McLay family inducted into national Clydesdale hall of fame

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Saturday, April 26, 2008
— Jean Arnold is not horsin’ around when she tells you her ancestors—three generations of the McLay family—were inducted into the Heritage Hall of Fame for the Clydesdale Breeders of the USA Association.

The 70-year-old Janesville woman received the honor during a banquet Friday night that was part of the group’s annual meeting and sale this weekend in Madison.

Her reaction to the recognition was, “Oh, my gosh!”

“This means the legacy of the McLay brothers continues not only for my family, but for those interested in Clydesdale history,” she said.

“Each year, we induct some of our historians who helped start the breed and make it strong,” said Jim Emmons, a board member of the association, who compiled the family’s Clydesdale history and wrote the introduction for the induction.

The McLays were the first family to breed Clydesdales in the United States, he said.

David and his brother John immigrated from Scotland, settling near Janesville in 1844. By 1870 David, bought two Canadian-bred Clydesdales—Rob Roy II and a mare Sally.

“As far we can tell from Vol. 1 of the U.S. stud book, they would have been the first Clydesdales in the United States,” Emmons said.

David was elected to the American Clydesdale Association board of directors in 1885 and served until his death two years later. Two of John’s sons—James Z. (Jean Arnold's grandfather) and David J.—carried on the Clydesdale operation.

“They made their reputation primarily as breeders of some of the best Clydesdales in the United States. All of the winners were home bred. Lady Elegant was probably the best mare ever raised by the McLays,” Emmons said.

By 1924, two of James Z.’s sons—John M. (Jean Arnold’s father) and J. Gordon (her uncle)—took over the Clydesdale operation. John M. was elected to the Clydesdale association’s board of directors, making him the third generation of the family to serve on the board. John M. was vice president until December of 1935—the same year he and J. Gordon sold their Clydesdales and the family got into the purebred shorthorns business, Arnold said

Although Arnold grew up on the McLay farm, dubbed Arngibbon—meaning low-level place—she only remembers one old horse that died on the farm in 1942. The house, barn and stalls her ancestors used for the Clydesdales still stand on the homestead on County MM between Tarrant and Emerald Grove roads.

“Jack Mair, who was the groomsman for the horses, told me a lot of history on tape,” Arnold said. “He’d take the horses that arrived by train in Avalon and walk them to the farm,” she said.

Maple Lawn, another McLay farm, was where the family kept the workhorses. The show horses stayed at Arngibbon, Arnold said.

Arnold said the secret to her ancestors’ Clydesdale success was “they had the art of choosing good studs to build their own stock.”

Over the years, Arnold has become the keeper of McLay history, including an insurance policy from the Lord of London on the first stud Clydesdale imported to the United States. When she’s ready, she will turn over the information to the Clydesdale Association or the Rock County Historical Society.


Clydesdale highlights of the McLays—the first family to breed Clydesdales in the United States:

1871—Sally II becomes the first American-bred Clydesdale.
1897—James Z. is elected to the Clydesdale association board of directors. He serves as president from 1906-07 and serves until his death in 1916.
1900—The McLay brothers show the grand champion mare, 2-year-old filly Handsome Darling, during the first International Livestock show in Chicago.
1901—The McLays win two stallion classes at the International Livestock show.
1904—The McLays show the grand and reserve grand mares at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
1905—The McLays’ mare, Lady Elegant. again captures the grand champion mare title at the international show.
1916—David J. is elected to the association board.

Last updated: 8:53 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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