The Fairfield County Hunt Club (FCHC), founded in 1923, is undeniably one of the most unique and stylish clubs in Fairfield County. It’s that unusual place where you can wear jodhpurs with tall leather boots and look like an athlete, not a fashion victim.
With FCHC, founded in 1923, Westport is fortunate to host one of 19 “heritage competitions” in the U.S. Impressive, given there are over 2,200 equestrian tracks/centers nation-wide. According to USEF.org, heritage status is bestowed upon only those who make “substantial contribution toward the development and promotion of the sport” and achieve “the equestrian ideals of the sportsmanship and competition.”
That status, and the integrity of FCHC, attracts world-class riders from South America, Ireland, and more to its horse events. The June show, in particular, boasts over 600 horses and riders from near and far-flung locales. The 5-day event culminates in a $50,000 Grand Prix and a family day with pony-kissing. I’m a bit unclear on who kisses whom, which is fine because I don’t plan to participate, even though the kids dig it. It also typifies FCHC’s inclusive nature despite its lofty reputation.
Given its standing in the rarefied world of equine competition, one would think FCHC sprang from the minds and wallets of several erudite polo-playing gents who honed their skills at Eton before quadrupling their family’s pre-tax railroad fortune. But the real story, involving two female artists, is far more interesting.
W. Averell Harriman, a thoroughbred racing enthusiast and heir to a headline-grabbing fortune, commissioned Laura Gardin Fraser to design a medal for the Horse Association of America Polo Pony. Laura, an accomplished artist, was no stranger to bas-relief sculpture, having designed numerous medals and coins throughout her life.
She lived in Westport with her more-famous husband (because that’s how it was back then), sculptor James Earle Fraser, her professor from the Arts Students’ League of New York and designer of the Buffalo Nickel. The couple enjoyed a large estate in the Coleytown area of Westport and is credited with the creation of Westport’s esteemed arts’ colony.
Her most notable numismatic achievement was beating out a number of men to win the 1931 design for our Washington quarter. However, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon ignored the triumph and selected a man’s design to grace our twenty-five cent coin (many folks then accused him of misogyny, even by 1930’s standards.1) 68 years later, in 1999, America issued a commemorative $5 gold piece stamped with her winning design.
Now back to the polo medal. To research Averell’s project, she hopped on her horse and puttered around her estate with a polo stick. Her friend and fellow sculptor, Lila Howard, saw her playing one day and saddled up to join the game. Little is known about Lila save for her parents' messy divorce and a portrait by Ralph Boyer in the Westport art collection.
Lila’s husband and most likely the third to help them smack around the ball was Oscar Howard. Though Oscar was an artist he was more famously a cartoonist. New Yorker magazine credits Oscar with pioneering its one-liner cartoon which appears in the first issue of the periodical.2 It depicts a disinterested man reacting to his wife’s enthusiasm for visiting France. The caption reads “I don’t know what I shall do, Amelia, when I think of you alone in Paris.” Which is pretty much how I tell my son I won’t be accompanying him to KHS playground to play tag. Again.
Once more, back to the polo medal. Others noticed the mallet-wielding trio jockeying about, grabbed horse and hammer, and entered the fun-fray. Soon they organized games, hunts, races and what began as a lark ended up as FCHC. The club, then financed by notably wealthy Westport residents whose names you’d recognize from streets and middle schools around town, was an instant sensation, attracting hippophiles and fox hunters from around the country.
Moving right along, in 1936 Laura, along with 5 prominent male cohorts, was tapped to submit designs for a statue glorifying the meeting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with their fearless equine. Laura won, and her celebrated double-horse monument was erected in Baltimore in 1948.
Years later, a mid-June evening in 2015 saw the Charleston church massacre by self-proclaimed white supremacist and Confederate extremist Dylan Roof.3 This mass killing and the next year’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA,4 sparked by the proposed removal of four Confederate statues, precipitated discussions among Baltimore officials about Laura’s statue. In the early hours of August 16, 2017, her work was quietly removed from its base and moved to an undisclosed location. When, or if, it will be seen again is unknown.
And back to the Hunt Club. Though the FCHC is updated with pools, tennis courts, a new clubhouse, and all sorts of modern country club amenities, equestrian events remain its raison d’etre. No doubt the spirit of every artist who participated in Laura’s filly folly waft in periodically to sample the farm-to-table dinners and enjoy all that club’s horse events have to offer. Except for the pony kissing.
Laura and her husband James, now deceased, are buried in Westport’s Willowbrook “Daffodil Mile” Cemetery.
1 Breen, W., Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins, 1988, Doubleday, New York, NY, pp 364-365.
2 Maslin, M, Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker's Greatest Cartoonist, p. 31
3 Wikipedia, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E Lee Monument
Fairfield County Hunt Club
174 Long Lots Rd, Westport, CT 06880