When Montgomery Queen’s Circus with its menagerie and company of clowns, trick riders, acrobats, and trapeze artists struck their monster tent in 1874 in Santa Barbara, they left two members behind, the enterprising Jerry Forney and his trick mule. Jerry quickly became a favorite member of the community, and he frequently appeared on the streets riding his old white mule, much to everyone’s amusement.
Jerry’s story is remarkable. Born into slavery around 1820 at Bellevue, the Erwin family plantation outside of Morganton, North Carolina, Jerry was among a group of slaves who were taken to work the gold fields in California in 1852. After their owner returned home, Jerry’s wages and those of the others were sent to North Carolina. In 1854, Jerry decided he’d no longer work in bondage. Taking on the last name Forney, the name of the owner of the plantation where his father was enslaved, he continued to work in the mines as a self-freed man.
In 1858, Jerry Forney was sinking a well in Amador County when he hit a rich vein of gold. The local paper reported, “He and the other colored folks here are preparing to work it.” In 1870, Jerry was working in Ione, a mining supply town nicknamed “Freeze-Out” and “Bed-Bug.” Although Jerry owned $660 worth of real estate and had $100 in the bank, by the time Montgomery Queen’s Circus formed in 1873, he was looking for warmer climes and was itching to get out of town.
He had trained his white mule to do tricks, and now in his fifties, he joined the circus. While the carnival life may have been exciting for a time, it was also very hard, and Jerry was getting on in years. Santa Barbara seemed like a great place to set down roots. One of the first things he did, in July 1875, was register to vote. He also opened a bootblack stand on State Street, earning many customers and friends with his cheerful and exuberant personality.
Though the local paper was silent on his appearance in the Centennial parade of 1876, later stories tell of him riding his white mule, waving an American flag, and wearing broken shackles to symbolize the freedman. It didn’t take long for the newspapers to warm to this incredible man, and his exploits and activities were regularly reported in the newspapers.
Jerry took part in many aspects of Santa Barbara life. When Bert’s Dramatic Troupe, a theatrical repertory company, came to town for a week in 1879, the troupe joined Jerry for a spontaneous free concert in front of the Occidental Hotel, where Jerry had his stand. The paper reported, “Quite a crowd gathered to listen to the old time negro melodies by the entire company; and to witness the dancing of Jaba by Prof. Forney, which was done in his usual artistic style.”
He appeared on the Lobero Theatre stage in a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and in the program for the annual Rose Festival, where he expounded on Temperance principles. In 1886, as part of a performance featuring Major Robert H. Hendershot, the drummer boy of the Rappahannock, he again took to the stage, this time for the closing tableau of the lament “Tenting on the Old Campground.”
Jerry was always ready for a good time. In 1879, he provided some comic relief to a rather dull and tedious day at Bradley’s racetrack (which circled today’s Bird Refuge). The press reported, “Prof. Jerry Forney came on the track with a silver plated bridle attached to a road wagon made for Cain just before his unpleasant little affair with his brother Abel.” Jerry won, much to the delight of the spectators.
Forney’s entrepreneurial nature saw him experimenting with growing cotton, which he displayed at the annual Los Angeles Horticultural convention alongside such major local horticultural lights as Ellwood Cooper, Joseph Sexton, Sherman P. Stow, and Frank E. Kellogg. Tomatoes, corn, and strawberries grown in his garden off lower State Street were given to his appreciative friends.
In 1881, Jerry initiated a scheme to meet Santa Barbara’s labor needs. He hoped to bring a colony of good mechanics, farm laborers, and house servants from North Carolina to Santa Barbara and circulated a petition, which eventually garnered 500 signatures from men who “numbered among our best and wealthiest people.” Newspapers throughout the state reported on his plan. The Sacramento Daily Union said, “Jerry Forney, a colored man at Santa Barbara, is arranging an exodus of colored people from his old home in North Carolina.”
At the time, not much came of the idea, but Forney did work as a broker of sorts, placing advertisements in the paper to help African Americans obtain employment. He also helped several young men set up bootblack stands on State Street.
Jerry’s foray into civic affairs led him to announce his candidacy for mayor twice and run as a delegate for the Republican Primary once. Though he could barely read — having been denied an education — his wit was sharp, and he kept abreast of Santa Barbara affairs through his customers at the shoeshine stand.
Soon after Jerry had arrived in Santa Barbara, Mortimer Cook, a bank owner, was running for mayor against the incumbent, Mr. Richards. On election day, Jerry was shining the mayor’s boots posthaste, when Cook, also in a hurry, came by and sat in the next booth, impatiently waiting. John P. Stearns, who was running as councilman, came by. Clearly a Cook supporter, he threw down his cane, grabbed a set of brushes and a pot of blacking, and set to work polishing Cook’s boots, racing Jerry to the finish. Stearns won, but Jerry spent the rest of the day electioneering against Stearns’s choice as councilman. He said that Mr. Stearns might get clear of paying a license fee for his wharf, but he would have to pay license for the boot blacking business if he ran an opposition to Jerry’s.
In 1898, a paralytic stroke and rheumatism forced Jerry to give up his business. He had married Martha Harris late in life, and the two had a home on the corner of Anacapa and Yanonali streets. Jerry’s many friends rallied to help the couple, and they were able to live comfortably. One of his protégés, Pio Calderon, donated the total receipts of one day a year to their support.
In 1904, the incredible Jeremiah A. Forney passed away. Over the years, Jerry’s “sayings” had often been published in the newspaper, so his friends could clearly picture Jerry at the Pearly Gates telling his Maker, “This be one fine large day, Boss.”