The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair Benefiting the Bryn Mawr Hospital is the oldest and largest outdoor multi-breed horse competition in the United States, featuring Hunters, Jumpers, Carriages, and Saddlebreds. The eleven day event held in Devon, Pennsylvania which began as a one day horse show in 1896 with 30 classes and prize money of $10, $5, and a ribbon, now offers 45 divisions with more than $325,000 in prize money, the crown jewel of which is the $100,000 Devon Grand Prix.
With an attendance of over 95,000 spectators, and box seats that are handed down from generation to generation, a place overlooking the Dixon Oval “WHERE CHAMPIONS MEET” is hard to come by. Offering the rare combination of being steeped in tradition while also moving forward into the 21st century, it’s no wonder that in 2010, Devon became just the fourth American horse show to be honored with the distinction of a USEF Heritage Competition, and was recognized for the second consecutive year by the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame as the Horse Show of the Year. Horses and riders competing at Devon have to meet a stringent qualification process in order to participate. In essence nothing short of the best of the best will be lucky enough to walk through the In Gates of Devon.
History ~ Courtesy of the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair
In the late 1800’s, the Pennsylvania Railroad established several stations along the Harrison branch, among them the Devon station. By the spring of 1896, numerous well-to-do families maintained homes along the Main Line. Many of these estates were some distance from the station, and although the automobile had been invented, most people in Devon still depend on the horse and carriage for local transportation. There was, therefore, a need for good harness horses.
To encourage the breeding or more and better horses, the heads of several prominent families met in the Devon Inn one bright June day and created the Devon Horse Show Association. After electing officers and an Executive Committee, the group decided to hold a one-day Horse Show on July 2, 1896. They chose the Devon Race Track and Polo Grounds as the site for the show.
The First Devon Horse Show was very different from today’s eleven day event. It consisted of 30 classes, with the largest class having only 10 entries. While many of the classes had traditional titles, others were quite interesting, such as “Brood Mares with foal at foot,” “Stallions Suitable to get an All-Purpose horse, and Saddle Horses Capable of Going the Regulation Kentucky Gaits.” There were no Jumper classes and most of the Hunter Classes were “Under saddle.” The fenced-in show ring was constructed on grass, and the judges and officials sat in a gazebo in the center. In 1897, the Devon Horse Show ran again for one day, but by 1898 it had become so popular that it was extended for 2 days. Apparently, so guests at the Devon Inn could view the show, it was moved in 1898 to the lawn of the Inn, where it remained through 1900. The show continued to bring together a colorful mixture of farmers, horse breeders, and horsemen with their horses, ponies, carriages and wagons to compete for recognition and prize money.
During the first five years of the show, spectators brought their own ringside seats in an informal gathering to watch the horse or carriage events. The only protection from rain or sun was provided by parasols and umbrellas, and there was no recourse from the mud caused by the rain.
From some unexplained reason, the Association did not hold shows from 1901 to 1909 then, in 1910 the Devon Horse Show was revived at the original Polo Grounds as a three-day event. Largely the result of the untiring efforts of William T. Hunter, who served as president that year, the 1910 show was a great success. Many improvements were made for spectators, including the construction of our wooden stands containing 46 boxes protected by canvas awnings as well as an extended boardwalk and a bandstand for musicians. At this point automobiles and carriages could still park around the rest of the ring. Today the Horse Show has 309 boxes and 24 skyboxes.
By 1914, the Devon Horse Show was the largest horse Show in the United States, with a thousand entries. To accommodate the growing crowds, more stands were built behind the boardwalk. Programs were printed that not only listed entries, owners, and advertisers, but also included poems and songs about Devon and its horses. In 1917, the Devon Horse Show was a founding member of the American Horse Show Associations (AHSA) and a registered national show for the state.
