In the early 1980s, people from downtown Columbia had the perception that Blythewood was a world apart. In fact, George Walker’s family, as well as many others, saw it as a hidden gem with its rolling hills and hardwood trees.
The view looking north to Highway 34, the ridge of Ridgeway, from the top of Persimmon Fork Road, gives a feeling that this property could not possibly be so close to Columbia. George reminisces about his parents’ decision to join a group of horse-minded individuals who saw a unique opportunity that would allow them to create an equestrian-oriented community.
“Dad did not get Mom out of our house on Pendleton Street, a block from USC, overnight, but it did not take long for my mom to fall in love with the land,” George says. “She was more than used to Dad’s artistic disposition and his need to create. Like the sculptor who reveals the image hidden in the stone, Dad had a real vision for unveiling the land’s personality. He was never afraid of hard work, and building Middlefield Farm was a labor of love. The name of the farm was born from a conversation that my parents had with Rachel Muller Kempson, an old friend, whose family had once owned a considerable portion of the land that was now being quilted together. She told my parents that they had purchased the middle field.”
Blythewood started as a very small town. In earlier days, it was often referred to as Doko for its former Doko Depot, a stop along the railway between Charlotte and Columbia. “Doko” is a Native American word meaning “watering place,” and, at the depot, the steam engines took on water.
“The initial horse-minded families, with the help and guidance of Jerry Leese of C.J. Leese and Company, worked out the logistics of buying and dividing up land formerly owned by the Muller family,” George says. Plus, in the 1980s, I-77 was under construction between Charlotte and Columbia, creating a faster route for “snow birds” bound for the Coast. The new interstate proved to be convenient access to Blythewood from Columbia.
George recounts that Cindy Nord and her late husband, Evan, joined that original group, and Cindy is still going strong at her lovely farm, Meadowwood. Joyce Hill was right on their heels, relocating her Farewell Farm from Elgin and creating a much-admired three day eventing farm and cross country course recognized nationwide. When Susan Todd left her place on Persimmon Fork Road, Blythewood pulled her back to Hidden Creek Farms off Syrup Mill Road. The Grosslights and the Fabers have been neighbors and longtime residents on Persimmon Fork Road. These families, with others like the Leeses, Happels, Harpers, and Wendts, all helped to form the “spokes in the wheel” that continues to roll just as true today.
While some of the original equestrian families have moved out of the Blythewood area, on occasion, as life often dictates, the equestrian community of Blythewood has also been further strengthened over the years by new “spokes.” Land sales and resales have occurred with peace of mind of knowing that the land can only be subdivided in a limited way, assuring that the original intent born in 1980 is forever protected. George is quick to point out that without this group’s endeavor, the pristine Blythewood land might have been gobbled up by developers bent on creating high density subdivisions.
“We all benefitted from the old-time Blythewood families, like the Hagoods, Boneys, and Sharpes, who were steadfastly protecting the land that they had owned and known for generations,” he says. “You can be sure they were looking at us like martians as we descended on their world, but I believe they soon came to realize that we too felt a responsibility to protect this land from the frantic development that would consume much of the land east of I-77, changing it from open farm and timber land to the ‘vinyl ponderosa.’”
George returned home in 1986, having spent time working on horse farms in Kentucky, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Germany after graduating from college in 1982. He grew up with a fascination for horses and turned his attention to the thoroughbred racing world upon graduation. In the interim, his father, also a lifelong rider, decided in 1983 to import a number of Hanoverian weanlings to be used for future sport horse breeding stock. Hanoverians are some of the German warmbloods used for the Olympic disciplines of dressage, jumping, and three-day eventing.
The Hanoverian Society is one of the oldest, largest, and most successful of the warmblood registries. The breed became heavier and bigger boned during the time between the world wars as Germany had less time for sport and a greater need for sturdy work horses able to till the fields. However, the emphasis after World War II centered on lightening the breed for today’s world of sport through the use of the thoroughbred, the trakehner, and the Anglo Arab. The Walkers appreciate the stamina of the thoroughbred and the refinement that these other breeds re-introduced to the Hanoverian gene pool.
