SI Vault
Catherine Drinker Bowen
October 17, 1960
A distinguished biographer and historian discovers a Pennsylvania family that raises blooded trotters, racing pigeons, dogs by the dozen and happy children. Meet Carolus Wade and his daughter Margie (opposite) and the rest of the zestful, congenial clan at Sheedermill
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October 17, 1960

How To Keep 'em Down On The Farm

A distinguished biographer and historian discovers a Pennsylvania family that raises blooded trotters, racing pigeons, dogs by the dozen and happy children. Meet Carolus Wade and his daughter Margie (opposite) and the rest of the zestful, congenial clan at Sheedermill

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No creatures can wear out shoes as fast as race horses; we spent hours at the raceway blacksmith's. At Saratoga I watched Mr. Reckner fit the trotters with their light steel shoes, flip the shoe over with the tongs in his left hand and, with the mallet in his right, knock off an eighth of an inch, red-hot from the furnace. Then he lifted the horse's foot between the skirts of his heavy leather apron and proceeded as easily as if he had been fitting a lady's slipper. While his own horse was being shod, Carolus watched every step of the process, advising with the blacksmith and discussing what was best. In sport as in the arts, this care for detail, this intensity of interest is characteristic of those in top competition. It made me think of Heifetz, spending hours adjusting the sound post of his violin, or trying 20 strings, from G to E, before he got exactly the right gauge.

Outside the stables, the Wade discipline breaks pleasantly down. Sheedermill swarms with pets. Each child looks after its own, and most of the animals are loose. Parakeets dart by one's ear—swoosh!—en route from kitchen to dining room. Guinea hens run insanely along the road by the barns, screeching like rusty saws at intruders. "We don't eat them," Dorothy said. "We keep them for watchers." Even the white fur rabbits are apt to be out of their box, dragging a loose leash near the porch. Mrs. Wade once had a pet raccoon, she had a goat that ate the shrubbery, she had Siamese cats. She tamed two Canada geese, which followed her about; while they were alive she refused to cook the wild geese shot down by Wade men on the place and brought to the kitchen. No Wade can see an animal for sale without wanting to buy it, or a badly behaving horse or dog without wanting to take hold and train it. "Mary Irma wants sea horses," Dorothy Wade told me. "Andy wants a seal for the pond; I'm sure we'll come across one soon. We're looking for a burro for Margie. The child simply must have something her own size to ride."

Carolus Wade retired from field trials some years ago but kept the bird dogs on the place. One day Mrs. Wade told the boys to count up, see how many dogs they had. "Things seem to be multiplying around here; I'm buying more dog feed than groceries." David rounded up the dogs; there were 65. His father was annoyed. "Didn't I tell you kids to distribute the litters when they came?" ..."We did distribute them, Dad," the boy said, "among the eight of us."

Back of the house the homing pigeons sleep in their loft; in the early mornings they gurgle and coo, rising with a rattle of wings to circle and bank and drift to settle on their roof. When the pigeons are racing it is Dorothy Wade's duty to watch for their return and clock their time. Occasionally a bird sneaks in and she misses it—a catastrophe, I have noted, native to every racing pigeon owner. Of all the Sheedermill birds and animals, only the mention of pigeons brings acerbity to Dorothy Wade's voice. Hauling these birds hundreds of miles for training is not Dorothy's idea of sport. She has made too many journeys, she says, "with children all over the front seat and pigeons all over the back." What brightens the general outlook is the fact that today, with the children grown older, Dorothy can go off to the raceways with a free mind. Half the family goes along, the others stay home in their turn. "I used to tack a feeding schedule to the door," she said. "Very elaborate, with everything on it from pet ducklings to the youngest Wade baby. Now I just climb in the car with Carolus and four of the children. The ones at home take care of everything."

Plainly, it is a joyful exodus. I remember the day we went to Ocean Downs, in Maryland. Into the small open farm truck was lifted the sulky with its long orange and black poles. There followed two rubber mattresses for surf bathing, a large bag of horse feed, a container with soft drinks, several suitcases, two folding chairs and four large Wade boys and girls, who lounged on the mattresses or perched on the chairs. Carolus drove, I sat in front with him and Dorothy. Behind rolled the trailer with Victor Scamp. We were off for the raceways and, whether the colt won or lost, there would be fun for all.

At Goshen the Harriman trophy race—our race—was scheduled third. The bugle blew, and five female Wades sat up stiff in their grandstand seats. (The boys had had their turn at Saratoga the week before.) The sulkies rolled on their prerace warmup. Margie screamed, "Daddy! There's my Daddy!"—and Mary Irma said Victor Scamp looked good today. Maybe a little too good, she added, the way he was shaking his head against the check rein. "Daddy better watch that colt, he's making up to run." At Saratoga warmups Vic had hiked on a turn, and Mary Irma, distressed, said it must be that stifle in his leg, and she couldn't stand it when people around her bet on a Wade horse and the horse was sore. But hike or no hike, Vic had come in second at Saratoga.

Here at Goshen the competition was every bit as hot. The Harriman Challenge was run in two divisions, and in this first heat the Wade number was nine, placing Carolus in the second tier. The car with the starting gate had scarcely left the track when, sure enough, Vic threw his head, broke stride and fell behind. Afterward Carolus said a pigeon had flown across the track over the colt's head and startled him. Pigeon or no pigeon, we saw Carolus use his whip. We saw the colt, once more in his long trot, overtake the field and pass to second place. "Daddy's fightin' mad," Mary Irma said. "Look at him—he's pushing Vic. He'll never keep that speed."

She was right, and the field went by. Vic came in fifth, with four behind him. There would be talk about this at Sheedermill tomorrow, I thought.... In Vic's next heat 10 horses, the first five from each division, were entered. Worthy Joe, a powerful rival, had been scratched, and Wade was again in second tier but better placed, on the end next the rail.

This time no free-flying pigeons came out of Goshen sky, but seemingly out of nowhere came the Arden Homestead entry, Matastar, to take the lead. Both times around, Matastar and Mr. Pride led the field, with Carolus Wade close behind. First across the finish line was Matastar, then Mr. Pride. Victor Scamp looked a close third, the crowd yelled, the tote board flashed two winners. Third place, we heard, was a photo finish—something about the other horse breaking at the line. We would have to wait until the pictures were developed and studied by the judges.

Suddenly, Vic's number flashed on the board. From high in the stands a joyful whoop was heard, a man ran shouting down the aisle, waving his arms. "Fifty dollars I put on that Victor Scamp!" he howled, and was gone. We ran out of the stands to the paddock fence. Carolus walked over to us, grinning, his hard driver's hat in his hand. He looked at his wife. "O.K., Dodie?" he said. "Think we'll get to the Hambletonian with this colt next year?"

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