Land Where Proud Horses Roamed Meadowview Farm, Cinnaminson’s Largest, Faces Likely Development.
By Karen Auerbach, INQUIRER CORRESPONDENT
Posted: December 26, 1996
CINNAMINSON — Flames awakened Benjamin Franklin Webster, and he jumped from his bed in the dark of night.
He dressed quickly and ran down to the burning barn, behind the brick mansion where horse farmer Ruth Armstrong lived. Firefighters came quickly in their trucks, in time to watch the wood structure burn to the ground.
Armstrong never found out what caused the fire 15 years ago. But Webster, who had worked on Armstrong’s Meadowview Farm since 1949, built a new barn in place of the old one.
So it went for decades on the sprawling horse-breeding farm, which straddles the Cinnaminson-Moorestown border and is bounded by New Albany and Parry Roads and the Pompeston Creek. They weathered disasters large and small: the early death of Armstrong’s husband, in 1956; a prankster’s mutilation of a pregnant mare; the barn fire. Each time, Armstrong, Webster and other farmworkers kept the farm going.
Now, Webster can only sit and wait. This time, he will not save the horses or the farm.
When Armstrong, 84, died May 4, she left behind one of Cinnaminson’s largest, and last, rural holdouts. Armstrong stipulated in her will that the farm’s 100 acres should be sold. In a town mired in affordable-housing lawsuits and lacking open space on which to build, that means that plots of houses and blacktop driveways – even apartment houses or condominiums, if the town permits – may rise on the land where four white posts mark the wood grave of Armstrong’s favorite stallion, Your Host.
“It was quite a lovely farm, and she had quite a life,” said Eleanor Aumock, a friend who traveled with Armstrong to horse races. “She was one of the most outstanding women in the country breeding horses.”
The attorney for Armstrong’s estate, Richard DeCou, said the land would be sold soon, most likely to a developer.
Webster and two other employees who live in small, white houses along a gravel lane leading up to the farm face the need to move. And Armstrong’s gentle life of horse breeding and elite parties will give way to the suburban sprawl that has swallowed up the surrounding land.
Developers are not the only ones eyeing Meadowview Farm, which Armstrong’s father-in-law built in 1912. Two individuals also have contacted DeCou about purchasing the land for preservation as a farm.
DeCou said, however, that those individuals, whom he declined to identify, are unlikely to match the million-dollar bids developers are likely to offer. And because Armstrong’s will stipulates that most proceeds from the sale go to several charities, the estate trustees are required to sell the farm to the highest bidder with reasonable plans for the land. Most of Armstrong’s property lies in Cinnaminson, although 15 acres is in Moorestown.
Neither DeCou nor estate trustee John Hankins would say when the land would be sold or who planned to bid on the farm.
The sale was a probability that even Armstrong, whom friends called Landy, acknowledged in her will, in which she stated: “While it would please me to have Meadowview Farm continued as a farm for raising thoroughbred horses, I realize that it is unlikely that a buyer will be found for that purpose.
“I direct that my executor shall have very broad discretion to sell the property intact, or in parcels, or for development, and to subdivide it. . . .”
What remains unclear about the farm’s future is what type of housing will be built there. The property is zoned for residential, 1-acre plots, which would likely lead to the middle-income homes with front lawns and driveways that dominate Cinnaminson’s neighborhoods.
But the town’s zoning is in the hands of the courts, following two lawsuits by developers seeking to build townhouses and other housing along Cinnaminson’s Delaware River waterfront. CBD Development Inc. sued the town in May, alleging that Cinnaminson evaded its state-mandated requirement of 351 affordable-housing units by rejecting the Mount Laurel developer’s plans for townhouses, including about 20 low-income units.
Cresmont Limited Partnership, which plans a 579-unit development in Cinnaminson, filed a separate lawsuit against the township in June.
As a result of those lawsuits, and because Cinnaminson had no formal affordable-housing plan, township officials must work with a court-appointed planner to review all of Cinnaminson’s land and rezone some of it to permit low-income housing.
The Armstrong farm is one of the largest of the handful of properties that could be rezoned for affordable housing.
Armstrong sold land at least three times after her husband, F. Wallis Armstrong, died. Friends say Armstrong held on to what remained of the farm because she loved horses and did not need the money generated from selling her land.
“She loved her horses and that was more important to her than money, I know that,” said Burlington County developer Thomas Whitesell, who would not say whether he planned to bid on the Armstrong farm. His own horse-breeding farm in Moorestown sits on land that once belonged to the Armstrongs, whose farm once covered 500 acres in Moorestown and Cinnaminson.
Armstrong traveled to Kentucky and overseas to find stallions for her mares. Armstrong and Webster would sit in a tiny office in a wood horse stall on the farm, deciding which stallions to mate with the farm’s horses, he recalled.
The stall still smells of horse manure, but the only animal left, other than two horses boarded at the farm, is a tiny mutt belonging to Webster’s grandson. All the horses and most equipment were sold at auction.
From the farm, Webster can see the brick building where Kelso, a world-famous racehorse, was born; Your Host was the sire. The building is now a changing room in a swim club.
Webster, 78, said that when the farm is sold, he would probably move back to Virginia, where he grew up. In her will, Armstrong left two $100,000 trust funds for Webster and Lola “Bunny” Rogers, 54, who went to the farm at age 6 when her grandparents began working for Armstrong’s father-in-law. Rogers grew up on the farm and worked there most of her life. She lives in a house next to Webster’s.
They knew that the farm probably would be sold one day because Armstrong had no brothers or sisters and no children to keep the farm going. Although the land is likely to go to developers, those who knew Armstrong and spent time with her at Meadowview Farm lament its loss.
“I would like to see it stay as a farm because there’s not going to be very many of them left,” said Hankins, the estate trustee.