The discreet charm of the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair is its immutability. For 114 years, the more times have changed, the more Devon has remained the same. In a particle-board world, it is the elegant and comfortable Windsor chair, the antique highboy with the dovetailed drawers and worn brass pulls.
Yet, like all venerable institutions that survive and thrive, the Devon Horse Show, which began Thursday and runs through June 6, has evolved and adapted through the tried-and-true strategy of pouring new wine into old bottles. This year, Dixon Oval, the main show ring, has new "footing," a world-class surface of sand, fiber, and shredded felt. The souvenir stand is bigger, as is the picnic grove, enlarged into what Devon president Wade McDevitt calls a "decompression area" and people-watching zone that includes a wooden outdoor dining pavilion.
"Our challenge is to preserve Devon as the best-in-class in the horse show world," McDevitt said, "and to be progressive and think outside the box, accommodating change while preserving tradition."
For riders, Devon is, as always, the World Series or Super Bowl. "This is the crème de la crème, where everyone who has horses wants to compete," said Danielle Lee, 56, a seasoned horse fancier from Levittown, visiting with her daughter and friends. "This is it - Devon and Madison Square Garden."
Among the junior riders competing in equitation and jumping Thursday was Jessica Springsteen, daughter of the rock star Bruce Springsteen. Jessica Springsteen, 18, of Colts Neck, N.J., an accomplished rider, came in as a 2009 Devon champion. Astride her gray gelding, Class Action, she won the blue ribbon in her section Thursday and captured a trophy for best overall performance in the class.
Afterward, Springsteen, a mannerly girl with a dazzling smile, called Devon "really cool."
"I love the fair and the shops," she said. "It's not rushed or frantic like other shows."
Her mother, singer Patti Scialfa, who rides English, inspired her to mount a steed at age 5, Springsteen said. Her father rides as well, Western-style, befitting a man born in the U.S.A. Jessica is headed to Duke University, where she plans to continue riding and showing horses. Competing in the Olympics, she said, is "definitely a goal."
For most of the 95,000 folks who attend during the show's 11-day run, Devon is about more than magnificent exhibitions of athletic talent, both equine and human. It is a sweet harbinger of summer, an aristocratic carnival, a pleasant and refined place to see old friends and schoolmates, to watch and be watched by others.
Along boutique alley Thursday, people shopped for hats and needlepoint, antique jewelry and fancy tack. In the picnic grove, they ate tea sandwiches and fudge, and sucked on the traditional lemon sticks. Along the midway, they soothed their thirst with lemonade and water ice, and rode the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round.
The day was sultry and the crowds thin. Still, Devon being Devon, the demographic remained unchanged, which is to say, slightly different from what one might encounter on a Saturday night on South Street or the boardwalk in Wildwood. For starters, much less facial hardware, fewer tattoos and tank tops.
Instead, a profusion of polo shirts and madras shorts, skirts and sensible low-heel shoes in shades of sherbet, men in bow ties and seersucker jackets and those faded summertime trousers known as Nantucket reds. Many vanilla-blond Junior Leaguers and girls and ladies named Page, Blair, and Courtney, not so many named Cheryl, Angie, and Snooki.
"It's a microcosm of Main Line life," said Robert Witcher, 50, an insurance broker who grew up in Houston and now lives in Villanova. "It's a bit old-fashioned and understated. It's small enough that kids can take it all in, and big and traditional enough that it's of interest to adults."
Witcher was eating lunch at a picnic table with his wife, Hadley. Daughter Cora, 9 months, looking a bit bewildered, was soaking up the sights and sounds in a stroller. Son Avery, 3, was sucking contentedly on a lemon stick.
Hadley Witcher, 46, grew up in Newtown Square and went to Agnes Irwin. Three years ago, she and Robert moved back to the area from Santa Fe, N.M.
"For me, Devon means the beginning of summer," Hadley said. "I love the horses and the jumping. I love visiting the stables and seeing all that goes on behind the scenes."
Two years ago, an Agnes Irwin classmate who lives in Dallas flew to Philadelphia with her two boys. The main item on the agenda: visiting Devon so the boys could taste lemon sticks and ride the rickety Ferris wheel.
"When we tell people that story, they say, 'Why would you do that? I don't get it,' " said Robert Witcher.
Clearly, they don't understand the magic of Devon. "There's something for everyone," Hadley said, "and it's fun to revisit the site of childhood memories."