Springbrook Farms Brings Horses to a Home in Leland
A desire to rescue work horses led Janet and John Pucci to a pioneering Wilmington’s future and establishing Springbrook Farms.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mark Steelman
Thirty years ago Wilmington was down on her luck. While a group of dedicated people worked to turn things around, it seemed like an uphill battle. It took a visionary to believe in downtown Wilmington back then.
But it was at this time that Janet and John Pucci drove through.
The Puccis lived in Ohio and were relocating for a better climate. They were on their way to Elizabethtown to look at homes when they rolled into Wilmington. When they saw the historic mansions, the canopies of massive oaks and the Cape Fear River, they grabbed each other’s hands, breathless.
“I remember just like it was yesterday,” John recalls. “This was a rare town that was still back a hundred years with the architecture, the waterfront, the shipping, all those elements are there, but it was abandoned at that time. This was a perfect piece of the puzzle.”
The Puccis decided to move to the ghostly empty streets of Wilmington and, defying all odds, start a horse-drawn carriage tour business. They told their shocked families they were quitting their full-time jobs, taking their two horses and moving to Wilmington to follow their dream.
With the help of a revitalization committee (now Wilmington Downtown, Inc.) they found a place to use as a barn. They eventually found a piece of land in Leland that they cleared for the horses, built their house there and then built the barn that exists downtown today.
For the first couple of years, the Puccis lived as vagabonds and leased a hot dog cart to pay the bills.
“There was nobody around, there wasn’t anything going on,” John says. “The only thing tourist-wise, at that time, that anyone knew outside of the area as a reason to come to the Cape Fear area was the beach or the Battleship. So the other side of the river, Wilmington, was unknown. They would go to the Battleship and then leave.”
Eventually, of course, that changed. Now downtown Wilmington boasts a booming tourist industry. In 2015 the economic impact of tourism in New Hanover County was estimated to be $520.86 million. Many believe that the Puccis’ horse-drawn Springbrook Farm Carriage Tours have been an integral part of that growth.
“In 1987 when there were very few visitor attractions located in downtown Wilmington, John and Janet Pucci were among only a handful of visionaries who believed in the potential of Wilmington’s historic district as a major tourist attraction,” says Kim Hufham, President/CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Since the early days of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Puccis have been strong supporters and advocates of tourism. Springbrook Farms’ horse-drawn carriage tours continue to play a big role in making Wilmington’s historic river district a popular and thriving tourist attraction.”
The horses certainly create a notable scene. As tourists and residents alike enjoy their Kilwin’s cones on the corner of Market and Front streets, they are treated to a portrait of yesteryear. These horses are a daily reminder that this city has a rich history.
But while Springbrook Farms’ carriage business has become a landmark institution for the city, there is no doubt that misunderstandings have tainted the business. Posts on the Internet beg for someone to save the horses, local folks are hesitant to take families on a ride because they aren’t sure they want to support the business.
Mention this to John Pucci and he ignites in a passionate speech, eyes ablaze. He’s not angry, but he does want to be heard. For what the general public doesn’t necessarily know is that the Puccis do this precisely because they love horses. As a child Janet owned horses. She grew up riding and always wanted a horse farm.
Additionally, the horses the Puccis own are rescues. They don’t work with breeders and they aren’t worried about breeding or papers. Instead, ever since they started 30 years ago, they travel deep into Amish country and buy horses who are up for auction, horses that are about to be bought by less savory companies such as food processors.
“The Amish can’t keep a horse as a pet, they use these horses for work,” John explains. “So if the horse isn’t the right fit, if it is too slow, if it doesn’t match the pace of the other horses, they have to get rid of them, even if it is a good horse. That’s where we come in.”
The Puccis have saved 18 horses and have loved them all.
Janet tears up when she points to a picture of Radar, one of the first horses they bought. He lived on their farm in Leland until he was 33 years old. She also tells the story of Ned, who was working well downtown pulling the carriages but began acting out of character at the age of 12. The Puccis figured that Ned didn’t like his job, so instead of selling him off or pushing him to work anyhow, they simply retired him to pasture.
This approach to the horses isn’t good for business, it turns out, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
“Business people would not keep animals they can’t use,” Janet says. “That’s not us. They come here and they stay for their life.”
“This is not a business you are going to do to make money,” John says. “This is a crazy business, it’s for silly people, like my wife and I, who love keeping the horses from going to auction and love taking care of them. This affords us a way to not only save some horses and give them a great life, but I enjoy it because I love entertaining and she enjoys it because this gives her means to have her horses.”
John admits that it can be hard for the public to understand that the carriage work is part of a well-rounded and good life for their horses.
He tries to explain: “If you sit on the porch and eat cookies all day, you are going to get overweight and you aren’t going to live very long. That’s a fact of life with all species. The horses have the same problem. We’ve got to keep them active and healthy; that is their exercise downtown. You should see them pulling plows! And they love it!”
The horses are about three years old when they go up for auction and they are accustomed to a quiet country life. At the request of the Puccis, Amish trainers work for a year with the horses to get them comfortable with city noise before they come to Wilmington. Once the horse is prepared it is put on a rotation with the other horses on the farm.
The Percheron draft horses used downtown are unbelievably and effortlessly strong, in ways that are nearly impossible to comprehend. They were bred to be war horses and are well-known for their intelligence and willingness to work. They can carry three times their own body weight. This means an average horse of 1,900 pounds can pull 5,700 pounds alone; two horses together can pull at least 11,400 pounds.
John likens the work they do to a human using a wheelbarrow. While we couldn’t haul a load of bricks in our hands, we can with a wheelbarrow. And, he points out, the men in his barn move the large carriages around themselves (granted, not loaded with sunburnt faces and laughing children). The only weight a horse carries directly on its back is 40 pounds of harness.
The horses also work in shifts. They work downtown just over one week every month, during which time they stay in the barn on Front Street. The rest of the month they are free to roam in a large pasture in Leland with their “work colleagues.”
“Our goal is to give them the very best because they almost were gone,” John says. “We are trying to give them a good lifestyle. Now we are also trying to allow the public learn about what we do. A lot of these kids, these families, have never even touched a horse! I get to leave a memory that they will always remember.”
Even when on duty downtown, the horses work for only a couple of hours at a time, being rotated out quite frequently. Unfortunately, because the horses look alike, most people don’t notice the shift change. Also, in what is a rarity in the business, Springbrook Farms doesn’t operate on a set ride schedule. They go when the horses are ready and change them out when they need it.
Ultimately, the daily support for the rescue work they do comes from the street: the more people that ride, the more the Puccis reinvest in horses that deserve a chance.
They also continue to love this area with as much passion today as they did 30 years ago. As the city has grown, so has their business. But instead of taking the money to the bank, they use it to rescue more horses and hire more drivers.
They also work to find creative ways to serve their community outside of their business. They are charter members of Carriage Operators of North America (CONA) and deliver organic waste to neighbors who use it for gardens.
“It’s not about chasing the dollar … it’s about what are you going to do with your life?” John says. “What kind of enjoyment are you going to get and give? And by giving enjoyment to my customers, I get it back.”
Want to take a ride?
Springbrook Farms Carriage Tours
Carriage tours start on Market Street between Water and Front streets in downtown Wilmington. From April through October, times are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the cost is $12 for adults and $5 for kids younger than 12.