PARSON DICK: Groom of the Forks

PARSON DICK: Groom of the Forks

Flowers, Curtis Parker

During one of his visits to the Forks of Cypress at Muscle Shoals, artist Edward Troye, for his own purposes, painted a small striking portrait of a man named Parson Dick. Purchased by James Jackson in New Orleans as a slave, Dick had been chosen for his remarkable ability with horses. He served as the groom and handler responsible for the Forks horses during James Jackson’s life; later he served Mrs. Jackson as carriage driver and butler.

Troye portrayed Parson Dick in the fine clothes of a gentleman, so it is likely the portrait dates from a later period, when he was no longer working in the barn. In the painting, Parson Dick looks directly and frankly at the viewer with an expression that could be read as a certain disdain; his coloring and bone structure support suggestions that he was of Creole descent. Since Troye was known for his true-to-life renderings and refusal to flatter or idealize his subjects, we may assume that the Parson Dick portrait is a genuine likeness of the man whose skill with horses put him in charge of the best animals in the country.

Upon seeing the portrait, the Jacksons asked to purchase it, and it hung in the hallway at the Forks for many years. It stayed in the family’s possession until the current owner placed it on display at Pope’s Tavern in Florence.

There is some mystery as to the eventual fate of the erstwhile groom of the Forks. In 1865 the South was plagued by lawlessness and haunted by marauding gangs of deserters from both sides of the Civil War. Early that year, Parson Dick asked Mrs. Jackson for permission to visit his wife who lived nearby at Woodlawn-something he routinely did. He mounted a good horse, as was his privilege, and rode away. He never reached Woodlawn and was never seen or heard from again.

Perhaps he fell victim to the marauders, who would have stopped at nothing to obtain the fine horse. Or he might have heard that the Union army was mustering in a cavalry force only fifteen miles away, and the horseman took a chance on freedom. Whatever his fate, the portrait at Pope’s Tavern remains as a testament to his contributions to America’s thoroughbred tradition.

Copyright University of Alabama Press Spring 2006

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