The horses stood calmly while the grooms, in full livery; coats neatly pressed and boots polished, bustled about them seeing to every detail of their harnessing. Carefully, precisely and efficiently these masterful attendants readied the team of elegant black Friesians with amazing quickness. The four geldings each in turn dutifully bowing their heads to receive their shining patent collars and ornate bridles. So tall are these beasts that even with their amiable attitude, one young lady groom must stand on a stool to reach them.
The coach the team is to be put to is parked nearby, a late nineteenth century Healey Park Drag. In pristine condition, with royal blue and black paint, the Healey and all of it’s proper appointments sit gleaming in the bright morning sun. Weighing in at just over one ton, or in excess of twelve hundred kilos, this particular coach would be considered somewhat diminutive in the eye of an expert, “a ladies coach” and therefore the ideal choice of its driver; Ms Gloria Austin.
Traveling back some sixty years to a small family farm just outside Troupsburg, New York, this all would have seemed an impossible fantasy for a little girl named Gloria. It was post World War II America, the late nineteen forties- a time of economic recovery as well as lingering uncertainty. The third of four children, Gloria Austin was born April 7, 1942. Her parents Myron and Velma were grounded in the Methodist traditions of honest work and a simple, quiet, life. “We were up before dawn and we would always have a big breakfast,” Gloria reminisces happily, “Still, to this day, I enjoy a big breakfast!”
“I loved the farm and all of the animals. We worked hard but we didn’t know any different in those days we just did what needed to be done. If we had to work past dinner, then we worked past dinner; that’s just the way it was. My parents didn’t believe in dancing or music, but we still had a lot of fun; it was a good life.” It was as a young girl that Gloria owned her first horse; a saddlebred. She made a deal with her father to help him work the cows on the farm with her horse in exchange for transportation to local shows in his cattle truck. Gloria doesn’t clearly remember the first time she rode in a carriage; “but it was probably on one of our [family] trips to the city; taking a drive around Central Park.”
While the horses are being made ready, Gloria oversees the activity of the grooms as she primly unfolds her driving apron to put it on. Adjusting her hat, she turns briefly to cheerfully chat with her guests who’ve all arrived to share in a sunday drive. It’s the last day of the Live Oak International CDE 2009, and in keeping with tradition, Gloria is to give a coaching demonstration to the crowds who’ve come to see the final day of this modern combined driving competition. Before any of the horses are brought to the Healey, Gloria takes her place on the box seat.
As the first pair is put to, Gloria observes carefully- scrutinizing every detail. With the reins of the two wheelers in hand, she directs the grooms to bring over her pair of leaders.This is the traditional coaching configuration for horses in harness, it’s known as the four-in-hand. All of this is taking place in an open field jammed with cars, families with strollers, and flip-flop clad passers by. The road coach and it’s team forming a nineteenth century vignette in a twenty-first century parking lot, it was as if a bubble of time had escaped history and somehow gently landed here.
It’s late March and the ground is painfully dry and dusty. A water truck is attempting to spray down the sandy road beside which the pristine Healey and its partially harnessed team is parked. Spotting the potential for danger, Gloria calls out politely but sternly for the truck to turn off its sprayers while it passes. The truck driver pauses, he leans out his window to see a formally dressed lady smiling and pointing at him from atop her tall perch- he immediately obliges.
With the team in place and their driver ready, the guests climb to their rooftop seats aboard the Healey Park Drag. Among them is Harvey Waller, president of the Carriage Association of America and his wife Mary. ’You’re my brakeman Harvey’, Gloria directs calmly, pointing to the seat just behind her. Once everyone is securely seated, she gives a brief nod for her grooms to release the leaders, then calls to her team in a gentle sing-song tone; “Heads up- walk.”
“It was late nineteen ninety-five, around December, when I got a call from Gloria,” recalls David Saunders, “Gloria had always owned ten acres on Marion County Road [in Weirsdale, Florida] and she had just acquired the property behind her, a place called Continental Acres, a race track and race horse training facility. I had met Gloria a few times before, she had quite a [carriage] collection up in Mindon, near Rochester, New York.” As David speaks, he and I are winding our way through a thick pine forest on the grounds of Black Prong, a popular wintering spot for carriage drivers near Bronson, Florida. A former head coachman and Royal Mews to the Duke of Edinburgh, Saunders also drove for Queen Elizabeth II as well as her son, Prince Philip.
