Boardman Mills, A Vintage Vignette

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Boardman Mills
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
March 15, 2010

My Vintage Vignette of January 9, 2008, was about Elijah Boardman. I encountered the name several years earlier while researching pioneer landowners of today’s Redstone Arsenal. When I wrote that article, I had quite limited knowledge of the Boardman history here or anywhere else. However, when Dr. Frances Roberts’ research papers were collected by the University of Alabama at Huntsville, noted local historical author Nancy Rohr volunteered to sort and index the material. She found Boardman mentioned in the collection contacted me to compare notes. Thereafter we both learned much more about the Boardman family.

Elijah Boardman operated a horse farm called Boardman Mills on land along the banks of Indian Creek southwest of today’s Redstone Airfield. Records show that he imported the best thoroughbred horses available from England and other areas. Nancy wrote a story entitled “Off to the Races: Horse Racing in the Tennessee Valley”, published in The Huntsville Historical Review, Winter-Spring 2010 issue (Volume 35, Number 1). The story provided extensive information about Boardman’s horse racing business. Per page 50 of the referenced publication, “…in September 1839 the (Turf) Register published a detailed list of Boardman’s bloodstock used for breeding at the Mills. Each horse was listed with pedigree and performance. The listing ran for six pages and finished with a recapitulation of two imported stallions, nineteen imported brood mares, one native brood mare, two two-year fillies, nine yearling colts, six yearling fillies, six colt foals born in 1839, and eight fillies born in 1839. Boardman’s farm housed fifty-three horses. The list did not mention any horses for sale.”

The story detailed Elijah’s many travels in America and Europe to buy horses and to race them. He and his brother John came here from Whitesborough, New York, before 1818. They were major factors in horse races held in Madison County at such places as the Green Bottom Inn Jockey Club and the Pulaski Pike Track. John owned land adjacent to Boardman Mills, but he also had a variety of other interests and occupations. He was editor of the Alabama Republican, an early newspaper of Huntsville. In 1819 John printed the new constitution of Alabama, having been appointed to print Alabama’s public laws in January of 1818. He became an attorney and a director of the Muscle Shoals Canal, as well as supporting the establishment of a state bank and organizing the first library in Alabama, of which he became director.

After receiving widespread coverage in horse racing publications of America for two decades, the brothers fell on hard times, suffering extensive financial losses in the Panic of 1837. John even fled to France for a time to escape obligations in Alabama and Connecticut. Elijah absorbed the major portion of John’s debts by using his farm, slaves, and horses as collateral. By the mid-1840s John Boardman had resettled near Holly Springs, Mississippi, where he died soon afterward. Elijah traveled there to assist in settlement of John’s estate, but he also died in Holly Springs after a twelve-day illness. Lucretia Miller Boardman, Elijah’s widow, received less than $3,000 in the final settlement of his estate. According to the Historical Review article, this was “…far less than the cost of any one of the imported horses from the 1830s or even some of the bets placed on the outcome of his horses at the races.”

After twenty seven years of living in Madison County, Lucretia and her daughter Caroline Boardman left Madison County almost penniless. In the 1850 census, they were living in a boarding house in Schenectady, New York. In the 1860 census they were living in Princeton, New Jersey, still together. One must wonder whether if the many positive outcomes of the Boardman wagers on horse races had been more consistent, perhaps north Alabama rather than Maryland or Kentucky would have become the home of the Preakness or the Derby. Moreover, the wealth of Boardman details found here illustrate that one can learn much about pioneers without having to travel to remote locations where their life events occurred, in spite of the impressions given by the recent NBC series “Who Do You Think You Are?”

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