A few weeks ago I wrote about Birchwood Country Club. I called the hidden-in-plain sight 80-acre property — just inches from the Norwalk border — “the only private country club in Westport.”
At the opposite end of town — just inches from the Fairfield border — lies the Fairfield County Hunt Club. It’s a country club too.
And though their emphasis is on horses, not golf, the Hunt Club shares several similarities with Birchwood. Both clubs have beautiful dining rooms. They offer tennis and swimming. They’re reaching out to younger families, and welcoming kids.
And they’re both trying to overcome low profiles and outdated stereotypes about who they are, and what they do.
The Hunt Club traces its history back to 1923. Averill Harriman commissioned Laura Gardin Fraser — a famous sculptor living on North Avenue — to design and execute a polo medal.
As part of her research she borrowed mallets, mounted a horse and began knocking a ball around on her estate. Intrigued, other Westporters joined her.
Games grew into the idea of a club — with, in addition to polo, horse shows and hunting.
Polo was played first on the a field on Hulls Farm Road, in Fairfield. Horse shows were held on the Bedford family estate.
The Long Lots Road property was purchased in 1924 by Henry Rudkin, whose family founded Pepperidge Farm.
Interest in horses flourished. But the Depression a few years later made riding seem frivolous.
Smith Richardson, Fred Bedford and Fred Sturges helped reorganize the club. They introduced sound financial controls, and things were looking up.
A fire on New Year’s Eve in 1937 gutted the clubhouse. With insurance money, the club could have paid all its obligations and closed up shop. Instead, leaders vowed to rebuild.
Then came World War II, and gas rationing. Though membership dropped to 70, the club emerged in good shape.
A swimming pool was added in 1952. Then came 6 tennis courts, a paddle court, and in 1965 an indoor ring for year-round riding.
Through the 1970s the Hunt Club built more tennis and paddle courts, another indoor ring, and other amenities.
In the 1990s a capital improvement program renovated the clubhouse, improved barns, refurbished the baby pool, and added a snack bar and irrigation.
The 40 acres now include 8 tennis courts, 4 paddle courts, 6 barns, 2 outdoor and 2 indoor rings, a casual grill room in addition to the formal dining room — and a 60 foot-by-120 foot skating rink.
Notable members over the years have included Martha Stewart, Lucie McKinney, Paul Newman, Ruth Bedford, Frank Deford, Robert Ludlum, and Harry Reasoner — who lived directly across Long Lots Road from the club.
There are now approximately 200 members. One-third are not interested in riding — they join for the pool, tennis and paddle courts, dining, family fun, summer camp, whatever. They come primarily from Westport and Fairfield, with a smattering from other nearby towns.
Things have changed over the years, of course — and not just the facilities. Members used to ride horses on the roads near the club. They no longer do — except occasionally on Godfrey Lane, off nearby Bulkley.
But key events remain the same. Several horse shows are held each year. The big one is in June. This year’s — the 95th annual — benefits the Equus Foundation. The US Equestrian Federation has designated it a “heritage competition” — one of only 16, out of 2,000 shows a year in the country.
The Hunt Club hosts other fundraisers, along with dances, Halloween and holiday parties, and more.
The riding program is robust. Youngsters start as young as 5 — and members continue to ride through their 70s. A summer academy (ages 6 to 11) teaches riding, as well as horse care.
The club owns 9 horses; some members own their own.
Polo begins as young as 10 years old.
Monthly horse shows are open to the public. The big one, in June, draws international riders.
Like its counterpart Birchwood, the Fairfield County Hunt Club honors its history — and is moving into the future. New, young members have energized both clubs.
BONUS HUNT CLUB FUN FACT: The Polo Ralph Lauren logo is based on a photograph of Benny Gutierrez — a Polo Hall of Fame inductee — taken on the Fairfield County Hunt Club polo field.