Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 19
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: October 1981 Volume 19 Number 4, Pages 121–128
A.J. Cassatt's Chesterbrook Farm
It was one hundred years ago that Alexander J. Cassatt, then first vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, began to piece together his Chesterbrook Farm, and to pursue seriously his long-time interest in horse racing and horse breeding. In April 1881 he purchased an old farm on Swedesford Road near Howellville, and by adding other properties to it, in a few years Chesterbrook was an estate of more than 600 acres and a working stock farm.
This "magnificent estate" was actually made up of four farms: the David Havard farm, located along the north side of Swedesford Road east of Howellville; the farms of John Kugler and William Walleigh Davis, further to the west and north and south of Valley Creek, respectively; and the Davis farm on the west side of Mill Road. The Havard farm had been in the possession of the Havard family since Revolutionary times; on it was a stone farm house that had been used as the headquarters of Thomas Bradford and Charles Lee during the encampment of the Continental Army at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. A few years later, the West Chester Daily Local News described the estate as containing "the finest land in the fertile valley".
To facilitate travel between Chesterbrook and the Berwyn station on the Pennsylvania Railroad, Cassatt, an early active proponent of better coach roads, had built at his own expense a macadamized road, going through what the Local described as "as lovely a piece of country as the eye could ever wish to rest upon".
(As a supervisor in Lower Merion Township, Cassatt was also largely responsible for macadamizing Montgomery Avenue, on which he travelled by coach and four between his home in Haverford and his new farm.)
Situated on rolling land ("any eminence commands a view of Norristown, Phoenixville, Conshohocken and other towns") and "surrounded by beautiful wooded hills", Chesterbrook, after a few years, was described as "quite a town".
Entrance to the farm was by a Telford road, running half a mile or so back from Rees' bridge on Swedesford Road. On the estate, a network of excellent roads was constructed to connect the various buildings on the farm, most of which were painted with the same color paint used for the cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Included among the buildings, in addition to the fieldstone Revolutionary War farm house (remodeled to include two sunporches, five bedrooms, four baths, and servants' quarters), were a massive barn; two large breeding stables; a large building for breeding sheep; a large, L-shaped stable, over two hundred feet long, where the running horses were kept; houses for the trainers, stable boys, and other employees; a blacksmith shop; school room; mammoth corn cribs; a wagon house; office; tool house; store rooms; a spring house, ice house, and other buildings, for a "townlike" appearance. Two of the buildimgs were initially used as tobacco houses; the remainder of the enclave primarily served the racing, breeding, and stock activities of the farm.
Much of the land, of course, was in pasture, either fenced in or surrounded by neat Osage orange hedges. The pastures were all well watered by the Valley Creek, which ran through the farm and supplied "all the water needed". On them the brood mares and their foals could roam at will. Besides the pasture land, it was reported in the Local in 1885, 140 acres of land were sown in wheat and rye, 80 acres in corn, seven acres in tobacco, six in potatoes, five acres in carrots, and six acres in small truck produce.
The entire farm operation was under the supervision of a Superintendent, William Torbert.
The year after he bought the farm Cassatt carried out his previously announced intention to retire from the railroad and become a "country squire". In his letter of resignation, dated September 2, 1882, he simply stated that his only object "was to have more time at my disposal than anyone occupying so responsible a position in railroad management can command". In her biography of Cassatt, however, Patricia Davis also reported that "to all questions about his retirement, he replied 'Had to do it. The farm needed me'" — and with his retirement the management of the farm certainly received considerably more of his attention.
While Cassatt's principal interests appeared to be in developing his racing stable, race horses were not the only stock bred and raised at Chesterbrook, There were also extensive cattle, dairy, and sheep raising projects, as well as the breeding of horses to work the farm.
In a report in the Local in April 1887, for example, it was noted that in one barn were kept several Guernsey and Aberdeen bulls, the latter "as black as erebus, and about the head resembling the buffalo", while in the field adjoining the barn was a fine herd of Guernsey and Aberdeen cattle. In another portion of the barn were eighty head of Devon cattle being fattened for market. These cattle, it was noted, were placed in their stalls on the preceding Thanksgiving Day and had never been out of them since that time, and at the time of the report were "round., fat and sleek as moles". The cattle were fed principally on cornmeal ground with the cob, which was prepared in a room above the stalls, the feed being "let down through a spout into large hopper like cars which, when filled, are wheeled into an alleyway between the stalls and from there shoveled into the feeding troughs". Weighing 1500 to 1600 pounds a head when ready for market, Cassatt shipped some of them as far away as to Europe.
