Generations of Beauty: Chester County’s Whitehackle FarmPhotos by Jim Graham
From the flagstone terrace adorned with wisteria, gaze out over the expanse of Whitehackle Farm. Every season, every day, every fleeting moment offers a sublime view.
A heron stands silently at the edge of the larger of two ponds. A yellow iris blooms. Morning sun catches a cupola above the stables. Horses gallop past an old sycamore tree and newcomer saplings, as riders race for the prize of the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup.
Like the property’s sparkling stream—the headwaters of the White Clay Creek—history, home and heart flow through the farm.
In an area of southern Chester County that was once old-wood riparian forest populated by Lenni Lenape natives, in the 1920s William Ernest Carter created a lodge and surrounding space where he could hunt.
While Carter’s full story remains a mystery, the avid fox hunter, polo player and wealthy son of a coal baron sought a new life outside of Philadelphia after surviving the sinking of the Titanic and a later divorce. Plunkett Stewart—a friend and famed founder of distinguished hunts and hounds—brought Carter to the countryside of West Marlborough Township.
Designed and constructed by the renowned Philadelphia firm of John S. Cornell & Sons in 1925, Carter’s lodge was no mere hunting box. The two-story house, carriage house and stables with six brood-mare-sized stalls were built with matching large stone lintels and dash pointing.
Exemplary of homes designed and constructed in that period, the house and outbuildings appeared to have grown out of the ground; the home seemed to drape over the hillside. Although the box’s second floor had no interior walls for separate bedrooms, the first floor’s leaded windows by the front door, marble foyer, two fireplaces and six sets of French doors leading to the back terrace formed a space of simple elegance and beauty.
Carter named it Gwenda Farm.
Over the decades, owners with a love of the land, horses, hunt and polo continued to be stewards of the property. After Carter’s death in 1940, the deed passed through interim owners.
Then in 1953 Lewis Ledyard bought the property, bringing his family and passion for fox hunting. In 2002, son Mike Ledyard—who had spent his childhood there—bought it for his own growing family and named it Whitehackle, after the family’s longtime homestead in New York.
The Meaning of Home
Mike Ledyard recounted the legend of his father buying the farm. Although the Ledyard family lived on Long Island, his parents frequently hunted with friends John and Nancy Hannum on weekends. One day Mrs. Hannum telephoned Lewis Ledyard about a property preparing to go onto the market. Ledyard took a trip to see it.
“My dad made a deal, shook hands and called my mother,” said Ledyard. “Dad told her, ‘I just bought the nicest farm in Unionville.’ She asked the number of bedrooms. ‘Two,’ he replied.” “Dad must have forgotten we had six kids at that time,” chuckled Mike.
Ultimately, a large suite and three additional bedrooms were added to the farmhouse’s second floor. With his mother as an ardent gardener, peonies, irises and lilies of the valley from Long Island accompanied the family on their move and were placed in their own beds surrounding the new Unionville house.
“As a kid, I was oblivious to architectural aspects,” continued Mike. “Friends would say it was a great place, so I was proud of it. But to me it was simply home.”
As a child, on the coldest winter days Mike played with tiny toy tractors on the rug that covered the original random-width oak floors as sunlight streamed in through the French doors on the house’s south side. During summers, he and the family raced their ponies, swimming across the larger pond built by his father. Mike drank water straight from one of the springhouses.
“I knew every square inch of the farm. I helped build every bit of fence,” Ledyard said. “It all has huge sentiment. Later in life, I began to appreciate the architectural style.”
Many of the home’s architectural elements and furnishings are as historically and architecturally significant as the cherished memories are sentimentally significant to Ledyard. Every attention was paid to details from the front doorknob to the plaster moldings.
According to Ledyard, when he and his wife Catherine (“Cathie”) moved there, they wondered how to replace an extraordinary but dilapidated Palladian window at the end of the barn. Although he hadn’t visited the loft for decades, he vaguely remembered seeing an extra window stored there. Climbing into the loft, he found an identical hand-made window with matching magnificent dentils and columns—another legacy of William Carter.
Gracing the wall in one of the downstairs bedrooms is a special document: Map of Country Most Frequently Hunted by Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Fox Hounds, presented to Mrs. John B. Hannum, III, 1950, re-presented 1991. The re-presented map updated names of property owners, including the Ledyard family.
While the appointments are noteworthy, the house also has a charming, comfortable feel. “The rooms are intimate,” said John Milner, Chadds Ford architect. “You feel good walking through them. Someone created a home, not just a statement.”
Over time some aspects have changed. The driveway with entrances on two roads is now paved. Ledyard laughed as he recounted driving very slowly late at night so the crunch of the gravel beneath the car’s tires wouldn’t alert his parents to his arrival past curfew.
Lining the driveway, trees once climbed by Ledyard and his siblings are now so tall that limbs are beyond reach. Another once-small tree near the larger pond is now a majestic oak. Herbs grow in window boxes on a deck that was added to the side of the home overlooking the farm’s two springhouses.
Yellow irises by the small pond multiplied and crept downstream over the years. “Shortly after we bought the house in 2002, I asked Mrs. Hannum if we could dig a few of the yellow flowers down the road to plant by our pond,” said Ledyard. “She said yes, so we dug, then planted. We found out later that it wasn’t her property.”
Other things haven’t changed: the longstanding tradition of the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup traversing the property and the sight of the gable end of the barn from the bedroom where Mike Ledyard and, years later, his son Mikey—now in law school—slept. Views of and from the protected 68-acre farm, surrounded by protected land, cannot change because of conservation easements.
Yet another important feature of Whitehackle, one with broad impact, is the freshwater spring that emerges at a dip in the land.
“The property is the birthplace of the wild and scenic White Clay Creek,” said Bern Sweeney, senior research scientist at Stroud Water Research Center who has studied the stream since 1972.
“How water is treated in its infancy dictates the quality of water downstream,” said Sweeney. Thus, Chester County residents savoring local butter and cheese from downstream dairy farms, mushroom farms, neighbors in small town Avondale and the city of Newark, Delaware, as well as four-hooved friends from nearby horse farms who drink the water of the creek, all depend on the quality of the water that comes from this farm.
In recent years, with the help of the Stroud Center and others, 1500 trees have been planted along the creek at Whitehackle as part of a water improvement program. Because of the trees that stabilize the creek banks and their shade that stabilizes the water temperature, healthy wildlife abounds on the farm and beyond: trout, mussels, herons, mayflies and more.
A side benefit of the clean water was revealed through laughter when Sweeney was asked if he ever fell into the stream—on purpose.
As generations past have cherished the home, and land of the farm, there can be no doubt that future generations will revere the beauty of this Chester County treasure.
For information about the sale of Whitehackle Farm, contact Mark Willcox III at Country Property’s Berkshire Hathaway Fox and Roach, 610-347-2065 (office), 610-716-0592 (cell).
©Jim Graham | jimgrahamphotography.com
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