The Story of Midnight Sun, Franklin’s Tennessee Walking Horse Grand Champion

One of Franklin’s most famous historical icons had four hooves and a swishy black tail.

80 years ago, in the summer heat of 1940, an all-black colt was born who would change the Tennessee Walking Horse Industry. You may know him now as Midnight Sun—but back then, he was little Joe Lewis Wilson.

Joe Lewis Wilson was born in the hills of Viola, Tennessee on the farm of S. M. Ramsey. The horse’s father (called a “sire”) was Wilson’s Allen, an influential Tennessee Walking Horse stallion—chestnut with a white sock on his left hind leg—foaled in Coffee County.

He sired several World Grand Champions in his lifetime. Joe Lewis Wilson was in his last crop of colts; Wilson’s Allen died of pneumonia in August 1939. Joe Lewis Wilson’s mother, a bay mare, was named Ramsey’s Rena.

Joe Lewis Wilson was an average colt, other than his notable father. A local Middle Tennessee horseman, John A. Hendrixson, thought that the last of the sire’s colts might be valuable. Hendrixson purchased Joe Lewis Wilson, still, a young colt nursing from his mother, for $300 (today, with inflation, nearly $5,500).

In Jimmy Hayes’ (son of Harlinsdale Farm manager Harlin Hayes) book Harlinsdale Farm: A Peaceful Journey In Time, he wrote that legendary trainer Wallace Brandon recalled seeing the colt at a local horse show. “Although Brandon stopped short of calling the black stud colt ugly,” Jimmy wrote, “he remembered [the horse] as unremarkable.”

That was the trend with the young black colt—in numerous publications that reflected back on his career, he was remembered as “plain, thin, and gangly” and “an ugly duckling” (Western Horseman Magazine, April 1966).

No one really wanted young Joe Lewis Wilson. Brothers Wirt and Alex Harlin of Harlinsdale Farm were among the lot. Wirt said that the colt “looked like nothing they’d like to own.”

Hendrixson advertised the horse in the paper, where they accidentally misnamed him “Joe Lewis Allen” and called him “black as a crow.” Still, there were no takers.

It took the eye of Winston Wiser, an up-and-coming trainer, to see the colt’s potential. He rode the horse to visit Henry Davis—a well-known man in the horse business nicknamed ‘Father of The Celebration’—who had been tasked with finding a horse that could put Harlinsdale Farm on the map.

Davis had never seen “a more honest, true walking horse,” Jimmy wrote. As the story goes, Henry went to Wartrace, Tennessee to have lunch with Wirt Harlin. As Henry came through the door, Wirt said, “What’cha know, Henry?” Henry smiled and said, “Everything.” He told Wirt all about Joe Lewis Wilson, and they went to see the horse in action.

Wirt was impressed. Without even consulting his brother, he gave Henry the green light. Harlinsdale purchased the horse for $4,400 (over $75,000 today) and the colt came to Franklin in 1944.

It’s been said that Wirt told Alex the horse was $10,000—but after hearing about just how spectacular Joe Lewis Wilson was, Alex was ready to write the check.

Photo courtesy the Tennessee State Library and Archives

The New Champ

A local Franklin man, Ben Ashley, saw Joe Lewis Wilson working on a hot summer morning. He commented that “the horse was as powerful as the sun and black as midnight,” Jimmy wrote. Wirt spun Ben’s comment into a new name for their future champ: Midnight Sun.

Midnight Sun’s first trainers were the farm’s manager, Harlin Hayes, and Carl Lee. In 1944, Midnight was shown in his first Celebration—the national Walking Horse competition that ended with the crowning of a ‘World Grand Champion Tennessee Walker.’

Midnight Sun was making a name for himself. He grew to a strapping 16 hands tall. The Harlin family wanted a high-profile trainer to match their high-profile stallion.

Fred Walker had grown up in Middle Tennessee. He had shown horses at the very first Celebrations and managed a farm just down the road from Harlinsdale.

Fred was “an accomplished trainer and showman who fit the black stallion like a glove,” Jimmy wrote. Under Fred’s training, Midnight Sun was named World Grand Champion at the 1945 and 1946 Celebrations. Those were two remarkable years for the Franklin farm.

Photo courtesy of Voice Magazine

A Friend In Red

Midnight Sun met his match with the new head groom at Harlinsdale, Red Laws. The two became inseparable. Red was Midnight’s companion, friend, and advocate. He even gave the horse a nickname, “Pap.” Jimmy wrote, “From the first day, Red Laws became Midnight Sun’s personal handler, greatest promoter, and faithful friend. He was…a wise trainer taking care of a fine athlete.”

The two had an inseparable bond. Through the years, Midnight and Red grew so close that others swore man and horse could read each other’s minds. Red fed, groomed and saddled the champion stallion to ride five days a week, 30 minutes a day.

Kids loved Midnight Sun, and the horse never complained when they wanted to take photos or pet his nose. The horse and handler had a little trick: Red would say, “Don’t you bite him now, Pap!” Jimmy recalled that Midnight would “open his mouth; snap his big, hay-stained teeth; and slobber all over his young victims.” Midnight’s visitors filled many, many guest books. People everywhere loved Midnight Sun. As for him? He just loved a plain ol’ biscuit.

