by Dorothy C. Nickelson
If you’re looking for a glimpse of America’s agricultural past, drive north on Stenton Avenue past the sprawling 450-acre spot known as Erdenheim Farm. Many area residents know that the property had long been a working farm even before Johann Georg Hocker bought it in 1765 and gave it the name of Erdenheim, meaning “earthly home” in German. Thanks to an agreement between a private owner and the Whitemarsh Foundation, the land will continue to be a working farm for many years to come. (See Chestnut Hill Local, 9/17/09.)
With its history of colorful owners and prize-winning Black Angus cattle and Cheviot sheep, Erdenheim Farm has long drawn the interest of community members. Some 240 of them came out on Nov. 14 to hear Chestnut Hill College historian Dr. David Contosta’s talk on “The History of Erdenheim Farm,” held at the First Presbyterian Church on Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown.
The standing-room-only crowd also heard Kimberly G. Sheppard give an update on the Whitemarsh Foundation’s progress in maintaining its commitments to the farm and to the community. Sheppard is the Executive Director of the foundation, a non-profit organization created to help preserve the open space in the Whitemarsh Valley, which includes Erdenheim Farm. Both the wide-ranging talk on the farm’s evolution over the past 250 years and the foundation’s update were sponsored by the Springfield Township Historical Society.
The farm animals grazing in green pastures are a familiar sight to community residents and passers-by alike. What may not be so familiar despite being easily seen from Stenton Avenue are the black and white striped racing posts that speak of the farm’s earlier life. According to Contosta, Erdenheim Farm was once at the center of the horse racing world, producing a legacy of champions that includes race horses that competed in the Kentucky Derby, Ascot, Epsom Derby, et al.
It began in 1864 when Aristides Welch, a subsequent owner of Erdenheim, bought bay mare Flora Temple for the purpose of starting a horse breeding enterprise. “This little rough-coated bay mare with black mane and legs and black bobbed tail was something special,” wrote one observer at the time. With her distinctive looks and number of wins, Flora Temple’s reputation spread far and wide, even attracting the attention of one of American’s first composers. “Many believe Flora Temple is the bob-tailed nag of Stephen Foster’s ‘Camptown Races,’” Contosta said.
In 1869, Welch bought Leamington to further his efforts to build Erdenheim Farm’s reputation as a nationally-recognized stud farm. A thoroughbred that had competed and won trophies at Ascot, Woodcote, Derby and many other high-stakes tracks, Leamington was known for his speed and staying ability. But the big brown stallion was “perhaps best known as the sire of a number of thoroughbred winners, among them Iroquois, the first American-bred horse to win the Epson Derby in Surrey, England, and Aristides.”
Aristides won the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875. He went on to place second in the Belmont Stakes later that year. No roses for Aristides as that tradition did not start until 1896, but his statue can be found in the clubhouse gardens at Churchill Downs. Named for the owner of Erdenheim Farm, Aristides was trained by Ansel Williamson and ridden by Oliver Lewis, both African Americans. Williamson, in fact, is enshrined in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga, New York.
Welch put his wealth and proceeds from his winning race horses to good use, expanding the farm to 332 acres through purchases of new plots of land and buying back land that earlier owners had sold off. Contosta said that without these purchases, the farm may not have held together as well as it did over the latter part of the 19th century.
Years later, Welch himself had to sell off plots of land to pay for his sons’ debts. “There’s evidence that Welch’s sons were forging checks, and that got them into trouble,” related Contosta in a follow-up conversation. In 1882, Commodore Norman Kittson of St. Paul, Minnesota, bought Erdenheim Farm and more than 80 horses, mares and colts from Welch. Kittson continued the horse racing tradition, adding a one-mile racing track that was described in a newspaper account at the time as “one of the best tracks” in the country since it was as “level as a billiard table.” One of the stallions he purchased from Welch, Alarm, was the sire of Panique, a horse that won the Belmont Stakes in 1884.
Kittson’s son Louis sold the stock farm to Robert Carson in 1896. Carson, whose interests were more inclined to educational philanthropy, used a considerable amount of the fortune he made from streetcar lines to bequeath a $5 million endowment to form the Carson College for Orphan Girls. Intended to be a girls’ boarding school, its original mission was modeled on that of Girard College. Throughout its history from 1918 to 1946, the Carson College for Orphan Girls was on the cutting edge of progressive educational change. Today it is the Carson Valley School and is for both boys and girls.
After Carson died, his widow sold Erdenheim Farm to George D. Widener Jr., whose father George Sr., and brother Harry died on the Titanic in 1912. At age 23, George D. Widener Jr. inherited a large part of the family fortune, became interested in racing through his uncle Joseph, who was head of Belmont Park in New York and who built Hialeah Park in Florida. Contosta said he believes George was likely a member of the nearby Whitemarsh Valley Hunt Club, a “drag” fox hunting club that was so named because the fox is not a real one but a scent on a rag that a rider drags through the fields ahead of the hounds.
With Widener, Erdenheim Farm once again became a nationally-recognized stud farm that produced champion thoroughbreds for more than three decades. Widener raced horses all over the world and had another horse breeding enterprise, Old Kenney Farm, in Lexington Kentucky. He was one of only five people to be designated an “Exemplar of Racing” by the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Widener left Erdenheim Farm to his nephew Fitz Eugene Dixon in 1971. In 2006, Dixon willed 117 acres to the National Lands Trust.
In closing, Contosta credited Carol Franklin for contributing to “The History of Erdenheim Farm.” Franklin is co-author with Contosta of “Metropolitan Paradise: The Struggle for Nature in the City: Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley, 1620-2020,” a book about the Wissahickon Valley that he said is currently being made into a documentary.
The talk ended with Kimberly G. Sheppard providing an update on the Whitemarsh Foundation’s work with local, state and national organizations as well as private donors in raising funds to preserve “arguably Southeastern Pennsylvania’s most important open space.”
* All accompanying photos and graphics are reprinted, with permission, from “The History of Erdenheim Farm,” by Dr. David Contosta, 2013. More information on the Springfield Township Historical Society at www.springfieldhistory.org. More information on the Whitemarsh Foundation at whitemarshfoundation.crcollier.com.