These days he works independently as a professional coachman, competitive driver, trainer, and consultant to collectors. Today he’s schooling a pair of handsome black Morgan geldings belonging to Alan Aulson. “I was in North Carolina at the time,” explains Saunders,"Gloria said she was looking for someone to help her put together a four-in-hand. She had just come back from a clinic down in south Florida where she had taken her first four-in-hand lesson with George Bowman.
At the time Gloria owned an assortment of Morgan/Friesian crosses and during this clinic she and George put them together as a team. She said she really enjoyed the four-in-hand and wanted to do more. It was December, and quite cold up there in North Carolina, so my wife and I jumped in our pick-up truck, drove down and there was this beautiful place called Continental Acres."
During that first week, Saunders gave Gloria a crash course in driving teams with Gloria eagerly soaking up every minute of the experience. It was a natural progression for her, having driven single horses for more than a decade, along the way achieving several wins at high level venues such as Walnut Hill. With three years of combined driving competition, she’d moved on to win pairs championships the previous two years. In the world of carriage driving, the four-in-hand is the pinnacle of the sport. “Once a person has had their first experience driving the four-in-hand,” Gloria explained, “there’s just something magical about it and that’s all you want to do.”
“There is a tremendous sense of power a person gets from driving the four-in-hand,” continues Gloria, “and for a woman, that is a very rare experience.” The Morgan/Friesian crosses were horses Gloria had bred herself with the help of Hungarian driving master Dr. Leslie Kozeley.
From the beginning of her partnership with David Saunders, Gloria shared her dream of one day having a facility where people could come south with their horses, drive during the winter months, and enjoy the Florida sunshine. “I thought the idea sounded lovely,” Saunders continued, “Of course when we arrived, it was just a Thoroughbred farm, none of the [current] buildings or the museum were there yet, the lakes were there as you drive in, there was a race track, and a long barn for the horses.”
Gloria’s famous work ethic went into high gear during that first week of training with David Saunders. David in turn was very pleased to have such an eager and enthusiastic student. “Over the next few days we put the four together, we put a tandem together, we drove a unicorn, a random; Gloria has this child-like quality, especially with horses, she wants to experience everything, she wants to do everything and it’s very contagious. It affects everyone she’s around. Gloria had a George IV and one night over dinner she mentioned that she had always dreamed of harnessing it Postillion, so I said, ‘well, lets do it tomorrow’. Well, she kind of looked at me and laughed, but we put it together the next day and took her out for a drive.”
From her “crash course” beginnings in coaching, Gloria slowed herself down, took her time, and patiently polished her driving. After sitting in the left seat during her first few coaching competitions and observing David Saunders as whip, she took the reins and won the coaching turn-out class at The Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, Canada her first time out. “It was quite an accomplishment,” remembers Saunders, “And I don’t believe anyone has done it since. For a newcomer to go to the Royal and win the turnout class Is totally unheard of.”
In addition to Gloria’s natural talent as a coachman, a beautiful coach, and her excellent horses, it was David Saunder’s creative attention to the smallest detail of her turnout that perhaps helped to win the class; “I knew the judge was from the UK, he was president of the London coaching club. He owned a brewery, I had a case of beer from his brewery flown in for the show so that instead of the usual Champagne on the tailgate display the judge saw his own brand.” In addition, Saunders gave Gloria’s turnout a decidedly English bent instead of a typically American one. David also turned out her horses with the same care and detail he would have used for Prince Philip or the Queen herself.
From that first exhilarating experience, Gloria Austin has gone on to win several coaching championships in North America, as well as in Europe. She’s paid her dues and is every bit a coachman, following in the historical tradition of famous coaching women such as Sylvia Brocklebank and Ruth Twombly Vanderbilt. Mirroring Ms Brocklebank’s famous win in the Quick Change competition in 1908, at Olympia in London, Gloria won the Quick Change at Walnut Hill in New York driving her Brewster Summer Coach. She has presented her coach at Windsor Palace for the Royal Windsor horse show and is a member of the Attelage Traditionale, the European private driving club.
After a delightful six mile jaunt along the winding back roads and through the gardens of blooming azaleas of Live Oak Plantation. The Healey Park Drag, loaded with eight rooftop passengers, five-foot four inch, sixty-five year old driver and with two tons worth of horses pulling it arrived at the show arena. The warm-up area was a buzz with light, agile, competition styled four-in-hands all tuning up for the obstacle competition, the final event of the three day exhibition. A record number of four-in-hand drivers participated at Live Oak in 2009, all beginning a hopeful personal journey towards the 2010 World Equestrian Games, in Lexington, Kentucky.
