With Cleveland Metroparks 100th Anniversary approaching in 2017, we historical interpreters are having a ball. The Your Parks, Your Stories oral history project has opened up wonderful opportunities for us to gather your memories in story and photo form. It has been an awesome experience hearing your passionate and heartfelt recollections about how Cleveland Metroparks has touched lives and how integral it has been to thousands of families and individuals through the generations.
One such individual is author Betty Weibel, who recently wrote an intriguing book about the history of horseback riding in Northeast Ohio, specifically about the sport of show jumping and the Cleveland Grand Prix. I was personally drawn to this subject matter on a couple fronts.
The first is because the polo field along Chagrin River Road is located in South Chagrin Reservation. I have led many bicycle trips along this beautiful stretch from South Chagrin Reservation to North Chagrin Reservation. The polo field has always caught my curious eye.
Second, my father trained and often rode horses in parades throughout my childhood. He rode in the Rose Bowl Parade in the early ‘60s. The western style of horseback riding was what I was trained in and showed our ponies and horses at the 4-H county fair.
So when I was contacted by Betty Weibel and read her newly written book, I was excited to learn the amazing history of the polo field and the world-renowned equestrian competitions that take place right in our own back yard. Let me give you a very brief synopsis of what I learned from her book (along with some previous knowledge):
Horses were an integral part of the growth of Cleveland as it grew from a mosquito-infested Lake Erie town to a raging industrial city by the start of the 20th century. Horses were used for farming and transportation from the onset, as early settlers arrived in northeast Ohio. Although mules were the primary source of power for canal boats, horses were known to pull the boats as well.
Euclid Beach Park - date unknown - Cleveland Memory Project
The first county fair in the vicinity was on Cleveland’s Public Square in 1829. Livestock exhibits and horse races were held to bring levity to a hardworking people near the shore of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River.
The winter months didn’t hamper festivities. Horse-drawn sleighs were everywhere as towns competed against each other to see who could gather more sleighs than the other. In Weibel’s book she noted, “In 1856, Medina County won the contest with 185 sleighs.”
horse sleigh racing along Euclid Ave. 1909 ca. Cleveland Memory Project
As people immigrated to Cleveland, prosperity had her way and horses became more prevalent in sporting and in leisure activity. Carriages were built with great finery, and harness and flat racing became popular among the wealthy. Horse shows were beginning to pop up in the more affluent neighborhoods and communities.
In the late 1880s, Hackney horses were imported to America from England to be used as the primary carriage horse. Clevelander J. B. Perkins was a leader in the equestrian circles. Names such as Rockefeller, Hay, Herrick, Deveraux and Otis were some of the wealthiest and most influential people in Cleveland who took great interest in horse racing, especially in sleigh racing.
Cuyahoga County Fair - Berea - 1930
Horse liveries were found throughout the city, boarding work horses that collected garbage and delivered mail, produce and coal. Eventually the horseless carriage made the service of the four-legged beauties nearly obsolete. They became too slow for a growing and demanding population. However, a remnant of horses still could be found. My father in-law remembered driving his uncle’s pony throughout Cleveland, pulling a peanut wagon in the 1920s.
Before the utilitarian use of horses began to diminish, the sport of racing was building momentum. In 1870, the Glenville Race Track was built and harness racing became popular. Nationally known horses were bred and raised in the Cleveland area. The East Cuyahoga County Fair was established in Chagrin Falls in the 1870s and remained there until it was consolidated with the West Cuyahoga County Fair in Berea in 1929. The fairgrounds (where Chagrin Falls High School is located) held a ½ mile racetrack where thoroughbreds were raced and bet upon. Eventually the Chagrin Falls track was shut down for gambling and betting and replaced by Thistledown in 1925.
horse and vendor - 1900 ca. Cleveland Memory Project
horses racing at Berea Fairgrouns 1927 - Clevleand Memory Project
Horses also served a crucial role on the Cleveland Calvary. Weibel wrote that, ”Standard military training incorporated exercises from horse sports, jumping hurdles, playing polo, steeplechase racing and the precision riding of dressage.” It is not surprising that from these well-trained riders came riding schools. Laddie Andahazy was instrumental in establishing the Lake Erie College equestrian program and Cleveland Grand Prix.
But what about the Polo Field in Cleveland Metroparks? Well, you can thank the Van Sweringen brothers and the village of Hunting Valley in 1931. After the sport of polo (croquet on horseback) was introduced to the area in 1911 among the local elite, polo became very popular and attracted thousands of spectators on a national level. To accommodate such crowds and traffic, the village of Hunting Valley and the Van Sweringens built the Hunting Valley Field near the corner of Route 87 and Chagrin River Road. We know it today as the Polo Field of Cleveland Metroparks – South Chagrin Reservation. This polo field was part of a 60.87-acre parcel of land purchased by the park system that would become the home of the first-ever North American show jumping grand prix attracting Olympic qualifiers.
Betty Weibel’s new book, “ The Cleveland Grand Prix – An American Show Jumping First” is a fun and interesting read for those who love history and horses. This blog barely scratches the surface on the background she covers from the riding clubs and people who were influential in creating a dynamic culture of trail riding, racing, showmanship and jumping with these magnificent creatures.
Take a drive down Chagrin River Road some sunny day and pull into the polo field parking lot. There you will find an Ohio Historical Marker that tells about The Cleveland Grand Prix.
Whether you are a person who enjoys trail riding, horse racing, horse jumping, dressage or simply gazing into a field of horses grazing in a meadow – Cleveland Metroparks and northeast Ohio have had a longstanding history of horsing around.