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The rocking horse with a name

Kathleen Kuseske of Villard spotted a vintage toy she believed was made by her grandfather. It was displayed in the front window of the Past and Present Home Gallery in Alexandria. Photo by Stacie Kimball.1 / 2
Kathleen Kuseske's grandfather, E.Z. Clay, inscribed all of his wooden pieces of art with specific information. Photo by Stacie Kimball.2 / 2

The inscription had a missing letter, but there was no doubt E.Z. Clay made the rocking horse displayed in the gallery window. And Kathleen Kuseske from Villard is happy she stopped to check.

She was doing some shopping one day in mid December when she happened by the recently opened Past and Present Home Gallery in Alexandria. She spotted a whimsical horse in the window.

The toy was white with a red mane and red rockers and a black seat. The tail was made of separated twine and the ears made of old shoe leather.

It looked familiar to Kuseske and she went into the store to ask more about it.

"They were so busy, so I left," she said.

A week later, she needed to pick up an order from a nearby store and once again saw the rocking horse in the store window.

"I thought maybe it was made by my grandpa," she explained. And she went into the store again.

One of the owners, Kathy Hagestuen, was working when Kuseske entered the store and asked to have the item brought down from the store window.

"Now, I'm going to do something different. I'm going to turn this upside down," she explained to the owner. She was hoping to find the handwritten information her grandfather always inscribed on the underside of the things he made. That would surely determine whether or not her suspicions were correct.

"If it wasn't on there, I wasn't going to be interested," admitted the hopeful shopper.

She turned it over and read, "September 19th, 7 a.m., 1978, memorial home, Osakis, MN, 56360."

And there it was, the most important part of all, "E.Z. Clay."

Well, the "E" was no longer there, but Kuseske was sure it was her grandfather who had made the wooden horse.

E.Z. (Eleazer) Clay was an experienced carpenter from Osakis who built everything from homes to schools to churches. He helped tear down the Gordon Hills Church near Osakis and used the flooring to make crosses for the members of the church and family members.

"He was a very gentle man - the way I knew him," Kuseske said of her grandfather.

Clay lived in Osakis with his wife, Bessie, and together they raised seven children.

In 1972, the couple moved into the Osakis nursing home. To stay busy, the retired carpenter made several types of handcrafted wooden pieces. The nursing home bought the materials for Clay. A small wood shop was created in the memorial home just for him. This allowed the aging craftsman to fashion his creations.

Kuseske shared that her grandfather's rocking horses sold for between $10 and $15. The money that was made went back into more building materials. She is unsure of the quantity of items her grandfather made, but she recalled a display area where they were sold in the memorial home.

Bessie Clay died in August of 1980 and E.Z. followed in November of 1981. He died on what would have been the couple's 70th anniversary.

Thirty years after her grandfather's passing, Kuseske could hardly believe her luck in finding one of the rocking horses made by his steady hands. Her own hands trembled with delight as she attempted to write out a check for her purchase.

Later that afternoon, she had lunch with some family members.

She said, "I have something to show you," and took them outside. There, carefully placed in the back of her van, was her precious find.

"The look on their faces...," she recalled. "My aunt had tears in her eyes."

Her sister said, "I'll pay you whatever you want," to which Kuseske responded, "No." There was no way she would part with the heirloom.

"Family things mean a lot to me," she explained.

She was impressed with the condition of the toy. "It was treated with a lot of respect," she noted.

Knowing her grandfather, Kuseske thought he would be laughing about this.

"And he would have a satisfied look on his face, knowing that it came home," she speculated.

As to the whereabouts of the rocking horse for all those years, Paul Hagestuen, co-owner of the gallery, said, "I don't know how long we've had it, but I'm certain we got it from an auction. Our kids played with it."

Hagestuen also shared that the sequence of events must have been fate. The antique rocking horse had been in their upstairs booth at Now and Then Antiques in Alexandria.

"We had it there for several months," said Hagestuen. "It was only in the window at Past and Present for a short time. It was meant to be hers."

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