Folks that know Eddie Freitag well–really well–know how much he enjoys a good cup of strongly-brewed coffee, the kind that makes one’s hair curl. Visitors to the Freitag residence may have even been treated to a cup of that Jubilee Java from time-to-time. It is his trademark coffee, as well as his piercing blue eyes, strong jaw line and infectious grin that make Eddie Freitag of Alameda, Saskatchewan, recognizable. But it is his love and devotion to the Belgian horse that makes him distinguishable. Along with the love of his life and partner now for nearly 50 years, Roberta, one would be hard-pressed to attend a draft horse event in south-central Canada without spotting their friendly faces in the crowd. From horse sales to shows, you can always count on Eddie and Roberta to be there lending their full support–They are great ambassadors for the Belgian breed.
Both Eddie and Roberta have been involved in the draft horse industry as long as they can remember, both having Belgian horse roots. Roberta grew up Roberta Bowman of La Fontaine, Indiana, and she, along with her sister and parents, Earl and Mauldred Bowman, bred and exhibited Belgian horses in the state of Indiana. In fact, Earl Bowman stood the renowned Belgian stallion Farceur’s Major for many years and earned the Bowman family recognition producing many champion offspring. Roberta and her sister were very active in the showing of the horses, belonging to the local 4-H club and traveling to the shows with their dad. “My mom, sister and I slept in the car when we went to shows, as Dad didn’t believe in the women sleeping in the barns,” said Roberta. “We lived like shepherds, but it was fun,” she commented warmly. “We always looked forward to show season.”
Eddie’s parents, Rudy and Maria Freitag, immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine in 1927 and settled in southeastern Saskatchewan with three young children. In the years to follow, seven more children were born to Rudy and Maria for a total of nine boys and one girl. As Eddie tells the story, “There were nine boys and every one of us had a sister!” As was customary in the day, Rudy purchased a few draft horses, and eventually a stallion that he used to breed not only his own mares, but those on neighboring farms as well. Rudy became a successful breeder of Belgian horses, making his mark with many champions over the years, and traveling the 3000+ mile round trip to Toronto, Ontario, every year for 27 years to compete at the Royal Winter Fair.
It was on one of these trips where this story really begins. Rudy Freitag attended the Toronto Royal as usual in 1950, with sons Eddie and Hubert in tow, and a hired man–more than enough help to tend to the five head of horses they took that year. On his many trips there, Rudy had gotten to know Harold Clark of Meadow Brook Farms, Rochester, Michigan. Noticing that Rudy had so much help with him, Harold asked him if he wouldn't mind sharing some as he was a bit short of help. Rudy told the boys that the first one up the next morning could help Meadow Brook. Eddie, then 14, wasn’t going to miss that opportunity. Being the first one up on that particular morning, from a horseman’s point of view, he never looked back. Eddie must have impressed the “master” enough, as in the winter of 1951, Harold called Rudy up asking if he could part with one of his sons to help him with the horses. After much deliberation, Rudy and Maria decided it would be Eddie that would go, so at the tender age of 15, Eddie set out for Michigan on his own. Eddie tells the story like this:“My brother and I set out for Minot and made it as far as the U.S. border at North Gate. The customs officer came out and asked me where I was going. Being young and naïve (honest!), I told him I was going to Rochester, Michigan.
"‘What are you doing there?’
"‘No, you’re not,’ the customs officer replied matter-of-factly, and that was the end of that. He wouldn’t let me cross. I went home and phoned Harold who told me to tell them I was going to visit my uncle there.
"Two days later, we returned–same car, same brother, and be damned if we didn’t get the same customs officer! This time, when he asked the questions, I told him I was going to Rochester, Michigan, to visit my uncle there. He waved me through, and as we were pulling away, he grinned and said, ‘Don’t ride too many winners, son.’”
Eddie rode the Greyhound bus from Bowbells, North Dakota, to Minot and then to Pontiac, Michigan. There was no bus service to Rochester, so Eddie caught a taxi to take him the rest of the way. Remember, there were no cell phones back then, and Eddie was only 15 years old! Looking back, Roberta is amazed at how Eddie could figure all this stuff out and get himself all the way across the country to where he needed to be without any assistance. Eddie is just grateful for the opportunity. “Going to Meadow Brook was probably one of the best moves I could have ever made.”
