A cold night Dec. 23, 1979, just two nights before Christmas after all of the visitors had left the annual stables holiday party, the horses — including several national champion show horses — were in their stalls and the stable doors tightly secured.
Just before midnight, smoke gathered in the rafters of the stables and then escaped, filling the skies throughout west Edmond, far north Oklahoma City, and in the surrounding Deer Creek area.
Harold Adams would bury the horses — show horses owned by affluent people from the area and all loved by riders and trainers alike — on Christmas Day.
Adams, who was living on the property, was awakened by a concerned passer-by. He would find smoke coming from the barn and inside the horses lying down. Adams tried to get the beloved horses up and out of their stalls but they had already inhaled too much smoke. The lack of oxygen left the horses perilously trapped inside the barn — now full of smoke.
As Christmas Eve morning came the smoke was still lingering. News of what happened was making headlines nationally. Twenty nine horses lay dead in the stables. The smoke proved too deadly, and the horses couldn’t be saved that night.
The stables were remodeled and reinforced over the decades since the fire at the southwest corner of N. Pennsylvania and N.W. 192nd Street, at what is today 2200 N.W. 192nd Street. In 1979, it was in a rural area of far northwest Oklahoma City, bordering west Edmond in the Edmond Public Schools district.
Kimberly Roberson Hylton, who still lives in the area was a ninth grader at Deer Creek High School at the time. She remembers seeing and smelling the smoke.
“I remember driving by with my dad and wanting to do something to help,” Hylton said.
The headline in “The New York Times” read: “29 Horses Worth $1 Million Dead in a Stable Fire In Oklahoma City.”
The Associated Press quoted a firefighter who said faulty wiring caused the fire that killed 29 horses worth an estimated $1 million.
“The fire either started from a short in heat tape wrapped around a water pipe or from a faulty extension cord that was connected to it,” District Fire Chief Leland Hodge, Oklahoma City Fire Department, said in news report on Christmas Eve. Stories also made newspapers across the country on Christmas Day.
Three former national champions were among the deceased 29 American Saddlebreds and Arabians, according to news reports.
Leanne Adams was friends with Harold Adams at the time of the fire. She would later marry him. Leanne Adams, of Columbia, Mo., said she was living in Kansas City, Mo., when the fire broke out.
"It was at Christmas time and it came out in the Kansas City paper and we were just shocked," Leanne recalled. "He told me every single thing about what happened.”
Leanne said Harold got up the next day and was in shock.
“He never forgot it because of all the children and riders he knew who lost their horses,” she said.
Harold Adams was a favorite trainer with many of the young riders, as well as many of those who lost their horses.
"He had a special knack for making each child feel special in the world," Leanne said.
She said Harold was well-liked by those in the horse industry, too.
“When we got together we had a ball with the horses. He had the best customers in the world."
Leanne, 83, said Harold told her how he went in the barn to try to save the horses.
"He said he had a whip and had tried to get each horse if they had enough stamina to get up and get out of stalls," Leanne said.
Leanne married Harold in 1982 — three years after the fire — and he soon retired from training.
"He just never recovered from the fire," Leanne said.
Harold died in 1998 at age 79.
Lu Anthony Holloway, daughter of Ray Anthony, had been riding horses with Harold since she was 10 years old when the fire happened at the stables. She lost two horses.
Holloway recalls that Harold Adams moved to Oklahoma City in the 1950s to be the trainer for oilman Dean McGee’s Lone Oak Farms.
“In those days, it was common for a trainer to train solely for one owner,” Holloway said.
Lone Oak was on N.W. 150th just west of State Highway 74,” Holloway said.
Harold Adams Stables opened in a barn called Deer Creek Stables on the north side of N.W. 150th.
James Burge’s daughter, Jan, had a mare by the name of Spring Song she rode at the stables, Holloway said.
“Mr. Burge bought the land at Pennsylvania and Danforth, naming it Spring Song Farm, and built the barn with the intention of Harold moving there,” Holloway said.