The excitement generated by the WEG meant there was a bevy of fresh new drivers on the field with limited experience. Gloria adeptly navigated her way through the dense traffic of composite alloy carriages- her Park Drag’s lumbering hardwood frame being anything but nimble. The antithesis of modern, her coach’s smallest safe turning radius is fifty feet. But out of every driver on the field, every spectator, every person present that day, it was Gloria Austin and her guests who enjoyed the most spectacular view of the festivities; a proper Park Drag, well horsed, does have it’s advantages.
Despite the hazards of driving a fully loaded coach in erratic traffic, Gloria remained confident- masterfully displaying the ultimate achievement for any coachman; make it look effortless. “It was nice that we had such a lovely drive around Live Oak,” recalls CAA president, Harvey Waller, “it was wonderful to go out on the roads and go through the Live Oak proper so to speak. And then we came back and Gloria gave an exhibition of coaching in the ring, but in fact, she got to use her horses and really enjoy them after all of that work to put it all together and we did as well.”
“Gloria has contributed not only to coaching but to the entire carriage world in a great way. The fact that she has put together her collection representing sporting vehicles, formal vehicles, commercial vehicles, right on up to coaching. She exhibits all of these in a proper way, she’s done a great job presenting the carriages. Gloria is always someone who is a pleasure to coach with, she exemplifies being safe out there. She puts together very well, she certainly is capable, and a most safe driver.”
If it weren’t for lack of a cup of tea, the crown jewel of Gloria Austin’s collection may never have been acquired. The centerpiece of the Florida Carriage Museum is a one of a kind royal state carriage dated to 1850. Also known as a full dress chariot, or Gala Coupé, it once belonged to the Emperor Franz Joseph, of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was during this time that David Saunders was working with Gloria, helping her to put her collection together. For this particular excursion, they’d traveled to Oregon to purchase a Brewster summer coach; what would become the first coach in Gloria’s collection.
“We’d gone out there together,” Saunders recalls, “and the man who was restoring the coach had lots of different sheds on the property with lots of different carriages in them. That’s when I first saw the Dress Chariot or Gala Coupé. This particular guy who had been restoring the summer coach was a bit peculiar as we’d been there for two or three hours and he hadn’t offered us anything; as normally a person would offer you a cup of tea or a cup of coffee or something. So I said kind of jokingly, ‘well I’m parched, I could do with a nice cup of tea’, well he said ‘oh, I’ll go up to the house and make one’, well, I thought he would invite us up to the house but instead he left us there in this kind of tack room while he went off to get the tea.”
While waiting for tea in the tack room, Gloria and Saunders got into some carriage collecting mischief. “So the two of us, Gloria and I, with nothing else to do, started poking around and I saw this Armbruster, which was the manufacturer of the Gala Coupé. I said to Gloria, ‘Look at this, this is a Dress Chariot’, which is the English term for a Gala Coupé, these are only made for royalty. Armbruster made carriages for the crown heads of Europe. Well, Gloria and I started looking at it, Gloria was getting excited, but the guy came back and was horrified that we’d been poking around his barn.”
It would be another two years before Gloria would own this amazing coach, but at the time she purchased it, “amazing” took quite a bit of imagination. “Almost all of the woodwork was rotten”, David Saunders remembers vividly, “A lot of the ironwork was there but it wasn’t in particularly good shape. It had been purchased originally in the 1930’s by a Hollywood movie studio for use in a Ronald Coleman movie called; The Prisoner of Zenda”. The carriage can be seen briefly about forty-five minutes into the 1937 film. The Gala Coupé makes its appearance during the climax of the coronation scene and is easily recognizable (even in the YouTube clip). Pulled by six light grey horses, and driven Postilion, the carriage looks almost as good in the film as the magnificently restored version of itself that’s on display in the Florida Carriage Museum today.
Gloria Austin would accompany David Saunders on buying trips both in the US and Europe over a surprisingly short period of time in order to build her collection- she held nothing less than the formidable personal goal of creating one of the largest and most comprehensive carriage collections in the world. With Mr. Saunder’s keen assistance, together with Gloria’s own natural eye for line and form, she famously pulled it off. “It was all great fun,” Saunders recalls, “Working with Gloria Austin during that time was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Aside from working for her majesty the Queen [of England], it’s been the highlight of my career.” With David Saunder’s connections to the royal houses of Europe, doors to the finest private carriage barns were opened to Ms Austin.