Clark must have liked the young Freitag because he worked for Meadow Brook off and on for the next 12 years until 1962. Sometimes he’d come home and help his Dad farm and show horses at some of the early shows, and then head down to Rochester for their show season which started in August, and stay down there until it was over, taking in four state fairs, the National Belgian Show, the Toronto Royal in November, the Saginaw County Fair in Michigan and the International Livestock Expo in Chicago. Sometimes he stayed the winter working in Michigan.
“I learned this ‘uncle’ thing pretty good,” laughed Eddie. “And I know the road between Minot and Pontiac better than most Greyhound drivers!”
Harold trusted Eddie with some of his best horses, and Eddie credits Harold with teaching him a great deal about showing Belgians. Eddie feels very fortunate to have learned from one of the best in the business. The last two or three years of his employment with Meadow Brook was full-time.
“Not many guys would hire a snot-nosed kid and have him show your best horses,” says an appreciative Eddie.
“The first show I went to with Meadow Brook was the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. Earl Allen was the judge. The second show we attended was the Ohio State Fair–with Earl Allen as our judge. Indiana State Fair was our third show that year and lo and behold if Earl Allen wasn’t our judge! I said to Harold, ‘Is Earl Allen the only judge you got down here?’
“I had the pleasure of meeting up with Mr. Allen again in 1973,” says Eddie fondly, “at a field day at McKeehans in Greencastle, Indiana. He was living up there at the time, and came out to it.”
During one of the years he stayed in Michigan, Eddie helped Art Newell of Hawthorne-Melody Farms (black and white Clydesdales) show at Chicago before he went to Wilson & Company (meat packing company) for the winter. He credits his driving skills to the experience he gained that winter. “I really learned how to drive at Wilson & Co. We hung out in front of the grocery stores and shopping malls as part of our promo gig. We had to maneuver some pretty tight spots.”
Needless to say, it was inevitable that Eddie and Roberta would eventually cross paths at the fairs. “We used to attend some of the shows Meadow Brook went to,” says Roberta with a twinkle in her eye. “My sister and I always used to sit and watch Meadow Brook unload. It just kinda' happened.”
Eddie chimes in, “It is one of the few fairground romances that actually worked!”
“One day August Busch wanted me to take him for a ride with a six-up of mules,” says Eddie with a chuckle. “You don’t say no to August Busch.
“‘Friday,’ August said (Friday is German for Freitag), ‘I have a backache and I want to go for a ride in the deer park.’ The deer park was all treed with nice winding smooth pathways, a touristy place. Not really a place to take a six-up of mules through, but Gussie insisted–and wanted to use the coach instead of the wagon. I hitched up the mules as instructed and we set out in the deer park when we came across a buffalo cow with a calf. She snorted and pawed and no one had to tell those mules what to do. They took off hell bent for leather. I grabbed the lines and tried to keep them from hitting any trees or getting in too big of a wreck. When I finally got them stopped, I glanced over at poor Mr. Busch who was as white as a sheet. He looked up at me, grabbed my hand and shook it, and said, ‘Freitag, you just saved my life. Come up to the big house for a drink tonight.’ I’ll never forget it.”Aaron, the youngest of Eddie and Roberta’s sons was born during their stay with Budweiser. But in 1973, an offer was made that Eddie just couldn’t refuse. John McKeehan (the inventor of Liquid Plumber™) of McKeehan Farms in Greencastle, Indiana, called and asked Eddie to come and work for him. So they packed up their family and moved to Indiana.
“We found out later that McKeehan had been embarrassed to call me as he was sure that anyone that worked for Budweiser would surely not want to work for him,” said Eddie. “Turns out, it was the best place to work.”
McKeehan had 21 horses that he had bought, and he raised some colts. He was looking to Eddie for help, he needed someone that knew horses to guide him along and offer up advice on what to do next to improve. There were four blonde mares that McKeehan laid claim to: Lucy, Linda, Lady and May–otherwise Eddie was given free reign on what to keep, show or sell. He must have made some good decisions for McKeehan as they had the top yearling filly at the National, the Royal, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan in 1975 as well as winning the four and the six at those same shows under Eddie’s skilled direction. Dubbed the "new Meadow Brook," Eddie worked for J.M. McKeehan until 1975 when his father, Rudy, passed away. Eddie and Roberta decided at that time to move one last time to Saskatchewan to the family farm where Eddie had been born and was raised (well, until he was 15 anyways!). They continued to raise their three sons there where they instilled their love for Belgian horses in each and every one of them. Eddie and Roberta capably picked up where Eddie’s father had left off and took over Rudy’s breeding program and started showing Freitag horses. They already had an established Belgian breeding program when in 1984, they were awarded a PMU (Pregnant Mare Urine) contract, and continued in the equine ranching industry until 1997.
