(First appeared in The Equiery May 2011)
by Anne C. Ogletree
History in the Making
In 1971, Congressman William “Bill” O. Mills of Maryland’s First Congressional District, and also an avid horseman, conceived the idea of a family weekend trail ride. At the time, he had been involved with horses for many years and was a member of a local Eastern Shore riding club. His goal was to sponsor an event that was open to any family who enjoyed horses. When searching for a location for the ride, Congressman Mills approached the duPont family to see if the ride could be held at their private Fair Hill estate in Elkton.
The estate included over 7,000 acres of forest and farmland over Maryland and Pennsylvania. Congressman Mills was successful in contacting Mrs. Jean duPont McConnell, William duPont’s daughter, and obtained permission to ride at the estate using the steeplechase race barns for stabling. The opportunity to ride on Fair Hill at the time was limited to invited guests and foxhunters only, so it was no wonder that the first ride was well received.
Mrs. McConnell even graciously consented to lead the ride and share her knowledge of the estate and its many unique features. A number of knowledgeable horsemen, headed by Robert “Buddy” Walker, the late Eugene Carroll and Wilson “Hubby” Tull, volunteered their services as outriders. Food was available after the Saturday ride and a barn dance was also held. The trail ride served as the only public access by horsemen to the Fair Hill property and thus became so popular that participation had to be limited to 400 riders. It should be noted that in 1972, almost 1,000 riders participated in the weekend trail ride!
Congressman Mills died in 1973 and his successor in office, Congressman Robert Bauman, agreed to sponsor a one-day ride even though he was not a rider himself. After that first year, Congressman Bauman changed the event back to a two-day ride and continued it in that format until 1979. Mrs. McConnell served as trail guide for many years, even after the state purchased the majority of the Maryland side of the property and began to operate it under the Department of Natural Resources.
In 1980, Congressman Bauman was defeated during the election and the new Congressman had no interest in continuing the ride. Phyllis Hodgkiss (then Phyllis Greiner) was reluctant to let the ride die and through her influence at the Delmarva Farmer newspaper, she convinced them to step up to the plate and organize the 1981 and 1982 rides. The same committee and outriders organized these rides.
The Delmarva Farmer had hoped the ride would generate income for the paper but when the final figures for the 1982 ride were in, the paper found itself unable to continue its sponsorship for 1983. The news was received with a great deal of regret. It didn’t take long, however, before some of the committee members and outriders sat down for a strategy session to determine if a private group, without financial backing, could possibly put on the trail ride in the tradition of those who started the Bill Mills Ride over 10 years before.
The First Nonprofit
The result of that strategy session was the formation of the Tidewater Trail Ride Association, Inc. TTRA became a nonprofit formed for the sole purpose of sponsoring the ride. At the first meeting of the new group, those present unanimously decided to officially dedicate the ride in honor of Congressman Mills. The first Bill Mills Memorial Trail Ride at Fair Hill was officially held in 1983. TTRA continued to sponsor the ride until 1989, at which time the corporate board made the decision to disband; thus the ride’s future was again uncertain.
At the suggestion of a former TTRA board member, long-time TTRA committee members and outriders, Bobby Walker and Tom Newman, determined that they could form a corporate entity, if needed, to put on the 1990 ride, which would be the 20th anniversary of the ride. It turned out that a new corporation was not needed as the ride could be held under the shield of Fair Hill Equestrian Events, Inc. FHEE, a nonprofit equestrian organization, was dedicated to increasing equestrian use at Fair Hill. They allowed the trail ride committee to function as an independent entity and the ride’s future was again secured.
The on-site management at Fair Hill, Ranger Rick Smith and Edward Walls at the time, were supportive of the ride and worked closely with committee members to ensure that the ride was held on the best possible weekend at Fair Hill. The ride was able to expand to a three-day weekend in 1995, which was the 25th anniversary, and added a dinner and dance on Friday night. In 1997, FHEE moved from the Fair Hill location and the Bill Mills Ride committee was once again adrift. This time, they decided to form their own nonprofit, the Bill Mills Trail Ride, Inc. (BMTR), to continue the ride at Fair Hill. Tom Newman and Bobby Walker headed up the new corporation and the popularity of the ride continued.
And the Beat Goes On
Over the years, the nonprofit corporations that organized the ride made various donations from the proceeds of the ride to the following horse-related charities and programs: U.S. Equestrian Team, University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School at New Bolton Center, Virginia–Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Fair Hill Pony Club, Talbot 4-H Special Riders, American Horse Protection Association, Pony Penning Fund of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, Tuckahoe Equestrian Center and Footprints, Inc., which is the Fair Hill trail maintenance fund.
During the early 1990s, DNR began to see the uniqueness of the jewel that is Fair Hill. Public use by equestrians has substantially increased. The increased public use for only a few dollars a day has put a substantial burden on BMTR, since they must now pay over $20,000 annually to produce the ride. BMTR must cover the costs of the use of the grounds, stabling, insurance, trash collection and removal from dinner, and entertainment, most of which was passed on to the participants of the ride. In more recent years, public accessibility to Fair Hill has actually reduced the number of participants in the ride since the Bill Mills Ride is no longer the only time horsemen can gain access to Fair Hill.
And yet this October, the ride continues into its 41st year with old-timers returning year after year and newcomers recognizing the special history that is the ride. The ride could not continue without the generous support of Mrs. Jean duPont Sheehan (formerly McConnell) and Fair Hill’s current manager, Wayne Suydam, and his staff. For those who look forward to this ride each year, the heat of August gives way to cool September mornings, and just when the first geese begin to fly overhead, they know that the Bill Mills Ride is just around the corner on the first full weekend in October!