Devon Horse Show is Pennsylvania's crown jewel
Equestrian competition and country fair draws fans beyond 'horsey set'
Devon Horse Show draws visitors, competitors to Devon, Pa. (Chris Nichols Photo Courtesy of Devon, Baltimore Sun / May 16, 2012)
"It started as a one-day horse show in 1896," says Leonard A. King, Jr., 80, a longtime leader in the equestrian community who chairs the event.
"We're now in the 116th year, and we'll go for 11 days. Over the years, we've had presidents, celebrities and visitors from across the country, and foreign countries, in attendance."
Devon, which begins May 24 and runs through June 3, is the oldest and largest multibreed, outdoor equine show in the United States. The country fair, a companion to the show, was launched in 1919.
"We average about 100,000 visitors annually," says Mimi Killian, a longtime volunteer. "Many local families have been coming for generations, but every year we also welcome people for the first time."
The setting is Chester County and the picturesque enclave of Devon (population: 5,100), part of the historic Main Line' suburbs west of Philadelphia.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Main Line — affluent towns along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad — were fabled for sprawling country estates, and many of Philadelphia's wealthy inhabitants summered here. Sporting and lifestyle traditions included cricket, fox hunting, polo and horseback riding.
Today, the area remains exclusive — Chester County is among the wealthiest of Pennsylvania's counties — with multimillion-dollar stone Colonial homes, prep schools and street names that pay homage to equine culture (Steeplechase Road, for example).
Yet one doesn't have to belong to the "horsey" set to feel welcome, say those involved with the show and fair. "The town is very nice. It feels like a suburban village," says King."It's not as commercial. The horses are the draw."
Devon, recognized by the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame as the Horse Show of the Year, is a place where spectators can expect to view budding and top equestrian talent, including Olympic gold medalists.
A magnificent array of horses and ponies will be on hand, including saddlebreds, hackney ponies, Friesians and fine harness horses, in nearly 900 permanent stalls.
There will be events featuring riders as young as 5 and 6 years old, on up to juniors through adults.
This year, Devon will be hosting two U.S. Show Jumping Team Observation events — part of the qualifying process used to select the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. The first observation event is the Grand Prix at 8 p.m. May 31; the second is the Idle Dice Stakes, at 4 p.m. June 2.
"What happens here will be very important in deciding who will compete on the U.S. show jumping team at the London Olympics this summer," said Killian. "It's a rare opportunity to see elite athletes and horses."
Beyond the high-stakes competitions, which come with six-figure purses, Devon will offer family-friendly activities as well as a variety of exhibitions and special events.
Western rider Lizzie Traband will show off her ability to control her mount without a bridle. There will be carriage racing, and the Wells Fargo stagecoach — drawn by a team of six horses — will offer onlookers a taste of the old Wild West.
The Radnor Hunt hounds will sniff their way along the parade route, while the Philadelphia Mounted Patrol Unit will perform. Back Barn tours will show the inner workings of a stable. Other activities include a tea at the Devon Club and a popular Hat Contest on Ladies' Day, May 30, judged by fashion expert and reality TV star Carson Kressley.
Also highly anticipated: the Doggie Dog Parade, to be held on Memorial Day. Meanwhile, the prestigious Hunter Derby will take place on the final Sunday, June 3.
Last but not least is the country fair, which features a Ferris wheel high above the show grounds, carousel rides and classic games.
Boutiques set up in cottages will offer a selection of goods: men's and women's sportswear, leather chaps and saddles, custom-made boots, blankets, alpaca coats, gold, silver and turquoise jewelry, paintings, antiques, toys and games, needlework, pottery and home decor, as well as souvenirs and collectibles.
Food choices range from standard fair fare — hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and soft drinks — to the Garden Cafe, which will offer a selection of gourmet foods, including fine wines, every afternoon and evening.
The amount of food served annually gives new meaning to the old adage about someone eating "like a horse."
Last year, about 1,400 pounds of Devon fudge was sold, along with more than 12,000 hamburgers, 9,000 hot dogs and 37,056 scoops of ice cream. Pulling off the horse show and fair wouldn't be possible without a slew of volunteers, organizers say.
"Thousands of volunteers work year-round," said Killian, who adds that more than 2,500 work at the fair alone. "The volunteers are what make this great."
Among the dedicated volunteers is Debbie Martin, one of this year's country fair co-chairpersons. She has given her time to Devon for 36 years — after being asked by a friend back in 1976 to help grill hot dogs. Both of Martin's parents began volunteering shortly thereafter. Today, her husband, son and daughter all volunteer.
It's that spirit and sense of community that have made the Devon horse show and fair such a special experience all these years.
"Thanks to so many good people," says King, "I'm convinced the show will be here forever."
If you go
The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair
The events run from May 24 through June 3. General admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under and seniors 65 and over. Reserved grandstand tickets range from $12 to $55, depending on the performance. For tickets and other information, call 610-688-2554 or go to devonhorseshow.org.
Devon, Pa., is about 102 miles from Baltimore, a little more than two hours by car. The town is also served by Amtrak, and the grounds for the horse show are directly across the street from the train station. For ticket information, go to amtrak.com
The Main Line is less than 20 minutes from Philadelphia, which is easily accessed by taking the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority's Paoli/Thorndale Line from Devon.
Desmond Hotel and Conference Center, One Liberty Blvd., Malvern, Pa., 610-296-9800, desmondgv.com. The sprawling hotel has 194 guest rooms, many with four-poster canopy beds. Besides a fitness center, amenities include three restaurants, including the equestrian-themed Hunt Room and Fox and Hounds, an English pub.
The Wayne Hotel, 139 Lancaster Ave., Wayne, Pa., 610-687-5000, waynehotel.com. Built in 1906 and renovated in 2011, this boutique hotel within walking distance of Devon. At its restaurant, Paramour, try the tuna sliders, and a caramel chocolate parfait with salted peanuts and marshmallow.
Ella's American Bistro, 214 Sugartown Road, Wayne, Pa. 610-964-3552, ellasamericanbistro.com. Classic American fare with French and Southern influences. Sample a gourmet burger with Muenster on a pretzel roll, or crab carbonara.
The Black Cat Cafe, 40 Berkeley Road, Devon, Pa. 610-688-1930, theblackcatcafe.org. Freshly made soups, salads, sandwiches, and vegetarian/vegan dishes. Baked goods include pecan pie, scones and cinnamon rolls. Meal proceeds benefit a nonprofit organization that rescues homeless cats.
Gardens The bucolic countryside near the Devon Horse Show is home to gardens and arts venues. Notables include Chanticleer Garden, the 35-acre former estate of the Rosengarten family (chanticleergarden.org), and Jenkins Arboretum and Garden (jenkinsarboretum.org), 46 acres showcasing native trees, shrubs, rhododendrons, azaleas, laurels, ferns and wildflowers.
Museums The Wharton Esherick Museum features 200 works by the sculptor ,who worked primarily in wood and was heralded as the "dean of American craftsmen." Open by appointment. Go to whartonesherickmusuem.org. Also nearby is Valley Forge National Historic Park.
Shopping King of Prussia Court and Plaza, 160 N. Gulph Road, King of Prussia, Pa. 610-265-5727. King of Prussia gets bragging rights as the largest enclosed shopping mall on the East Coast. Another perk: no sales tax on clothing in Pennsylvania. Locally, Devon Hill Boutique, 20 Lancaster Ave. in Devon, 484-654-1245, shopbluehorse.com. The shop is inside a local BMW dealership and has jewelry, funky accessories, and fun gifts.
For more information on visiting the area, contact the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau at brandywinevalley.com, or the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. at visitphilly.com.