By ANDREW MCGINN
No fewer than three times in the span of 120 minutes did Gene Hicks’ eyes moisten.
He might have been able to dismiss it as dust, being at the Greene County Fairgrounds and all, except for the fact that he was seated inside Clover Hall.
The truth is, after the dust settles, even a cowboy can look back and be touched by how fast he was able to rustle up a posse.
“There are a lot of damn good people,” explained Hicks, 62, the Scranton horseman with arguably the finest mustache this side of Lonesome Dove.
Hicks was referring to the 75 individuals and businesses who contributed to improving the south horse barn at the fairgrounds, including the addition of 18 new and bigger horse stalls.
In less than a year, Hicks wrangled the $50,000 project to completion just in time for an open horse show on June 1 — one of four weekends the Iowa Associated Saddle Club descends on the fairgrounds in Jefferson.
“There are days I’ve cried,” Hicks confessed. “I’ve had people come up and congratulate me. It’s not me. It’s all because of the generosity of the people who’ve contributed to this thing.”
Hicks, who nevertheless branded himself project manager, had an unflappable sales pitch.
“As soon as I say ‘my granddaughter,’ I’m in,” he said with a grin.
The fairgrounds now has 30 total 10-foot-by-10-foot horse stalls to benefit local 4-H’ers and outside horse groups alike, but it was one girl — Hicks’ 11-year-old granddaughter, Laura — who inspired him to saddle up.
Last summer was Laura’s first year showing horses at the Greene County Fair as part of 4-H, and the fact that it didn’t go as well as it should have simply tore “Papa” up.
In the ring, Laura’s 1,100-pound halter horse was visibly uncooperative — for the simple reason, Hicks believes, that the mare had been cooped up in one of the north horse barn’s smaller, corner stalls.
“This mare likes to move,” he said. “She was pissy.”
Frankly, Papa didn’t like what he saw.
“We needed more big stalls,” he said. “Plain and simple.”
Out came the tape measure that same day.
Hicks first approached the fair board, which has been improving the fairgrounds with new livestock barns. But improvements to the horse barns weren’t in the cards, he was told.
He said 4-H’ers with other types of livestock benefit from the various producer groups. Not so for the kids who show horses.
“So you get me,” he said.
Hicks set out to rustle up the money and materials needed to make the improvements a reality.
The nonprofit Greene County Fair Foundation readily backed the concept, enabling Hicks to seek grant funding in its name, including a $14,750 grant in March from the Greene County Community Foundation.
But to even qualify for grant funding, Hicks needed to quickly raise money of his own as well.
Seemingly no one was spared his pitch.
The project ultimately benefitted from donations ranging from $25 to $2,500.
“Do you ever do anything with 4-H or the fair?” Hicks asked a woman pumping gas one day at the Casey’s in Scranton.
“Not really,” she answered.
But before they both pulled away that day, the woman donated $50.
“I think people like to give,” Hicks reasoned, particularly when they hear the words kids, 4-H or the fair, or all three together.
“It speaks volumes to the people around here,” he said. “It’s awesome. It’s just absolutely awesome.”
Hicks, who breeds halter horses near Scranton when he’s not maintaining rural wells, came to see the lack of big stalls at the fairgrounds as a potential safety issue.
While some horses are content to just stand in a stall, Hicks said, others become frustrated in smaller stalls. Smaller stalls also require a 4-H’er to physically push their horse aside to clean it, he explained.
“If it makes a safer, nicer fair for them,” he said, “every minute I spent was worth it.”
Greene County Supervisor Dawn Rudolph, who’s long been active with local horse projects, said Hicks did a “wonderful job.”
“It’s nice to see somebody step up and take the reins,” Rudolph said, realizing what she just said. “Ha, ha.”
The Greene County board of supervisors approved $5,000 in Dreyfus funds for the project, although Rudolph abstained due to her involvement in horse projects through the years.
“It’s a good addition to the fairgrounds for the horse kids,” she said.
Bettering the horse barns also benefits economic development.
“It’s a great enticement for the other groups that come in,” she said.
If those outside horse groups seem to stick to themselves, it’s probably not your imagination. There are two types of people, Hicks observed: horse people and people who own horses.
“It’s a mentality,” Hicks explained. “I hate to say it’s a lifestyle.”
For Hicks, who grew up inside the Scranton city limits, it all started at the age of 4, when his parents arranged for him to take his pick of ponies from a family friend southeast of Lake City.
“Who wouldn’t want to be Roy Rogers?” he said.
Two ponies vied that day in 1961 for young Gene’s attention — Champ and Teddy.
“I got on Teddy,” Hicks recalled, “and that bastard bucked me off.
“Guess who we brought home?”
Champ lived until 1981, the year he and wife Ann were married.
By then, he was already a horse person, not just a person who owned a horse.
“I thought I was a cowboy,” Hicks said.
“Believe me,” he added, “I’m not. I’m not tough enough to do what those guys do.”
And when it comes to his three grandkids, Hicks is clearly just an old softy.
If granddaughter Laura wants a horse fix — and what horse person doesn’t? — she has to venture out to Papa’s place near Scranton, where the horses are kept.
“That’s where I’ve got the stranglehold,” Hicks said with a smile.