Sunday, January 1, 2012

Saving the Gaston Livery Stable | 1/13/2012

Preserving Aiken’s History

By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll

The Gaston Livery Stable was built in 1893. It is a massive, 12,000 square foot, two-story barn, made entirely of local brick. When it was constructed, brick barns were something of a rarity, especially in the Southeast. Brick was more expensive than wood and was more likely to be used in a home than in a stable. According to some reports, the brick structure replaced a wooden one that had burned down. This explanation has a certain logic to it, as well as a precedent. Another historic brick barn, one built by Leland Stanford in Palo Alto, California, was built in 1888 after the original barn went up in flames. That stable, still standing today and built of "fire-proof brick," is now home to the Stanford University equestrian team.

Back around the turn of the last century, the ground floor of the Gaston stable had a number of stalls for horses and space for carriages. The second story was a loft, where carriages could be stored if there was not room for them downstairs. There may also have been a repair shop for the carriages in the loft. Vehicles were hoisted to the second story through the use of a carriage lift, a device that was used in two-story barns in the years before the horseless carriage triumphed over the traditional one.

The stable was owned by David W. Gaston, who was a member of a prominent family in Aiken – his younger brother was the mayor of Aiken at one time, as was his son, and throughout his life, he held various positions in city government. Starting around 1900, he operated a livery as well as a riding school. The livery catered to members of the Winter Colony – wealthy ladies and gentlemen who came to Aiken from Northern climes for the milder winters of the South.
Old Barn 1968
Some of the ladies and gentlemen of the Winter Colony stored their own carriages at the Gaston stable and also boarded their horses there. Others rented horses and vehicles from Mr. Gaston. There were saddle horses available, as well as pony carts. The stable could supply carriages for "hunting parties, picnics and moonlit hay rides." An experienced driver was sent along with the rig as well as a stable boy to watch the horse while the customer went shopping or calling on friends. Located just outside the historic horse district between Park and Richland Avenues, the stable was close to the railway and a convenient distance to the train depot as well as to the majority of the Winter Colony homes and the downtown shopping district.

Mr. Gaston ran a thriving business until his death in 1930. His clients included such illustrious personages as Tommy Hitchcock, the 10 goal polo player, who reportedly boarded some horses at the stable. In a short piece written by Dorothy MacDowell and published in the Aiken Standard in 1970, the author, a historian, compares the stable to structures at the magnificent Middleton Place in Charleston. "Even after the advent of the automobile in Aiken there were numbers of carriages, elegant victorias, surreys and rigs here," she continued. "I have heard several people speak of the charming Mrs. R.V. McKimm, dressed all in white and looking every bit like a queen."

After Mr. Gaston died, the livery stable went out of business. The property itself was passed down to Gaston's descendants. With each generation, the amount of land that belonged to the home and stable diminished. The property was sold in 2005 along with the original Gaston home, which has since been restored. Today, the home, stable and the 3.4 acres of land they sit on are again for sale.

Although the Gaston Livery Stable is eligible to be listed with the National Registry of Historic Places, it currently has no historic designation. Aiken has several historic districts that provide some protection to significant structures that lie within their boundaries, but the Gaston stable is just outside these districts.

"There is nothing to prevent someone from buying the property and tearing down the stable," says Coleen Reed, a historian who has been active in saving other Aiken landmarks. "I read an article that said that fewer than one third of the barns that were in the United States in 1930 remain. This is a unique barn in its shape and in its style. I've only been able to find five all brick barns in South Carolina that are still standing. It wasn't very popular to have a brick barn – it was a little elitist. There were probably never more than 25 in the state. From my research, it's probably the oldest of the existing brick barns in South Carolina. A carriage lift is even more rare. This is one of four carriage lifts left in the entire United States."

