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Looking Back: The Watkins Pony Farm of Birmingham

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 6, 2016

Shetland ponies were once big business in Birmingham. From the 1890s to the mid-20th century, Watkins Shetland Pony Farm supplied Shetland ponies to pony lovers, farmers and businesses in the Birmingham area and all over the country from its 120-acre property east of what is now called Quarton Lake.

Gilbert Watkins imported the herd of ponies from the Shetland Islands to his Birmingham farm sometime in the late 1880s. By day he worked in the insurance industry, but in his spare time he took pride in breeding the finest ponies that were, as he claimed in a 1892 catalog, “the only herd in the world registered in both the United States and the Shetland Islands.”

In the early 1900s, Gilbert’s nephew, Fenton Watkins, began working with the ponies. In an oral history interview with the Birmingham Historical Society in the 1970s, he recounted many details of the business and the ponies themselves.

On one Saturday each spring, Fenton and several local boys would walk the ponies from the farm to Belle Isle. The ponies were housed on the island with the police horses all summer and pulled carts that visitors could rent. The rates were 25 cents for an hour, 15 cents for a half-hour and 10 cents for a ride. The duration of the ride was determined by how many children were waiting in line.

The ponies were also used on Boblo Island and in Palmer Park in Detroit. Fenton and his wife spent every summer between 1916 and 1929 caring for the ponies on Boblo.

The postcard pictured here is from The Birmingham Museum’s collection and depicts the ponies on Belle Isle. The postcard bears a postmark from 1910.

— Caitlin Donnelly, The Birmingham Museum

Did you know…
The Birmingham Historical Museum and Park is now called The Birmingham Museum. It is open 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 556 W. Maple Road in downtown Birmingham. Admission costs $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, and is free for children younger than 5.