Green Creek, N.C. — It was rare for Tot Goodwin to oversleep.
It was even rarer for him to oversleep on a day he was going to go fox hunting.
But one morning this past November, he woke up two hours late for work.
He knew something was wrong. He sensed it.
Two hours earlier, and less than a mile from his Sandy Plains home, Fran and Gary Garside were startled from their sleep.
It was 6:15 a.m. and two men stood at their door, knocking.
“They told us our barn was burning, and that they couldn’t get the horses out,” Fran said of the strangers.
The couple called 911, but the fire had already been reported by a school bus driver. So, they threw on their clothes and headed to the barn. As they got closer, however, they realized their barn wasn’t on fire. It was their neighbor Tot Goodwin’s barn.
They were the first to arrive at the burning barn, and when they didn’t see Goodwin, they assumed he was out of town. By the time they reached the barn door, flames were pouring from all sides of the building.
Six horses and a pregnant foxhound were trapped inside. Five of the horses were Goodwin’s. A sixth horse belonged to Christie Heuman.
“The horses were already down when we got there,” Fran said. “They were taking their last breaths.”
One horse, Monty, owned by Marge Warder, survived. He was the only horse in a stall with a door to the outside. Monty escaped with minor injuries – singed hair and smoke inhalation.
“The fire had burned holes in his blanket, ears and mane,” said Fran Garside, who owns Down to Earth Garden Center in Landrum with her husband. Gary Garside is also a lawyer in Chicago.
Unable to get to the horses, the Garsides did what they could. They moved a Ford Bronco away from the side of the barn and waited for help to arrive.
Before Fire Chief Geoffrey Tennant left his station in down-town Columbus, he called a veterinarian. He knew the barn was full of horses that could need medical attention.
The firefighters arrived to find the barn engulfed in flames, about to collapse.
It was immediately apparent that anyone or anything would not survive,” Tennant said.
Meanwhile, Goodwin was leaving his house, headed to the barn to see his horses and get ready for a hunt with the Green Creek Hounds.
For 12 years, Goodwin has been master of the hounds and huntsman for Green Creek. He had moved into the area with the reputation of being a top huntsman. He came with one horse and 13 dogs. From there, he added four more horses and spent his life training them to work with him.
As he walked outside on Nov. 15, 2001, he saw a flicker of light in the distance.
“I knew it wasn’t good,” he said.
He hurried to his pickup and sped to his barn a quarter of a mile away.
But when he arrived, he saw the barn burning.
“He was in shock,” Fran Garside said. “He got out of his vehicle and stood there with his mouth open. The fire was so hot and it was so big. It’s terrible to see animals on fire.”
Goodwin wasn’t alone in his grief.
As more firefighters from surrounding communities came to help, a crowd gathered to comfort him and mourn the loss of the horses.
“They were horse people who were trying to help Goodwin deal with what had happened,” Tennant said.
“You’d like to have kept people away, but sometimes it’s better for them to realize it wasn’t a bad dream – that it was real.”
In his work, he has seen two people die in fires.
“Even though it’s not a human life, it’s a life. We may try to act hardboiled, but underneath it all, we were feeling how traumatic this was. We just had to suppress it while we worked.”
The horse community united and watched as firefighters from Columbus, Green Creek, Sunny View and Mill Spring fought the fire to keep it from spreading to a nearby pasture.
Later that morning, only a few poles and sections of the front walls of the old barn were left standing.
The metal roof lay in pieces. Hay and manure smoldered.
Tennant wanted the horses buried right away.
“I made the decision that it was in the best interest of every-one if we did it as quickly as possible.”
A backhoe was used to dig a large grave.
Goodwin left. He couldn’t bear to watch.
“There is nothing worse than burying a horse,” said Peg Secor, a friend who came to console Goodwin during the fire. “The horses weigh thousands of pounds, and their bodies are awkward to bury.”
Secor and Fran Garside couldn’t watch, either.
“I loved working with them, and I loved to be out there with them,” Goodwin said.
The horses recognized the sound of Goodwin’s voice; they seemed to respect him.
“They were like my children. It would not have felt any different if they had been my own kids,” said Goodwin, who is single and has no children. “The hardest part was that I had those horses so long. They were a part of my life.”
The horses’ obituaries were printed in the local newspaper, The Tryon Daily Bulletin.
Each obituary gave the horse’s name, its personality and years of service to fox hunters.
Goodwin had lived and worked with his fives horses for 12 years. As far as money, each was valued between $15,000 and $30,000.
Yet the horses’ fox-hunting abilities, endearing qualities and personalities can never be replaced with money, Goodwin said, rattling off the names of his deceased horses.
There was Baron, a 20-year-old registered bay Trakehner, a leader who took care of everybody. He had spent 15 years in the hunt field.
Mariah started fox hunting at age 5 and served for 10 years. She loved to hunt and could do anything. “She was a great lady,” Goodwin said.
Perky, a registered bay thoroughbred, was a strong, tough horse.
Bubbles, a chestnut thoroughbred, was a huntsman’s horse who was loved by the hounds.
