The Life and Times of Tom Wilburn

The well-known farmer, cattleman, harness racer and raconteur has another side, as an artist

Story Birney Imes

Billy Brewer remembers the trip to Louisville, Kentucky, with Tom Wilburn and the horses like it was last week. Brewer, who would go on to football glory first as a player, then as a college coach, was then a scrawny kid of 14; Wilburn, a veteran of the just-ended World War II, farmed and raised cattle at Smith Oaks Plantation, his family’s ancestral lands near Artesia.

Harness racing was a relatively new pursuit for Wilburn in the late ’40s, when this adventure took place. Years earlier a great uncle had a short-lived fling with the sport, but other than stories, little came of it. According to Uncle Nels, Uncle Elbridge’s groom, a racing campaign in Texas resulted in his patron returning to Smith Oaks with little more than “the hat on his head.”

No doubt those tales of Uncle Elbridge fired Wilburn’s imagination: Racing would take him to faraway places, involve curious people and might even supplement a meager farm income. That was the hope, at least, when Wilburn, Brewer and Red Isom set forth in an old cattle truck with a tarp across the top carrying three or four horses and another truck filled with hay and the sulkies.

“Coming into Louisville, we looked like the Clampetts,” Brewer remembers.

At the racetrack they would stable the horses, sleep in the truck and live off sardines. Sixty-plus years later, Brewer now laughs at those dietary privations. At the time though, it was anything but funny.

“We ate those sardines every way imaginable,” Brewer said, “with hot sauce, in eggs and swallowed ’em whole.”

The campaign proved to be successful, and Wilburn went on to a storied career as a driver and trainer, competing at tracks from California to New York. In time he created a training facility for harness horses at Smith Oaks. There he presented hugely popular Sunday races for the benefit of owners and locals.

To fill the long, empty hours on the race circuit Wilburn taught himself to draw and started sketching pictures of racehorses. (He also taught himself to play the electric organ, which he played in the stables to calm the horses.)

“I did it for myself to kill time,” Wilburn says of the drawing.

In those days, a two-minute mile for a trotter was the equivalent of a four-minute mile for a human — there were few who could break the barrier. The horses that did, Wilburn memorialized in his sketchpad.

Wilburn estimates he made as many as 200 drawings of racehorses. When his racing days ended so did the drawing. That was until the early 2000s when he went to the dogs, so to speak.

One of those was Margaret Henry’s West Highland terrier McBee. Henry, who has known Wilburn for almost 60 years, says her friend has an uncommon devotion to man’s canine friends.

“The only time you could be sure Tom would drop what he was doing is when a dog needed tending to,” said Henry.

Henry says she has had funerals for all her dogs. Wilburn has presided over those affairs and provided a wooden cross for each of her deceased friends.

Wilburn, 95, has also provided for another funeral, his. Years ago he built himself a casket and fitted it with wrought iron handles, elegant in their simplicity and strength. The handles are of his own making. Not surprisingly, Wiburn is a self-taught blacksmith.

The casket sits in the old commissary at Smith Oaks. The one-room building is now a museum of sorts, a fading repository of Wilburn’s racing mementoes, books, rifles, saddles — the flotsam of a life lived close to the earth. The long west wall of the building is lined with bookshelves chockablock with relics. On the opposite wall in the dim, dusty light hang Wilburn’s drawings of horses — proud, clearly rendered and unadorned, much like their creator.