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Lisa Unleashed: FDR’s Old Barn Hides Many Treasures

Published: December 11, 2016

My obsession with horses and historic homes recently brought me to Springwood, the home of the 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park, N.Y. Like all tourists, I found his ancestral home and the first presidential library in the country packed full of American history, World War II history, and Roosevelt artifacts surrounding his four terms in office.

And being a dog lover, there was plenty of ephemera dedicated to the lovable Scottish terrier Fala. A whole exhibit took up a corner of the library. My favorite piece was the small upholstered chair in FDR’s bedroom where the little dog slept near his master each night. After a tour of the home occupied by generations of Roosevelts, including FDR’s parents, I found myself out in the helmlock-walled Rose Garden where Franklin and Eleanor are buried, with Fala close by. It was filled with flowers and peace, but just beyond the green hedge, a maroon and slate blue building with scalloped shingles and ornate shutters caught my eye. It was the Springwood horse barn, built in 1886 by James Roosevelt, FDR’s father, for his show horses and their carriages.

Horses at The Fair

As I walked in the open barn doors, a shocking flash of color — blue, red, yellow, and white — captivated me from behind a glass-covered ribbon case filled with winnings from the 1920s and 1930s. I was immediately drawn to the silk rosettes touting wins from 1922’s Dutchess County Agricultural Society, Spring Lenox Driving Association Horse Show, a 1928 Dutchess County Horse Show, a 1935 Lenox Horse Show, and mostly notable blues and reds from the 1929 Dutchess County Fair Horse Show, including a Championship tricolor ribbon. This chance meeting with the ribbons immediately took me back to my own childhood.

Growing up on a Tarrytown, N.Y., estate, I used to play in the old stables attached to the chauffeur’s quarters where my family lived for 35 years. When I started riding in Connecticut, my father refurbished one of the old ribbon boxes from that stable to display my very first horse show ribbons from Sweetbrier Farm in Easton.

History told me that it wasn’t FDR that had a passion for horses, but his father, who drove singles, pairs, and teams of draft horses in competitions around the area. And around the barn were remnants of that great passion. The barn was divided up into carriage sections, box stalls for driving horses, single stalls for riding saddlebreds, and multiple grooming areas. Each stall had a decorative latch depicting the head of a carriage horse with its thick mane, flanked by driving bits and harness buckles on leather straps. And there were still some names on the stalls like, Natoma and Badger.

The tack room was somewhat still intact with massive harnesses, yokes, headstalls, bridles and bits hanging proudly on their hooks behind glass cases, albeit in need of a good cleaning with saddle soap that was resting nearby. On display was an old bottle of liniment sitting on the shelf next to a single stirrup. This was clearly staged for decorative purposes as most horsemen wouldn’t put a single stainless steel stirrup next to a glass bottle in a barn. Even the drain in the floor was surrounded by the most beautiful mosaic tiles in patterns that would rival the Minton Tile Ceiling at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park.

I walked out into the wide aisle and closed my eyes to conjure up visions of muscular driving horses being brushed and prepped for the Dutchess County Fair Driving Show. Grooms polishing brass harness fittings, blacksmiths fitting new shoes with studs, and coachmen cleaning the carriages for competition. It must have been a bustle of animal husbandry with customs rooted in the 19th Century, when driving horses took us everywhere. Thankfully, the Dutchess County Fair still thrives. Next August it will feature a Driving Show, Western Horse Show, English Horse Show and Draft Horse Show. For more info visit duchessfair.com. It’s traditional agricultural events like the Duchess County Fair, as well as presidential homes, that are worth preserving for future generations to enjoy.

Lisa Peterson writes about horses, hounds, and history at lisaunleashed.com. She is the owner of Barn Girl Media, a communications consultancy company; contact her at lisa.peterson@barngirlmedia.com.

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