Photo courtesy of Voice Magazine

The Lineage Continues

In the mid-1940s, Harlinsdale had established itself as a leader in breeding. With Midnight Sun on their side, the farm’s breeding program was especially impressive. The black stallion’s first colts looked fantastic. “Midnight Sun was much more than just another good show horse,” Jimmy wrote.

His appearances in Murfreesboro, Franklin, Columbia, and Lexington (Kentucky) captivated audiences. Wallace Brandon—the same trainer who called young Joe Lewis Wilson “unremarkable”—saw the stallion at the 1945 Celebration and commented that there was “no horse alive that could have beaten him.” Nashville journalist Margaret Lindsay Warden called Midnight Sun “the best Walking Horse [she] had ever seen.”

Harlinsdale Farm was the winning team, and Midnight Sun was the captain.

The stallion gained fame around the world. Former Mayor of Franklin, Ed Woodward, was serving in Guam in 1946. He was surprised to see his hometown—over 7,600 miles away—show up on the local movie newsreel with a feature on Midnight Sun.

In her April 1966 article in Western Horseman Magazine, Margaret wrote, “Who could have predicted that the gawky colt would, three years later, be supreme champion of the breed?” It was a miraculous transformation.

The Tennessee Walking Horse industry was not without its competition. Midnight Sun’s main competitor was a horse named Merry Go Boy, who took the blue ribbon in 1947.

Back at the farm, every local horseman with a mare (and others not-so-local) wanted a colt with Midnight Sun. The black stallion’s colts were already winning their own local horse shows, and “every breeder wanted a piece of the action,” Jimmy wrote.

That dream was not inaccessible, as the stud fee back in the late 1940s was just $50, with the guarantee of a live foal. With strategic marketing and salesmanship—Alex Harlin was a natural—Midnight Sun served upwards of 100 mares each year. The result? Mini Midnight Suns started to pop up all over. With the success of artificial insemination, Midnight Sun could serve any number of mares in a season.

Trainers discovered that “Midnight Sun horses were smart, easy to train, and endowed with exceptional ability,” Jimmy wrote. While the breeders were seeing success, critics of Midnight Sun’s many colts saw judges favoring the lineage in shows.

Harlinsdale doubled the stud fee, hoping to help control the numbers. In 1949, one of Midnight Sun’s early colts, Midnight Merry, was crowned World Grand Champion. With more and more colts born into Midnight Sun’s bloodline, the industry put a ban on artificial insemination.

Midnight Sun sired around 2,000 colts in his lifetime. In fact, today, nearly 90% of Tennessee Walking Horses can trace their ancestry through Midnight Sun. In his later years, the stallion grazed around the barn while spending time with Red. It is said that, near the end, Midnight Sun took care of his trainer just like Red had cared for him.

Midnight Sun’s sons and daughters became legendary horses themselves, with winners in every crop. His legacy lives on: Through the rest of the 20th century, only four World Grand Champions fell outside of Midnight’s lineage.

Jimmy later wrote, “I was born at Harlinsdale Farm and sort of ‘grew up’ with Ole’ Sun… All of us at the farm took Midnight Sun for granted because he was a part of our everyday lives. I don’t think anyone could have imagined the lasting impact he would have on the breed.”

Staying At Harlinsdale

In 1956, Alex Harlin faced health complications that resulted in the Harlin brothers ending their partnership. All joint property and purchases were affected, which meant a shocking announcement to the Walking Horse industry: Midnight Sun was up for sale. Jimmy wrote that it “had been a long-standing family tradition to settle horse partnerships at auction—a tradition that continues today.”

At the sale, Mrs. G. M. Livingston—daughter-in-law of railroad magnate Crawford Livingston II—asked to speak with Wirt Harlin privately. He joined her in her car, and they talked for a while. When Wirt reemerged, he announced that Midnight Sun had been sold for $50,000.

There was one spectacular caveat, however; the championship stallion would remain at Harlinsdale under the same care and management he had been receiving with Harlin Hayes and Red Laws. From time to time, Midnight’s owner would visit him at the farm—but for the most part, his life stayed the same.

The sale’s details remain shrouded in mystery. To this day, a statue of Midnight Sun stands on the Livingston family’s summer estate in Florida.

After an impactful 25 years, 21 of which were spent at Harlinsdale Farm, the great black stallion died of colic in November 1965. He is buried in front of the main barn with the inscription: “Midnight Sun No. 410751. The Horse Of The Century. The Champion Under Saddle; The Champion As A Sire; The Champion Of The Breed.”

Explore the history of Franklin with the Midnight Sun scavenger hunt! Find 10 horse statues around town to redeem a prize at the downtown Franklin visitor center in this family-friendly activity.

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Abbi is an adopted Tennessean who has fallen in love with the South—especially its people, warmth, and incomparable food. When she’s not telling stories or experimenting with family recipes, Abbi loves to explore new places with her husband Zach and dog Groot.