Saturday, September 24, 2011

Prairie du Chien historic mansion grounds home to authentic Victorian-era equine event

There's the prime rib dinner with 350 of your friends as the sun seeps into the Mississippi River. But dinner Saturday evening is getting ahead of things. A major sanctioned carriage driving event held on the grounds of a signature historic Victorian mansion, on an island in the Mississippi River, on the site of a frontier fort, add up to one of the most unique equine experiences in the nation.

By definition, carriage driving is hitching horses to vehicles by means of a harness. The Carriage Classic, held Sept. 9-11, is a driving competition with 11 classes covering a range of activities, all emphasizing the dress, styles and vehicles common to the 19th century.

Villa Louis was built in 1871 with the fur trading and investment fortunes of Hercules Dousman and left to his son Louis.

"It's not often you can put together a historic site like Villa Louis with a historically compatible event like the Carriage Classic," said Michael Douglass, Wisconsin State Historical Society site director. "The classic is our biggest visitor day of the year."

Louis Dousman also jumped into the horse business, buying into the first of the American Standardbred breed, founding the Artesian Stock Farm, and building a half-mile racetrack in front of the mansion.

"Louis probably thought he was getting into something on the ground floor. Who knows where it might have gone if he hadn't died suddenly in 1886," Douglass said. "His widow dispersed the horses."

Today, the 25-room mansion and grounds is in the hands of the state historical society. The historic site became the focus of some fresh attention 31 years ago as several community leaders brainstormed about the local economy.

"Prairie du Chien is a tourist town," said Dean Achenbach, a Carriage Classic founder. "Jay Hauser owned the Country Kitchen at the time and he asked me one day, ‘Dean, what can we do to extend the tourist season past Labor Day?' "

A driving competition might not sound like a big economic development plan, but Achenbach pointed out there were still a lot of farmers in the area with driving horses and he had his own interest in driving. Plus, the city had a top-notch historic site with an interest in period-based events.

"That first year there were three of us. We did some goofy things over the years to get participation. One year we sent an invitation out to all the farmers we knew offering them $10 for gas if they'd bring their horses into town. I don't know if it was the $10 or just that they had an invitation, but they sure showed up," Achenbach said.

Eventually the show needed some rules and became an American Driving Society sanctioned event. Adding rules changed the tone of the classic, Achenbach said. Local drivers were surprised by some rules at first, but the ADS sanction also increased the number of people interested in participating.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the event and the Wisconsin State Historical Society developed. Everything the Carriage Classic buys for the event such as arena fences and gates, public address systems, and driving course equipment is donated to the historical society. Much of it is used for other events and activities on the grounds.

"It's an unusual partnership," Achenbach said. "They trust us to take good care of the grounds."

As for economic development, the Carriage Classic brings people to town. More than 100 drivers registered to compete. On Sept. 10, about 700 people had paid admission to the driving event and more than 400 people took mansion tours, said curator Susan Caya-Slusser.

"On a busy day in the summer we may have 100 people on tours. (Sept. 10) we had a tour leaving every 15 minutes all day," Caya-Slusser said.

The carriage events place visitors in a time gone by. A class special to the Carriage Classic is the "Picnic." Exhibitors prepare their horses and carriages as if going out for a country drive and a picnic. All the competitors drive their rigs around in the arena and then go to a shady spot on the mansion lawn. Once at the picnic site, horses are unhitched and the picnic is spread.

Judging is based 20 percent on performance, manner and way of going; 20 percent on condition, fit and appropriateness of harness and vehicle; and 60 percent on overall impression including presentation of the picnic. Spectators may also cast a ballot resulting in an official winner and a popular choice.

About 14 years ago, Mike Rider took over as chairman of the event from Achenbach.

"Dean said it was time for someone else so I talked it over with my family and we've been doing it ever since," Rider said. "I like driving and I like the people."

The Saturday night prime rib dinner is only one of the more mouth-watering parts of the Carriage Classic. The rest of the event is as authentic a replication of the Victorian age anyone can hope to see.

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