A century in the saddle: Cleveland Mounted Police Unit has performed, protected, and saved lives

This article originally was published in FreshWater Cleveland’s Feb. 20 edition. Tom Matowitz writes Cleveland Masterworks for FreshWater every Thursday. Author Thomas Matowitz is on the Board of Trustees for the Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum

The City of Cleveland last spring announced its plans to move the Cleveland Mounted Police Unit from its longtime home at the King-Otis Stables on East 38th Street to new quarters on the city’s east side.

The move comes so the city can make improvements to I-90, but also gives the 112-year-old Mounted Police Unit—one of the oldest in the country—a $12 million, 38,000-square-foot facility on six acres, located on Thackeray Avenue in the Central neighborhood.

1938 Mounted Unit
In 1938 the “Finest Police Mounted Unit in the Land” parades down Euclid Avenue.

The Mounted Unit plays an important role in the city’s safety services—from ceremonies, traffic, and crowd control to patrolling the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, when they were joined by Mounted Units from Columbus, Summit and Medina Counties, and from as far as Texas.

While the new facilities should secure the mounted unit’s future, we should stop for a moment to remember its remarkable past.

Originally, the Cleveland Police Department (CPD) rented horses from livery stables when they were needed for special occasions like parades and holiday celebrations. Horses were only used to pull patrol wagons before the Mounted Unit was created, Ironically, the CPD had a motorcycle unit before there was a mounted unit.

Through the early 20th Century, mounted officers had no permanent place on the department’s roster and horses and riders didn’t perform law enforcement functions before 1910 in the CPD.

George Matowitz four years before he was promoted to sergeant and given the the task of creating the CPD Mounted Unit in 1910.This changed in 1910 when newly promoted CPD Sergeant George J. Matowitz was given the task of creating a mounted unit from scratch. This required strong organizational and horsemanship skills, but his greatest contribution was in 1910 when he brought on his brother— renowned horse expert James G. “Jim” Matowitz, as a patrolman.

Rarely was one man so closely identified with an institution. While George was soon promoted and pursuing a career that led to rapid advancement and 20 years as CPD Chief, Jim spent his entire career in the Mounted Unit—leading it for decades. A dedicated police officer, Jim was also a devoted horse lover. Near the end of his life, he described his career as a “wonderful dream come true.” Jim took over leadership from his brother and saw the mounted unit expand to three Troops—A, B, and C—with the units located at Edgewater Park, Downtown, and University Circle.

The horses and riders were not just for show. They performed very capably at tasks like crowd control and intervention at the labor riots that afflicted Cleveland in the 1930s. They traveled extensively, participating in horse shows as far away as Mexico City and riding in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first inaugural parade.

They saved lives too. A notable example is Patrolman Tony Welling’s role in saving the lives of animals at Cleveland’s disastrous August 1942 Ringling Brothers Circus fire—riding his mount Skippy into a burning tent to do so.

Tony Welling on Skippy The Morgan Horse

For decades riders from the unit and their handsome mounts have provided a dignified presence as an honor guard at the funerals of Cleveland notables. The horses themselves were stars, carefully selected American Saddlebreds from Kentucky. They were ridden by riders selected with equal care.

Before leaving the stable to begin patrol, the mounted officers stopped before a large mirror so that a visual inspection could make sure that every piece of tack and every hair was in place.

The King-Otis Stable was dedicated in 1948 with all three troops consolidated there. The barn was regarded as a showplace and was a frequent destination for Cleveland’s honored guests.

Viktor Schreckengost working on the O’Neill sculpture in the studio.
Noted local artist Victor Schreckengost designed a statue of a horse placed outside the current stables, which is scheduled to follow the unit to its new home.

Officers in the unit were chosen based on their affinity for horses. Years later,  one officer recalled the selection process: Inquiring, the candidate was told that he had to be interviewed by Jim Matowitz. That proved to be a straightforward event. After introductions Jim asked a simple question, “Why do you want to be in the Mounted Unit?”

The reply was concise. “Because I love horses.” Jim’s reply was equally concise. “That’s the right answer. Report here first thing Monday morning.” This led the rookie to a 30-year career on horseback.

Jim Matowitz on duty in the early 1920sAfter 41 years of service to the CPD, Jim Matowitz died in November 1954 in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, while on a trip to buy horses for the unit. Until the last day of his life he worked on behalf of his beloved police horses.

Fittingly, he was escorted to his final resting place at Holy Cross Cemetery by a troop of beautifully turned out CPD horses and riders.

May the new stable lead to a revitalization of this storied unit and useful service to the city for another century.

Somewhere Jim Matowitz is smiling.

Editor’s note: George J. Matowitz (1882–1951) was Tom Matowitz’ grandfather, who served 46 years as a Cleveland Police officer. He held the office of Chief of Police from 1931 to 1951.

The Chief’s younger brother and Tom Matowitz’ great uncle, James G. Matowitz (1888-1954), served 41 years on the CPD Mounted Unit.

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