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The Rosatos and Their Vintage Carriages are a Story on Wheels

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Photos by Jim Graham

For decades, Donald Rosato’s horse-drawn carriages are a well-known staple in Chester County and the region’s equestrian circles.

Midmorning on a bright, cloudless day, four of Dr. Donald Rosato’s beautifully groomed, finely geared horses stand outside the barn at St. Matthews Place, the historic Chester Springs home that dates back to at least 1715. Rigged to a gorgeous four-in-hand carriage, they’re silent and almost perfectly still, waiting for Rosato’s command. Each vehicle in Rosato’s collection is unique, as is the figure he cuts sitting in the driver’s seat, with his top hat and suit, next to his elegantly frocked wife, Judy.

Married 43 years, the Rosatos are well-known patrons of the region’s rich horse culture. Rosato has driven carriages through Chester County for decades. His main hunt is Pickering, where he was named master of the foxhounds in 1995. Rosato served as chairman of the Carriage Drive Committee for Willowdale Steeplechase, driving at the event until that component was eliminated. Radnor Hunt has been part of his life since he was a child. He’s also a patron of Ludwig’s Corner Horse Show, and he’s driven carriages at the Devon Horse Show more times than he can count.

Rosato doesn’t wait for special events to use his carriages. He rides them through the back roads—and sometimes the main roads—of his Chester Springs neighborhood and beyond. He’s such a familiar figure that people know his carriages, even if they don’t know the name of the man driving them.

Rosato isn’t a trained equestrian. “When I was a child, I got so interested in the [fox] hunts that I’d follow them on foot,” he says. “With a horse, you can go faster.”

Rosato got a pony when he was about 10, then graduated to horses. “I never had a formal lesson,” he says. “I learned to ride by the seat of my pants.”

At the time, Rosato’s family lived in Devon. The “big house” on Conestoga Road had been in Rosato’s family for generations. Once a fashionable hotel, the 16-room home had fallen into disrepair and become a boarding house. Rosato’s father was born there in 1897 and grew up surrounded by boarders, most of them newly immigrated Italian and Irish families. Indeed, Rosato’s mother was from a South Philadelphia neighborhood he calls “the Italian ghetto.”

Dr. Donald Rosato at home in Chester Springs.

When his parents met, she worked at a bank and he was in medical school. They settled in Devon, where Rosato spent his childhood. “Back then, the area was laced with trails, and we could ride to Valley Forge National Park or Radnor Hunt,” Rosato recalls. “It was all country, all beautiful.”

Judy Rosato didn’t grow up with horses. Born in Kimberton, she spent her childhood in West Chester, then became a first-grade teacher at East Bradford Elementary School. After meeting her husband, she took riding lessons. “I realized that if I was going to have a life with Don, I’d have to learn,” she says with a laugh. “I enjoy riding, but it’s not quite accurate to say that I’m a great rider.”

In fact, Judy has taken some serious spills, breaking a hip and an arm, and fracturing the C2 disc in her neck. “She wore the halo and decorated it with lights,” says her husband. “She’s not that good of a rider, but she looks so good on a horse that it’s amazing. The horses love her, and we both love the carriages.”

Rosato became enamored with carriages when he was about 40. He learned from Dr. Clarkson “Bud” Addis Jr., one of Chester County’s legendary horsemen, at his Tally Ho Farm in Birchrunville, Pa. “Bud was a kind, soft-spoken man, and it was a pleasure to be in that kind of learning situation,” says Rosato. “He started me on my first carriage and told me how to get it restored.”

That first carriage was a four-wheeled runabout, with one seat for two people. Rosato bought it in 1975 at a sale in Lancaster County. “It was a wreck, but because of that it was cheap,” Rosato says. “I had it brought back to the barn and started to restore it. Six months later, the barn burned down.”

The fire didn’t douse Rosato’s interest in carriages. His current barn at St. Matthews Place is filled with them in various states of disrepair. Many are fully refurbished. “I bounced back by getting two carriages,” he says.

To start, Rosato got one or two-horse carriages and gigs (two-wheeled versions pulled by one horse). He also acquired more runabouts. One of Rosato’s favorites is a spider phaeton, a four-wheeled convertible carriage that seats two passengers and has a groom’s seat on the back. “A patient gave it to me because she didn’t want it and it was a wreck,” he says. “After we refurbished it, it was gorgeous. Hope Scott loved that carriage.”

Along with nine carriages, Rosato has four sleighs that are pulled over snow by one or two horses. “I started with a one-horse open sleigh—as the song goes—and it was a ball. I graduated to a two-horse sleigh so we could take more people on rides,” he says. “We used to be able to ride on the roads, but now they’re salted and plowed right away, so we have to go cross country. But it’s still great fun.”

Riding in a carriage is equally fun—and the horses seem to enjoy it, too. When Rosato tells them to walk on, they slowly but purposefully head down the driveway of St. Matthew’s Place, ready for another trip down the quiet Chester Springs Road.