Nyles, a locally bred bay three-fourth thoroughbred, one-fourth Percheron cross, liked being a caretaker.
Rattlesnake Red, who was owned by Christy Heuman, was a great whip horse. According to his obituary, the 16-year-old horse “pranced around the barn like a 3-year-old.”
Pat Hale, the co-owner of the Horse Resource Store in Landrum and joint hunt master with Green Creek, said many people knew Goodwin’s horses because they had leased them for fox-hunts. Time and time again, visitors to the area would come to Goodwin and request his horses because they were so well-trained.
“We knew we could count on them,” she said.
Jefferson Tot Goodwin, a third-generation hunter, grew up on a farm in Columbus, Ga. His family’s farm had mules, not horses.
And his father and grandfather would hunt for rabbits – not foxes.
“My granddad was a horseman. It skipped a generation,” he said. “He was a great horseman. He let me ride his horse once when I turned 10.”
Goodwin first tried fox hunting when he was 19 years old. A neighbor invited him on a hunt. And he was hooked.
He first became a whip – a person who helps the huntsman, riding around the hounds to keep them together.
Five years later, Goodwin bought his first horse and then put together a pack of 10 hounds.
His fondness for animals and his gentle nature helped him be-come an expert horseman.
People would bring me a horse that was hard to ride or one that no one wanted,” he said.
He fed, exercised and cared for the horses daily and became an expert whip. He also exercised the hounds to teach them how to follow commands.
“A good whip makes the huntsman look good,” he said.
In his 20-year career in Georgia, he became internationally known as an expert horseman and whip. He won prize after prize, ribbon after ribbon.
He left fox hunting for six years, however, to pursue a logging career.
But he soon came back to his first love.
Horse enthusiast Peg Secor began to hear good things about Goodwin in fox hunting circles.
So, 13 years ago, she asked Goodwin to help her start a new fox hunt in her Green Creek community outside Columbus, N.C.
“I had heard through the fox hunting grapevine about him so I wrote him a letter,” she said a few weeks ago as she walked around Fox Berry Farm, home to Green Creek Hounds.
“I wanted to get back to the old-fashioned way of fox hunting. I grew up hunting and liked to see the dogs working. Tot has a real inborn talent for hunting. He knows foxes.”
After his first visit, Goodwin decided he’d just stay.
He moved to the area in October 1989 and rented a barn and seven acres in the countryside.
He was named huntsman of Green Creek. The job is full time. During the hunting season, from November to March, the huntsman directs the hunts and manages the hounds. But year-round, he cares for and trains the hounds.
Goodwin and Secor work well together – they have traveled around the world fox hunting.
“I was the first black person to fox hunt in Ireland,” he said. “It is rare for a black person to fox hunt.”
Goodwin’s awards and trophies for his hounds cover an entire wall inside the lodge at Fox Berry Farm.
When fire destroyed his barn and killed his five horses, he mourned the loss, but he was determined to keep going.
“I never once thought about giving up,” the 58-year-old huntsman said.
The Horse Community
It’s been nearly three months since the fire.
And firefighters have ended their investigation. They don’t know what caused the blaze.
But in many ways, good has come from Goodwin’s personal tragedy.
Within a few weeks, the Landrum, Tryon and Columbus horse communities had put aside their competitive nature and raised enough money through benefits and auctions to buy five new horses for Goodwin.
“Like the phoenix that rises from the ashes–the outpouring of support has redeemed my faith in people,” said Anita Williamson, an equine technician with Bonnie Brae Veterinary Hospital who has hunted with Goodwin through the years.
A few weeks ago, Williamson sat in the Crossroads Cafe near Sandy Plains. Crossroads is a gathering spot for horse owners in the area. They know each other’s names. They know each other’s animals.
And they know Goodwin.
Horses are a common denominator among people who live in this area. The horse history dates back nearly 100 years, and today there are so many barns they can’t be easily counted. The population of horse owners in the area is enough to support membership in three hunt clubs, the Tryon Hounds, the Greenville County Hounds and Green Creek.
In fact, the U.S. Olympic team trained in the Tryon area in the 1950s.
So when Goodwin lost his horses, it was as if everyone felt the loss.
“I am a horse person, so I know what my animals mean to me,” Williamson said. “They (the horses) were his livelihood but also his family. We knew of his love for his horses.”
Within weeks of the fire, more than $20,000 had been raised through an auction held at Brannon’s Restaurant. And a gala was held at Links O’ Tryon golf course to raise even more money.
The Hare & the Hound, a restaurant in Landrum, hosted a Trivia Night with comic Pam Stone, who starred on the hit TV show “Coach.” Stone, also a horse lover, now lives in the area.
Construction on a new barn, which was covered by insurance, will begin soon.
This past week was hunt week. Because of the area’s reputation for hunts and the climate this time of year, hunters from all over the country–Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and California–come to hunt.
And once again, they looked to Goodwin to lead them.
And he did–with two new horses–Shannon and Fred.
“We will never be able to find ones to match the ones I lost, but they are good horses,” Goodwin said.
This article was reprinted with the permission of writer Jose Franco and the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, which published the story February 10, 2002.