George married Catherine Fouché in 1987. She and George had both ridden at Belle Grove and Hickory Top, in Eastover, with Betty Belser and continued to do so through high school. While Catherine did not have any experience with horse breeding, it was certainly baptism by fire. “We have shared 30 years on the property, and while I have sold real estate for 25 of those years, Catherine has been by my side every step of the way,” says George. “We’ve shared the passion for the land and the horses.”
The Walkers’ neighbors, Susie and Paul Carlson, built their charming Blythewood home in 1998 on a portion of the property the Walkers sold off Middlefield Lane. As a fellow real estate agent and horse lover, Susie actually came to look at the eight parcels of land being offered for sale with a client in mind. She liked what she saw and decided she, too, wanted to live off Persimmon Fork Road. With the purchase of 17 acres, the couple built their own home and barn.
“The grasses were a foot high and folded over in heaps, and I felt like I was in Kentucky,” Susie says. “And in an age when trees are often cut down to get them out of the way, I was enthralled with the natural beauty, the rolling hills, and old stocked ponds.”
Susie started riding at Camp Pinnacle when she was 10 and has been showing horses in the hunter/jumper arena for many years. In the Carlson’s four-stall barn at Middle Meadow Farm, Susie keeps her three horses: Kisses, a Dutch warmblood, who is her current show horse; Georgia, a thoroughbred/Hanoverian cross; and, Dewey, her 27-year-old retired Selle Francais, a breed from France known for its jumping ability. Susie points out that horses prefer a routine when it comes to their daily life, and they are much happier and healthier when they are managed on a regular schedule for feeding and turnout. Her barn setup and the layout of her pastures help her give her horses this ideal environment, making life a pleasure for her four-legged friends.
Susie enjoys trail riding and showing in Camden, Aiken, and Raleigh but has a particular fondness for the atmosphere of the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, a wonderful show ground outside of Tryon in the foothills of the North Carolina mountains. The facilities play host to multiple days of showing, with horses and competitors placed front and center.
“When I get home from my work as a realtor, I am delighted to unwind in my own equestrian setting,” Susie says. “Whatever your horse interests are in our greater horse-minded neighborhood, we appreciate one another. We share our resources and spaces and realize that we are all better off for one another.”
Jean and Jackie Rion found their way to Blythewood in part because of their daughter Caroline’s affiliation with the USC equestrian team. The Rions purchased the Walkers’ original barn complex and were valued members of the neighborhood. Having USC’s riding team move to Blythewood through the purchase of Katie and Scott Peterson’s Onewood Farms was another plus for the area. The USC girls, under the guidance of Boo Major, head coach of the equestrian team, have been a source of local pride because of their national championships. When the Rions returned to their home in Charleston, Brett and Liz Carlin took up the reins, naming their place Evergreen Farm.
Liz met Catherine Walker by chance on the tennis court. As they became friends, Catherine invited Liz and Drew, her daughter, out to the farm. Mother and daughter both caught the bug and started lessons at Onewood Farm to learn the discipline of dressage, which is a French term meaning training. In the dressage discipline, the horse is put through a series of exercises, organized on a time-honored training pyramid, and it becomes stronger, more supple, and alert while maintaining a calm and attentive demeanor.
In 2008, Catherine and George encouraged Liz and Brett to purchase Jean and Jackie’s place. With her 12-stall barn and indoor and outdoor arenas, Liz dove right in. Liz and Brett enjoy their cottage attached to the barn, making the reverse commute from their home in Columbia. “George and his dad helped me learn to run a farm,” Liz says. “I am at the farm six days a week and often spend the weekends in the cottage.”
Liz loves the daily riding and training with her horses, Harper and Piper, and finds the discipline of dressage to be particularly rewarding. She organizes several clinics a year with Wolfgang Scherzer, a well-respected German dressage trainer and clinician. These well-run clinics are appreciated by many, reservations are coveted, and there is always a waiting list.
Liz and Brett, Susie and Paul, and Catherine and George are neighbors and stewards, all quick to reiterate that they are simply three spokes in a wonderful life-size wheel with many additional pieces. They all feel fortunate to be able to lean on one another and share sensibilities regarding their equestrian farms. And, most importantly, they realize the joy of living in this beautiful Blythewood area, where one does not actually need to have a particular breed or type of horse or subscribe to the same riding disciplines. For that matter, no horse is necessary. What is required, however, is a love for the environment and the natural setting that has been created, cultivated, and preserved with the horse first and foremost in mind!