In our crazy, zany, wacky and wonderful world of carriages and horses, Bill Remley was the king of the mountain!
by Charlie Leck
After reading the sub-title, I can hear a host of you asking: “Leck, what the heck are you talking about?” Anne and I, my friends, spent about 30+ of our years together collecting lovely, antique, horse-drawn carriages – from little single-seat vehicles to massive coaches that seat twelve passengers at a time and included champagne compartments and ice coolers and crystal pantry – from little, one passenger sleighs to be driven to a pony to massive sleighs that would carry the entire family. The number of people in the nation who dabble in the hobby is small by almost any standard (perhaps a few thousand). Bill Remly, as far as I was concerned, was the master of ceremonies of this enchanting world. I hope things become more clear as you read on.
Bill Remley died on Monday. We just heard about it yesterday. It came like a vicious blow to the celiac plexus. There are certain people in this world who are bigger than life. I haven’t known many of them, but I’m proud as heck to say that I knew Bill Remley.
There are lots of things I personally admired about Bill. One was certainly his voice; for it was a big, sonorous, resonant one. He also had a great laugh. I can close my eyes right here at my desk and see him, a big, voluminous guy, shaking and jiggling as that deep and bellowing laugh roared out of him. More than anything, however, it will be Bill’s unflagging determination to produce the finest carriage driving show in North America that will forever be his legacy. The Walnut Hill Farm Driving Competition is one of the finest and most perfectly produced events – of any kind – that I have ever attended. I had more fun at it than almost anything I’ve ever done in my life. We’ve been Grand Old Patrons of it for many years because Bill Remley asked us to. The show was his baby! He put it together and determined it had to be perfect – perfect for both spectators and participants. He wanted everyone to have a good time and to be completely pleased by the sounds, sights and tastes at Walnut Hill. It is difficult to explain, in words or photos, just how wondrous an event it was. As the expression goes, “you had to be there!”
The great show is described quite well on its web site (in a piece likely written by Bill himself). Here’s a small part of that chronicle:
“Once each year, during the third week in August, the picturesque Pittsford, NY countryside comes alive with the magic and romance of an earlier era - a time when the Horse and Carriage reflected the quality of life and influenced the pace and scope of occupational and social activities. It was a time when the Horse and Carriage were elevated from a simple means of personal conveyance to a portrait of their owner - a social commentary as to profession, personal taste, and character. It was the last decade of the 19th century – the Gilded Age!
I’ll tell you more about Bill in a moment, but, first, permit me to allow my memory to wander.
I remember a great foursome dinner, back in the mid-80s, up in Toronto. Bill and I were there and so was Leslie Kozsely and Sam Freedman. These guys were three of the best talkers and raconteurs I’ve ever known. They were also great drinkers and diners. Our dinner together was like a festival. I never laughed so hard in my life. Nor, had I ever heard so many tall, wonderful, humorous and interesting tales. What great schpiels! I, in comparison, was a mere amateur, so I just sat back and let them soar. You who are now reading this, and knew these three giants of the driving world, can most probably bring to mind the sound of the laughter they could generate.
Sam, master craftsman: one of the finest harness makers the world has ever known!
Leslie, master of horse and carriage: a great driver and trainer of singles, pairs, fours or more!
Bill, showman: the master of ceremonies of the world of horse, carriage and driving!
Oh, how I wish I had a recording of that extraordinary dinner table repartee! It was a freewheeling couple of hours of CAN YOU TOP THIS! And, just when you thought no one could, one of them would.
Sam first, and then Leslie, and now Bill are gone out to the stars, to sit among them as is said in the header to this blog:
“When once our heavn’ly-guided soul shall climb
Then all this earthly grossness quit
Attir’d with stars, we shall for ever sit
Triumphing over Death, and Chance and thee, O Time”
[John Milton: On Time]
Back, thirty years ago, when first I met Mr. William M. Remley, he told me that, on most Saturday evenings, he could be found in his home, in front of the radio, listening to Garrison Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion radio show. Whenever, after that, I found myself listening to that same show, which was very, very often, I would always think of big Bill Remley. And now the show itself is giving way to its age. Without Keillor there is no Prairie Home Companion. Keillor himself suffered a stroke in the last year and, I think, it frightened him into letting go a little of all that he had to do. The show is one of the things Keillor will let go. There will be constant replays, Bill, and out there, among all those beautiful, shining, brilliant stars, you may often choose to listen again to Keillor – one master showman to another!
In his real, non-showman life, Bill was a teacher, and, I imagine, he must have been a masterful one. He helped found (naturally) the American Driving Society and was a central ingredient and Honorary Director of the Carriage Association of America.
In his published obituary the author says that Bill “touched the lives of many people and won the hearts of all.” That is not hyperbole – not by any measure at all!
How deeply we will all mourn for him and what sympathy we feel for his wife, Suzanne (to whom he was married for 50 years), and to his children, David and Patricia.
Bill, we up here, near Lake Wobegon, remember you so sweetly, salute you so proudly and ache so painfully at your departure from this grand stage!
“Of comfort no man speak!
Let’s… with rainy eyes write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.”
[William Shakespeare: King Richard III]
If you want to taste just a bit of the flavor of the Walnut Hill Farm Driving Competition, I recommend you go to the Skoog Farm Journal (web site) and scroll down through its really lovely photos chronicling the event!