Holloway remembers moving the horses to the new barn on N.W. 192nd and Danforth Road in 1962.
“One beautiful spring or summer day we all made the move from the old barn to Harold Adams Stables at Spring Song Farm. The show horses, that might get a little skittish, made the trip via horse trailer. The rest of the horses we all rode,” Holloway said. “Adults and children, single file, rode from N.W. 150th and Portland Ave. to Pennsylvania Ave. and Danforth. But there we were. We looked like a fancy cattle drive with no cattle. I wish there was a picture.”
Holloway said Harold Adams was more than a horseman to those who learned life lessons from him.
“Harold wasn’t just a horse trainer. He was a coach, mentor, and a second father, not just to me but to many of us. Those of us who rode for Harold went to the barn two afternoons a week plus Saturdays to learn and absorb anything we could. Most of us lived and breathed horses. My older sisters used to complain that I always smelled like a horse!” Holloway recalls.
HORSES WERE OUR
HEARTS AND SOULS
“Dennis (Harold Adams’ son) had been like a brother to me all my life,” Holloway said, recalling the days after the fire. “Harold had the barn and there were many owners and many of his own horses for riding lessons, class horses — or what we called lesson horses, usually a little older. If you are teaching someone to ride you want a nice tame animal to put them on. There were horses that were showed by all of us.”
Holloway, who lives in the New Orleans, La., area today, was 29 years old when she lost two horses in the fire. All of the horses lost in the fire were part of an extended family, she said. Holloway lost her horses, Bourbon’s Nancy Highland, an American Saddlebred, and Scarlett Prince, also a Saddlebred.
“The horses ... they weren’t just horses, or as reported ‘a hobby for the rich.’ They were our hearts and our souls. They taught us, loved us, and sometimes threw us on our a_ _. It didn’t matter who was a national champion or not. They were equally loved,” Holloway said. “Some of those horses taught us how to be brave, or kind, or patient. And in a heartbeat they were gone. My beautiful Nancy who would follow you like a puppy. My new exciting Prince who was like a wild, 4-year-old. Stoney was one of the class horses that we had all ridden. He was 28 years old. Every one of those horses were loved.”
One of the National Champions that died was a horse named A Supreme Lady, owned and ridden by Ashley Tway, daughter of Jack and Phyllis Tway of Oklahoma City. She had just ridden her to the American Saddlebred Horse Association Medal Finals Championship at the American Royal in Kansas City, Mo., that November 1979.
“It was winter time and the barn was full,” Holloway said. She said the horses all died of smoke inhalation. Once the barn was aired out it was hard to tell what happened. The Barn didn’t burn down.”
Hollloway said she has a colored charcoal drawing of Bourbon’s Nancy Highland painted by western artist Roger Huff that still hangs on a wall in her home.
“You don’t lose an animal like that and ever forget it. I can’t tell you how many horses in that barn were national champions, state champions, and regional champions,” Holloway said.
Wendy Stover, of Guthrie, was 17 years old when she lost a quarter horse, Scooters Cutter, age 16, a horse that was boarded at Adams' stable for what was supposed to be a short stay. Stover was in the Edmond High School rodeo club.
Scooters Cutter was only going to stay a month at the stables.
Stover had gone to a movie the night of the fire. She said her mother made apples and molasses for Scooters, but she was running late for the movie and didn’t have time to drop off the apples to the horses before the movie.
“And if I had been on time to give him the apples before the movie I might have found the fire,” Stover said.
She remembers being on the way to the movie when she saw fire trucks.
"We were driving down N. Pennsylvania Ave. and we saw the fire trucks at Harold’s,” she said.
Stover describes breaking into tears remembering pulling up at the barn.
“Other adults kept us back,” Stover said, giving pause now unable to continue talking about the painful memory.
Dennis Adams, 75, son of Harold Adams, says he still thinks about the Christmas party the day of the fire.
