John Adams and Jingles give Kannapolis visitors a horse-drawn holiday

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 10, 2008

By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS√≥Even though developers have shortened the name of Cannon Village to simply the Village, John Adams still calls his route through downtown Kannapolis “idiot’s circle.”
“When Cannon Mills was open, guys would get in their cars Friday and Saturday night,” Adams said. “You rode that circle until you found you a girlfriend.”
Cannon Mills, where Adams’ eight siblings once worked, has been replaced by the N.C. Research Campus. Cannon Village now houses nearly as many scientific institutes and biotechnology companies as furniture and clothing stores.
But one thing hasn’t changed.
People can still hear the bright clip-clop of horseshoes on asphalt every Saturday during the Christmas season as Adams, 71, drives his carriage through the shopping district, now an extension of the $1.5 billion Research Campus created by David Murdock.
This marks Adams’ 23rd winter holding the reins.
Jingles knows the route as well as his owner.
When Adams wanted to extend a recent ride onto the campus, the American Standardbred horse tried at every opportunity to turn left to stay in the Village.
The horse responded to patient direction from Adams and made his way onto the campus.
“Amish people know how to pick a good horse,” Adams said. “They’ve been doing it for 500 years.”
Family business
Adams runs Adams Stage Lines with his wife Phyllis and son Johnny. They buy their horses from Amish communities in Pennsylvania, who get them from New Jersey racetracks, Adams said.
“After they get six years old, they slow down,” he said.
Gamblers don’t want them if they can’t run a mile in a minute and 52 seconds while pulling a cart, he said.
“That’s almost 30 miles an hour,” Adams said. “I don’t want to go that fast anyway.”
The gentle horses have endurance, and family members treat them more like pets than utilitarian animals.
Johnny Adams took his horse Johnna into his house once on a cold day, after he taped towels around her feet so she wouldn’t scuff the bricks in his Florida room.
He gave her a bath, and the water ran into drains in the floor.
Making traditions
Jingles lived up to his name Saturday as his bells cheerily announced his arrival at the Visitor’s Center, where people waited in the cold for a chance to ride.
During the holidays, many folks who climb into the steel carriage, a $3,300 vehicle made in Canada, are repeat customers.
Pam Tyree of China Grove brings her four children every year.
“We just like to make it a holiday tradition,” she said.
Adams Stage Lines also hosts corporate parties and hay rides. They provide livestock for live Nativity scenes at several churches.
Their horses and carriages and buggies have been featured in four movies, several commercials and even onstage at Ovens Auditorium for the Wizard of Oz.
They also offer a horse-drawn caisson for funerals.
Johnny Adams recalled driving a caisson to a church on busy Beatties Ford Road in Charlotte.
Traffic came to a standstill.
“You heard only hooves,” he said. “There was no music, to talking, total reverence.”
But the bulk of their business is weddings.
“We never turned anything down,” Adams said. “Sometimes we’d have six carriages and six horses working at one time.”
Adams admitted he’s cut back in the past five years but hopes to continue driving carriages for another decade.
Taking the reins
Adams grew up on a 175-acre farm in Chesterfield, S.C. Eventually, he followed his eight older siblings to Kannapolis to work at Cannon Mills.
He lasted a week.
From there, he went to work for a trucking company in Charlotte.
He sold his house in Charlotte and bought a 40-acre farm in Cabarrus County.
Twenty-eight years ago, he took a homemade stagecoach to a Western film festival in Charlotte. Actors staged a shootout, and anyone who got “shot” was loaded into the stagecoach and hauled away.
Adams dressed the part, wearing Western gear and sticking a real pistol in his holster.
He started giving rides in downtown Charlotte on the weekends.
“I got me a horse and carriage, and I had more business than I could handle,” he said.
Customers asked him to do weddings and Christmas parties. Hotels hired him to give rides for guests.
He started to think he could make a business out of horses, carriages and special events.
“I wanted to start something that not everybody has their hands in,” he said. “You enjoy your work. Every day is different.”
Changing scenery
A few years ago, people who rode the carriage through Cannon Village went home with a souvenir photograph that often showed the mill’s smokestacks in the background.
The smokestacks are gone. Kannapolis has changed.
“It kind of broke my heart,” Adams said. “Everybody was sad about it, but they began to cheer up when they started to see what was happening.”
Adams said he hopes the Research Campus will bring jobs to Kannapolis and customers to him. He expects business to increase.
“The people come down to ride, and I get to tell them all I know about the campus,” he said.
Years ago, when millworkers were driving their cars around idiot’s circle, Adams drove a horse and carriage.
Once, someone offered him $20 for a ride.
“I wasn’t supposed to be farming out rides,”Adams said. “But I wasn’t going to turn that down.”