Worried about the future of the historic structure, Coleen Reed formed an advisory committee with some like-minded people about 18 months ago. This July, the Friends of the Gaston Livery Stable was incorporated. The group's goal is to purchase the stable, secure it a historic designation, renovate it, and then make it available to the public for some kind of educational or recreational purpose. The group, which has applied for its own 501c charitable status, is currently operating under the umbrella of the Friends of the Aiken County Historical Museum. They have raised funds through grants and private donations and are now in negotiations to buy the barn and 1.9 acres surrounding it.

"First we have to buy it," says Coleen. "Then the big thing is to get it restored."

After that, there have been many different suggestions for the structure's use.

"I was very involved with Aiken's 175th year celebration,” says Coleen. “I have been thinking, wouldn't it be grand if we could do something like this every year? But it is a big undertaking. So if we could scale it down, but continue to celebrate the founding of Aiken, I think it would be great. We could have a founder's day at the barn. We could establish it as a living history park. A lot of people have approached us – farriers, blacksmiths, saddlemakers – they are all very interested. But we can't make any plans until we are the official owner."

Elliot Levy, who is the executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum, would like to see the stable returned to the carriage trade. He sees it as the natural setting for a carriage depot, a place where tourists could come to board carriages that would take them on a tour of Aiken's downtown and historic districts. Before that could happen, city ordinances would have to be changed to allow carriage tours of Aiken again – they are currently not permitted.

According to Coleen, support for the project has been phenomenal. One of the first public fund-raisers is a barn dance on October 15 at the Red Barn on Chime Bell Church Road. In addition a square dance, the Save the Gaston Barn Dance will offer a Chinese auction, a live auction and a cakewalk.

"Everyone has been so generous," says Coleen. "Everything for the dance has been donated. The most wonderful people stop me on the street to say how happy they are that we are doing this." People who are interested in historic Aiken are unanimous that the stable should be saved. "It should happen," says Elliott Levy. "It has to happen."

To make a donation to help save the stable, send checks to Friends of the Gaston Livery Stable, 433 Newberry Street, SW Aiken SC 29801. Or contact Coleen Reed for more information at 803.648.4123.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dressage on the Continent | 10/22/2011

Shawna Harding Competes in Europe

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography by Gary Knoll

Because Shawna Harding lived in Germany for 8 years in the 1990s, she is very familiar with the European dressage scene. She was able to put this knowledge to good use during her recent four-month trip to Europe.

Over the winter, Shawna was awarded the $25,000 Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize, which provides financial assistance for coaching and training to a qualified candidate. Using these funds, she packed up two horses, her own Come On III and Tonya Rowe's Rigo, assembled a mountain of gear, and flew out of Kennedy Airport on April 9.

"Carol Lavell and The Dressage Foundation made it possible for me to travel to Europe and get the exposure and experience I need to excel in this sport," explains Shawna. "I had qualified for the World Cup in Leipzig, Germany, with Come On III, so the time was right to make the trip."

Shawna chose to study with the Johann Hinnemann, a renowned trainer whose facility is in Voerde, a town located in the beautiful Niederrhein region of Germany.
"I arrived on a Saturday evening and was welcomed with open arms and we began training on Monday," says Shawna. "The experience at Johann's was very structured and intense. He really wants you to get it right and to get the most out of your horses. He is very good at correcting all the little details and mostly getting the optimal preparation before a movement and re-balancing and maintaining balance and rhythm while in the movement."
Less than two weeks after she arrived in Germany, Shawna and Come On III were competing at the World Cup Finals in Leipzig. Four World Cup Finals were held under one huge roof – driving, jumping, vaulting, and dressage. It was the first time that Shawna and Come On III had competed inside a large stadium, surrounded by all the noise and excitement that goes along with such a venue.

"One of the great experiences throughout my stay in Europe was being around those people I like to call my 'dressage heroes,'" says Shawna. "Incredible riders like Edward Gal and Isabell Werth were warming up right alongside me at the World Cup, and of course we were all stabled together."

