Fair Hill: From Foxhunter Paradise to International Equestrian Center
by Louisa Emerick
The vision for what we today know as Fair Hill began in the 1920s with William duPont, Jr.’s steady acquisition of 8,000 acres of land in order to create a haven for foxhunting and steeplechasing.
Cecil County was chosen by duPont because it was very rural, close to his home in Pennsylvania (Liseter Hall, which he shared with his first wife), and even closer to his office in Wilmington, Delaware and the estate he later inherited from his father near Greenville, Delaware. This allowed him to enjoy his foxhunting in the morning before going to his Delaware Trust Building office in Wilmington.
When the Depression hit the rural communities hard in 1929, duPont saw the opportunity to increase his Cecil County landholdings and to help the local farmers, whom he saw as good neighbors. He purchased a number of small farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and then offered jobs and housing to the farmers from whom he purchased the land, allowing them to continue farming. As he began to tie together all the various farms into one entity, he hired many locals to build fences, jumps, buildings, residences, and much more, utilizing the sawmill on one of the parcels he acquired as part of his overall business operation for the land. He called the Maryland portion of the estate Foxcatcher Farm, Inc. after his Thoroughbred racing stable (the Pennsylvania portion was incorporated as Springlawn Farm).
The Foxcatcher Hounds
One of duPont’s first priorities was to build the kennels and accommodations for his huntsman and staff. Once those were built, he moved his American foxhounds up from Virginia and dubbed them the Foxcatcher Hounds. The hounds were from the same bloodlines as Virginia’s Orange County Hounds, known for their speed and their “red” and white color.
By 1949, duPont hunted an average of three days a week, with the territories known as Monday Country, Wednesday Country and Saturday Country. Over the years he built a number of very solid and formidable coops with a sliding rider on top that kept the cattle from getting out, but allowed his hunt to follow hounds through the fields. Later, after he was no longer jumping, he created a sort of turnstile next to each jump, which each horse would push open with his chest, one at a time.
A Foxhunters Paradise
DuPont quickly learned that his prized red and white hounds had a keen interest in the pursuit of the plentiful Maryland white-tailed deer! As many before and since, he had to work diligently to deerproof his pack. In the process, he had to grapple with the same concerns that worry Masters and huntsmen today: keeping the hounds from leaving the territory, possibly crossing dangerous roads.
Unlike most Masters and huntsmen, who must rely on training and swift, knowledgeable whippers-in, duPont could do something else, and he did. He fenced the perimeter of the 8,000 acres so that neither quarry could lead the hounds out of the territory; in order to ensure the fox didn’t leave the territory (and lead the hounds into danger) wire guards were installed over drainage pipes.
Of course, 8,000 acres will have some public easements through it, and duPont dealt with this by acquiring the public roads in exchange for maintaining them (the state maintained the right-of-way), and then building iron bridges over the roads and tunnels under the roads, further ensuring the safety of the animals during the chase.
The Finest of Turf Courses
DuPont was a man who was always thinking, always tinkering, always creating a better mousetrap, and this applied to all his business and sporting pursuits.
He ultimately designed 23 race courses, including Delaware Park. On a piece of Foxcatcher Farm known as Fair Hill (near the intersection of Routes 213 and 272), duPont created a steeplechase course to rival the renowned Aintree in Great Britain. The land was molded, planted and seeded, and fertilized and then set aside for seven years to perfect the turf for racing. The Foxcatcher National Cup debuted in 1934, a daunting three miles of 19 obstacles, the lowest fence 4’8”, the highest, the 6’4” Chinese Wall, and a liverpool requiring a horizontal leap of nearly ten feet.
To maintain the sod for the track and for other properties, duPont
set aside approximately 400 acres east of Appleton Road to grow and
pamper the sod grassland.
Self-Sufficient Cattle Ranch
When the war broke out in the 1940s, duPont, the shrewd businessman, saw the opportunity to create a self-sufficient cattle operation close to the East Coast markets. Foxcatcher had the grassland for grazing cattle and making hay, and the cropland to raise the grain for the feedlots.
Still standing today are the many bullpens duPont created by sinking railroad ties in three feet of concrete. The ties are placed about six inches apart and create a formidable barrier. Many of these bullpens now serve as turnout paddocks for horses and are available for rent from DNR (although the waiting list is extensive).
