Skiddy von Stade
by Pam Gleason
When Francis Skiddy von Stade was a young man, he was great friends with Ambrose Clark, the horse lover and Singer Sewing Machine heir. Both were racing and steeplechasing enthusiasts from New York, and both enjoyed spending their winters in the British Isles watching and participating in their favorite sports.
According to the family story, in the spring of 1912, they were in Ireland where they were riding in steeplechase races. On the last day before they were due to sail back to New York, Skiddy won a big race and the two friends went out celebrating afterwards. They visited Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone, an action that is supposed to impart the gift of eloquence. They had a quite a few drinks – Brose only drank Champagne, so that was most definitely on the menu.
Skiddy and Brose stayed out late and they woke up late, too late to make it to the port of Queenstown (known as Cobh today) by early that afternoon. This meant that they missed the ship that was to take them back to New York.
And it was a good thing too, since that ship was the Titanic, making her first and only voyage. Just three days later, on April 14, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, killing over 1500 of its roughly 2,200 passengers and crew. Skiddy and Brose would probably not have made it home.
Skiddy von Stade was born in 1884 on Long Island. The von Stade family was one of the earliest Dutch families to settle in New York. Their business was importing raw materials, most especially bristles that were made into brushes. Skiddy’s father, Frederick H. von Stade, was a Thoroughbred racing enthusiast who maintained a summer home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. where he was the longtime vice president of the Saratoga Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses, the organization that ran the racetrack there. Skiddy’s mother was the granddaughter of Francis Skiddy, a member of a prominent ship building family – for many years there was a Hudson River steamboat named the Francis Skiddy that brought passengers from Manhattan to Albany.
Growing up with horses in his blood, Skiddy took to riding and polo at an early age. He went to St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. where he was the captain of the hockey team and then on to Harvard where he was a star on the polo team. He graduated in 1907, and joined the family business, while continuing to pursue his passion for polo. Rising to a six goal rating, he played on the Cooperstown and Meadowbrook teams that won the Open Championship in 1912, 1913, 1919 and 1920. His teammates included the ten-goalers Devereux Milburn, Louis Stoddard, Malcolm Stevenson and J. Watson Webb.
Loving anything to do with horses, Skiddy also rode to hounds, and was a member of the Pytchley Hunt in England for six winters. He was also a regular “gentleman rider” in National Steeplechase and Hunt Association races in the U.S. from 1912 to 1916.
Skiddy was married in June 1915 to Kathryne Steele, whose father Charles was a partner in J.P. Morgan Company. The New York Times social column described the wedding as a picturesque country affair that “attracted the fashionable contingent from the Meadowbrook and North Shore sections of Long Island.” The courtship of Skiddy and Kathryne was a polo romance; two years earlier, in 1913, Kathryne’s older sister Nancy had married Devereux Milburn, and they all had socialized with one another on the polo field. At Skiddy and Kathryne’s wedding, Nancy was the matron of honor.
That winter, the von Stades came down to Aiken, where Skiddy played polo with Aiken Polo Club and the couple enjoyed everything the thriving Winter Colony had to offer. Within a few years, they had built their own winter cottage, Holiday House, on the edge of the Hitchcock Woods, just across the street from William C. Whitney’s massive Joye Cottage estate. Meanwhile they started their own family, which would eventually include five sons and three daughters.
By the time World War I came, Skiddy was the father of a growing family, so his military service was performed within the country. The Army took advantage of his well-developed skills as a horseman; he was commissioned as a Captain and sent out West to help procure horses, donkeys and mules for the cavalry.
From the teens through the 1960s, anything that had to do with horses in Aiken was connected, in one way or another, to Skiddy von Stade. He rode with the Aiken Hounds, was a contributor to the original Aiken Steeplechase Association in 1929, was an organizer and official at the Aiken Horse Show from the early teens on, and a regular on the polo field. In 1932, when Aiken Polo Club had a 50th anniversary celebration, he was the marshal of the big parade that took over the city and the umpire of the 50th anniversary game. On a national level, his involvement with the sport of polo continued long after his retirement from playing. He was an umpire in international matches as well as one of the selectors of the U.S. national team throughout the 1930s.
The von Stade children continued the family equestrian traditions. Charles von Stade, born in 1919, became one of the most promising polo players of his generation, attaining an 8-goal rating. A superb athlete who inherited a musical gene from his mother’s side of the family, he was killed near the end of World War II, when his Jeep ran over landmine in Germany. (Charles’s daughter, born after his death, is Frederica von Stade, who is a well known opera singer.) Skiddy’s eldest daughter Dolly von Stade, who, at 18 was written up as one of the most glamorous debutantes of her generation, was a legendary horsewoman, who rode and showed hunters, played polo and was the MFH of the Aiken Hounds for over a quarter century. She married the polo player and steeplechase jockey Pete Bostwick, and their sons, Charlie and Ricky became polo players. Today Charlie is the president of Aiken Polo Club.
