The Cottager: Gilded Age sport, fun for cottagers
"It has been quite a dull week ... There is the usual amount of driving and golf and house parties, and dinners and luncheons are also among the fashionable events," a New York Times columnist said of Lenox, Mass., on Aug. 4, 1900.
The only break from the monotony was a picnic held in honor of the Prince and Princess Brancaccio, the anonymous columnist reported.
The Lenox Cottagers, as they were known then, were not fully settled in their "Inland Newport" at that point in the summer. The arrivals from Newport and Bar Harbor were trickling in, opening their houses and welcoming guests as they arrived from New York City and Connecticut. Their horse-drawn carriages, one of the highest status symbols of the time, ruled the roads in Lenox and Stockbridge, Mass.
In a few short weeks the season would be over, but not before the cottagers hosted an equestrian show that drew 3,000 individuals to High Lawn Farm.
"Some of the best horses in America were shown in the ring ...," wrote the New York Times columnist about the Lenox Horse Show on Sept. 21. "There were 3,000 people at the Lenox Horse Show today, including Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Chauncy M. Depew, Dr. W. Seward Webb, Oliver Gould Jennings, who drove up from Fairfield in his four-in-hand; Prince and Princess Brancaccio, William D. Sloane, De Lancey Kane, William C. Schermerhorn and all the Lenox cottagers with their numerous guests."
The show was as much an entertainment venue as it was a social outing. According to the blog, Ephemeral New York, only five percent of the population in New York City could afford a carriage in 1860. It was at this time the "carriage parade" in Central Park became an afternoon ritual for the rich. The parade allowed the wealthy to show off their carriages and teams, as well as their latest finery, as they cruised around the park.
The decline of the personal carriage and the Gilded Age lifestyle coincided with the arrival of automobiles, paved roads and the income tax. But like the old manses of this elite class, there is an effort to preserve the carriages and the sport of "pleasure driving."
In the Berkshires, the Colonial Carriage and Driving Society is single-handedly keeping the traditions of pleasure driving, coaching and the tub parade alive. Steeped in tradition, its members compete in competitions around the country dressed in the fashions of the Gilded Age drivers.
Recently, the society held its 18th annual Pleasure Driving Show at Orleton Farm in Stockbridge. The four-day affair attracted 107 participants who traveled from locations as far away as Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ontario to participate.
"I first came four years ago to watch and I was hooked," society member Cindy Tirrell told me, shortly after meeting me next to the "cones course" competition area. "I attended a clinic for seniors and I was bitten."
Tirrell, who competed for a short time, now volunteers at the event, as do the other society members.
From where we were standing, we could see both the cones course and dressage competition in the white arena below us.
There was a chocolate-colored Morgan horse pulling a gentleman dressed in a suit and straw hat in a single runabout carriage. With great precision, the horse pulled the carriage in long figure eights and several other concise patterns using straight and diagonal lines — a competition that tests how the driver and steed work as a team and respond to each other. Nearby, a new competitor entered the "cones course," a course that runs through a series of orange traffic cones with balls on top of them.
The objective, Tirrell said, of the timed trial being not to move that adversely affect one's score.
After viewing several competitors, I could see the difficulty of the course, as volunteers measured the distance between the cones after each team left the field.
As we strolled across the manicured lawns toward the horse barns, I paused to admire the panoramic views of lush green and noticed the Kripalu Center, once the location of the Shadow Brook estate, looming in the distance.
It's a fitting sight, as the farm, originally part of Orleton, the Lenox estate built by Harvey T. Proctor (now the Gateways Inn), is owned by his great-granddaughter, Mary Stokes Waller and her husband Harvey Waller. She's also the granddaughter of Anson Philips Stokes, the banker who built Shadow Brook, the largest home in America the year it was built.
It's here the Wallers keep traditions alive. Besides hosting the annual show, the couple also participates and Harvey leads the biennial coaching weekend event.
The couple also has a remarkable collection of carriages and coaches, some with family ties, which they keep in a private museum on the farm.
Among the prized collection is the Old Times Coach, which is famous for making the trip between London and Brighton in eight hours in 1888. At the time, the 52-mile-trip would take 14 hours.
As I left the farm, I felt as if I was being spirited away from a forgotten time, which I hope to return to in the coming months, when the annual Lenox Tub Parade and Coaching Weekend return.
IF YOU GO ...
25th annual Lenox Tub Parade
A parade of flower-decorated horse-drawn carriages known as tubs. The parade is a reenactment of the ones held by the cottagers as they closed out the summer season in Lenox and the surrounding areas.
When: Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. Time to be announced.
Where: Parade travels down Main Street and ends at Shakepseare and Company, at 70 Kemble St., Lenox.
More information: ColonialCarriage.org
2016 Berkshire Coaching Weekend
See the coaches as they travel to historic non-profit sites in Lenox and Stockbridge: Elm Court Estate, the Norman Rockwell Museum and The Mount, Edith Wharton's Estate & Gardens.
When: Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. Time and route to be announced.
More information: berkshirecoachingweekend.com
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