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Horse-Drawn Hobbyists Finding Relaxation in the Slow Lane of Life

October 25, 1987|TARA BRADLEY-STECK | Associated Press

INTERCOURSE, Pa. — Jerry Zaetta's idea of unwinding after a trying day on the job as a Michigan parole officer takes a horse-drawn carriage and a country road.

"With the type of work I do, it's very relaxing to come home, hitch up the carriage, put my foot on the dashboard and go down the road," says Zaetta, 42, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Romeo.

Steve Suggs' idea of relaxation involves restoring carriages as much as driving them. His blue eyes twinkle and his tan face breaks into a broad smile when he talks about sanding down and painting an old farm wagon.

"It's not a disease, but it's habit-forming," says Suggs, 54, who keeps a "personal museum" of about 75 carriages on his 100-acre farm in Goochland, Va.

"It's something we can hold on to, something that's familiar. It's a connection, a link to your heritage, like roots, you might say."

With the advent of the automobile in the early 20th Century, horse-drawn vehicles were junked or pushed to the back of the barn. Except for the Amish, few people continued to use carriages.

Horses, Then Carts

Then, about 25 years ago, a burgeoning interest in horses for recreation revived demand for carts and carriages. Old buggies were refurbished and Amish craftsmen and commercial firms began manufacturing new models.

Today, carriages can be found rattling down country lanes or transporting parties to picnics and weddings.

"Our membership seems to be growing by leaps and bounds," said Frank Morrow of Beaver Falls, Pa., president of the Carriage Assn. of America, which is concerned with restoring and collecting carriages.

The Carriage Assn. began in 1962 with only "a handful" of people, Morrow said, and today claims 4,000 active members and 7,000 participating members.

The American Driving Society, is dedicated to the sport of driving, began with 100 members in 1974 and now has 1,300 devotees.

"We're sort of growing in spite of ourselves," said Ann Pringle, executive secretary of the group, which is based in Metamora, Mich.

Reasons range from a fascination with elegance and tradition to a family's desire to use the pony the children outgrew to an historian's love of antiques--all combined with a hint of exhibitionism.

'Thrill' of Tradition

For Jud Wright, 71, a carriage dealer from Penryn, Calif., who judges driving competitions, there is "no greater thrill" than to don the proper coaching attire of top hat and black suit and put four horses hitched to a snazzy coach through their paces.

The renewed interest in carriages is in part reactionary, says Charley Poppe, 40, of Williamsburg, Ohio.

"Our grandparents, who grew up with carriages, were thrilled to drive a car. They didn't want to slow down again," he said, "but a new generation comes along, and this is a whole new fascination for them."

From spring through fall in just about any corner of the country, carriage buffs congregate in parks and on large estates to see and be seen.

Such meets usually feature two main competitions. The first is a pleasure driving event, in which participants are judged on performance--the horse's response to the driver's commands via the reins--and the appearance of the carriage, harness, driver and passengers.

Three-Stage Event

The second competition is combined driving, similar to that featured in the Olympic Games. The three-stage event features marathon driving, obstacle driving, dressage (horse movements) and presentation (the general appearance of horse, driver and carriage).

Four times a year, horse-drawn vehicles of all shapes and sizes are brought to this Lancaster County town in Pennsylvania's Amish country to be sold to the highest bidder at Martin's auction.

Old milk wagons rub hubs with finely restored coaches, rough buckboards share patches of grass with sporty gigs, and romantic sleighs nestle next to Conestoga wagons.

"We're about the only auctioneers who really specialize in carriages," said Larry Martin, 42.

Larry and his brother, Paul Jr., 38, had been conducting horse and estate auctions in the 1960s, but they "stumbled into the carriage business by accident" when they were hired to liquidate a carpet company's private carriage collection in 1971, Larry says.

From humble beginnings selling a few dozen buggies in a grassy field, Martin's has grown into the largest regular carriage auction in the country.

Martin's conducts three large, four-day auctions in May, August and October and a select sale in April. All attract thousands of carriage enthusiasts from around the country to bid on hundreds of horse-drawn vehicles.

Auction Schedule Rules

"I'm the president of the local driving club, and we set up our schedule according to Martin's schedule. We don't plan any horse shows or driving events or anything on the weekends of Martin's sales," said Jerry Trapani, 40, a blacksmith in East Islip, N.Y.

"We've been coming to Martin's for years. This is our vacation. We have friends from all over the country that we get to visit at every Martin's auction," said Vicky McCaffrey, 44, a horse breeder from Schoharie, N.Y., who collects old commercial vehicles made to be pulled by draft horses.

The auction gives collectors a chance to sell their carriages and buy carriages of higher quality. And it gives restorers the opportunity to sift through an unlimited assortment of parts.

Prices range from $75 for a pony jog cart to $40,000 for an original Kimball park drag coach.

That's a far cry from what Russ Rogers paid for horse-drawn vehicles 30 or 40 years ago.

"When I was a kid, automobiles were coming in and these were on the down side. You could buy these vehicles at a farm auction for five or 10 bucks. Some of them are going for several thousand now," says Rogers, 61, a carriage dealer.

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