DuPont built a huge barn with five immense silos, trench silos, a grain mill, hay storage and sheltered feedlots adjacent to the barn. Water was pumped from Elk Run to a huge reservoir built on top of the hill behind the feedlots, and from there was distributed through a gravity-fed system for the daily cattle operations and the emergency fire system. After the herd was established, the operation became self-sustaining, from breeding through market, with an average annual turnover of 600 head. DuPont was known locally for taking a personal interest in the cattle operation and was often seen working alongside his cattle hands, branding, setting gates, and doing other routine chores.
During WWII, the German “Wolfpack” submarines prowled coastal waters off the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, and were frequently captured by the U.S. Navy. The duPont family had a munitions contract with the Navy, which enabled the family to utilize German prisoner of war (POW) labor on Foxcatcher. Because the area at that time was so remote, the POWs were given quite a bit of leeway, and more than one local can recall socializing with them in the local taverns.
After The War
In the 1950s duPont added more land east of Appleton Road and worked on purchasing land to the south along Elk Creek. His goal was to purchase land in order to be able to dam Elk Creek below Route 273, creating a reservoir to protect the town of Elkton from the flooding it frequently experienced. He also deeded the land needed for the state to widen and straighten Route 273, which divided his estate. The agreement was that the state would replace the three bridges so that the hounds could continue to run across Fair Hill without setting foot on a road.
In 1960, duPont’s daughter Jean Ellen (then McConnell) Sheehan
began hunting. She later renovated a small clubhouse near the kennels
and hosted hunt breakfasts for guests. Her involvement with the Radnor
Pony Club began opening up the hunt to other pony clubs and introduced
hundreds of youngsters to the sport of foxhunting.
William duPont, Jr. died December 31, 1965. Mrs. Sheehan served as
MFH for the Foxcatcher Hounds until 1980, when she retired the colors
and disbanded the pack. Ms. Patricia duPont later leased the kennels
and stables and brought her own pack of Penn-Marydel hounds to the property,
and she continues to hunt Fair Hill to this day.
Over the years, rumors have also proliferated that duPont “left” the property to Maryland for equestrian use, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The State of Maryland purchased in 1974, from the estate of William duPont, Jr., the 5,633 acres on its side of the state line for $6 million, using Open Space funds (the Pennsylvania portion was purchased by George Strawbridge). There was an informal agreement that the activities that had previously taken place, including the foxchasing, the Fair Hill Steeplechases and the Cecil County Fair, plus several other small activities, could continue. However, it is important to note that, contrary to rumors and myths, there were no covenants requiring that equine activities remain a part of Fair Hill’s future.
Today, the land now known as Fair Hill is a different place, but the duPont footprint remains. The grounds came under the administration of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation in 2000. There has been a concerted effort by the local administrators to make the area a multi-use facility. The cooperation between horse enthusiasts, bikers and hikers has been impressive. In the last ten years, there has been remarkable improvement in repairing the roads, bridges, and buildings through the efforts of current superintendent Wayne Suydam. Suydam has been tenacious in obtaining grant monies, in encouraging aggressive support of trail funding programs, and organizing strong volunteer programs, such as the Trail Spinners biking group. Equipment, materials and signage for the park have made a dramatic improvement for park users. And trail riders today, as well as horses, hounds and fox, are (for the most part) still kept safely off the roads, thanks to what remains of duPont’s “super fence.”
Through the efforts of the equestrian community, the original primary activities still continue: foxchasing, steeplechasing, and the Cecil Country Fair, all with improved facilities. The Fair Hill Races are the largest one-day event in Cecil County, routinely attracting as many as 15,000 people. It is the only steeplechase course in the country that allows pari-mutuel wagering.
Today, Fair Hill also boasts one of the most unique Thoroughbred training centers in the country. An unusual condominium barn and track partnership, the Fair Hill Training Center, situated on 350 acres on the north side of Route 273, features a one-mile all-weather dirt track with banked turns, a 7/8-mile Tapeta™ track, a 7/8-mile turf course, turn-out paddocks,18 condominium barns with 490 stalls, hot walkers, jog-arounds, professional gate crew and on-site vets.
The Fair Hill Stables operates from the former hunt stable and provides lessons, carriage rides and rental horses for trail rides.
The Fair Hill International organizes all levels of eventing competition, from starter horse trials through the CCI***. The Foxcatcher endurance ride is held each spring, and the Bill Mills Trail Ride is held each autumn. The list of equestrian activities just grows from there.
Meanwhile, the administrative complex at Fair Hill houses the offices for the National Steeplechase Association and the Thoroughbred Racing Association, while across the street from Fair Hill are the offices of Fasig-Tipton.
Given all that Fair Hill is today, William duPont’s original vision for the property seems almost modest. However, if it were not for his vision, Maryland today would not enjoy the benefits of all that is Fair Hill.