“Gloria’s natural effervescence and genuine enthusiasm was contagious,” Saunders continues, “She was so sincere in her desire to learn, even the most jaded of the people in charge of these collections became excited when they were around Gloria; they couldn’t help themselves. She would climb into a carriage and get so excited just sitting there- I called them ‘carriage-gasms’!”
On a trip to Spain to look at possible acquisitions, Saunders arrived a few days ahead of Gloria in order to confirm appointments and set up meetings. Ever the cheeky Englishman, Saunders decided to have the limo driver wait for Gloria to come off the plane while he and their Spanish host stood just out of sight. As crowds of travelers poured off their flights, the limo driver quietly held up a sign that read “Lady Weirsdale”. “You should have seen her little face when she saw that sign”, Saunders recounted gleefully, “she had this look of astonishment, she said, ’That’s me! I’m Lady Weirsdale!”
What is truly astonishing is the collection Gloria Austin has assembled. And unlike many collections- Gloria’s is open to the public. There are over one hundred and sixty carriages in Gloria’s recently re-named Florida Carriage Museum, but perhaps, “museum” is a bit stuffy, it’s a living collection with nearly every one of the inhabitants in driving condition and all of the drivers- be they commercial vehicles, coaching, presentation, sunday outing, military, or even the fire engine, have appropriate harness properly fatted and standing ready. Patrick Schroven, of Mechelen, Belgium, did a number of the restorations including the spectacular Gala Coupé. The magnificent harness collection could stand on its own as a major contribution to the tradition of carriage driving.
In order for each set of harness to present properly with its corresponding carriage, Gloria Austin sought out the finest harness makers in the world including; Hank Van der Wiel, David Freedman and Greg Hunt. Gloria’s reputation, her generosity with her carriages and her willingness to present them, is legendary amongst the surrounding communities. On any given day, the phone might ring in Gloria’s office, as it did when The Villages Polo Club needed an appropriate turnout with accompanying livery and appointments to carry the Duchess of York onto the field for their season opener. For that day’s festivities, Gloria chose her mint condition Binder Beaufort Phaeton, driving it herself and horsing it with one of her four-in-hand teams of black Friesians. When a visitor walks by a display in the museum, it’s not uncommon to notice a bit of fresh dirt on a wheel of a carriage that was just out at an event, or on the grounds for some exercise; no doubt “Lady Weirsdale” was at the whip.
Of all of her many activities, it’s perhaps Gloria’s role as an educator that she draws the most pleasure from. “We have over six thousand years of history with the horse”, Gloria likes to remind visitors, “and only a little over a hundred years of history with the automobile. Out of every animal on the planet, it’s the horse that has made the greatest contribution towards the advancement of mankind. The study of the horse is truly the most neglected subject of human history. We owe everything to the horse; mankind’s history with the horse is a subject worthy of academic study and yet, today, it’s so often trivialized as merely a recreational activity. There’s a reason why it was a hanging offense to steal man’s horse in the old west; a man deprived of his horse could die very easily.”
Listening to Gloria, her dedication to her craft and passion for accuracy, it doesn’t take long to fall in line with her way of thinking. After all, humankind certainly didn’t advance into the industrial age on foot. When I arrived at her office, Gloria was busily reviewing a PowerPoint program on that very subject. She’s created dozens of these lectures on everything from how to drive carriages safely to the importance of proper presentation when driving historical vehicles. It’s out of this passion that Gloria Austin formed her charitable foundation; The Equine Heritage Institute. The institute’s mission is to educate, celebrate and preserve the history of the horse and its role in shaping world civilizations.
She lectures regularly at her facility and for the many programs she hosts, such as the Carriage Association of America’s Learning Weekend. Gloria also donates her time as a guest lecturer throughout the country. In addition to her busy schedule running her charitable foundation. She’s also an adjunct professor of equine studies at Central Florida Community College. If that wasn’t enough, during our visit, she was in the midst of communications with top American four-in-hand driver Chester Webber, who has himself expressed an interest in coaching.
Thinking ahead, as Gloria Austin seems to always be doing- even now in the current economic down-turn. Having vision, imagination, a great eye for possibilities, a strong work ethic, and a goal driven attitude has served her well. Whether as a collector of carriages, a competitor in the show ring, a philanthropist or a businesswoman, Gloria Austin has a talent for overcoming difficulties.