A Permanent Home
Due to World War I the show was not held in 1918. In 1919, it came back bigger and better than ever. This was the year that the Devon Horse Show Association officially incorporated into the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, Inc. Donated food and goods were sold at the show for the benefit of the Bryn Mawr Hospital. By selling shares, the corporation was able to purchase the grounds, which helped to ensure that the show had a permanent home. By 1923, the show’s success had created the need for more seating, so the boardwalk and wooden boxes were replaced by the Main Grandstand, which was constructed on concrete foundations and piers. This was also the year the Coaching Horn “Yard of Tin” was acquired, and in 1930 Clarence (Honey) Craven started a tradition that continues to this day: He sounded the Coaching Horn to announce the opening of the classes on each of the five days of the show.
No permanent stabling was built on the land until after World War I. However, in the 1920’s William DuPont, Jr. built the first stables on the property; others quickly followed his example. Today, up to 900 horses can be housed on the grounds.
By 1928 there were nearly two thousand entries. Much of the Horse Show’s success was due to the leadership of Thomas W. Clark, who served as manager from 1919 to 1942. Among the traditions that were started during Mr. Clark’s tenure was that of naming days, such as Children’s Day, Marathon Day, Volunteers’ Day, and Governors’ Day (when Pennsylvania Governors or their representatives attended the show).
The Great Depression and World War II
The Great Depression of the 1930s did not seem to affect the show greatly. In 1939 the main ring was renovated to allow appropriate drainage and surfacing for horses. Dedicated as the Wanamaker Oval (to honor William H. Wanamaker, a founder of the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, Inc.), it became classified as the largest show ring in the world. The First lighted outdoor ring and evening classes were added to the show in 1941.
World War II prevented shows being held in 1943, ‘44 and ‘45, although the Committee reserved its show dates each year with the AHSA. One of those years the Committee substituted the Horse Show with a dog show.
With the end of the War, the Devon Horse Show celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1946. During an impressive Memorial Day ceremony held in the Wanamaker Oval, thousands of people stood silently while the Valley Forge Military Academy Band played taps.
The 50s through the 90s - Season of Change
By the 1950’s, more and more horse shows were being held around the country, and the increased competition spelled trouble for the Devon Horse Show. Into the breech stepped President William C. Hunneman and Treasurer Frank Ellis. These remarkable officers managed to put the show back on solid financial ground.
The 1960s were full of change for the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair. First, to help accommodate the increasing number of spectators, the Committee built a new grandstand south of the Main Grandstand.
Next, the outside course, which was becoming dangerous to spectators attempting to cross the field during events, was demolished to create a new ring south of the Wanamaker Oval. Known as the Gold Ring, it was built through the generosity and support of Jean Ellen DuPont McConnell.
Finally, during the 1960s several more jumper divisions were added, including the FEI classes and the Grand Prix, which was held on Thursday night. In addition, Budweiser, the “King of Beers,” sponsored “The Sport of Kings.” While the Devon Horse Show was already very popular, these new events helped swell the crowds.
The 1970s and 1980s also brought change and expansion. By 1971, the lack of sod on the track and the e density of traffic left nothing but mud whenever it rained. With a significant contribution from F. Eugene Dixon, Jr., the Wanamaker Oval was greatly enlarged and rebuilt. In 1990, it was renamed the Dixon Oval to show appreciation for Mr. Dixon’s generosity.
During the 1980s, new grandstands were constructed, and ringside parking was limited. Then, when a structural evaluation of the Main Grandstand in 1990 showed failure, the Committee decided to demolish the original 1923 stand and replace all the structural wood with steel. At the same time, the Committee insisted that the new structure retain the original grandstand appearance of the Edwardian era. It was completed and in use for the 1991 Horse Show.
Continuing a Proud Tradition
In 1976, the Devon Horse Show celebrated its 80th Anniversary, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came down to participate in the Celebration.
Over the years, jumping events have become the favorite of spectators and riders alike, and, fair weather or foul, the Thursday Grand Prix continually draws standing-room only crowds. As a result, competition in these classes has become very intense. To have an entry accepted in the Hunter and Jumper divisions, horses must go through a year-long qualifying process.
A glimpse of the past is maintained every night in one of Devon’s most popular classes - The Coaching Competition. The great popularity and success of the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair continues with its many time-honored traditions. For example, the show still includes classes such as Parent and Child, Family, Hunt Teams for Horses and for Ponies.