Local history headed home

200-year-old horse farm to become a museum at community college

September 16, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the Sun

Eleanor O'Brien Edwards fondly recalls growing up around famed horses in Harford County in the 1940s and 1950s.

On a recent afternoon, Edwards sat at the kitchen table in her Bel Air home, leafing through old photographs of horses and Prospect Hill, where she and her parents lived with the Heighe family, who were prominent in horse circles at the time. Edwards displayed horse racing records and scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and memorabilia.

"It's important to the county and the horse industry that the people and events in these books and photographs aren't forgotten," she said.

Recently, Edwards was called upon to help preserve the history contained in her collection of equestrian artifacts, by a committee that is working to restore the 200-year-old Prospect Hill Farm where the Heighe family bred and trained their horses.

The preservation of Prospect Hill was put into motion because the once-prosperous horse breeding farm made up of several buildings has dwindled to two: the main house and a spring house.

Seeking to preserve what's left of the property, which is located on the Harford Community College campus, college officials started a $1.5 million renovation and restoration project.

The culmination of the project will be a museum that will include rooms devoted to two important aspects of Harford County's past: one showcasing equestrian history, with an emphasis on the Heighe family, and another highlighting African-American heritage.

"The museum will have an equestrian theme because Prospect Hill Farm has so many connections to equestrian life in Harford County," said Katherine McGuire, the grants manager for Harford Community College. "The farm was one of four well-known horse breeding centers in the county."

The Heighes played an important role in the farm's history, she said. Anne Heighe was well-known among the horse set and was the first woman to be nominated vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. Durbar II, who won the English Derby in 1914, is buried on the grounds of the Hays Heighe House, McGuire said.

Among the items that might end up in the museum are photographs of the Heighes' horses dating from the 1930s, original newspaper clippings about horse races, Bel Air Racetrack memorabilia, films showing the property and horses in the 1930s, and a silk scarf that names all the Epson Derby winners, including Durbar II.

The project will be funded by several sources, including about $800,000 from the college and $200,000 from the county, while a $150,000 grant proposal is pending with the National Endowment for the Humanities, said James LaCalle, president of HCC. Private fundraisers also are planned.

The first phase of the renovation - which includes stabilizing the foundation and repairing the roof of the main house - is almost done, he said.

Edwards, 72, plans to donate pieces of her collection that she acquired from the Heighe estate.

The story of Edwards' association with the Heighe family began when she was an infant. Her mother, Jemina Hicks, was the cook for the Heighes, and her father, John Henry Hicks, was their chauffeur. She lived with the Heighes from 1935 to 1953, first at the family's Moore's Mill manor home and later at Prospect Hill.

She spent a year living in the main house at Prospect Hill - today known as the Hays Heighe House. The farm and horse operation was bequeathed to Robert Heighe in 1921 by his aunt Ellen Duryea. The estate included a valuable collection of brood mares, horses in training, and Durbar II, she said.

Edwards recalled first moving into the house at Prospect Hill.

"People told me the house was haunted, and I was scared to death," she said. "I put a desk in front of my bedroom door."

Among Edwards' most fond memories is that of her relationship with Anne Heighe.

"Madam - that's what I always called her - was generous and good to me," Edwards said. "She was strict but caring."

Edwards' experience living at the farm is the motivation to see that the Heighe family and its contributions to the county are not forgotten.

"I want people that will appreciate the things I have, to get to see them," Edwards said. "I know if Anne Heighe knew what was going on at the house, she would be so proud."

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