In the night of May 24, 1932, the horse stables at Raemelton Farm burned to the ground. Oddly, even though the flames raised a brilliant towering conflagration that brought dozens of neighbors out in the early morning, there was very minimal news coverage of the spectacular blaze.
They wanted to keep it quiet. It was agreed that this barn fire wasn’t an accident—it was a message.
For Frank Black—master of the Raemelton estate—the message would not have been clearer if it came by telegram. It said, ‘the disastrous American economy has made life a bitter struggle for many people in this town, yet your blue-blood ponies eat better than many kids.”
Both Frank and the publisher of The Mansfield News understood the volatile moment of history they were living through, and recognized the perilous crossroads at which American society was standing.
It was important that this barn burning not be seen as the opening salvo of a class war.
As a critical year in the Great Depression, 1932 saw an agonizing collision between supply and demand; between labor and management: and Frank Black stood at the helm of the Ohio Brass Company, which employed over a thousand Mansfielders.
He was undoubtedly the richest man in town. It made him a target as lines grew longer at the soup kitchen.
To anyone with a more benevolent perspective, it meant he had the most to work with in strengthening the city. Frank Black spearheaded the very public campaign to build a state-of-the-art hospital in Mansfield; and he was, at the same time, quietly feeding resources into a dozen startups that could hire more people—more factories, more banks, more restaurants and stores.
It was his goal, as well, to raise the bar of culture in Mansfield, which is why he built a classic riding hall on his Raemelton estate: so he could sponsor fancy-dress horse shows and flower expositions. It brought the Governor and his crowd to town: strutting their saddlebred champions around the arena.
Frank knew what it cost the people of Mansfield to attend these classy cultural events: it cost them nothing.
It cost him plenty.
And that’s why, after someone set his barn on fire, he began immediately to rebuild; and then went out and bought a string of expensive polo ponies so Mansfield would be a city where anyone could witness the Sport of Kings.
Polo itself derived in ancient times from horseback warfare: in America, it derived from wealth and privilege. To have a stable of polo ponies in the 20thcentury required great means; and to have a team of riders required a generous allowance of free time.
If there ever was royalty in Mansfield in the 20thcentury, it was the second generation of Ohio Brass. Raised as the scions of industrial magnates, these boy princes were all born just after 1900, sent away to school in the east, and came of age in the wildly prosperous 1920s. By the 1930s, they were fully fledged, and ready to take the reins of power.
Of the eight or nine horsemen who rode Raemelton polo ponies in the ‘30s, most were related in some way to Frank Black, or worked for him.
The Raemelton teams played ‘arena style’ polo—devised for smaller fields and three horsemen. For several years they performed a formal winter schedule in the heated riding hall, followed by random summer games outdoors on the polo field next to Trimble Road.
Technically, the riding arena was not quite large enough for regulation play, but no one complained—especially during matches played on cold winter days.
Their competition came from around Ohio: teams from Akron sponsored by Harvey Firestone; a couple US Cavalry teams—Troop A and Troop B—from the Armory in Cleveland; and college teams like the ‘men in purple’ from Kenyon College. And when there was no one to challenge the Raemelton boys, they simply divided up into different colored shirts and put on shows for Mansfield’s growing crowd of polo fans.
Within a couple years of taking the field, the Raemelton team was dashingly competent and competing at a wildly exciting level. Anyone who watched their matches definitely got their money’s worth in entertainment, and people didn’t even have to pay to get in. The only folks in attendance who weren’t having fun were the horsemen’s wives, who cringed at every thundering high-speed convergence of ponies, mallets, helmets and clamor.
The matches were often scheduled after flower shows, and always before tea. Accordingly, the polo men found themselves on the society page with the garden club news. They begged the News staff to print their scores on the Sports page.
But to reporters who frequented the Fourth Street Armory covering boxing matches, the polo boys seemed somewhat dilettante and too culturally elevated to be considered true virile athletes. So, one day Louie Ott and Donald Black dragged their incapacitated teammate into the News offices to show them his broken leg.
The Field of Polo
The dreaded class war of the Depression Era never materialized, thankfully, but it was not without its further skirmishes at Raemelton. The stables burned again five years later, and this time it proved to be such a dramatic event that Frank couldn’t keep it under his hat. He did, however, talk the paper into reporting it as an agricultural mishap—spontaneous combustion of too-green hay—instead of an act of anarchist sabotage.
There was no question about the fire’s origin, however, to the farm hands at Raemelton, because it followed only months after someone snuck in at night to cut the tails off of all the expensive show horses.
The stables rose from the ashes once again, recreated in such perfect reproduction of the two previous iterations it looked as if time at Raemelton was impervious to change.
Change did catch up with the place later that year though: in late 1937 Frank Black died suddenly. Without his passionate love of horses driving the farm, the Raemelton polo team lost momentum, and trotted off into the history books.
In 1940, there was a drum and bugle corps practicing their drills in the Raemelton polo field, and by 1944, it had been plowed up altogether and planted in a wartime Victory Garden.
Not long after Frank Black left the earth, the nation underwent a major transition as WWII abruptly changed the world. The halcyon days of polo matches, and the lovely atmosphere of saddle horse shows and floral expositions, seemed to fade away like a dream with the passing of the 1930s.
That shining era of horses had become deeply embedded into the soul of Raemelton however, in a way that could not be discouraged. It took about 60 years to reawaken, but the equine spirit rose once again in a new and life-giving form when the old Riding Academy was repurposed in 1995 as the Raemelton Therapeutic Equestrian Center.
These photos are from the albums of John Baxter Black (1924-2014); the attic of Margery Ott Schuster; the collection of Raemelton Therapeutic Equestrian Center; and the archives of Kingwood Center Gardens.