In the 1890’s there was a new migration into the rolling rich farmlands and small towns of the Philadelphia western suburbs. The railroad lines were bringing wealthy business men and their families to visit, then to build their estates along the “Main Line”. Although they came by train, once here they depended on horses to pull their buggies and coaches and carts. In April of 1896 a dozen local gentlemen discussed the need of better horses for their vehicles. May 22 a meeting was called by the gentlemen inviting their friends and neighbors to “effect an organization for the purpose of holding a Horse Show at Devon”. Less than two months later the first Devon Horse Show was held!
From a one day Show of 28 classes, Devon grew quickly. By 1914 Devon Horse Show was the largest outdoor horse show in the country, a reputation it still holds today. There was already a grandstand for the comfort of the spectators, and also a new status symbol, forty-six boxes with canvas awnings for the elite.
The Show took a new direction in 1919 when it was decided a Country Fair should be held in conjunction with the horse show and that the event should benefit Bryn Mawr Hospital. The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair succeeded the Devon Horse Show Association. Women were gaining their rights all over the country and in the Country Fair, they proved their strength and organizational skills with a successful fundraiser that to date has raised almost 14 million dollars.
An “Easy Street” of thatched roofed shops, tea and sandwiches served from old silver, dance floors near the ring, organ grinders and their monkeys, ladies and gentlemen in hats and gloves, these were the sights of the old Devon. Everything for the early Country Fair was donated. Handiwork and crafts were made by the volunteers, flowers and plants from their gardens, fudge and cakes were cooked at home and brought to sell to the spectators.
The first barn was built by William DuPont to provide stabling for his horses. Other exhibitors were encouraged to build barns of the same style, and by the end of the 1920s the eastern side of the grounds was completely lined.
By 1938 Devon was able to provide stabling for 600 horses, and advertised that for the first time under ground drainage guaranteed the turf from rain damage. The 1940 Show boasted the first nocturnal session in horse show history, and in 1941 President Roosevelt’s speech was amplified to the audience. That year the British Empire Flag flew side by side with the American flag from the grandstand, and a recruitment station was set up on the grounds for the U.S. Army Air Force. Although the Show continued in 1942, in ’43 and ’44 a dog show took the horse’s place. In 1945 there was no Show held on the grounds, and no donation to the Bryn Mawr Hospital.
By the 1950s the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair realized that the increasingly dwindling group of socially elite could no longer financially support a week long exhibition, so they started to actively entice the public. The Country Fair Village was no longer solely volunteer run; many merchants rented the tiny shops and brought the newest fashions, jewelry and home goods to the fairgoers. Toy Shops and Midways, Antique Stores, Dairy Bars, Flea Markets, a Midway with Ferris wheel, and many pre-events made Devon Country Fair a year-long undertaking. At the same time the Horse Show started a public relations campaign that invited local and national celebrities. Before long a portion of the attendees came for the rides and the games, for the shopping and the dining and were barely aware of the horses in the rings. For the aficionados, however, the Show kept improving with the quality of the exhibitors and the variety of the classes. The rings and courses had several reincarnations always looking towards the safety of the spectators, the competitors and their horses. The grandstands and barns had also been rebuilt and enlarged.
They are what keep Devon so vibrant with energy yet rich in history.