There was also an extensive sheep raising program. It was under the direction of Alexander Murdoch, brought to this country from Scotland by Cassatt to manage the flock of Shropshiredown sheep, with their black legs and faces and fine fleeces of wool.
But it was the racing stable — with the frustrations and excitement and challenge of being a race horse owner — that was A. J. Cassatt's primary interest. His first winner was a horse named Rica. (Before his retirement from the railroad, he raced his horses under the name "Mr. Kelso" to avoid possible embarrassment, but from the fall of 1882 on he entered them without use of a pseudonym.)
In May 1884. Cassatt found the horse that was to be the pride of the Chesterbrook stables. For $1,800 he became the owner of a yearling, The Bard, at a Tennessee auction. In his first race, as a two year old, The Bard ran second in the Grand Post Stakes; his first win came a month later at Monmouth (a track owned, incidentally, by a syndicate that included Cassatt, August Belmont, Pierre Lorillard, James Gordon Bennett, and D. D. Withers beginning in 1879). This was followed by several other victories before The Bard was injured when he scraped the rail in a race at Coney Island late in the season.
Fully recovered over the winter, as a three year old The Bard was second in the English Derby and won the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, as well as other victories during the season at the Monmouth, Jerome Park, Baltimore, Coney Island, and Washington race tracks. Altogether, he won $41,515 in purses during the 1886 season, more than was won by any other horse on the continent, and was described as "the best three year old of this or any other year". (It was further suggested in the Local that his winnings "would have easily reached $50,000 had Hayward [is jockey] been engaged early in the season to ride him".
The total winnings of the blue, white and red (with blue cap) of the Chesterbrook Farm stables in 1886 were $58,746; other winners including Manmen ($3,900), Edgefield ($3,898), Amalgam ($2,750), Heel and Toe ($1,900), Aeolian ($1,000), Banner Bearer ($1,000), StraightLace ($853), Lansdowne ($750), False Step ($500), and Strategy ($250).
A report in the Local in April 1887 also gives an indication of the way in which the racing stables were organized and operated.
First, it was reported, were the breeding stables, supervised by William Steele. In them were a number of "noble looking" stallions (among them Stratford, Ben d'Or and Hackaway, all running horses; Carbonier, a coach horse; Little Wonder, a cob; and Imperial Sultan, a 1750pound Percheron) and 120 brood mares, "many of which have beautiful colts running by their sides". Next came the training stables, under the care of John Huggens. Among the horses in this section were the previously mentioned The Bard, Eurus, Amalgam, Aeolian, Lottery, Lansdowne, and Banner Bearer, "all four years and all won races last season"; two three-year olds, Borderer and White Squall; Now or Never, Paragon, Marauder, Austrienne, Petulance, Bandusia, and Stray Note, all two-year olds; and seven yearling colts.
The horses, it was further reported, were all kept, unfastened, in large box stalls with nothing in them "but the bare walls and bedding". In the training stalls the bedding was "of the best rye straw", while in the breeding stables a "sort of peat", imported in large bales from Germany and "an excellent bedding", was used. Feed boxes, made of iron to prevent cribbing, were placed in the stalls during feeding times, and then taken out afterwards to avoid "bad habits".
To groom and care for the horses there was a staff of 23 men and boys. In pleasant weather the horses were exercised and trained on a three-quarter of a mile track near the stables, while, in rainy weather they were exercised inside in a building 209 feet long in which there was an indoor oblong track. Blankets, saddles (ranging in weight from one and a half pounds to five pounds) and other tack were kept in a harness room.
The 1887 racing season was also a good one for the blue, white and red of the Chesterbrook Farm. The Bard, as a four year old, won the Freehold Stakes at Saratoga, while Rurus, also a four year old, won the Suburban Handicap at Sheepshead Bay (at odds of 20 to 1) and the Brooklyn Handicap, as well as other races at Jerome Park and Coney Island.
In 1888 Chesterbrook Farm was represented at the various major race tracks with eighteen horses "on the turf". The 1889 season was the last year of horse racing for A, J. Cassatt, although his stables had "won in stakes and purses something over $60,000" during the season, highlighted by the victory of the now six year old Eurus in the Monmouth Handicap over a "pasty" track. But the season had also been marred by injuries to several of his horses, and by a bitter controversy over the failure of the New Jersey state racing officials to take action against a number of "outlaw" race tracks operating in the state. Cassatt had previously intimated that he would retire from racing if he trained a big winner; when the dispute over the outlaw tracks led to a dubious legal summons and considerable unfortunate publicity for him, he simply came "to the very sudden determination to retire from racing".
