As a child, the late Dr. Harold Canning wanted a horse badly.
His family could not afford one.
In the sleepy town of Wewahitchka during the 1950s and ‘60s, the children of his new hometown would help fill that childhood void.
Canning passed away 43 years ago, having arrived in Wewahitchka in 1949 after meeting the late David Carl Gaskin and a delegation from Wewahitchka in Jacksonville on a search for a town physician.
He and his wife fell in love with the small town after entering past the West Arm Creek and the “Sign of the Shiner” promoting a longtime local eatery, according to a story recounted years ago by Judge David Taunton.
Until his death from throat cancer in 1970, Canning established a legacy of outreach to the children of the town, founding, among other organizations, a local boxing club.
But Canning’s most enduring legacies may have been the Saddlin’ Seminoles, a traveling horse club comprised of local kids that would perform all over Florida and the Southeast and bring discipline and hard work to a generation of young folks.
For just the third time since Canning’s passing, and the first time in 12 years, the Saddlin’ Seminoles will reunite the morning of Oct. 5 at Parker Farm in Wewahitchka.
“We are just going to get together and tell stories and socialize,” said Nellie Wade, Canning’s nurse and right-hand in the Saddlin’ Seminoles. “We have about 42 people confirmed and we will be remembering another 14 or so who have passed away.
“Dr. Canning was an amazing man. The Seminoles made a difference in a lot of children’s lives.”
Wade met Canning when he and his wife arrived in Wewahitchka following the encounter with Gaskin in 1949. Wade had been in the town for a few years, working for Dr. Anderson, who was about to enter the armed forces.
“I was on my hands and knees doing inventory,” Wade said of the former office, a space now occupied by a beauty salon. “He came walking in there, this big man.
“I wasn’t supposed to keep working because his wife came with him, but I never got out of there. I’m not sure his wife wanted to work.”
Canning sketched out a business model early for Wade.
He would take care of his insurance payments, pay her and maintain a roof over his head, but beyond that his money, in a sense, belonged to the children of the town.
“That first day he came walking in and just started taking up with the kids,” Wade said. “Everything he did, he said, was about the kids.”
He told Wade that since he was a little boy in Georgia, working at a feed store, he wanted a horse but his family could not afford one.
“He was going to get some horses and start a club,” Wade said.
Wade said her support of a program that would ultimately teach her own children a lesson or two was immediate.
“I was all with him,” Wade said.
Canning bought, fed and kept each horse he purchased, the number reaching eventually reaching 27, Wade remembered.
He kept the horses in a barn that had seen better days and called it “Hardly Able Stables.”
He underwrote travel for his group, horses, children and all. If a truck or trailer broke or broke down, Canning would foot the bill.
“He never asked for a dime,” Wade said.
And the kids, Wade said, “Found us. We practiced every Sunday.”
“He started taking kids and began issuing them horses,” Wade said. “They had to go to church. They had to go to school. They had to go to Sunday School. They had to take care of their horses.”
Since the kids had access to the horses, they could ride on their own.
But, Wade said, to ride and not rub down the horse afterward?
That was inviting Canning’s wrath.
Not that many words were required.
“He had discipline, I’ll tell you what,” Wade said with a laugh. “He didn’t have to tell you twice. He was a big man, a football player. The kids listened. You toed the line. We never had trouble with them.
“But he was never mean to them. The kids, they loved him.”
Wade illuminated the point with a memory.
One year, the Saddlin’ Seminoles traveled to the Native American settlement/museum in Cherokee, NC.
The folks in Cherokee, upon seeing the caravan pull up in the night, the kids sleepy and bit dirty, were not sure if they wanted to let those youngsters stay overnight, chaperones or not.
But stay overnight they did and when they arrived back home the folks in Cherokee had sent greetings.
“They wrote back with this beautiful letter about how they were the best bunch of kids they had ever seen and inviting us back,” Wade said with a knowing smile.
The Saddlin’ Seminoles would travel the region, Port St. Joe, Tallahassee, Dothan, AL, Blountstown, Jacksonville, Thomasville, GA, New Port Richey, Apalachicola, Orlando, Panama City, Eglin AFB and others.
They were known for their racing – the club began as a racing club – costumes, pageantry and general horsemanship.
They were featured in publications ranging from the Tallahassee Democrat to “All Florida” magazine and “Western Horseman” magazine.
The horse club was, Wade noted, simply a branch of the giving tree that was Dr. Harold Canning.
He had arrived in Wewahitchka after spending three years as a physician in Africa, helping to build a hospital in one of the poorest locations on earth.
In Wewahitchka, he defined “community” doctor.
“He was something else,” said Wade, his nurse. “He never turned anyone down. You’d come in there and he’d take the time to listen to what was wrong and give you the medicine you needed for $3. He wouldn’t have had any money if I hadn’t worked for him. He would have never taken a dime.”
Canning would also serve as a municipal judge and be elected mayor in Wewahitchka.
The Saddlin’ Seminoles would ride no more after Canning became ill with cancer and, within a year, died in Dec. 1970. The horses were sold off.
He was eulogized throughout the area as a civic-minded man who left a giant shadow, a “Man of the Century” as one local publication characterized him.
On Oct. 5, surviving Seminoles will gather to bask in that shadow and legacy.
The Saddling Seminoles will hold a reunion at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 at Parker Farm. Attendees are asked to bring any photos and send $10 to Albalee Parker at 440 Parker Farm road in Wewahitchka, 32465.