The Woods family was involved in the breeding and sale of European draft horses, including French draft horses called Percherons. Their importing company predated the beginning of the development firm of Woods Brothers. The purebred horse business they started with partners in 1880 may be the first use of the Woods Bros name that would become famous when they established Watson, Woods Bros., & Kelly. The office was located downtown at the Lincoln Hotel and the barns and exercise areas were located between 33rd and 38th Streets and between Holdrege and Apple Streets.
Early buying trips were conducted by Mr. Watson who was highly credentialed and came to be considered one of the greatest judges of horses in the world. The first importation totaled one dozen Percherons and took five grueling weeks to travel west – first across the Atlantic to Montreal, and then by train to Lincoln. As the business matured, Mr. Watson undertook four annual purchasing expeditions. He filled the bottoms of his suitcases with cash, covered the money with a change of clothing, and sailed for Europe to buy.
The process was streamlined and business grew. Ships would sail back to New York with as many as eighty of the massive horses, each weighing between three quarters and one ton. Express trains would convey the animals to Nebraska. The entire travel time from Europe to Lincoln for the horses, hostlers, and other staff was just eleven days.
The operation became incredibly sophisticated and featured sumptuous advertising materials, specially modified railway spurs and switches, and facilities for showing horses in inclement weather and even at night. Watson, Woods Bros., and Kelly Company became the largest draft horse operation in the Midwest and second largest in the United States. Visiting the establishment on a typical day was said to be like attending a fancy large horse show.
After several years, the Kellys took over purchasing and made frequent trips to the British Isles and Europe to buy purebred draft horses. In 1912 they met up in France with 17-year-old Pace Woods Sr., who was spending a year overseas. The First World War loomed. Woods was at risk of conscription in the French Army, and although he wanted to stay, it was clear to family and business partners that he needed to return to the United States.
The Kellys had booked passage on a magnificent luxury liner leaving from England, but young Woods was eager to introduce the Kellys to a special customer in France. Pace Woods promised to cut his time in France short and to return with the Kellys if they would cancel their plans, rebook passage on a different ship, and extend their visit just long enough to meet this important customer. This they did, and RMS Titanic departed Southampton without the Kellys and young Woods as passengers.
Selecting the right horses can be profitable. Selecting the right ship can save your life.