Brentwood, Tenn. Old cedars from the farm continue in new form as barn doors with decorative iron hinges. This intentional craftsmanship frames each horse like a row of oil portraits as we approach. The paintings begin to come alive, and suddenly the personality of each horse becomes apparent by their greeting. One horse studies us, quietly stepping back into the shadows of his stall; another kicks their wall in anticipation that we have come to play, and not merely document their beauty. A third horse sticks her neck as far out as possible and flares her nostrils. How can we resist? We step away from our purpose to see each one, to take in all the aromas of the place, the dry hay, the husbandry.
At the center of the barn we are invited to step into a rustic retreat, a small saddle room with a display along the wall. A fireplace tries to be the focal point, but it’s the saddles that draw us into their story. If the horses appeared as a gallery of paintings, imagine these saddles lined up like a row of old leather-bound books. The timeline of saddles speak volumes about history and culture, wins and losses, and the rites of passage for each person in the Houghland family.
A small brass label is attached to each one and the engraving of ‘Bright Hour Farm’ serves as the common imprint. The history in that room is not merely the family’s private world, but a community’s heritage shared over many years— and each year— through the iconic event they helped fashion: Nashville’s Iroquois Steeplechase.
“The happiest days of my life have all been here at this farm,” said Calvin Houghland, Jr. His first night at the farm began bundled in a blanket when his parents brought him home from the hospital nursery in 1947. The family lived in a white two story farmhouse that still stands nestled into the hillside. His parents had very recently purchased the property in anticipation of having an ideal place to raise their children. Bright Hour Farm is, in many regards, a classic 1940s post-War American dream.
Today Calvin Jr. and his wife, Blythe, enjoy their own home at Bright Hour that overlooks the large pond and into a meadow. Geese walk across the field like school children. The afternoon sun turns the water to a silver shimmering. Calvin’s sister, Sara Jo, and her husband Don Gill, also live on the property past the barn as the wooden slats of fencing curve around the property and out of view. They all share a passion for the land and their horses, perhaps Sara Jo and Don most of all. “They ride every day and work as trainers,” said Calvin. He speaks of their talent for the work and dedication.
“Sara Jo has never missed a Steeplechase race.” The farm was actually named Bright Hour, in honor of a beloved horse that “Big Calvin” (Calvin, Sr.) rode in the first Iroquois Steeplechase on May 10, 1941.
More than 50,000 people are reported to have attended that inaugural event at Percy Warner Park, surprising organizers and overwhelming traffic for miles and conversation for weeks. Today, more than 30,000 attendees meet a city well prepared for its main event, one that sells out in advance.
Calvin, Sr., like his father Mason Houghland, helped direct the Volunteer State Horseman’s Foundation that serves as the governing body for the race. Mason Houghland served as chairman from 1941 until his passing in 1957. Calvin Sr. continued the family’s commitment and embodied the passion of the race. He rode in the first Iroquois Steeplechase in 1941 and took home a trophy for his third run in 1943. He scored victories as an owner again in 1958 and 1961. At age 93, Calvin Sr. would win again in May 2009 with a throng of cheers. In October that same year he passed. “My father’s story came full circle that year,” said Calvin, Jr. showing us a photograph of his father holding up an impressive silver trophy and sporting a beaming grin that defied any frailty. The circle remains unbroken.
There has not been a year when the Houghland Family has not had a horse in the race. Their bright blue and yellow silks are a signature of their dedication and love for the equestrian life.
The Houghland family name is underscored in the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the Iroquois Steeplechase Hall of Fame. Their philanthropy has been significant to connect the successful event with the Vanderbilt children’s hospital as beneficiary.
In 2010, race officials honored the memory of Calvin Sr. by ringing the bell. Those who witnessed the moment said the typically boisterous crowd went completely silent as a show of respect. It was indeed a moment, one that still resonates for this family. Their public honors seem tempered by private loss.
Bright Hour Farm is a place where everyone who visits gets drawn toward the view of the pond, and the sound of geese announcing a change of season. It’s a place where one cannot help but wax mindful of the increasingly rarity of land that still anchors family, culture, and community.
The couple recall their engagement, and later how they rode an old golf cart across the hills to try and choose a site to stake out the foundation for a home of their own. If they had chosen their second favorite site, they might now have a house that overlooks an asphalt Publix parking lot and Brentwood traffic. Intuition told them to look toward the sunset across the pond, the heron’s tranquil pose, the family farmhouse standing luminous that night in the distance. They are buffered on all sides from suburbia.
Two of their daughters, Sara Jo and Lacey, were married near that same spot beside the pond in recent years. Both brides carried roses cut from their Aunt Sara Jo’s trellis nearby. The same farm where Calvin Sr. passed away surrounded by family and dreams fulfilled, also holds new beginnings for the next generation. Calvin and Blythe’s story brings to mind the last line of verse from “Wild Rose” by Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry, “Once more I am blessed, choosing again what I chose before.”
Photography by Billy Weeks
ARTIST HOLLIE BERRY: Equestrian specialist
Capturing the gallantry of horses is a strength of painter Hollie Berry. Looking at her subject, our eyes move with the horses and our heart pounds as they refuse to be contained by a frame.
In May, she was selected through a competition to be the featured artist at Iroquois Steeplechase. Her painting ‘Endurance’ was well received and became a promotional image and was later auctioned with proceeds benefiting Monroe Carell, Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. ‘Endurance’ is now a part of the private collection of Blythe and Calvin Houghland.
Berry has attended several Steeplechase events in prior years, typically spreading her quilt on the hillside and enjoying a picnic, then gathering with others at the fence to witness the intensity of the horses and blur of the silks.
Many of her paintings begin with the photographs she has taken during those memorable moments. At the VIP Box she sat up an easel, working from photographs to create small-scale original oils.
“At the race, everything is moving—the people, the sun, the clouds, the horses, so a reference photo worked better than a plein air landscape approach to my on-site painting,” she said. Those at the race became inquisitive and some stood for a long time and watched her race painting reach the finish line. One of the paintings she began on race day, ‘Muzzle Study III,’ features a row of horses peering out from their barn stalls. This painting was sold for cash before the oil paint had a chance to dry.
“Painting at the race helped me make many meaningful connections and several commissions,” said Berry. “Ultimately my paintings are each exploring our relationship with the horses, our admiration for their beauty, speed, and athleticism.”