Austin Brown could have hoisted gold cups and lofty purses, riding at the top of his game in New York City or some other faraway place, but his father Carter Pennell Brown, founder of Tryon Riding & Hunt Club, wasn’t wild about money. “I nearly died of starvation way down in South Carolina because of him,” Brown tenderly jokes.
Perhaps in his youth, the burgeoning big-league equestrian resented his father for purchasing a vacant tuberculosis sanatorium and stretches of rural Carolina land, but now, at age 90, he yearns to meet anyone as sincere. Brown says his father’s authenticity was unparalleled: “he was one of a kind.”
Known as the “man who created Tryon,” Carter Brown showed an unyielding dedication to grand ideas that made up for anything lost in profit. Even before pushing down to the foothills, he abandoned schooling at the University of Illinois to open a Michigan lodge, the Castle Park Inn. Zealous in his Christian Scientist faith, he believed God trumped formal training (architecture and construction included), and in 1917 he began remodeling the sanatorium — what would eventually become Pine Crest Inn.
While the bed-and-breakfast captivated American novelists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who both stayed there, Carter next set his sights on something far less quaint: a long, plain building called The Block House. Positioned in two states and three counties, the dilapidated hovel had many incarnations over the years. For a stint, it even served as an unsavory but convenient cockfighting ring, since participants could, quite literally, run out of state if badgered by authorities.
Despite the building’s shadowy past, Carter impulsively bought the place for the Plamondons, a wealthy Indiana bunch who had expressed interest in it as a “hunting box” — that is, a seasonal lodge. His hunch about the Plamondons’ lucrative influence paid off: the family patriarch eventually requested that a racecourse be built, after warming up to local equestrian activities. The sport was popular in part because of the Browns, who competed but rode mostly for pleasure, but it also had blue-collar roots, given the amount of horse- and manpower that had been required to build the nearby, backbreaking Saluda Grade. And so, with Camden, S.C.’s Carolina Cup in mind, Carter began excavating, digging ditches, and constructing timber obstacles.
After many months of reportedly working at night, as though to conceal his affairs until the formal debut, Carter announced the first Block House Steeplechase to be held on April 5, 1947. With a $500 purse and out-of-town jockeys, the event was sure to upstage the March Hare steeplechase — a casual, small-town “race for the tin cup” that was, according to author Norm Powers, discontinued in light of World War II.
The sport began in Ireland in the 1700s and is still rather elite, featuring older, more experienced thoroughbreds than in track racing. Steeplechase horses must jump 52 inches over a steel frame outfitted with brush-like material. Made of plastic, the artificial hedge is meant to mimic the old-age obstacles of evergreen and timber. The ditches, many times filled with water, have also been purged from the course, though the more obvious break from tradition is today’s $80,000 purse.
“Back in the day, fox hunters would race to church steeples for fun,” explains Kathryn McMahon, executive director of Tryon Riding and Hunt Club. “Churches are now losing their steeples and people are losing that point of reference, but the Block House remains the largest event in Polk County.”
Heeding the bugle call
Tryon resident Ambrose Mills still remembers the inaugural running. As a 12-year-old Boy Scout, he helped park Hudsons and Plymouths loaded down with cousins and nieces (patrons paid by carload, as they do today). The Tryon High School Band offered a pre-race performance and Mills, in his youth, watched the crowd of a few hundred “imbibe alcohol generously,” the rowdiness waxing and waning with each run.
As spectators, dressed in coats and ties, got merry with spirits, Austin Brown saddled up on his mare Bluish. She could “really run and jump,” he remembers. Indeed: Brown and Bluish won the first Block House by eight lengths. Though Austin would go on to win the second and the fourth annual chases, his father always stressed sportsmanship over victory.
In fact, after winning a race on a man’s horse back in Castle Park, Michigan, Austin was bequeathed an envelope stuffed with $200. He accepted the gift unapologetically, basking in the opulence of the winning. The gloating was cut short, however, when Carter instructed his son to “get right back in that car” and return the lump sum. “You ride for sport, not for pay,” he said.
For better or for worse, the forefather of Tryon’s equestrian culture was never in it for the cash. Carter always wanted to do the right thing, Austin says. He offered several country families free tickets to the Block House each year, and often sent business down to a local real-estate man in town. He established a gardening club and got his boys involved in high-school football, despite Tryon’s chronic losses to Hendersonville High.
Even though the Browns were average people of a “horsey, small town,” the family name and lineage soon evolved into an icon of Blue Ridge tradition, says Mills, a Polk County native through and through. His fifth great-grandfather served as a colonel for the loyalists during the Revolutionary War, the Southern theater drawing him to the foothills and the 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain leaving him lynched. Nowadays, the streets of East and West Mills frame Columbus, its own history as a county seat dating back to the captured Tory. Nonetheless, many argue that Mills’ devout patronage of the Block House Steeplechase is perhaps the most telltale sign of his upbringing.
“It’s been a unifying theme for decades,” he says. “A central location for extended families to assemble and socialize.”
“Locals have gone with their parents, who have gone with their parents, and so on. It continues down the generations,” says McMahon. “There is a real sense of pride in the event.”
While the event’s profile and payout have dramatically increased since 1947, the loyalty factor is a deeper thing. Mills long ago traded his Boy Scout uniform and car-parking gig for a seat right next to the rail, and every year, he shows up for the bugle call. Even during a four-year stay in England, he scheduled annual trips back home in time for May. Not doing so would be a slight against some unspoken ancestral more.
The Millses, alongside 54 other “Heritage Families,” will be recognized for long-time attendance at the 70th Annual Block House Steeplechase on Saturday, May 7, held at the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center (FENCE), 3381 Hunting Country Road in Tryon. For more information, including start times, tickets, and pre-race activities — there’s a hat contest, a tailgate-decorating contest, and many other attractions — visit www.blockhouseraces.com.