It was as a single mother with two children that she acquired the rights to a franchise office of Paychex, a commercial payroll and book keeping company. It was a business she knew well, but it was a franchise that nobody else wanted. It existed only on paper at the time Gloria decided to take on its assigned territory which covered lower Manhattan in New York. Within five years she had built it up to become one of the company’s most profitable offices. “I looked at it this way,” Gloria recalled, “Nobody wanted this franchise because they thought the competition in Manhattan would be too difficult to overcome. But the way I saw it, what better place to build a five star restaurant than right across the street from another five star restaurant?”
“Most people look at me today and immediately they think I must have had a rich father. Well, my father was a farmer, everything I have I earned on my own.” This same attitude of quiet fierceness and determination has accompanied Gloria Austin into the carriage driving world. Once she’d discovered the Austrian Gala Coupé, she knew she had to have it for her collection. However, the owner in Oregon refused to sell it. Her prize would have to linger a bit longer. Two years went by, Gloria made other attempts to purchase a full dress chariot in Europe but was unsuccessful.
In the meantime, she received word that a complete set of harness for a dress chariot was available. It was being rebuilt by European harness maker Hank Van der Wiel. He was recreating the harness based on the charred remains and hardware or furniture that had been recovered in a tragic barn fire in Austria. By incredible chance, the burned harness bore the double eagle crest of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. Gloria purchased the fully restored set without hesitation. Some would have considered this a highly risky acquisition, but then again, this level of collecting demands serious commitment. Not long after Gloria acquired her set of harness, her phone rang; it was the man in Oregon, calling to see if she was still interested in his Austrian dress chariot.
Strolling through the massive collection together, I had to ask Gloria the obvious question; which one is your favorite?. The answer was surprising; “Oh, the western stage coach!” She chirped gleefully. “I love the rocking motion when I drive it. It’s not an easy coach to drive but I really get a kick out of it.” She had originally chosen the stage coach for her polo match drive with the Duchess of York but it couldn’t be made ready on such short notice.
We walked through the American gallery, stopping to admire the extensive sleigh collection- some of the few residents of the museum that are not driven; there’s not much snow accumulation in Florida. Despite the weather, or lack of it, Gloria still insisted that all of the sleighs be restored to top driving condition. “Sleighs are so often damaged”, Gloria explained, “Most people don’t know how to drive a sleigh properly and they end up tipping them over.” The feature attraction in the European gallery is of course the Gala Coupé. As we approached the display, I nudged Gloria’s arm; “Why don’t you get in it,” Gloria was hesitant but I excitedly urged her on, “Oh me, now?” she whispered “Go sit in your chariot.” “Right this minute?” “Yes!”
True to her nature, Gloria couldn’t resist a bit of “carriage mischief”. She was dressed beautifully in a champagne colored suit with a floral print jacket. We ducked under the rope partition and carefully opened up the passenger door of the immaculate Gala Coupé. It’s not like a normal door at all- a lot of complex hinged parts that seem to want to drop out all over. There’s the fold down step and lowering the window is also a challenge, but we got it all open and she got in.
“How is it?" I asked, “It’s wonderful,” she beamed. Gloria was glowing, “I love the smell”. Our antics didn’t go unnoticed, a small crowd of museum patrons gathered to watch and take photos. Suddenly, we were spotted by a concerned docent, “Oh Ma’am! Please Ma’am! You can’t do that!” Gloria continued to smile, sitting comfortably in her chariot as a crowd of visitors clicked away with their digital cameras and cell phones. One person turned and confronted the hapless docent, “But look! that’s Gloria Austin sitting in there!” No, I thought, not just Gloria Austin, that’s Lady Weirsdale.
Comments for Lady Weirsdale
Dunai Harris on July 14, 2010
Beautiful! The story is just beautiful! She is like the queen herself seated in that royal carriage. The museum is truly captivating, especially for a fellow driver. The story behind it makes it even more fun. :)
Dawne on July 15, 2010
Tracy! such a fabulous article on Gloria and the museum! A definite “must see” on anyone’s trip to FL. I’m glad I found this site (Thanks Miss Denise), I look forward to reading more.
Aileen Livingston on July 20, 2010
Tracy: It was as great reading this article as it was meeting you last year. I hope you are enjoying your time in Europe. Aileen
Jill Harris on July 21, 2010
Great story, Tracy! You have a way of making me want to run out and visit the Carriage Museum this afternoon! Thanks for allowing us to meet Gloria Austin through your writing.
Denise Shirey on August 06, 2010
This facility is so lovely. It’s a great place to ride young horses. Check it out any weekend. It’s wonderful to just enough “hoof” around on foot.