Nannie von Stade Ward who was number seven of the eight children, remembers that her parents encouraged the whole family to ride. Not only that, her father used to play bicycle polo with all of the kids while they were in Aiken.
“He was a very good father,” says Nannie. “He was very sweet, very gentle and he had a good sense of humor, but you didn’t say anything off color to him. My mother you could say anything to; she loved dirty jokes, but my father was old school. He was quite shy, I think.”
The family used to take the train down to Aiken for the whole winter. Skiddy came with them, but would go back and forth to New York several times during the season to attend to various items of business, especially having to do with the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, of which he was the president.
Each August, the von Stade children would go to Kathryne’s seaside home on the beach in Southampton, while the von Stade parents would go to Saratoga for the race meet. There, Skiddy was involved with many different facets of racing life. Not only was he the president of the Saratoga Race Track from 1943 to 1954, he was also a steward of the Jockey Club, a trustee of the New York Racing Association, a director of the National Museum of Racing and a charter member of the Grayson Foundation, an organization that funds research on equine health. He was nothing if not civic minded: he was even the mayor of Old Westbury on Long Island from 1940 to 1950.
“My father loved horses,” says Nannie. “He was also a terrific athlete. He was a great shot, and he loved to go shooting down in Aiken. He had shooting ponies that he rode – some of them were retired polo ponies. He was a very good tennis player too.” He kept English Pointers for quail shooting, but also always owned a Boykin Spaniel. He loved the breed and was a friend of Whit Boykin, the man who established it at his kennels in Camden.
There were two sports that Skiddy didn’t like. One was golf, and the other was swimming.
Skiddy’s dislike of golf went back to an incident from his college days. The Harvard Polo team played at the Myopia Polo and Country Club in Hamilton, Mass., north of Boston. The club had a field, stables and a clubhouse, all backing up to its beautiful golf course. Skiddy was keeping his ponies at the club, which was very convenient for him. One day after a ride, he tied a pony up outside the clubhouse and went in for a drink with his friends. Something happened – perhaps the pony got stung by a bee –and the pony broke loose, galloped off, and stomped all over the 18th green.
The golf-playing members of Myopia were often at odds with the polo playing members, especially when it came to the matter of hoofprints where they shouldn’t be. Myopia at that time was one of the top courses in the country. It hosted the U.S. Open five times between 1898 and 1908 and Myopia’s golfers were very serious about keeping their grounds pristine. As a consequence of his horse’s escapade, Skiddy was banned from Myopia. From that point on, he had an aversion to golf.
“He never learned to swim, either,” says Nannie. “I think it was because of the Titanic. He didn’t like to be on the water.” Nonetheless, his family used to take him out deep sea fishing from Southampton every year for his birthday.
“He was terrified the whole time,” says Nannie. “Poor man. He was very patient with us.”
As the patriarch of a large von Stade clan, Skiddy could be an imposing figure. He always wore a bow tie, and always dressed for dinner. Every Sunday, all the children and grandchildren who were in the area would come to dinner at the von Stade home in Westbury.
“We were pretty much scared to death of him,” says his grandson Charlie Bostwick.
Lellie Ward, who is Nannie’s daughter, remembers going to ride with him in the Hitchcock Woods when she was very small. Lellie is now a professional event rider and trainer who owns and runs Paradise Farm in Aiken.
“It was a big deal to walk into the stable, to go riding with him,” she says. “Riding was always serious with him; you weren’t fooling around. We used to go out on the shooting ponies. He always made me go on a leadline, which I hated, and I had box stirrups. I hated those too.” On their rides, he would frequently remind Lellie to sit up straight and practice proper horsemanship. “He used to say ‘leg, body, rein,’ all the time. I can still hear him saying it. And I say it to my students now all the time, too."
One time, Lellie was out riding with her grandfather and she dropped her crop out in the middle of the Hitchcock Woods. When they got back to the stables, her grandfather asked her where it was and she admitted that she had dropped it. He got back on his horse and made her walk all the way back with him to pick it up, a very long walk for a little girl.
“He said ‘This is why you should always tell someone when something goes wrong.’ He was right. You should . . . he taught me a lesson all right,” says Lellie.
Skiddy von Stade died of a heart attack in February 1967 at the age of 82. His obituary in the New York Times called him “one of the nation’s most eminent horsemen.” An article about him in a New York Racing Association publication, The Winners Circle, praised his accomplishments, but most especially his character. “Above all, Mr. von Stade’s integrity was legend. This was, perhaps, his great legacy. . . He was symbolic of everything good in the sport and his passing leaves an unfillable void.”
For Nannie von Stade Ward, Skiddy was first and foremost a father. “I really don’t know what much about him,” she says. “In those days it was different. We were a very close family, but in those days you just didn’t ask very many personal questions. I do know that he and my mother loved each other from the very beginning to the very end. We were very spoiled that way -- not many people get to grow up with that.”
- Three Runs Plantation Equestrian Blog. Re-published article from The Aiken Horse. Bottom of article
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.