Ornamental Separator

Harnessing Opportunities

A chance meeting on a vacation trip led to a career change for Colonial Williamsburg’s future Coach and Livestock director

Undra Jeter’s journey to overseeing the care of Colonial Williamsburg’s animals began with a vacation visit to the Historic Area in March 2017. Adam Canaday, a longtime coachman, was between rides and noticed Jeter eyeing the carriage horses.

“If you want, you can touch them,” Canaday told Jeter.

“No, I’m fine,” Jeter replied.

But Canaday could sense Jeter’s interest in horses, and they struck up a conversation. Canaday quickly realized Jeter knew a lot about horses. Colonial Williamsburg was looking for a coachman, and Canady thought Jeter might be interested.

Acting on a hunch from that initial meeting, Canaday sent Jeter a Facebook message describing the opening. And Jeter got the job.

By June 2019, Jeter had been promoted to stud groom supervisor, and in November 2019 he became the Bill and Jean Lane Director of Coach and Livestock.

Working with horses was, Jeter said, “in my blood.”

“My great-grandpa Jesse Jackson trained draft horses and mules,” Jeter said. “He died before I was born, but everybody said that’s where I got my knack for horses.”

Growing up on a farm in South Carolina, Jeter admitted that he “preferred working with animals to working with crops.” He worked with all kinds of animals — cows, turkeys, chickens and pigs — but he was especially drawn to the horses.

Athletics was also a passion when he was a young man. Jeter was an outside linebacker in high school and college, but an ankle injury put an end to his dreams of a professional football career. He took a job working at a printing company, but, driven by his love for horses, he also continued working in stables.

“I’d take care of the horses, but I’d watch the trainers,” Jeter said. “That’s how I learned.”

In 2010 Jeter opened a chicken farm in Campobello, a small town in South Carolina. He started with 25 chickens, selling eggs to bakeries, co-ops and farmers markets. He added pigs and cows, all while still working at the printing company. The farm business grew until Jeter had 1,500 chickens. But by 2017, he was ready for a change, which presented itself as a result of that spring vacation in Williamsburg.

Jeter is the first director to have been promoted from inside the department’s ranks. He is also the department’s first Black director, which holds special meaning for Canaday for several reasons.

“One of the things that made me take notice of Undra was that he looked like me,” Canaday said, recalling that first conversation when Jeter was visiting Williamsburg. “It was another man of color and someone for me to identify with.”

Canaday also noted that Blacks played an important role in the development of the coach and livestock programs from the very beginning, even in the early days of Colonial Williamsburg’s restoration. Before the Foundation began formally interpreting slavery in 1979, African Americans were the museum’s main carriage drivers and key workers in the stables with duties of training and taking care of horses, as former Colonial Williamsburg historian Ywone Edwards-Ingram wrote in a 2014 article in the Public Historian.

While the knowledge of animals and the desire to work with them was important, Jeter had another advantage.

“I think Colonial Williamsburg appreciated not just my experience training horses but also my experience managing a business,” Jeter said.

Beth Kelly, Colonial Williamsburg’s Royce R. and Kathryn M. Baker Vice President for Education, Research and Historical Interpretation, agreed that Jeter’s background was unusually appropriate. “Directing Coach and Livestock is more than just managing livestock and a carriage business,” she said. “It is about relating to staff, volunteers, guests and donors. Undra’s experience made him the perfect fit.”

Rare Breeds

One of Jeter’s priorities as director has been to expand Colonial Williamsburg’s efforts to breed Cleveland Bay horses. Bred to pull a plow or a carriage, Cleveland Bays are just the type of horses that Jeter has worked with over the years.

“Modern breeds of horses are generally bred for a specific purpose,” said Taylor Nixon, Colonial Williamsburg’s apprentice stud groom and the point person for the Cleveland Bay breeding. “In the 18th century you wanted a horse that could do it all. This is what the Cleveland Bay is known for — they are the utility player of the horse world.”

Cleveland Bays are especially appropriate for Colonial Williamsburg’s Rare Breeds program. They date back to the 16th century but became very rare after heavy use — and heavy casualties — during World War I. When the war ended, there were only a handful of purebred stallions and not many more mares.

The Foundation began breeding Cleveland Bays in 2017. The small numbers of purebreds limited the program’s potential until breeders began using embryo transfers and artificial insemination.

“Advances in modern science have really helped us become successful, allowing us to breed in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be possible,” Nixon said.

The embryo transfers are done by Equine Reproduction Concepts in Amissville, Virginia, and the artificial inseminations are handled by Woodside Equine Clinic in Ashland, Virginia.

Colonial Williamsburg now has 10 purebred Cleveland Bays — mares named Isabella, Willow and Bayberry; stallions named Clarence and Joe; and geldings named Lancer, Buckshot, Moose, Monty and Mendel. Moose, Monty and Mendel, all born in 2019, were the first foals produced here in 16 years.

The Foundation also has four crossbred horses, resulting from breeding Cleveland Bays with Thoroughbreds: Luvie, Gemma, Hope and Nora Jo.

The growing population of horses spends a lot of time, when not in the Historic Area, at the Foundation’s nearby Bypass Road stables and fields. Nixon refers to the Bypass facilities as “Cleveland Bay Central,” and come foaling time it’s an exciting place to be.

“I love the whole rush of waiting for a foal,” Nixon said, and then welcoming it into the world. “It’s magical to have watched from the beginning. There are some long nights, but it is what makes
me tick.”

Beyond the Bays

There is, of course, more to the Coach and Livestock department than Cleveland Bays. Jeter is responsible for 19 employees and about 150 animals.

Rare breeds include Leicester Longwool sheep, which are known for long lustrous wool that falls in ringlets; American Milking Devon cattle, which produce milk prized for making butter and cheese; and Dominique chickens, which were among the first breeds developed in America.

The department’s carriages include coaches such as a landau, which has a top that can be folded down; two-wheeled riding chairs; stage wagons; and oxcarts. This year the department added a second sociable, which is an open carriage with four wheels and two double seats facing each other. Jeter hopes to add more carriages to meet the demand for rides, a favorite activity for guests. He would also like to make carriages available for use outside the Historic Area for weddings and funeral processions.

Jeter intends to more fully integrate animals into Historic Area programming, which might include training more interpreters to ride horses or otherwise work with animals. It will also include presenting information about horses at the stables next to the Governor’s Palace.

Animals were very much a part of 18th-century life, and Jeter believes they ought to be equally present in 21st-century interpretations. “By giving interpreters a horse or cow or sheep, we help them tell their stories,” he said.

“The past is a foreign place, and having animals present in pastures and on the streets helps transport our guest to another time,” Kelly said. “Our 18th-century counterparts relied on animals for their day-to-day living. Without animals, it would not be a complete interpretation of life in the 18th century.” 

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