Thursday, February 16, 2012

Horses, Horses, Horses (and more horses) . . . in Great Neck

Horses once roamed wild on the Great Neck peninsula.  Okay, not really.  Okay, not at all.  But horses were a big part of daily life here, and most everywhere, before small mechanized vehicles (a.k.a. cars and trucks) became all the rage.  An extensive series of bridal paths was one of the things that sold homeowners on buying in the Village of Russell Gardens.  News stories about runaway horses found grazing on front lawns were common during the years when rural farm/estate Great Neck was becoming bedroom community/suburban Great Neck.  Horses were everywhere, because horses did a lot of work for their human masters.
   
Roswell Eldridge, owner of the pre-Village estate of Saddle Rock, on one of his prized horses.  Eldridge had stables in Great Neck and England and raised saddle horses. He also raised Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and, occasionally, eyebrows (see May 2011 Local History Blog Post on Saddle Rock's 100th Anniversary).


    
Did you know that Great Neck once had an annual horse show?  On October 14, 1899, the Great Neck Horse Show Association held its first annual exhibition at Gracefield Farm, the home of prominent Great Neck resident and former New York City mayor William Russell Grace.  By 1930 the Great Neck Horse Show had grown to include 490 entries in 21 different classes.  Hosting 3,000 spectators, it had been moved to the grounds of the Alker Farm on Kings Point Road.
  
Look familiar?  Helen Merritt posed here with the same horse on the same Saddle Rock hillside as the photo above.  There's a good chance that these photos were taken contemporaneously.  Ms. Merritt was a founding member and treasurer of the Great Neck Library and friend of the illustrious Louise Udall Skidmore Eldridge, the "First Lady" of Great Neck.
   
In 1903, amateur jockeys began to run in the first horse race at Gracefield, sponsored by the Great Neck Racing Association.  In the early 1900's, Great Neck's polo team, the Freebooters, played against other local teams.  There was major coverage in the press of these polo games and tournaments, which were closely followed by many locals, particularly the wealthier set.  Practice and home polo games were played on the estate of William R. Grace.
   
At the turn of the 20th Century, the Alert Fire Company relied on large draft horses (the original horsepower) to get their pumper to a fire.  This and other postcards can be viewed online at the Great Neck Local History Postcard Collection.
   
Before automobiles became the main means of personal and commercial transportation, horse-drawn vehicles were commonplace on the streets, fields, and paths of Great Neck.  Work horses plowed the fields and did the heavy hauling on Great Neck's farms and estates before tractors, trucks, and large lawnmowers were available, or affordable.  Harness sales, carriage repairs, carriage sales, feed and hay supply, blacksmithing, horseshoeing, stables, and all manner of horse and rider related services were major contributors to the local economy.  In Great Neck, these services were provided by the likes of Robert A. Ellard (carriage maker and horseshoer), George H. Fowler (dealer in feed, hay, straw and grain), John Higgins (blacksmith and horseshoer), the Schenck Brothers Coaching, Carriage & Wheelwright Shop, The Thomaston House (livery stable), Karasek & Swan Fine & Heavy Harness Shop, Crampton Brothers (livery/boarding stable, horse contracting and teaming), the Burke Feed and Grain Shop, the Thurston Blacksmith Shop, Edward M. Scott (saddler), and Fileman's Harness Making.
   
Photo of Belle Beach Bain (not in the collection of the Great Neck Library).  Several years ago, librarians were asked to find information on Belle Beach Bain, who was a famous and gifted horsewoman, a renowned horse trainer, and an expert on horse riding and handling.  Ms. Beach was most active in the late 1800's and early 1900's.   She was considered by many to be the "greatest equestrienne of her time."  She spent the last years of her life in Great Neck, appearing at local horse shows and around town.  At this time she was dealing with many health issues, some of which were likely due to injuries received over the years while riding, racing, and working with horses.  Ms. Beach’s Riding And Driving For Women of 1912 was a landmark book in its day.  Belle Beach died on January 8, 1926, at her home in the Ninesling Apartments on Middle Neck Road.  Though news reports and obituaries from this period did not mention these things overtly, Ms. Beach may have died by her own hand.
    
An early 1900's postcard showing horse-drawn carriages (and a lone automobile) on Middle Neck Road, between Hicks Lane and North Road.  Avram Wolf's real estate and insurance business, and Ed Belinson's watchmaking and jewelry business can be seen on the left of this image.  Across the street is the driveway entrance to what is now Kings Point Auto at 744 Middle Neck Road.  This and other postcards can be viewed online at the Great Neck Local History Postcard Collection.
   
John C. Baker mowing hay at the Baker farm.  The Baker farm ran from Middle Neck Road to East Shore Road in what is now called the Baker Hill area of the Village of Great Neck.  More information about the Baker Family and their farm is available through a searchable online version of Mills P. Baker's  Breezy Hill, The Baker Hill Farm.
    
Nell (woman), Monte (dog), Pepita (horse)
and their cart (carriage), at Locust Cove (Kings Point) north
of the Mill Pond (Udall's Pond).  Photograph taken August, 1901.

   
Solomon Harris giving John Baker's daughter Anne Roesler and children a sleigh ride through the Baker barnyard.  Photograph taken 1937. See Breezy Hill, The Baker Farm for much more information on, and photos of, the Baker Farm.







       

Do you recognized this rider?  This horse?  This location?  The Library's Local History Room recently acquired 3 photos of this rider (on this horse, at this location), but we do not know where in Great Neck the photos were taken, only that they were indeed taken here.  Please contact the Great Neck Library Reference Department if you have any information on the content of this photo ~ 516-466-8055, ext. 218.
   









Section of a circa 1920 Baker/Crowell Real Estate map showing the half mile race track on the William Gould Brokaw Estate, Nirvana (now North High School, Beach Road, Polo Road, and Lawson Lane).  Polo Road was so named because of the polo matches and drills that were held on the Brokaw estate.  Equestrian competitions, training and breeding were so important in this era that maps would indicate where such things as race tracks, stables, and bridal paths were located.
  
The photo above of a rider at the Great Neck Horse Show, and two similar ones, were purchased with funds donated in honor of librarian Risha Rosner, a major force behind the creation of the Great Neck Library's Local History Collection and services. Contributions to the Risha Rosner Fund aid in developing our knowledge of Great Neck history, and can be made by contacting the Library at 516-466-8055 or questions@greatnecklibrary.org.  If you have historic photos or other materials to share, the Library can scan and/or copy them and return them to you, often while you wait.

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