The stables Christmas Party for the riders and the parents was already over and everyone had left, said Dennis, who lives near Grand Lake today.
"He (Harold) had Christmas decorations then and when the barn was built it did not have electrical wiring in conduit. It was up to grade wire but it just wasn't in conduit (metal tubing). He would hang some Christmas decorations, wreaths or whatever, and probably what happened was there was a weak spot and it started smoking," Dennis said. "Because the smoke couldn't escape because all the windows were covered because it was winter time — each stall with a window had been covered with heavy plastic to keep the cold air from coming in."
Dennis, 75, lived in Pawhuska at the time of the fire. The horses were buried before he arrived at the stables.
"My wife and two sons drove to the barn and we got there by the afternoon on Christmas, and the horses were already in the ground. I never saw any horses lying anywhere. He got them in the ground as soon as possible," Dennis said.
Dennis said he has kept scrapbooks with pictures of the horses lost in the fire and the families and children who rode and loved them. The scrapbook was put together not long after the fire, Dennis said, and remains a treasured book of family and local and national horse history.
The 20 acres on the southwest corner of the Pennsylvania and N.W. 192nd intersection just east of the stables — land that is still pasture and mowed close to the ground on this fall day — is for sale. Cross Creek Stables continues to operate as a business offering the area horse boarding and riding lessons.
Katie Spencer, 28, of Yukon, started riding horses at Cross Creek when she was 8 years old. She is a current riding instructor and volunteer at Cross Creek. She heard legends of the 1979 fire, but didn’t learn much about what had happened until she was an adult.
Spencer said, “I didn’t know about it when I was a child. Barn fires are a taboo type thing.”
So she didn’t talk about it and didn’t learn about it until years later, she said, adding that some of the older kids had talked about it.
The fire didn’t destroy the original parts of the stables. The wood in the rafters and stalls is original. The exterior has been renovated with attractive brickwork.
“This is the main training barn,” Spencer said, on a recent fall tour of the grounds. “This is where all of the show horses live and we’ve got some retired horses who live in this hall but mostly training horses.”
“It originally had and still does have 29 stalls in the main barn,” Spencer said.
A hay loft was built in the barn after the fire.
“It looks different now than it did when I was a kid but the inside is all the same,” Spencer said.
Spencer said Adams had a large show horse program.
“He had Arabians, national show horses, American Saddlebreds,” Spencer said. “He operated and trained out of this facility by the time that fire happened.”
She pointed to an area in the wooden rafters where the fire caused damage — still visible.
Spencer’s eyes glistened and then swelled with tears over thoughts of the the horses in their stalls for the night four decades ago.
“And it happened during a holiday season,” she said. “Families with children learned they had lost their horses on Christmas Eve.”
She continued, “There used to be actual windows on the front of the barn. So everything was closed up tight and it happened overnight. The next morning, they didn’t know there had been a fire until they came in.”
Three trees are on the south end of the 20-acre Cross Creek pasture where the horses are buried. A corral with mules and horses is near a metal shed north of the trees and the fence line. Spencer pointed out the direction of the graves. Houses from a new addition can be seen on the south horizon in the city limits of far northwest Oklahoma City.
A NEW START
Leanne said her late husband Harold did not want the children or families coming to the stables on Christmas Day after the fire to see the horses so the chore of burying the horses had to take place.
“I remember they said it took hours,” Leanne said.
Harold found new horses for the stables, but the work was not the same after the fire, she said.
“We were very busy replacing the horses and getting horses at different barns for children,” Leanne said.
Spencer said the traditions that go along with horseback riding lessons for area youth continues at Cross Creek, and that is the vision that Harold had for the stables. Riding camps are offered on weekends and evenings year-round. Camps are offered during holiday periods and during school breaks, Spencer said.
“Camps and lessons are our main focus, and that is a tradition that has been carried over ever since this place started,” Spencer said.
For more information about Cross Creek, visit their website at www.crosscreekstablesokc.com.