'A horseman from the word go'

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Neil Johnson
Monday, August 6, 2012

— Rural Janesville native Ron Mair was no diamond in the rough. He was even more rugged.

Call him a farmer in the raw.

After 30 years of working at General Motors, Mair, also a lifelong farmer, scrapped machines in favor of horses. From 1979 on, he never looked back.

For much of the rest of his life, Mair farmed with no motorized equipment. Whether it was baling hay, spreading manure or picking corn, Mair used teams of workhorses and horse-drawn equipment to get the job done.

Mair was known locally and statewide for his love of draft horses and for hauling people on rides in his horse-drawn wagons at countless parades, weddings and funerals.

On Saturday, it was old-fashioned horsepower that transported Mair to his own grave at Emerald Grove Cemetery, by way of a horse-drawn hearse.

Mair, horseman, farmer and World War II veteran, died last Monday of complications from pneumonia. He was 88.

In an interview for a photo spread in a September 1984 edition of The Gazette, Mair told reporter John Halverson that he believed fewer farmers would fall into bankruptcy if they would go back to farming the simpler, more affordable way—with horses.

I'm more Amish than the Amish," Mair told Halverson. "If I were 30, I'd get myself 35 good cows, four good Belgium horses, pay for a farm at the price of land today...and I'd make it. I wouldn't be working for the banks."

Mair, who raised five children and four stepchildren, had an ingrained love of horses that his family said started with his grandfather coming to the United States on a ship full of Clydesdales bound for Janesville.

Mair's stepson, Jim Ceder, said Mair broke draft horses on his farm on Mineral Point Road for more than four decades. Mair rebuilt and sold hundreds of old manure spreaders and other pieces of horse-drawn machinery. Some went into museums throughout the Midwest.

Ceder said Mair took great pride in that work.

"He always referred to his farming as a 'very big operation,' " Ceder said. "Sometimes it seemed like the man worked 24 hours a day."

Ceder said that Mair was still pitching manure by hand at age 86, before a pair of strokes left him weakened and ill for the last two years.

On Saturday, Mair's friend, Brodhead native Bruce Berg, stood next to a team of Percheron workhorses hitched to a shiny black horse-drawn hearse at Emerald Grove Cemetery.

The hearse would carry Mair's flag-draped casket to a grave on a tree-lined hillside at the cemetery during a service on Saturday.

Berg, 70, recounted how he and Mair used to drive teams of draft horses around Madison's Capitol Square during New Year's Eve carriage rides.

"Some of those nights it was snowing and it was 10, 20 below zero. But Ron was tough," Berg said.

Ceder said he believes Mair's toughness and sense of responsibility came from the two years he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He said Mair's sense of duty spilled over into how he farmed and how he cared for his horses.

Ceder recalled how once, Mair had cut his leg to bone while working in the field. Before he got help, Mair led his horses back in and made sure they were secured. Then he wrapped his leg, put on some clean overalls and drove himself to the hospital.

"That's why he was my hero," Ceder said.

Berg was not surprised to hear a story like that about Mair.

"He was a fine old guy," said Berg. "A horseman from the word go."


Last updated: 5:13 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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