Giving as his reasons "more or less trouble" during the season and a need for "a complete rest", arrangements were made to sell most of his racing stock at auction at the American Horse Exchange in New York City at the end of October. Among the horses included in the sale were thirty-four yearlings, described by one observer as "without exception well grown and well furnished, and the majority show run, make and shape", and twelve racing horses in training, "all well and fit to run". Not included, however, were three stallions, The Bard, who had been retired the previous year after he pulled up lame in the Freehold Stakes, Stratford, and Ben d!0r, as Cassatt planned to continue the breeding stable at Chesterbrook and to sell yearlings. While it was predicted, that "these gems will provide plenty of bidding" and "realize good prices", in fact the total price for the 46 horses was only a disappointing $46,515.
Even though Cassatt gave up racing, horses, cattle and sheep continued to be the principal products of Chesterbrook Farm. In addition to his race horse breeding activities — one daughter of The Bard, Maid of Harlem, incidentally, in 1901 was named by the New York Herald "the champion thoroughbred of the year" by winning the running of the $25,000 Champion Stakes at Sheepshead Bay that year — Cassatt also gave more of his attention to the breeding and raising of hackney horses, sometimes referred to as "the sports car of our great grandfathers", and their cross-breeding with the American trotter.
The hackney horse was primarily a coach horse, combining speed and endurance and able to cover twelve to sixteen miles an hour, "keeping up his clean, trot uphill and down, regardless of mud and weather". In May 1891 the Chesterbrook Stock Farm had its first sale of twenty-five registered hackneys, through the New York office of Tattersall's, "to reduce the overflow at Chesterbrook, and to introduce to the American public the most useful as well as the most beautiful class of road horse in the world".
The hackney was originally bred in England during the eighteenth century, and it was in England that Cassatt had earlier bought the stallion Little Wonder and, in the fall of 1892, was able to add to his stable Cadet, "the best horse in England". Cadet not only won top honors at a number of horse shows throughout the country over the next few years, but also became the sire of a number of other champions, all bred and raised at Chesterbrook. Cassatt's interest in hackney horses continued for the rest of his life as he entered and drove them in horse shows all over the country, including the annual show at the Madison Square Garden, until two years before his death.
But after ten years of retirement, by the 1890's Cassatt had also developed other interests. Travel was a favorite recreation, and he and his wife spent a great deal of time in England, and on the continent with his parents and sister, the artist Mary Cassatt. With their daughters, in 1895 they went for an extended trip to Egypt and down the Nile. That year he also bought a yacht and sailed a good bit. Maintaining homes in Haverford and Philadelphia, in addition to Chesterbrook, he was also elected and served for sixteen years, from 1882 to 1898, as a supervisor of Lower Merion township, advocating better roads, street lighting, and other civic improvements.
Nor did he really abandon his interest in railroading: within a year of his retirement he had rejoined the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad; in 1885 he was named president of the proposed New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad; and in 1891 he was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison one of three commissioners to study an intercolonial railroad to connect North and South America. Finally, in June 1899, at the age of 60, he was reluctantly persuaded to give up his life as a country squire and return to the active management of the Pennsylvania Railroad as its president.
Well established as a successful stock farm, it appeared that Chesterbrook and "the farm" no longer "needed" the attention from its owner that he had felt it did seventeen years earlier.
Under the efficient supervision of its farm superintendents — first Torbert and later R. Perm Smith and R. A. Coigan — the Chesterbrook Stock Farm continued to be recognized as one of the great stock farms in the country, and it was visited often by other stock breeders and sportsmen. In addition, Cassatt entertained, "in regal style", many of the nation1s business and industrial leaders, politicians and government officials, and even royalty at his Tredyffrin estate. It also became something of an attraction for curious passers-by: "Carriages occupied by ladies," it was reported in the Local in 1891, "drive there every pleasant day, gentlemen riding are often seen entering the hedge-bordered lane, and even persons walking despite the fact that the farm is fully two miles distant from Berwyn station. Mr. Cassatt has given orders to admit any who are desirous of looking at the horses and their luxurious quarters. As the farm contains over one square mile, it is an afternoon's employment to explore the place."
After the death of Alexander J, Cassatt, on December 28, 1906, the Chesterbrook Stock Farm and its 300 head of stock became the property of his son, Captain Edward B. Cassatt,
One of the early instructions of the new owner, as he took over the farm', it was reported in the Local in early 1907, was that "the number of animals shall be maintained and kept in as good condition as in the time of his father". Alexander J. Cassatt's Chesterbrook Farm obviously had an enviable reputation to maintain!
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