The stately procession of gleaming antique coaches moves along Main Street in Lenox, Massachusetts, rounding the curve in front of the historic Curtis building. It’s a scene lifted straight from the Gilded Age: passengers in elegant attire sit tall in open-air seats, as teams of four spirited horses pull glorious carriages past spectators lining the street.
A rider in one carriage lifts his bowler hat in a return salute to the appreciative waves and smiles of the twenty-first-century audience, as a groom in livery delivers a majestic tune on a long coach horn.
Leading the string of coaches down Walker Street is a stunning black and yellow coach. Built by Cowland & Selby in 1866 and called the Old Times, it served for years as a road coach in England, carrying passengers between London and Brighton. The Old Times is now owned—and driven—by Harvey and Mary Waller of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The owners of Orleton Farm and an extensive collection of carriages—about forty in all, including the Old Times—the Wallers organize the biennial Berkshire Coaching Weekend, an impressive three-day exhibition uniting coaching enthusiasts and spectators beneath autumn-tinged foliage.
The Wallers inaugurated Coaching Weekend in 2004, Harvey explains, to share the experience of coaching with friends. But the impact reached far beyond the Wallers’ wide circle of acquaintances; hundreds of people have gathered in Lenox and Stockbridge to watch the grand processions.
“We didn’t realize how well it would be accepted,” Harvey admits. “It’s the biggest parade in Stockbridge that I’ve seen.”
The fourth Berkshire Coaching Weekend takes place October 1 to 3, when coach owners and staff (numbering as many as two hundred individuals from across the country), bringing with them fourteen coaches, will traverse the streets of Lenox and Stockbridge to reach three notable destinations: Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and The Mount. In addition to watching the procession, the public is invited to take an up-close look at the coaches and horses and talk with the coachmen during lunch breaks at the three sites.
Gloria Austin of Weirsdale, Florida, who counts one hundred and sixty carriages of her own in her Florida Carriage Museum, has participated twice in the Coaching Weekend. (Traveling to a coaching event, by the way, is no easy feat: coachmen must transport the coach, horses, equestrian equipment, grooms, staff, and luggage—including trunks of appropriate clothing and accouterments for everyone who will be riding on the coach. “It’s like moving the circus,” quips Mary Waller.) For Austin and other coachmen, traveling to the Berkshires for the Coaching Weekend has proven to be worthwhile.
“Harvey and Mary are the consummate host and hostess,” Austin says. “They take care of every detail. It’s all put together very well… When you attend, you feel that everything is going to be done properly.”
And doing things properly is what coaching is all about. Coachmen and passengers must wear appropriate attire: men must don jackets, ties, and hats (“Sometimes it’s appropriate to wear a bowler, sometimes a gray top hat in the summer and a black silk one either at night or in the winter,” Mary explains), while women are expected to wear jackets, skirts or nice pants, and brimmed hats. Bare arms are barred, and, for practical reasons, high heels are discouraged.
Coaching requires four horses per carriage. “Fancy but strong,” says Mary about the type of horse appropriate for coaching. “Not clompy.” The Wallers rely on German warmbloods, which were originally bred to be coach horses.
Sitting on a slightly elevated seat, the driver—or the whip, in coaching parlance—must hold the reins of all four horses in his or her gloved hand, the whip in the other hand, maintaining control of the animals and the vehicle at all times to ensure the safety of the passengers. A practiced horn blower, using a straight coach horn without any keys, signals the start of a trip. During the Berkshire Coaching Weekend, a coach-horn competition is held during lunch on the first day, at Tanglewood. “So the guys can say they played at Tanglewood,” Harvey says with a chuckle.
The Berkshire Coaching Weekend is a meet, as opposed to a show, which is a judged competition. Each year, the Wallers typically participate in three major North American horse shows that involve competitive coaching events: one in Devon, Pennsylvania; another at Walnut Hill Farm in Pittsford, New York; and the third in Toronto, Canada, at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, in which wearing white tie and tails is the norm. Despite the massive undertaking for the journeys—on their last trip, the Wallers took thirteen large trunks along with everything else—Mary, Harvey, and their fourteen-year-old son Harley, who is also a coaching and carriage driving enthusiast, always look forward to the events. “You travel with friends and party at each other’s stalls,” Mary enthuses. “It’s a really good time.”
Coachmen don’t compete during the Berkshire Coaching Weekend, but they do face a few challenges thanks to the region’s topography. “It’s one of the only places I’ve been coaching that you’re constantly going up a hill or down a hill!” Austin exclaims. “I jokingly tell Harvey, ‘There are no flatlands in the Berkshires.’”
