On Horseback: Strenuous Style
As Howard knew, too, horses as always in wealthy communities were marks of status, and as an architect, he wanted to avoid seeming to compete with his clients. Just as he named his summer place modeled on an English cottage Ragdale, he made a point of being met at the train station by an undistinguished and unmatched pair driven by a farm worker. Understatement.
For many in the country home era, Lake Forest understatement was not the goal. Rather, handsome and well-bred horses were reflections of their own level of comfort financially as well as their taste. If Howard was counter-cultural, J. Ogden Armour was at the pinnacle of success and refinement before World War I and was met by liveried staff and stunning and matched animals. Arthur Meeker wrote about this from a post-depression perspective in his 1949 novel Prairie Avenue.
But sedate travel to and from the train hardly sums up the ways in which horses contributed to competitive social life in the period. The annual Onwentsia horse shows from 1900 to 1970, drawing crowds of as many as 15,000 onlookers by the 1910s, gave local lions a chance to demonstrate the fruits of their leisure to master riding, jumping, carriage driving, etc., on their superior horses and with their superior pony carts for their attractive youngsters. At the extreme end of things was polo, a fast and dangerous sport that pitted the best horses and the most agile, athletic, and daring players against each other. In 1903, one of the shining athletic stars of the community, young Nathan Butler Swift, died on the polo field. But such mishaps were rare exceptions, and mostly the game was a symbolic struggle pitting against each other men who weekdays vied for dominance in the grain pits and brokerage houses of the city to the south.
Fox hunting, perhaps, played the greatest role in carving out the future area of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff, and including Mettawa to the west. This was the terrain of the Onwentsia Hunt, of which Chicago developer Arthur Aldis served as master of the hounds. Across farms between the club and Des Plaines, the intrepid men and women of the Hunt and their hounds chased the cunning foxes. Alas, as they clattered across farmlands, the resident owners were often not amused. The solution? Buy up the farmland! Thus, the riders of the Hunt acquired the former small farms, making the original owners rich, relatively, and also among the leisure classes. One by one, the farms were assembled into estates and new estate homes sprang up west of the club. One of these in 1905 was that of broker and banker Charles G. King, southwest of the club across the creek that later would be Route 41, on Ridge Road. Here, young Ginevra King spent summers learning to ride. The King polo barn still stands on Ridge, as does the family home, by Van Doren Shaw. Northwest of the club was the 1903 James Gamble Rogers-designed great house of A.B. Dick of Westmoreland. A photo survives of the Hunt gathering in front of this distinctive house as the chase for the fox is about to begin.
By the later 1920s, all this area to the west was being built up with houses, train tracks, and suburban developments. So the Hunt moved to Millburn, near what now is Hunt Club Road west of Gurnee and Route 41. Here, architect David Adler designed a new Hunt Club house and barn, and the land again was bought up from the farmers by the members of the Hunt, often developing their own stables with day quarters for the riders. One notable example is that by Stanley D. Anderson of Anderson & Ticknor for the family of Quaker Oats executive R. Douglas Stuart. It’s here where young Margaret Stuart, now Margie Hart, learned to ride.
But back in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff, more sedate bridle paths were developed to allow for decorous riding “within the lines” by those seeking horseback exercise. Onwentsia was joined in the mid-1920s, too, by the Knollwood Club west of Lake Bluff, now in Lake Forest. If the countryside now was too tame for raucous fox hunting, it still could accommodate a network of bridle paths crisscrossing the landscape west of Green Bay Road. But the ghosts of Ginevra King and her friends and beaux may still travel those former paths—something today’s homeowners may encounter. This is the spirit of a former strenuous and stylish age, the stuff of legends.
—Arthur H. Miller