Step into the Gilded Age at the Orleton Pleasure Driving Show
Top and bottom photographs by Lisa Cenis
In the center of Stockbridge, at the intersection of Main and Elm, there is a modest fountain, erected, according to engraving on its back, in 1881. In front, water spits from the merry mouth of a verdigris Pan into what appears to be a watering trough for horses. Apart from Pan, this monument is a sober affair. Roughly fashioned from limestone, it is etched on one side with the legend, “Merciful man is merciful unto his beast.” On the other, as if to dignify its own crudeness, “Utility is preferable to grandeur.”
Tell that to the folks at Orleton Farm up the hill. The business of Orleton, home of Harvey and Mary Stokes Waller and site of this weekend’s Pleasure Driving Show, is grandeur that is blithely indifferent to today’s utility, fueled instead by a powerful nostalgia. The barns there house the Wallers’ extensive collection of antique horse-drawn carriages and sleighs, some commercial, most designed for private use—all restored to perfection, all historically significant, some extremely so (including “Old Times,” the road coach that won the most famous coach race of all time*). The stables shelter a dozen horses that are as far from “beasts” as anything that walks on four legs can be. They are, in effect, the equine equivalent of a corps de ballet—chosen for their beauty and striking resemblance to one another, and their ability to perform exacting physical feats with precision, in unison, while pulling tremendous weight.
Welcome to pleasure driving, a faction of the horse world that is entirely separate from fox hunting, hunter-jumper competition, and racing. The Colonial Carriage and Driving Society is a local club affiliated with the Carriage Association of America, an international group with 3,000 members in fifty states and thirty countries, whose mission is to keep the history and tradition of driving carriages alive.
“My family was into carriages before me,” says Harvey Waller, the immediate past president of the Carriage Association of America, current co-president of the Colonial Carriage and Driving Society, and co-host of most of that organization’s events, including this weekend’s show. “And so were Mary’s.” The couple, he (the whip in the photo above) from Connecticut, she (next to him in the large, brown hat) from Massachusetts, met as competitors on the class “A” hunter-jumper circuit. After their sons were born, the Wallers gave up competitive riding, and together began to build a world-class collection of carriages and attendant accoutrement. These are housed in several immaculately restored barns at Orleton, a property that has been in Mary’s family since 1901.
The Wallers’ collection bespeaks a world where money and leisure were plentiful, competition all the more mighty for being covert, and the inevitable excesses that follow held in check by a complex, strictly enforced code of etiquette. Echoes of those strictures are evident in today’s pleasure driving. Men and women tend to dress in a style compatible with the age, prestige, and function of their vehicles. To compete, a driver, called a “whip,” must wear a hat, apron and gloves and, of course, carry a whip.
This weekend, anyone curious about this charmingly arcane pursuit is invited to join impassioned advocates at Orleton for a three-day meet that combines the excitement of a horse show—competitive events, ribbons, trophies, vendors of goods and food—with the marvels of a exhibition of exquisite, perfectly restored, antique vehicles that open a window into a day gone by.
Orleton Pleasure Driving Show
31 Prospect Hill Road, Stockbridge
Friday - Sunday, June 17 - 19
Admission/$5; children under 5/free
Show hours, Friday 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Museum hours Friday - Sunday, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
*A wager of one thousand pounds was made that “Old Times” and its driver James Selby could not make the round-trip between the White Horse Cellars Hotel in London and the Old Ships Hotel in Brighton in eight hours. On July 13, 1888, Mr. Selby made the 108-mile trip in seven hours and fifty minutes, changing horses fourteen times.