Land rich in history

The Fair Hill Training Center finds its roots in a member of the affluent duPont family.

May 20, 2006|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

Fair Hill -- Much has been made of the serene setting where Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness darling Barbaro has been training at the Fair Hill Training Center in the northern reaches of the state.

While other stakes horses are often quartered and trained in the more competitive atmosphere of racetracks, Barbaro resides and works in a decidedly quieter, more pastoral place where the contrasting gentle pace has become a subplot in the dark bay colt's Triple Crown quest.

That the 350-acre training center exists at all - along with an adjoining public recreation area nearly 16 times larger - is the result of the ambitious, even obsessive, accumulation of land in the first half of the 20th century by a scion of one of America's wealthiest families and later, a fortuitous purchase by the state.

Should Barbaro win the Preakness, perhaps some of the credit should go to William duPont Jr., an heir to the vast explosives and chemical fortune, who assembled what today is known as the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area as a fox chasing estate just east of the intersection of routes 213 and 273 in Cecil County.

"The first thing he built was the kennels for the hounds," said William H. Skinner, 79, who has lived most of his life at Fair Hill and worked for duPont when the place was called Foxcatcher Farms. "There were two things here you didn't mess with if you wanted to stay here - that fox chasing and that track out there."

Skinner, better known as Howard and who still works preparing for major Fair Hill events such as this weekend's Scottish Games, was referring to a 3 1/2 -mile steeplechase course that duPont built, modeling it after the famous Aintree course in England. The racing facility also has a 7/8 -mile turf track, grandstands and pari-mutuel betting windows. The training center, which leases its 350 acres from the state, has its own dirt and wood-chip tracks for thoroughbred training.

Montpelier to Maryland

DuPont - who had the dubious nickname of "Dirty Willie" in part for his habit of humble dress (Skinner said the multimillionaire used tire patches to keep his rubber boots serviceable) - grew up in Montpelier, James Madison's ancestral home.

After moving north where he lived in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square and at Bellevue Mansion near Wilmington, he moved his fox hound operation to Fair Hill, where he aggressively bought property both in Maryland and across the state line in Pennsylvania. DuPont's first purchase was in 1928, Skinner said, and there would be many more to follow.

That the country was on the cusp of the Depression likely accelerated the acquisition of land from farmers who were primarily working 50- and 60-acre subsistence farms raising grain, potatoes, corn and keeping modest amounts of chickens and livestock. By the time of his death in 1965, duPont had assembled about 7,600 acres with about 5,600 in Cecil County and the rest in southern Pennsylvania.

"Logic would dictate that the economy [of the Depression] made it easier to acquire that much land," said Mike Dixon, president of the Historical Society of Cecil County. "Plus you were dealing with farm families."

From fall through spring, duPont used his private preserve to chase fox, usually with only paid staff to accompany him. The racecourses that he built were home to steeplechase and flat races, held in conjunction with livestock auctions, where gentry and farmers would attend and wager.

He also had a string of thoroughbreds that trained in Delaware and wore the blue and gold colors of Foxcatcher. One of those, Dauber, won the 1938 Preakness and was second in both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. And at Fair Hill, duPont kept a herd of hybrid cattle, Santa Gertrudis, a cross of Brahmans and Shorthorns.

Personal property

Fascinated with civil engineering, duPont built roads, tunnels and bridges throughout his Fair Hill property so that every part of his rural empire was accessible without using public roads. A fox chasing clubhouse, which now serves as a nature center, was built using Italian stonemasons. But a number of landmark covered bridges throughout the property predate duPont's ownership.

"When spring came, you knew you were going to be building something," Skinner said. Among duPont's more ambitious projects was a T-topped fence with footers that go nearly 3 feet deep and that stretches for 17 miles, but still not far enough to encircle the property.

DuPont, whose son John gained infamy for killing Olympic wrestler David Schultz in 1996 on the suburban Philadelphia estate also known as Foxcatcher, occasionally exhibited flashes of eccentricity sometimes associated with the super-rich.

Skinner recalled that in 1965, duPont directed him to make a three-week automobile trek to Southern California to one of the millionaire's homes. The purpose: to hang a half-dozen photos of horses and deliver a box of bed linens and a case of Noxzema.

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