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Saving The Will Rogers Polo Pony Barn

Looking through my old photo files I found black and white photos of a project that my friend and colleague Bill Heinrich took on back in 1987. Bill and his wife Maria were energetic young history buffs who lived in the former 100-year-old Queen Ann Victorian-style home of humorist Will Rogers on Clocks Boulevard in the eastern section of Massapequa. Bill owned a Manhattan-based advertising agency, Heinrich & Sills, at that time and also worked with me on special accounts.

I can recall the story of how Bill learned that an old barn he had always admired and wondered about the history of was about to be razed to make room for the construction of new homes. Having a love for history and old buildings, Bill inquired about the old barn’s history. Bill went a few steps further and found records that proved that the barn, of mortise and ten-on construction, was built in 1850. The very high two-story 26 by 27-foot building was built with hand-hewn locust perimeter and main beams, including area spruce, pine and  hemlock trees cut and shaped into roof rafters, ceiling and wall joists. Cedar shingles were used for the exterior sidewalls and roof covering.

Further inquiries told Bill that in the barn’s heyday, polo ponies were kept in it, owned by vaudeville and movie stars, who frequently came to Massapequa week-ends in the early 1900s to play polo. Polo was, and still is, a popular sport for the rich and famous, and Massapequa was one of the most popular recreation areas, with its several, 13 in number, stylish and famous hotels on Long Island.

Vaudeville star Fred Stone and his two daughters, Dorothy and Paula, who gained fame with a dance act known as the Stepping Stones, owned the barn and a nearby log cabin, know as the Fred Stone Polo Club. The girls appeared regularly with the Ziegfield Follies and on other Broadway Stages.

Stone used the cabin to entertain his friends and colleagues when they came out from the city to play polo on weekends.

Finally, after many meetings with the new barn owner and discussions with Town Officials, Bill was given permission to dismantle it. His plan was to reassemble the barn on his property, in the rear yard of the Rogers’ house and then apply for Town of Oyster Bay landmark status for the barn and the house.

With the help of his wife, Maria, all of Bill’s free time had been spent taking pictures, marking and coding each beam, window frame, corner board, door frame and roof rafter so that they could begin dismantling and that the reassembling process would be done correctly.

Bill and Maria worked feverishly and long hours, carefully removing rusted nails and wood pegs that had held together the hewn beams for so many years. Finally, when all of the roof beams and the gable-end sections were removed and transported using Bill’s jeep the short distance to his property, they realized that the two main long beams that supported the hayloft section were much too heavy for him and Maria to handle by themselves. It dawned on him that a few years before, the Kiwanis club dismantled the Fred Stone log cabin and reconstructed it in the John J. Burns Park. Bill knew that I was the co-chairman of that cabin project. He asked me if he could ask the club for their help. At the next meeting, Bill and I presented the project to the members, who agreed to help the following Saturday morning at 8 a.m. I can still remember that cold 1988 December morning. Maria had coffee and donuts waiting for the gang whose middle name has become “Hands-on Projects.” The 20-plus men quickly lowered the two long clumsy and heavy beams to the waiting arms of the Kiwanians on the ground. The club even provided a truck and trailer, thanks to Kiwanians John Venturino and Mike Beato, local contractors, who transported them and other barn material to Bill and Maria’s property.

Bill and Maria knew that weather and time were against them, so they piled the barns beams and the other parts carefully and covered the pile with a huge canvas until spring.

When April rolled around, Bill started his project. He laid out the location, staked out the perimeter of the barn and started digging the trenches for foundation footings. Forms were fastened in place and he had transit mix concrete delivered for the barn’s floor. When the barn was used before it had a dirt floor, however, he said the concrete floor will not take from the historic value because all of the remaining work will be reconstructed as it was built years before. When the concrete cured, the wall section had to be assembled on the ground and in the correct position. When the front and rear walls were fastened in place using wooden pegs and forged nails, there was a call for help once again by Bill. I and several Kiwanians and a few of my friends pitched in for the barn raising, very similar to the way the Amish people still build their barns and buildings. Once the four walls were up and braced, things went along pretty smoothly, and by that fall their history project was complete. Bill and Maria hosted an old-fashioned barn dance for all his friends and the Kiwanis club members whohelped Bill and Maria fulfill their dream.