1923: The Beginning
It all started with the design of a polo medal. In 1923 Averill Harriman commissioned the well known sculptress, Mrs. Laura Gardin Fraser, North Avenue, Westport, to create such a medal. In order to understand the game, she borrowed some mallets, mounted a horse and started knocking the ball around her property. She was soon joined by others in her neighborhood and before long, informal games were taking place using two stone gateposts as goals.
A year later, this interest led to the formation of a club designed to foster the love of horse-oriented events such as horse shows, polo matches and hunting. Several area residents helped draw up the original ground rules for the new club including General and Mrs. C.I. DeBevoise, George Gair, Fred Bedford, Donald Perkins, Karl Dodge and Laurence M. Cornwall.
Although the Club was first headquartered in a house off Redcoat Road in Westport, Gair conveyed our present 38 acres to the Club in October, 1925 with a $75,000 bonding agreement to finance the Clubhouse being recorded a month later. Gair, FCHC’s first president, then asked Charles Cutler, a prosperous young architect, to design a clubhouse and two barns (#1 and #2). It is believed that the huge open chimneys at either end of the present dining room were inspired by similar fireplaces and chimneys in the Club’s Redcoat Road headquarters. The entire project, including a new show ring, was completed in 1927.
With all of its activities, it didn’t take long for the Club to become nationally known in the horse circuit with its three-day Class A show events soon attracting the finest exhibitors in the east.
Hunting, which had started informally in 1923, was officially launched in 1924. The Hunt, organized by Donald Perkins, was recognized by the Masters of FoxHounds Association in 1926. A favorite place for the hunt to begin was at Carleton Palmer’s place, now the site of the Paterson Club. Palmer followed Perkins as Master and is remembered for his wonderful hunt breakfasts and informal “gatherings” after the hunt. On the Palmer grounds there was also a steeplechase course which was much used in those days. Meets were also held on Greenfield Hill with fox hunters riding through the properties of Mrs. Barbara Taylor, Pepperidge Farm-owned land, and on land adjacent to Bayberry Lane and Merwins Lane.
In the late forties the hunt moved to Newtown although drag hunts continued in Fairfield until the area just got too crowded. Today the hunt is headquartered in Bridgewater, CT.
Polo was first played on a field near the Dolge property in Westport and later at a field on Hull’s Farm Road. The present polo field was contributed by Henry A. Rudkin.
Polo was popular for several years at the Club but in the early 80’s interest waned and polo was discontinued. (In 1990, several members led a revival in the sport and with the help of instructors and polo ponies from Yale University, polo chukkers are once again a part of the Club’s activities).
The depression arrived and it seemed that the leisure-oriented horse scene was doomed. Membership dropped rapidly and the Club found itself in serious financial straits. But with foresight and generous financial backing, Smith Richardson, Fred Bedford, and Fred Sturges along with the help of other interested people, put together a new program designed to reorganize and stabilize the Club. As part of the strategy, membership standards were actually raised and sound financial controls were introduced.
Fire and War
A New Year’s Eve fire in 1937 gutted the Clubhouse. Although the insurance was such that the Club could easily have paid all its obligations and walked away “with honor”, a decision was made to rebuild and go forward. Then came World War II and gas rationing.
Fearing a dramatic drop in revenues, members Charles Stillman, Roy Larsen, Chester LaRoche, Michael Hanlon, William Gilman, Ira Warner and others got together and advanced the Club $10,000 to assure that the Club would be able to meet any deficit incurred because of the war. Ira Warner became president, horse shows went on as scheduled and all services were steamlined. Although membership dropped to 70, the Club emerged from this most difficult period in good shape.
The $10,000 was not spent until after the War when it was used towards improvements in the Clubhouse and to retiring some of the outstanding debts. By 1949, membership had increased to more than 140, restaurant service had been initiated and a new program expanding the Club’s programs and facilities was up and running.
1949 to 1990
Commencing with Chet LaRoche’s presidency in 1947, the FCHC enjoyed a period of impressive growth in terms of activities, membership and finances. The swimming pool was built in 1952 and six tennis courts were installed in 1958 along with Charles Stillman’s gift of the Club’s first paddle tennis court.
In 1965, the first indoor ring was erected, permitting year-round riding activities and in 1969 and 1971, two additional paddle tennis courts were added.
An ambitious building program was undertaken in 1975 including the construction of a second indoor ring, two more tennis courts, the new pool and tennis building, two more paddle tennis courts, paddle hut and major refurbishment of the pool and Clubhouse.
In the mid eighties, Barn 6 was totally reconstructed and a new heated indoor viewing area was added to the second indoor ring.
1990 to present
Under the leadership of President Dr. John Burns, in 1991 the Club initiated a Capital Improvements Program. During the next two years, several projects were undertaken and completed. The Clubhouse was renovated and redecorated; new energy-efficient windows and doors, central air-conditioning, radiators, furnace, and generator were installed; the kitchen area was updated; barns 3, 4 and 5 were improved; and the baby pool was refurbished. Two paddle tennis courts were rebuilt from the ground up and the other two were updated with new lighting. Other improvements included a new snack bar kitchen in the pool area; fire alarm system in every FCHC structure, resurfaced roads and the placement of all utility conduits underground.
Since 1949, membership has continued to grow at a healthy rate. The Club now offers several membership categories including senior and junior members, house members, junior and adult riders and board-established classes. The 90’s find the Club enjoying an excellent membership mix consisting of older established members and young families with children.
The financial condition of the Club is considered sound and well managed by members of the Board of Governors.