By Matthew Ormseth
The Hartford Courant
HARTFORD, Conn. — Two dozen horses died in an early morning blaze at Folly Farm in Simsbury on Dec. 28, one of the deadliest barn fires nationally in recent years and a staggering blow to the family-owned farm.
All 24 horses housed in the farm’s largest barn died of smoke inhalation, according to James Baldis, chief of the Simsbury Volunteer Fire Department. On Facebook, the farm’s manager, Alison Patricelli, said the 19 horses housed in other barns on the property were unharmed.
The fire’s grim toll is among the worst in recent years, exceeded only by a 2016 Kentucky barn fire — apparently sparked by lightning — that killed 27 horses, and a 2014 fire in suburban Chicago that left 32 horses dead.
Fire officials have yet to determine what sparked the blaze, which was first reported at 6:50 a.m. and knocked down by 7 a.m. The barn’s doorways appeared blackened, though no structural damage was visible on Dec. 28 as investigators worked in biting temperatures to determine what started the fire.
Though officials had not yet determined what started the fire as of the evening of Dec. 28, Simsbury Fire Marshal Kevin Kowalski said they believe the fire was accidental, that it started in the middle of the stall area and that it had likely been smoldering for hours.
Patricelli wrote on Facebook that most of the horses killed were part of the farm’s riding and polo schools, though three of the dead were privately owned.
“These gentle souls taught hundreds of children and adults how to ride, to play polo, and to love through the years,” Patricelli wrote on Facebook. “They were the heart and soul of Folly Farm and of our lives.”
Folly Farm, a sprawling 175-acre property at the base of Talcott Mountain in Simsbury, boards both privately owned horses and the farm’s own stock. The farm offers polo and equestrian lessons, and its grounds include the Simsbury Polo Club. The farm also hosts weddings and other celebrations.
Doug Norrdin, Alison Patricelli’s son, roamed the grounds on the morning after the fire. Doug, 13, said his mother was in California but is returning immediately to Connecticut. “Some of my mom’s special horses were in there, and I think they’re all gone,” he said. “My mom texted me this morning saying she’s pretty sad.”
Doug’s grandfather, Robert E. Patricelli, bought the 100-year-old farm when it was in foreclosure in 1981. A dairy and show cow farm under its previous owners, the Patricellis brought polo to its grounds in 2016 with the creation of the Simsbury Polo Club and a year-round polo school.
Andrew Davis of Simsbury arrived at Folly Farm on the morning after the fire, intending to visit his old horse, Colombiana, which he had recently sold back to the farm. There, he was greeted by yellow police tape cordoning off the barn’s drive. He learned Colombiana, a 2-year-old chestnut horse with a white blaze, had perished in the fire.
“I lost my baby,” he said. “I already cried for half an hour, so I’m done now. We lost a lot of friends today. I’ve ridden half of those horses and they are some of the smartest, gentlest horses I’ve known.”
Davis, who worked at the farm for two years, said the barn that caught fire housed a mix of polo ponies and equestrian horses.
“Many people took lessons on them and leased them, and there were some personally owned horses in there as well,” he said. “All great minds, (all) great horses.”
Simsbury First Selectman Eric Wellman said the town’s “thoughts and prayers are with the Patricelli family.”
“It’s a very sad situation,” he said. “I thank our first responders, who have been on the ground since early this morning and are conducting a thorough investigation.”
As news of the blaze spread, thousands shared and commented on the farm’s Facebook post announcing the fire’s toll. Some shared memories of learning to ride at Folly Farm, and said the farm’s instructors fostered in them a lifelong love for horses.
“The beloved horses at Folly Farm touched hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and taught young and old life lessons in respect, hard work and discipline,” one user wrote. “They were all loved beyond words.”
Athene von Hirschberg, owner of the Connecticut Equestrian Center, called Folly Farm “a very well-respected, very well-established, vibrant and busy equestrian center.”
The fire, she said, “is absolutely devastating.”
“Anyone who owns a horse or runs a barn knows this can happen to anyone,” von Hirschberg said. “Those horses are not just horses. They are members of a family, and this is profoundly sad.”
The fire appears to be one of the deadliest horse barn fires in the country in recent years. In 1986, 16 horses were killed and 20 people injured when a teenager set fire to a barn in Southbury.