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The Legacy of Hermitage Farm

Exhibit explores
Henshaw-Waters’ family history

History Center pays tribute to one of
Oldham County’s horse breeding meccas

Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

GOSHEN, Ky. (March 2005) – When David Carter first went to work at Hermitage Farm, he had no idea his career would span 37 years on the thoroughbred farm. Characterized by its red and black barns, the Oldham County, Ky., farm lies off of a scenic byway along Hwy. 42.

KY 3-05 Cover

March 2005
Kentucky Edition Cover

Carter first worked at Hermitage in January 1941 but left after a year and a half to enter military service. He returned in May 1948 and remained until September 1985 as a foreman.
He said of his job at the farm: “It’s something that grows on you – my father did the same thing.” Carter’s father, Frank, also worked at Hermitage Farm. Carter followed in his footsteps. Two of his own sons were employed on the farm, establishing a three-generation link to Hermitage Farm.
But Hermitage Farm has roots that span generations and tie it to Oldham County’s rich farming history. The Henshaw-Waters family originally owned the farm from 1825-1935. This family also owned the historic Locust Grove farm in Louisville.
Hermitage is the focus of an exhibit that will run March 5 through May 11 at the Oldham County History Center in La Grange, Ky. On display will be clothing from the Henshaw-Waters family, equine photographs and miscellaneous artifacts surrounding the events that made Hermitage famous.
A private opening reception will be held March 4, with appetizers and a cash bar available. This celebration will include a bluegrass music concert by the Cumberlands in the 1880s Presbyterian Church, located next door to the Peyton Samuel Head Museum on the History Center property.
Hermitage Farm is 700 acres of lush, prime pastureland where thoroughbreds can be found prancing across the fields or languidly grazing on a summer’s day. The farm has a 60-year tradition of breeding stakes winners.
Warner L. Jones Jr., who had a distinguished career in the thoroughbred industry, in 1935 purchased the farm from the Henshaw-Waters family. “Mr. Jones was a good horseman and a good salesman,” said Carter. Both qualities can be attributed to Hermitage Farm’s success at breeding stakes winners.
Some of the farm’s outstanding horses include Dark Star (1953 Kentucky Derby winner), Lomond (English 2000 Guineas), Shaadi (Irish 2000 Guineas), Northern Trick (French Oak) and Gaily (Irish 1000 Guineas)
Dark Star was sired by Royal Gem, an Australian import. Jones had seen him race in Australia while in the service. Royal Gem’s groom came with him to Hermitage Farm and stayed for six months.
When it comes to horse racing and breeding, a lot of it is luck, said Carter. Hermitage began as a traditional farm, with the owners raising hogs, cattle and sheep. When thoroughbreds were introduced, Carter said he chose to work with the horses. It has evolved into one of the most famous thoroughbred farms, both nationally and internationally.

Betty Leet and David Carter

Photo by Helen McKinney

Betty Leet and David Carter hold a painting of a Hermitage Farm barn created by artist Ann Carter. David Carter worked for 37 years at Hermitage Farm. Leet, whose father worked on the farm, is helping to organize the exhibit.

“Hermitage is thought to be the place where orchard grass was introduced as a crop in Kentucky,” said Oldham County History Center Executive Director Nancy Theiss. “Warner Jones cultivated the Hermitage as a first class thoroughbred operation.”
The Queen of England even visited the farm in 1987 to view the breeding stock. Hermitage was the first to break the $1 million barrier for the yearling sales at Keeneland in 1985 with the sale of a colt bred from Nijinsky II and My Charmer, for $13.1 million.
But in the horse industry, there is always a great risk of something going wrong, said Hermitage Farm General Manager Bill Landes. You have to “jump through a lot of hoops, and a lot of horses don’t make it through those hoops.”
When the birth of a foal has been anticipated for a year, failure can be heartbreaking. A foal can be stillborn or breech causing complications for the mother, or the yearling may not bring the expected price at the yearling sales. Nothing can be taken for granted.
Farm managers, such as Tom Shartle and current manager Brian Nipenberg, work every day out of the year to get the work done, said Landes. On a farm, there are no such things as holidays; the horses must be cared for on Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Along with Warner Jones, former farm manager Scipio Napier was instrumental in “masterfully” laying out the farm, said Landes. Napier had a “common sense and vision,” said Landes that went beyond his duties as farm manager.
Landes, originally from York, Pa., came to the farm in 1977 for a one-year internship to learn the horse business. He remained by mutual agreement with Jones and pure enjoyment for the job. “I enjoy the people, business, land and the horses. There’s no nicer place to work,” said Landes.
The farm is basically the same as it was when Landes joined the staff in 1977, he said. This continuity is what Landes likes best about his job and why he has remained there.
He views Hermitage as an asset to the county because it is a green space that is privately maintained, with little demands on the county. Landes said so many people enjoy the farm as they drive by each day. Throughout the spring and summer, passersby watch the foals grow up, said Landes.
Betty Leet was able to experience everyday life at Hermitage firsthand from 1946-1949. Her father, Clay White, was a foreman at Hermitage, caring for brood mares and helping birth foals.

Historical Photos from Hermitage Farm

Photo by Helen McKinney

The Oldham County History Exhibit features many photographs
and artifacts from
the horse racing days
at Hermitage Farm
in Goshen, Ky.

“It was a sweet place to live,” said Leet. “We were free to roam the land, and enjoyed playing in the fields. We loved it.”
Leet and Evelyn Peterson have volunteered their time to construct the Hermitage Farm exhibit at the History Center. Jones had an office on the farm. He was always present, except for when he left for races. Leet’s father loved the horses as much as Jones.
One special recollection Leet has is of the 1948 Kentucky Derby. She remembers her father running into the house and yelling, “Turn on the radio! Turn on the Radio! The Derby’s on.” There were no TVs at her home the year Citation won the Derby. Leet said her father “was crazy about that horse.”
The goal of Hermitage Farm is to breed mares and produce foals 11 months later. Foals are raised to ages 15-18 months, then taken to market at the Keeneland September sales. It is these yearling sales that have made Hermitage a profitable farm.
Jones and current owner Carl Pollard have invested a sizable amount of money and guidance in the operation of the farm, said Landes. They supported the farm through the good years and bad years. Pollard took over the farm in 1994, after having been associated with Jones through a shared love of golf and horses.
Jones was “gruff on the outside but soft on the interior,” said Landes. He was difficult to please but always appreciative. “He had a soft spot for children,” said Landes. Jones is credited with organizing the Oldham County Football League.
Originally from Jefferson County, Ky., Jones spent a lot of time in the Lexington area as a young man. He noticed most horse farms were surrounded by white fences, which needed painting every year. His solution was to paint his fences black, thus the paint job would last two to three times as long.
A distinctive feature of the farm is its five-board panel fence. Most farms are fenced with a three-board fence, but Jones wanted something different and better than his neighbors, so he added two more boards.
In 1977, Hermitage Farm was located out in the country. Now it’s in the middle of suburbia. But most would agree that it is something special.

• For more information on the History Center exhibit, contact Nancy Theiss at (502) 222-0826 or visit: www.oldhamcountyhistoricalsociety.org.

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