Esli K. Crocker was born in Michigan in 1859. He grew up on his father’s farm in Reading Township, Hillsdale. As a boy he had a gift with animals. He broke colts for his father using firmness and kindness and became respected as a young, quality horse breaker. His first trick was to drive without reins. His second trick was to teach a horse to pick up a handkerchief and drop it into Crocker’s hands.
In the 1880 census Crocker was listed as living in Hillsdale, but not with his family. Perhaps his parents were deceased by then. He was listed as a horse trainer and boarder of Fanny Lewis, age 67, who lived with her daughter Alice H. Lewis, age 30, and granddaughter Fanny L. M. Lewis, age 13. Crocker was then 21. It is possible that he married Alice shortly after 1880. This is based on the 1910 Census for Hillsdale which lists him as married to Alice L. Crocker and living together on a general farm. The last census in which Esli K. or E.K. Crocker appears is 1920 and he is alone on the farm. She was presumably dead by then. Nothing further is known about Alice. Neither Crocker appears in other censuses.
Crocker began his performance career with a show of twelve horses in Hillsdale. The audience loved it. The horses could select a particular color from a group of colors [probably it was set in a particular spot for each performance], played at being in school, and held a mock court scene which “brought down the house.” Crocker now self-styled as “Professor Crocker,” informed the audience that it was “kindness …which enabled him to do the things which he was able, and that patience and firmness was all that was necessary to make a horse obey.” In 1885 and 1886, Crocker’s troupe of 30 trained horses, ponies, donkeys and mules were advertised as being able to “Do everything but talk.” Crocker and his “Educated Horses and Mules” toured the major U.S. and Canadian cities with great success. In 1887, with eleven trained horses of Arabian blood, and three other men, Crocker and his troupe, called the emigration,” began a successful seventeen year tour of Europe. They performed in England, Scotland and Wales. The troupe expanded to 30 horses, which performed in opera houses, market halls, and drill halls, and fancy theaters as well as before royalty, including the then Prince of Wales, Edward, son of Queen Victoria. The performance lasted two hours and included a court scene, clown acts, battle, carousel, and rope skipping, among other tricks. Although offered $75,000 for his now aging horses, Crocker could not bear to part with them. In 1894 Crocker and his troupe performed in Antwerp, Belgium. Crocker received gifts and praise from many newspapers and important people of the day in Belgium, France, England, and other nations while touring.
Here there are two interesting and different parts to the story of Professor Crocker. According to Ending #1, in 1904, after seventeen years of touring, Crocker decided to sail for home and let his now mostly aged horses died gracefully of old age. However, once home, he decided to rebuild his troupe. A fire in his barn then killed seven horses. In 1911 Crocker co-owned a livery stable with Kempf. He sold out in 1918 when livery stables were being replaced by early automobiles and retired in Hillsdale. In Ending #2 Crocker’s troupe died of hoof-and-mouth disease while in Europe. He failed to rebuild due to lack of finances.
As late as 1928 Crocker apparently owned a small horse troupe. There is a customs entry form, May 17, 1928 for a ferryboat full of horses arriving at Walkerville, Ontario, Canada, with nine horses and show equipment. The horses, valued at $450, were: Billy, Claude, Neda, Doris, Dick, Toby, Monti, Robin, and Donney. The equipment was valued at $10. Crocker paid $115.50 tax. We do not know if he actually performed with these horses or not.
Crocker was also an inventor. He received a British patent No. 13,958 in 1887 for his Crocker’s Patent Bit for riding and driving. It was specially advertised for “Hard-mouthed horses such as hard and side pullers, runaways, bad to ride, etc. etc.” In 1899 he received another British patent No. 23,307 for “Improvements in and connected with bits for horses. (This information is from the collection and ancestrylibrary.com (viewed August 17, 2009).