Hunting Hill Mansion is now used for park offices and rented out for weddings but the park came to own the mansion by way of the Jeffords, the last private owners of the property. Walter M. Jeffords, Sr. to be exact. We’ve already met his business partner (his wife’s uncle, Samuel Riddle) here in a previous post; both were thoroughbred racehorse owners and breeders.
Born in 1883 in Philadelphia, Walter Jeffords, Sr. was the youngest child of John Eliot Jeffords a pottery manufacturer. His family could trace their roots in America back to 1700 exactly. After attending Yale, Walter earned a position at the Dobson Textile Mills where he eventually became vice president and met the founder’s granddaughter, Sarah.
Walter married Sarah Dobson Fiske in 1914. As a little wedding present Samuel Riddle, her uncle and Walter’s eventual business partner, gifted them a farmhouse from 1789 (it’s the middle part of the mansion) out in the country not far from his own home. At the time it was built in the late 1700’s the house was the largest in the township and valued at $580(!!).
From 1915 to 1918 the Jeffords set about adding enough additions onto the house to make it a mansion with 38 rooms, 13 fireplaces and nine bathrooms. Focusing solely on the stone mansion was not enough. Their stately home needed gardens as grand as the house too. They hired the designers of Central Park in New York City to design their formal gardens with fountains, rose gardens and topiaries.
The Jeffords continued to buy up neighboring land for their estate; they owned horses and stabled some of them here and they immensely enjoyed hunting. In total they accumulated 2,000 acres with 24 historic buildings that were still owned by the same English Quaker families who built them in the 1700s (the oldest property on the land is a small mill from 1683).
A barn stood next to the mansion but it burned down in the 1930s, now it’s the stone walls which enclose the rose garden (which weren’t in bloom yet for these photos). And while all the neighboring houses and even many of the roads in town were still dirt the Jeffords had a paved driveway which was such a big deal the neighborhood kids would come over to roller skate on it.
When Walter married Sarah, he was marrying someone with deep roots in the area too. Originally her grandfather and his brother, James and John Dobson, came to America from England and set up a textile mill for a better life in 1846. They soon specialized in carpets though by the 1880s the chemicals and dyes from their carpet making process had stained the water and embankments. They were dumping these toxins into the Schuylkill [pronounced school-kill] River, the river was a major source of drinking water for the city. Lawsuits were soon filed. The Dobsons hired an expert to test the water who found that it wasn’t just their chemicals but all the mills who were dumping their outhouses and sewers into the water as well. This would only be their first run-in with trouble.
In 1903, a massive textile strike effected the Dobson Mills as workers protested the relentless 60-hour work week. They lasted five weeks on strike before nearly all of their employees returned to work unable to hold out any longer financially. None of the worker’s demanded concessions were granted but the Dobsons certainly received bad press in the newspapers.
That would be nothing compared to the next turbulent year when John Dobson was arrested and taken to court after an explosion of fireworks in his store. As a carpet manufacturer, I’m not sure where the fireworks came into play, the newspaper article doesn’t mention it, but John had not provided any fire escapes and was held responsible for the three people who died in the explosion. I found nothing more other than he was found guilty of negligence. If he simply paid a fine or actually served time, I don’t know.
Several year later in 1907 an economic recession affected the mill and they temporarily halted operations. Worse yet, this was over the Christmas holiday and into the New Year. In the meantime a soup kitchen was opened but within three weekend they were already taxed beyond their resources. By the end of January, after three months of no work the 8,000 workers were overjoyed to hear that the mill would reopen at full capacity (many mills were closed altogether or only open part-time).
Twenty years later the mill permanently closed after 72 years in business. John Dobson had died in 1911 and his brother James in 1926. The money was divided up amongst the family.
Master of the Hounds
Walter was an enthusiastic hunter, he served as Master of the Hounds at the Rose Tree Hunt Club, and later when he had bought up enough land he used his own grounds for fox hunting. During the season (November-March), Walter and Sarah would head out early on crisp Saturday mornings with a few fellow riders in tow and hunt for foxes. Sometimes it was more of a party and as many as 50 riders joined in following the hounds who were themselves following the fox.
When they weren’t hunting the Jeffords were training and breeding their thoroughbred horses. They developed a friendly rivalry with their uncle Samuel Riddle, who also encouraged them to turn their hobby into a serious business (and they did). The year that Samuel bought Man O’ War for $5,000, Walter purchased his own hopeful, a horse for $15,000 who he boasted would beat Samuel’s gangly purchase. Man O’ War would become the greatest race horse of all time and Walter’s horse never beat him. Indeed, many of the Jeffords winning horses in later years were offspring from Man O’ War. Walter placed a statue of Man O’ War on a pedestal on his grand staircase at Hunting Hill for many years.
When Samuel Riddle’s wife died in 1942 she left her niece and Walter $150,000. All this generosity from the Riddles fell short apparently. When Samuel died in 1951 they contested his will for years in court claiming Samuel had been mentally incompetent after he appropriated the bulk of his estate to building a hospital for the area. Eventually they settled with the courts for $100,000 when the judge dismissed the notion that Samuel had been of unsound mind (originally Samuel decided to leave all of his money to Walter but he changed his mind several years before his death; that’s the reason Walter believed he had grounds to fight the will).
It’s a wonder they felt the need to fight for Samuel’s money, they were certainly quite wealthy on their own. There was the family money, Walter’s successful business career and most importantly the horses. At the end of his career Walter had won more than $2.5 million with his horses (I can’t find the story behind one of his horses who had the terrible name: Slave Ship) and he had successfully studded off his horses too, those babies had won over $3 million. Most memorably, in 1952 their horse One Count won the Belmont Stakes.
Walter died in September 1960 at the age of 77 at his estate (yes in the house), Hunting Hill. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame where he had once served as President. Several years later Sarah died too and in 1966 the state bought the mansion from the family by imminent domain (they sort of “forced” a sale) for $5.6 million and so it became part of Ridley Creek State Park.