By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Aug 31, 2008 at 5:08 AM
You can get a true glimpse of a bygone era, when fine horses and elegant carriages were part of the Prairie du Chien scene, at the 2008 Villa Louis Carriage Classic next weekend, Sept. 6-7.

The show features some of the finest carriage driving competition the Midwest has to offer, with more than 130 "turnouts" coming from all over United States. In Carriage Show terminology, the complete ensemble of horse, carriage, harness, driver, grooms, passengers and all accoutrements is called a turnout.

The competition is held on the grounds of Villa Louis, on St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien. The Villa Louis mansion was built by the Hercules Dousman family. Dousman amassed a fortune in the fur trade, land speculation, steamboats, railroads and other frontier investments.

You couldn't find a better setting for the Classic. The mansion was, at one time, the centerpiece for a lavish standard-bred breeding farm called the The Artesian Stock Farm. The estate included stables, paddocks and a race track on site.

This carriage competition is not one of speed, with carriages racing around an oval track. Instead, it is a judged event, with great attention to detail.

In all classes at the Classic the driver must be appropriately attired. This usually means that he should wear a hat, gloves, and apron and carry a whip in hand.

Attire should be conservative in design and appropriate to the vehicle driven. Formal attire is worn with formal vehicles; country attire with country vehicles.

Horses should also conform to the vehicle type. Expect to see a more flashy horse with a more formal vehicle and a more ground covering horse with a country vehicle.

The whip should be carried within the frame of the carriage, near the horse and not stick out to the side where it would be rendered useless.

Judges for this year's event are Dede Bushneck, Holly Springs, N.C.; John Greenall, West Windsor, Vt.; and Linda Fairbanks, Paso Robles, Ca.

Competitors at the Carriage Classic compete in classes defined by the size of their horse and kind of hitch -- single, pairs or multiples.

Obstacle-driving on a timed cross-country course is one of the events in which Carriage Classic drivers compete. The obstacles are set up to mimic those a carriage might encounter on country roads.

Many of the competitors dress in period costumes. Spectators are invited to also dress in classic attire, but it is not required.

Spectators can get involved in the Classic in several ways. For example, a picnic spread on the lawn of the Villa Louis mansion, is another facet of the Picnic Class competition. Spectators are invited to vote on the best picnic, the winner receiving a special Spectators' Choice ribbon.

Classic organizers like to boast that they offer some of the finest food served at any carriage event in the country. Lunches are provided on the grounds Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Menus include deli meat sandwiches, chicken breast sandwiches, bratwurst, hot dogs, salads, chips, soda and desserts. Breakfast is served on Saturday and Sunday and includes hot coffee, fresh baked pastries and fruit. A catfish fry is featured on Friday night and a prime rib dinner on Saturday night.

The Villa Louis mansion complex was furnished and decorated by the Dousmans in the Victorian tradition. You will find a great percentage of the family's original heirlooms arranged just as the Dousmans had them, making the Villa Louis one of the most authentically furnished Victorian houses in the nation.

It will be a busy place in September. In addition to the Carriage Classic, the Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen is held Sept. 20-21. Participants take a culinary tour of the late 19th century through the preparation and consumption of a Victorian breakfast using the foods, utensils and technology of the time. Breakfast is served in the Villa Louis kitchen from 8:30 a.m. until noon both days.

The Servant's Lamplight Tour is held Sept. 20. It is a backdoor tour that allows guests to interact with actors playing a few of the many servants employed by the Dousmans.

Also on Sept. 20, Villa Louis joins in Crawford County Celebrates, a countywide celebration with a special display of historic quilts, soap making and cooking demonstrations from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Crawford County Celebrates spans the entire county as communities add a bit of local flavor to weekend activities.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.