Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

High-level intrigue at Devon Horse Show

The abrupt ouster last week of the new president and chairman of the Devon Horse Show had volunteers and supporters spinning.

Devon Horse Show Grand Prix
Devon Horse Show Grand PrixRead moreMatt Breen

The abrupt ouster last week of the new president and chairman of the Devon Horse Show had volunteers and supporters spinning.

Was it a hostile takeover, or was it democracy in action?

"I really would like to get some sort of better explanation," said Mary Talbutt, a show volunteer and lifelong horse rider.

The emergency vote in a hastily called and confidential meeting Monday marked another twist in a year of unusual upheaval for the century-old Main Line institution. It also brought to light age-old fissures between the two factions of the nonprofit: the horse show and the country fair, which each draw thousands annually to the Lancaster Avenue fairgrounds.

Monday's gathering in a hotel conference room near the site was called by nine board members affiliated with the country fair who gave the other members five days' notice. After nearly two hours of private deliberation, the board announced that president Sarah Coxe Lange and chairman Henry Lafayette Collins III had been replaced.

Coxe Lange, of Malvern, whose great-great-grandfather was among the founders of the horse show, had taken office just months earlier with pledges of stability and more transparency for the nonprofit. Her predecessor, Wade McDevitt, retired amid allegations of back-door negotiations to build a shopping center on property next to the horse show site.

The long-running event benefiting Bryn Mawr Hospital is a high-society happening, famed for fantastic equestrian competition and fabulous hats. It's also family-friendly, complete with a country fair that includes food and merchants.

Pledging change, Coxe Lange cut the size of the board and established an endowment for the show. This year, the horse show foundation had an 11 percent increase in donations, and the group gave Bryn Mawr Hospital the first installment of a $2 million pledge, Coxe Lange said in an end-of-year note to supporters.

She said she was working to get an easement for the property to protect its land - an issue that she says may have sparked internal opposition and the plans to unseat her.

As news of the planned vote spread before Monday's meeting, supporters of Coxe Lange flooded Devon's offices with e-mails and letters of support.

"It's really a shame because I think [Coxe Lange] was so qualified and brought a lot of new energy to that group," said one letter writer, Bill Tickner of Paoli, who said he had not missed a show in 45 years, since he was 4. Coxe Lange and Collins were already up for reelection at an annual meeting next month, so the need for an emergency meeting perplexed them. Neither attended.

"Because there is this rush, one begins to think, 'Well, what else is going on that we don't know?' and so that leads to all sorts of conspiracy theories," Collins said Monday.

Board members were tight-lipped after the vote, but in a statement, they declared the election routine.

The new chairman, Wayne Grafton, said he and the new president, Richard O'Donnell, "want everyone to know what is going on," but he declined to discuss the meeting, which he called a board matter.

"We're not going backwards. That is water over the dam," said Grafton, of West Grove, Chester County.

After the meeting raised suspicion among Devon spectators and supporters, rumors seemed to center on the potential for the sale of the horse show grounds.

But the new leadership sought to quash that speculation.

"Devon is here. It will be on the Devon show grounds. There's never been a discussion to move it from its present facility," Grafton said Tuesday.

He and O'Donnell said they met with about 60 volunteers Tuesday and would continue to hold talks.

Volunteers such as Talbutt, who began attending the horse show as a child in the 1960s, said they were waiting for answers.

"It's not fair for us to be sitting here listening to rumors or reading conjecture," she said.