During this period of time, Eddie was very active in the Canadian Belgian Horse Association, serving as the organization’s president for seven years. “Meetings lasted an hour back when I started,” laughs Eddie. “Now they are two days!
“I used to use ‘Lou’ as a suffix when registering my stock. Then there was a squabble about registering horses and we had to use a prefix instead. Jubilee Jay Lou was a pretty good horse that belonged to my dad, and since Jubilee means 50 years, I decided to have Jubilee as my prefix. I think I have been showing horses for 50 years,” he chuckled.
Some of the more memorable horses that come to Eddie and Roberta’s minds as they reminisce about those they bred, is a horse named Expo Lou, who was crowned Reserve Grand Champion Stallion at the Royal; as well as Princess Lou who won as a yearling filly, Jr. Champion filly as a 2-year-old, and Sr. and Grand Champion Mare as a 3-year-old–and she was a roan to boot! They still have one very special 21-year old mare at home on the farm named Jubilee Betina who, in her day, was Champion at Calgary six times and was Supreme Champion in Regina once.
Although their family has grown and moved away from Saskatchewan, they are proud to say that they are all involved with horses in some way, shape or form. Although they grew up with Belgians in their blood, Eddie and Roberta confess that none of the boys really learned how to drive until they left home. “They knew how to show, and how to harness, but never did really have the opportunity to drive much,” said Roberta. “Since they have left home, they have all worked for Jim Westbrook when he was at Live Oak Clydesdales, and have all been involved with draft horses for different outfits.” Alan is involved with combined driving with a team of warmbloods, Andy trucks race horses, and Aaron is currently the only one involved with showing draft horses.Eddie and Roberta have witnessed many changes in the draft horse scene over the years. On the positive side, they feel that there are more good horses out there being shown now, and that the competition is tighter; there isn’t as big a difference between the top and bottom horses as there once was. They both feel that the horses are brought out better and the competition is stronger. They feel that the exhibitors intermingle more and that the camaraderie and social aspect between fellow exhibitors is better than it used to be. On the whole, they feel the judging is better now, with the average age of judges being quite a bit younger than it used to be. “It used to be you had to be 75 years old to drive a six or judge,” laughed Eddie. They are both pleased to see the youth on both sides of the border being very involved in the showing of draft horses. “The exhibitors that are driving multiples now are much younger, and they aren’t being poorly driven,” commented Freitag (after witnessing no less than three or four youth driving multiples at the two provincial shows in Manitoba this past year.) Eddie himself drove at the Royal at only 17 years of age, and at the time, this was unusual.
On the critical side, they are disappointed that some draft horse breeders have neglected to take more care in maintaining a very important aspect of draft horse breeding–the foot. They have seen more and more cases of the need to double-pad to create the illusion of the horse having a foot. “How did the foot get that small to begin with,” says a disappointed Roberta. “Now they’re having to build the whole foot instead of breeding for it.”
Nonetheless, they are always very supportive of the draft horse industry and its growth and changes. They rarely miss an event, show or sale if it involves draft horses, or their people. They freely offer up advice if asked, or help out when needed and are the first in line to readily support a horse-related function. They have a lifetime of draft horse friends and acquaintances between them, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a horseman or horsewoman of the Belgian persuasion that hasn’t heard the name Freitag. A well-respected and knowledgeable couple, with a sharp eye for a good horse, keen wit, and quiet demeanor, they have judged more classes from the stands than most folks. Belgian breeders from around the country are proud to carry the Jubilee prefix on stock that are continuing to represent the Freitag name well in shows and breeding programs across the nation. With Roberta’s warm and inviting smile and Eddie’s firm and hearty handshake, they continue to grace the draft horse circles with their presence, and offer an approving word to those who have earned it and encouragement to those who need it. Their now permanent home of 35 years is a shrine to the Belgian breed, and a testament to the Freitag/Bowman breeding program, and they welcome draft horse folk to stop in for a visit when passing by Alameda, Saskatchewan. The coffee pot is always on and if you’re really lucky, Roberta will have made it!