Hills aren’t to be taken lightly. Each coach weighs just under three thousand pounds—and that’s without passengers. Add six to eight people, and that’s another thousand pounds. The four horses weigh between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds each. (The general rule is that horses can pull their own weight.)
“You’re moving down the road with five tons—it’s only through sheer horsepower that you get up the hills,” Austin points out. “The horses have to be very well trained in order to do Harvey and Mary’s drive.” (And so do the coachmen; by all accounts, driving four-in-hand, as it’s called, takes considerable skill even on flat roads.)
The local routes might be challenging for the rein-holding coachmen, but the procession is visually striking for the spectators along the way. Each of the grand coaches—all clearly maintained with precise attention to detail and constant care—is pulled by sleek, handsome horses.
“It’s a Kodak moment,” Harvey quips.
For a few fleeting minutes, the sight conjures an historical era we don’t remember but do tend to romanticize: the Gilded Age, when extremely wealthy Americans flocked to the Berkshires to build opulent mansions—“cottages,” as they came to be known—and to enjoy extravagant summer activities such as coaching.
Coaching debuted as a sport among the British and American elite in the mid-nineteenth century, decades after the railroads began to usurp coaches as the favored mode of long-distance travel.
“For thirty or forty years, the coaches just laid there,” explains Harvey who, like Mary, is well-versed in coaching history. “So the gentlemen in England decided that it was great fun to have coaching as a sport.”
American businessmen visiting England were equally captivated. In 1875, two prominent businessmen—Colonel Delancey Astor Kane and William Jay—formed the New York Coaching Club. During the turn of the century, five of its members summered in the Berkshires.
Mary Waller was born into coaching; for her, it’s been a generations-long family pursuit that started with her great-grandfather Harley T. Procter and his son (her grandfather) Rodney Procter. In the 1890s, Harley Procter set up a summer residence in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but was eventually lured to Stockbridge by its better carriage roads. Her other great-grandparents—Anson Phelps Stokes and his wife, Helen Louisa, who owned the Shadowbrook estate in Lenox—also coached. “That was why they came to the area,” she says.
Harvey, too, was raised with horses at his family’s home in Meriden, Connecticut. “I showed ponies and horses as a child,” he says. A former president of the Carriage Association of America, Harvey is now a member of the New York Coaching Club and the British Coaching Club, while Mary is a member of the World Coaching Club. Both serve as directors of the Carriage Museum of America, based in Lexington, Kentucky. They also lead the regionally based Colonial Carriage and Driving Society.
In the world of coaching, very little has changed in 135 years. Thanks to highways, people might travel farther now to compete in coaching events, and women might wear slacks instead of skirts. But the 1901 book, A Manual of Coaching by Fairman Rogers, still serves as the authoritative source for all things coaching. Except, perhaps, for a stray paragraph here and there. In Chapter VIII, the book states confidently: “For what may be called a standard drag, built in the very best way, the price is usually in America 2400 dollars….”
What, exactly, is a restored coach worth today? Many, many thousands of dollars, one might guess, and perhaps more. But there’s no Kelley Blue Book for carriages, and Harvey shakes his head politely when asked. “We never talk price,” he says.
“Every single one [of the carriages] has a particular value as to its rarity,” Mary says. “Every one in this barn has a different value.”
The collection of forty meticulously maintained, brilliantly displayed vehicles in their museum is unusual in that it’s utilized, Mary explains.
“We try to make a point that … the carriages are being used like they’re meant to be used,” Harvey adds. He explains that their vehicles are restored, not conserved. “You can’t use a carriage like that very well,” he says. If he and Mary find they don’t drive a carriage for some reason, they swap it for another one.
The Wallers’ private museum is open to the public only on special occasions hosted by Orleton Farm. Two of these annual occasions include the winter Sleigh Rally (held in January, weather permitting) and the June Horse Show.
The Berkshire Coaching Weekend, which touches three historic towns and thousands of people far beyond the boundaries of the Wallers’ two-hundred-acre farm, is a remarkable event. It’s a convergence of past and present, a sliver of the flamboyant Gilded Age style set against the backdrop of a decidedly more modest and contemporary small-town setting. It might represent history oft-forgotten, but for the Wallers, Austin, and other coaching enthusiasts, it’s most assuredly a lifestyle worth remembering. [OCTOBER 2010]
A frequent contributor to Berkshire Living and BBQ: Berkshire Business Quarterly, freelance writer Christine Hensel Triantos lives with her family in Richmond, Mass.
The Colonial Carriage and Driving Society
Berkshire Coaching Weekend
Coaches depart from and return to Orleton Farm
Horses and coaches on view at 12 to 1
at each destination:
Oct 1: Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass.
Oct 2: Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge
Oct 3: The Mount in Lenox