I had no idea Duke was a movie star as I boarded the wagonette with my family on the snowy grounds of Wadsworth Mansion.
There were no paparazzi hiding in the woods . No autograph seekers, limos or red carpet. Just Duke, his driver and the wagonette. Ok, so Duke is a horse. A percheron to be more exact. A percheron who has starred in movies like "The Time Machine," "The Golden Boys" and the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" where Duke had a major role – he pulled a milk wagon past Al Capone's brothel and later a coal wagon down the street.
Duke was part of a contingent of horses and wagons from Allegra Farm that helped ring in the first day of 2011 at the 12th annual open house in the home built for Col. Clarence S. Wadsworth, an early forester and conservationist. And although I enjoyed the guided tour through the restored mansion and hearing about its 100-year history, the real draw was a ride across the grounds on a horse-drawn carriage.
Growing up, my parents always took us for sleigh rides at the Wimler Farm on the Durham/Guilford line. It was like becoming part of "Jingle Bells" as you dashed through a Currier and Ives print. I remember taking a sleigh ride at night with the full moon glistening off the snow. The only sounds you heard came from the horse's hooves as it cut through the fresh blanket of white, the soft gliding of sleigh blades on the crunchy snow and bells jingling in the night air.
On New Year's day there was more melting snow and puddles of mud than drifting snow, but as I climbed aboard the wagonette and Duke started gently pulling us away from the mansion, it was hard not to get drawn back into a simpler time.
"Look! The Great Wall of China!" my eight-year-old daughter Molly cried out as we passed by the former entrance to the mansion known as the Olmsted Carriageway – a driveway lined by beautiful brownstone walls that once passed through pastures, orchards and newly-planted forests.
As Duke pulled us down the mansion's asphalt driveway we get a taste of what it would be like traveling through a winter wonderland as the wagonette goes briefly into the snow-covered grass to turn around and return to the mansion. But it was just enough to take me back to my days and nights dashing through the snow at Wimler Farm.
Each time gas prices rise, I angrily vow to trade in my car for a horse. And maybe a buggy to get the kids to soccer and basketball practice. It suddenly doesn't seem so far-fetched after taking a ride on a wagonette pulled by a movie star named Duke.