FOCUS ON HISTORY: The Sanford Stud Farm fire


No human lives were lost, but 25 thoroughbred horses and a guard dog died in the Jan. 9, 1939 fire at Sanford Stud Farm just north of Amsterdam’s city limits on Route 30. Damage was estimated at $200,000. 

Sam Hildebrandt, founder of the preservation group Friends of Sanford Stud Farm, said one theory about the 1939 fire is that it was started on purpose by a disgruntled worker, angered at the hazing new farmhands were subjected to by old-timers.

However, research done by Patrick Boles, a volunteer with the Friends, indicated the exercise boy involved appears to have started the fire accidentally, although the youth was punished for violating terms of a parole he was serving while working at the farm.

Newspaper accounts reported William H. Dougrey, 15, from Glens Falls, started the fire by disposing of his lighted cigarette inside a barn. Even if Dougrey had no intention of starting the blaze, Boles said smoking was prohibited inside Sanford’s barns because of the fear of fire. No charges were filed in connection with the fire itself.

The youth had been sent to work at Sanford Farm after getting into unspecified trouble in Glens Falls. After the fire, Sanford head trainer Hollie Hughes saw to it that the youth was sent back to Glens Falls court. There, Dougrey was found guilty of violating parole and served time at a state penal reformatory. 

Former Sanford jockey Louis Hildebrandt, Sam’s father, said, “All of the farm employees who had to clean up after the disastrous fire, could only take the smell, filth and emotion for so long.”

After working on the cleanup, the men would walk across a pasture and take refuge at William Patrick’s Tavern on Locust Avenue. The barkeep let them in the back door, even on Sunday when the bar was closed.

Later, the tavern was owned by Stan and Irene Burza, and today the building houses Kinowski Insurance Agency.

Carpet mill executive Stephen Sanford started the thoroughbred horse farm, at first called Hurricana, in the 1870s. His doctor advised Sanford a farm might ease his stomach ulcers if it took him away from the stress at his mills. 

Sanford’s horses raced at Saratoga. Sanford’s sons, John and William, encouraged their father because of their own interest in fast horses, especially jumpers. William died in 1896. 

In 1901, Stephen Sanford built his own stable on Nelson Avenue in Saratoga Springs. He had as many as 35 horses at a time. 

From 1903 through 1907, the Sanfords invited the people of Amsterdam to Matinee Races at Hurricana on the Sunday closest to July 4.

New York outlawed betting in 1907 and racing stopped at Saratoga. Temporarily, the Sanfords sold most of their horses.

Stephen Sanford was blind the last five years of his life. He died on Feb. 13, 1913 at 86. Six months later, racing resumed at Saratoga along with the first running of the Sanford Memorial.

After 1913, John Sanford headed both the family carpet mills and horse farm. The farm produced famous thoroughbreds, including 1916 Kentucky Derby winner George Smith and the winner of the 1923 English Grand National polo championship. 

John Sanford died eight months after the 1939 horse barn fire. John’s son, Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, a famous horseman, and John’s two daughters took over the farm. Bigelow-Sanford Carpet left Amsterdam in 1955. The farm was put up for sale in 1976, the year before Laddie died.

The site of the former sprawling farm in the town of Amsterdam has been developed into a shopping mecca featuring Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Home Depot and other big box stores.

Categories: Opinion

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