"The electric atmosphere in the ring was a bit much for Come On III's walk. He bounced and jigged, which cost us a lot of points," Shawna continues. "I was so proud of him for trying to stay focused in that huge stadium with its crowds and noise."

Shawna finished 14th in the Grand Prix Freestyle, with 64 percent. After Leipzig, Shawna returned to Johann's for more training before a competition in Hagen called "Horses & Dreams" which ran from May 4 through 8. More than 150 Grand Prix horses were on the grounds.

"This was an amazing show – absolutely first-class all the way," says Shawna. "The weather was perfect and I got to see some of the best riding and training. It was interesting to me to see the German trainers and riders conversing with each other and helping each other. If a training issue comes up they will ask each other for suggestions – something you don’t see a lot of here."

Shawna had a bit of a break from competing, since the next show on her schedule – the CDI 5* World Dressage Masters – was a month away (June 2 – 5 in Munich). So, back to Voerde where there was more instruction from Johann.

Here's a taste of an average day at Johann's (from Shawna’s journal entries): "May 23 – It's a beautiful sunny day in Voerde. CO3 was good. We worked on some piaffe and passage, basic canter and flying changes. Rigo had a hack day and both got clipped and cleaned up and vaccinated."

Then it was on to Munich, Shawna's old stamping ground, where she met up with many of her old friends.

"The World Dressage Masters was a fantastic competition and the amount of people, horses and attractions at the event was amazing. It's a huge competition and many of the dressage horses couldn't cope with the atmosphere," Shawna says. "There were carriages with everything from draft horses to minis pulling them… and Arabian warriors galloping in huge groups next to the dressage warm up ring. Just getting to the warm up area was a challenge! Come On III thought it was great and loved everyone watching him."

Shawna finished 6th in the Grand Prix Special with 66 percent and 12th in the Grand Prix with 66.

"Come On III did very well for me at Munich – he looked great and I was pleased."

After Munich, Shawna and her horses headed to Milan, Italy, to visit with her great friend, the Irish Olympic rider Anna Merveldt.

Two weeks later, the gang was back in Germany preparing for their final show, the CDI 4* Fritzens in Austria (June 24 – 26).

The site of the show in Fritzens is a farm owned by Manfred Swarovski, called Schindlhof, and it is nestled in the Austrian Alps. Competitors and spectators alike take in stunning mountain views from every angle of the dressage arena.

Unfortunately, Shawna was very ill with what might have been food poisoning during the show, but rode nonetheless.

Rigo, whom Shawna calls her "little sausage" because at his most puffed-up he is 16.1, had a chance to compete and he placed on both days. Come On III made it into the top 15 for the Freestyle.

Shawna and "the boys" returned to Aiken on July 15. Now that she's back, Shawna says that some of her best memories of Europe include seeing the camaraderie of the riders, trainers and grooms.

"The dressage world is really like one big family in Germany. People talk, laugh, party together, and care about each other… of course it's all about the competition when they get in the ring. It was very refreshing to see people not being so cut-throat."

"The level of riding was so high and I was honored to have made it into every second round with Come On III," she continues. "People know who I am now, and it was important for me to be there and compete at those shows and at those levels. I can’t thank Carol Lavell enough for the grant money, but also my Aiken friends such as Charlie Herrick for the feed and Cary and Lisa Wallace from Custom Saddlery for their support with saddles and so much more. And of course my mom!"

The European trip cost Shawna a total of $85,000, so even with the $25,000 Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize, money from the USEF and travel money from the World Cup, there was still a lot she had to make up herself.

"I was definitely on a shoestring budget – staying with friends every chance I got and so on," Shawna says. "But if you want to compete at the highest level – and you have the horses to do it – then that's what you have to do. No matter what."

Shawna, Come On III and Rigo will soon be traveling to Gladstone, New Jersey, competing in the USEF Selection Trials for the 2011 Pan American Games.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.