding academy near Cherry Road.
“I’ve always remembered riding and driving,” said Mrs. Erb. She recalled her family’s old driving horse that was a Thoroughbred Arabian cross. “We would just jump in the carriage and go. He was a very fine driving horse and took us everywhere.”
Mrs. Erb recalled what East Memphis and Germantown looked like during the time of her childhood and how horses were a staple for everyone who lived in the area. “Everyone we knew had horses. We would fox hunt from our front yard all the way to the Wolf River, passing through everyone’s properties. People just let us ride; it’s what we did.”
She and her friends would ride through Kirby Woods, now a neighborhood by MUS and Hutchinson schools in East Memphis, on their way to Germantown. She would meet close family friends, specifically Sonny Foster, who lived off Old Germantown Rd. near Wildwood Farm. Mrs. Erb is one of the last living founding members of the Germantown Charity Horse Show.
“We would ride the trails in Kirby Woods. There were old log cabins and ponds. The woods were very pretty and the trails kept us cool when we rode in the summer,” Mrs. Erb recalled
Mrs. Erb’s home sits in the heart of East Memphis, off Poplar Avenue, on Briarcrest Road. The nineteen acres and home with sprawling white columns is hidden by woods that surround the property. As one turns in and drives up the wooded driveway the trees part and Mrs. Erb’s home comes into view.
“My mother purchased the property when I was 12 years old. My husband and I built this home 72 years ago.” She pointed towards the southeast corner of her property and said, “there use to be a large racing barn that sat on this property. You can still see the concrete foundation of the old barn over behind those trees.” The old thoroughbred racing barn burned several years before Mrs. Erb’s mother purchased the property.
The Erb property is a piece of history in Memphis. Before Poplar Avenue was paved with asphalt in the 1930s, mule-driven wagons would carry goods down the avenue to the rural Shelby County farms that spanned to Collierville, Tenn. It was a two day trip from downtown Memphis to Collierville at the time. The wagon drivers and mules would stop at Eleven Miles Woods to rest overnight. Eleven Miles Woods is now Memorial Park Cemetery which sits about a mile and a half west of Mrs. Erb’s home.
Mrs. Erb attended boarding school in Middleburg, Virginia. Even when she was away at school she rode and fox hunted. Riding was a part of every aspect of her life from the time she was born and throughout her teenage years spent in Virginia.
She came across her hunter horse, Copper Cave, during a trip to Virginia. She rode him about six times before buying him. “The first fox hunt I rode him at he ran off with me,” Mrs. Erb said. She continued, “So, I rode him in the hunter ring. He was a big, fine chestnut and he made a wonderful hunter horse. We jumped 4ft courses and did very well. I just had to get him going and then be a good passenger. He would do anything.” Eventually, Mrs. Erb was able to fox hunt Copper Cave, in a snaffle, without being run away with in the hunt field.
Mrs. Erb was riding up until this past Christmas. At 96 she is still able to drive weekly with Joanna Wilburn of Rollingwoods Farm. Even though Mrs. Erb cannot see well, Joanna serves as her eyes. Weather permitting, every Tuesday morning is reserved for driving her pony Lacecap, a small gray Welsh pony cross. It is a way that Mrs. Erb is able to maintain her love of horses and work with Lacecap at least once a week. She has been driving Lacecap for about ten years.
Mrs. Erb and Joanna drive in the area behind her home. Her gardens of roses and hydrangeas surround the open grassy area where Joanna has Mrs. Erb practice driving circles, figure eights, and working and strong trots. Mrs. Erb listens and feels Lacecap through her reins as she drives. Even after 96 years with horses, Mrs. Erb’s face lights up when she picks up the reins. She laughs and smiles the entire time she drives. She listens intently to Joanna and trusts her to guide her and Lacecap through the open pasture.
Mrs. Erb has many stories of the horses that filled her life. She laughs about her Thoroughbred stallion, Derby, who liked to escape her property and graze in neighbors’ yards off Massey Road. She laughs at the idea of Derby walking through East Memphis, deciding which yard was ideal for him to graze. She also has many stories of accidents. Falling off, carriage accidents and broken bones come with so many years of horses, but she always got back on or back in the carriage. Mrs. Erb is a piece of the Memphis area’s horse history. A history that helped shape the area with extensive culture, shows, events and activities that still take place today. From her first memory of sitting on a horse to today at 96, Mrs. Erb’s passion for horses exudes through her eyes and her smile. She plans to drive and hopefully get back to riding again for the remainder of her days.