is the author of 15 books, most recently
"Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent," a novel of 1871 Philadelphia
The township men pound the "No Parking" signs in with the cheek of a hammer, and that's how we know: The horses are coming. The international jumpers. The long-tailed Friesians. The high-stepping roadsters. The disciplined saddlebreds. The hunters. The cobtails. The paraphernalia of carriages, curry brushes, ribbons, saddles, reins, harnesses, and whips. The riders, the trainers, the crews, the farriers. The equestrians.
They come every year - a 10-day carnival - and we, the neighbors and near-neighbors of the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, decide. We'll either pimp out our lawns as grassy parking lots ($10 a spot), or we will not. The choice is ours.
Some people buy their houses to secure access to a certain school or proximity to a particular landscape topographical, social, or otherwise. Nearly 20 years ago, when my family of three was on the hunt for a house, I had my heart set on the horses.
I remembered Memorial Day weekends from decades before, when my father, mother, brother, sister, and I would make the drive to the leafy streets of Devon. We'd park along a distant curve (these were the pre-sign days), walk the hill, buy our tickets, pass through the threshold of the milky blue and white gates, and there it all lay - the white sands of the Dixon Oval, the amiable grandstands, the crunchy paths, the candy spreads, the knickknack shops, the Pulitzer colors, the stalls, the fairgrounds.
At the rails we'd suck our lemon sticks and watch the igloos of our ice cream melt. On the Midway, we'd wait in line for the Ferris wheel, throw darts into balloons, walk around with our hairy, polyester prizes (a monkey, I think I remember; maybe a frog).
Between events, or seeking shade, we'd drift back toward the stables, where trainers would sit on bales of straw and dogs would curl into the leather backs of grounded saddles and mothers would pin bows into the shellacked hair of tiny riders. We'd choose our favorite horses and cheer them on, and when night came, we'd trail through the gates and down the streets, the announcer's voice following us as we walked beneath the stars. We could hear him still announcing ponies as we began the drive home.
I had my heart set, and we bought the house. It was small and old, right enough.
I'm not the only one who has built a life around this show. In fact, the whole thing was set in motion 117 years ago when a "Meeting of the Gentlemen" inaugurated a single-day fair on the grounds of the enormous Devon Inn, where the city's elite went to enjoy the spring-fed lakes, polo, racing, dancing, theater, and meals sourced by the inn's own farm. The Gentlemen had in mind an educational event - a demonstration of fine harness horses, a conversation about breeding. They conducted their business on the inn's racetrack and polo field, where the grounds remain today.
By 1919 a country fair was being held in association with the show and Bryn Mawr Hospital was the official beneficiary. No show has ever rivaled Devon's, according to the show's own press. Today it remains "the largest outdoor horse show in the country" - raising millions for the hospital, rewarding the winners, and attracting Olympic riders, the daughters of rock stars, reality-TV celebrities, and a surfeit of women in hats.
I don't own a hat, and with my unkempt curls, my frayed-at-the-hems jeans, my wilderness garden, and my unorthodox literary ways, I'm hardly Main Line material. I don't even know that much about horses, to be honest; I just know how much I love to be around them - the smell of them, the heat that flares from their noses, the large disks of their eyes, the flicker of their tails, the quiet in the stalls. I love the horses, the tradition that carries on.
So the "No Parking" signs go in, and the horses in their trailers come, and I live here now - leaving the house early those 10 days of the show and heading down toward the newest fleet of stables, where the hunters and jumpers and show ponies are. A farrier will show me how to fit a horse into shoes. A mane will get braided. A mother will pin bows into the shellacked hair of her daughter, and the dogs will lie languid, and across the street, in the fairgrounds proper, volunteers will open shops, test mikes, sort ribbons, get the hot dogs going on.
We bought the house. I still believe in the show.