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By Stephen Burnett
Normandy Farm may not be as large or famous as other equestrian farms in the Bluegrass. Yet its origin goes back centuries, to when the 250-acre Paris Pike property was part of Elmendorf Farm. After the split, its name and titular historic barn were, according to recent legend, inspired by the French town in which a downed World War I pilot’s life was saved.
“The architecture of the farmhouse goes back to the 1790s, so the farm has been here about as long as Lexington has,” said Nancy Polk.
She has owned the farm since 1997, and along with previous owners, has learned the story behind the farm’s Normandy Barn.
That barn was built in 1927, while the farm was under the ownership of Joseph Widener. (Until 1951 the farm was part of Elmendorf Farm, which was previously known as Old Kenney Farm and Preakness Stud.) Though some versions of the story mention World War II, Widener must have been a pilot during World War I, to have built the barn in the ‘20s, Polk said.
“He was a pilot who was shot down over Normandy, and he landed behind enemy lines and was hidden by the Resistance in a barn,” Polk recounted. “He spent three days and three nights in the barn, hiding, basically, from the enemy, and kept track of the passage of time by the bonging of the clock in the clock tower of the barn.” Friendly troops later found Widener, shesaid, but not before the pilot had decided to build a barn like the one in which he’d hidden.
“That story was being told when I bought the farm,” Polk added. “It seems to be pretty much folklore that’s been passed down, from owner to owner and generation to generation.”
Normandy Barn is L-shaped, with large stalls and a clock tower in the L’s center, said the farm’s office manager, Sandy Brown. Porcelain animals are built into the structure. “It’s built with double doors — that means one on each side. Then it has a clock that chimes. I know there were only like a hundred of those made. It was designed by a French artist or clockmaker.”
Five other barns are on the historic farm, along with an equestrian cemetery. Many famous sires from the 1920s and 1930s are buried there, Polk said, along with two even more famous horses: Fair Play and Mahubah, the parents of Man O’War.
That history helped lead Polk to purchase the farm, though she had no experience in running a horse farm. “I had lived in Michigan my whole life, really, and had done about all I was going to do,” she said. “My children were gone, and I was basically looking for something new to do, and had been coming down with two friends here to go to the races.”
A friend remarked that Polk ought to buy a horse farm. Polk first balked. But her travel agency in Detroit had been sent into a nosedive, thanks to airlines cutting commissions. “Normandy was the first farm I looked at, and everything paled in relation to it, and I fell in love with it.
“When I did start … another farm was leasing, and they left after a month. Took everything with them. And I had a water trough and a pitchfork, and that was about all we started with.”
Polk also had to learn everything from scratch: which stallions were best for breeding, what were the best equestrian bloodlines, and any other method the farm needed to produce good stock. She said she counts herself fortunate to have had friends introduce her to mentors and consultants. She began with one mare, than added more, growing the operation slowly and carefully. Now the farm has eight employees and 14 brood mares, which are used for breeding with stallions from other farms. The farm sells the yearlings to other farms.
“It’s gone well,” she said. “I have enjoyed every minute of it. … And there’s constant activity around a farm. Always something new, new problems coming up, new challenges all the time.
“It slows down a little bit in the summer, after all the racing things, and you can concentrate on getting caught up,” she continued. “But then we start getting ready in September, getting the yearlings ready for the sales. So it’s not idle very long.
“Everybody hopes for a Derby winner. But maybe a good Stakes winner is more realistic.”
Along with working with brood mares, Normandy Farm itself requires more upkeep. “A lot of repairs and maintenance with an old farm, because our buildings are old,” Polk said. “Windows break. Window frames rot. Things just deteriorate in general. We’ve had doors that we’ve had to replace at Normandy barn and the new barn, and we have a rock wall that goes around the front of the property and part of the side, and those fall down, all the time. So you have to have those rebuilt. And fertilizing the fields — there’s always something that needs to be tended to.”
Yet all that is worth it, and not only to gain the rewards of another newly sold yearling, she said.
“When you see a new baby born, that is a miracle every time it happens, and a real thrill for me, and I think for all of us.”
Every August, Normandy Farm also hosts a fundraiser for the Nest Center for Women, Children & Families, based out of Lexington. “They care for families in need, and especially children, families with problems who can’t afford to give help,” Polk said.
The farm also offers tours. Those interested can call (859) 294-9595 to make an appointment.
“I feel like a caretaker for the farm, because it’s been here so long,” Polk said. “People have come before me and people will come after me. So I feel like I’m just the caretaker to keep it up and keep it in shape for the next owners.”