Scott Briggs guides a team of Belgian horses around a field at Woodlawn Tuesday morning. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY CYNDI WOOD

Old-fashioned hay harvest harkens back to estate’s history

ELLSWORTH — Duke and Trouble have to work for their supper.

At about 1,600 and 1,400 pounds, respectively, it takes a lot to fill up this powerhouse duo of Belgian draft horses. To save money on the hay that supplements their grain diets, owner Dustin Tracy started harvesting his own with a horse-drawn mower five years ago.

This week, Duke and Trouble, as well as another team, Thomas and Butchie, guided by Scott Briggs of Sorrento, mowed the fields at Woodlawn Museum. The hay was past its prime and mixed with other plants, so it will be used for mulch rather than the horses’ next meal. But museum officials are considering maintaining the fields for a proper (and palatable) harvest in the future. This time around, the teams were just cleaning up the grounds.

A tractor would be faster than the “gentle and steady” Belgians, Tracy acknowledges, but the horses are quieter and better company. “I just like it better,” said the Hancock resident of his mowing technique. His restored sickle mower was manufactured sometime between the 1920s and ’40s.

Stephen Shea, vice president of the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, Woodlawn’s governing board, said the fields surrounding the museum have been mowed annually by tractor since his childhood, when his uncle did the job. But the horse-drawn method used this year may well be how the fields were maintained in the past.

George Nixon Black, Charles Pitman and Mary Peters Black in front of Woodlawn ca. 1895. They are ready to take a drive in the Davis buckboard, made in Ellsworth.

Woodlawn has a rich equine history. Rosamond Rea, another board member, said records indicate that the Black family had farms in Aurora that supplied hay to horses and oxen in lumber camps. Woodlawn, often referred to as the Black House, was built by Col. John Black between 1824 and 1827. The 180-acre estate’s trails were once exercise tracks for the family horses. George Nixon Black Jr. was the last of three generations to occupy the property. He summered there for nearly 50 years, indulging his love of horses, dogs, entertaining and antiquing. He willed the estate to the Hancock County Trustees in 1928.

This past summer, museum officials transferred Woodlawn’s collection of antique carriages and sleighs to a new carriage shed, where they can be better enjoyed by the public when the museum reopens next season. Across the driveway, work has begun on the property’s former carriage barn, elements of which will be salvaged and incorporated into a new educational and event facility on the site. The horse stalls, as well as interior architectural details, will be incorporated into the new space.

Visitors enjoying the estate’s grounds this week heard the clip clop of hooves in the fields once again. Tracy and Briggs gave the horses frequent rest breaks, but the animals were eager to resume their task. The Belgians will have more work to do this winter. Tracy’s a builder and he uses the horses for his logging operation.

Cyndi Wood

Cyndi Wood

Managing Editor
Cyndi is managing editor of The Ellsworth American. The Ellsworth native joined the staff of The American in 2007 as a reporter.

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