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Museum boasts largest collection of antique horse-drawn carriages in the South

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. -- Tucked away on a horse farm among gentle, rolling hills in the far northern part of Lake County, Fla., near the small town of Lady Lake, resides the largest collection of antique horse-drawn carriages in the South.

Within the 350-acre Continental Acres Equine Resort in Weirsdale, the newly expanded 39,000-square-foot Austin Carriage Museum is home to more than 136 carriages dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s, the zenith of carriage driving.

The unique, privately owned collection of both American and European carriages is one of only a dozen or so U.S. collections open to the public and contains some rare finds, such as the only Golden Carriage in the Western hemisphere.

Most of the pleasure-driving carriages on view have been fully restored to their original splendor and bear brightly painted surfaces, luxurious tufted silk and leather upholstery, shiny brass ornaments, working lamps and operational appointments. Some carriages, such as the Tour Neau Sociable, is one of only three made in the U.S. left intact and boasts all original upholstery, carpet and leather.

The carriage designs range from the simplest to the most sophisticated. Some are the predecessors to the modern-day cab, the station wagon automobile and the racing sulky. Also featured are a medicine carriage, a U.S. mail cart, and a large hunting carriage with a dog compartment. One carriage, circa 1890, was used by MGM Studios in movies they produced in the 1930s.

Resort and carriage museum owner Gloria Austin is a member of the Florida Whips, a statewide organization dedicated to the promotion of carriage driving, and a board member of the Carriage Association of America. She drives all the carriages in her collection and displays them in both demonstrations and world-class competitions. For the events, she adorns authentic clothing reflecting the date, style and purpose of the carriage, including a hat, full-length dress, gloves and shoes.
Gloria has been a lover of horses since childhood, but her interest in carriage driving began when she attended the Royal Winter Fair in Canada and witnessed the driving classes. Her collection came out of her affinity for the sport.

In addition to carriages, the Austin Carriage Museum features carriage-driving items such as the Austrian Gala Harness, an exact reproduction of that used by Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria until World War I. Made in Paris, the solid brass fittings and buckles have royal household crowns on them. Other notable items on display include a ladies whip made of whalebone, leather, ivory and silver, which has a parasol built into it, and a ladies watch and make-up case containing a clock, perfume and powder, which was attached to a carriage. The museum also contains a reference library featuring rare and out-of-print books about carriages.

Continental Acres Equine Resort also serves as a training facility for competitive and recreation carriage drivers. World-class professional trainers teach combined driving, pleasure driving and coaching; and they offer lessons and clinics in either driving or classical dressage. Classical driving styles such as single, pair, tandem and four-in-hand are taught; or guests can learn to drive hazards. Horses also can be professionally trained on the resort, which has 25 horses, 70 stalls and seven barns.


The newest addition to the facility is the Austin Education Center, dedicated to comprehensive education of the horse owner and others. The Center offers equine-related workshops for horse enthusiasts of various disciplines, but also brings the "non-horse person" reasonably priced workshops and classes on equine-related subjects. "History of the Horse," "Horses in Warfare," as well as participating in the international Elder Hostel program are just some of the Center's offerings that may be of interest to visitors.

The resort also is home to an annual carriage festival that is held the second weekend in December. Open to the public, the event grows each year and brings historic carriage driving and demonstrations by other equine disciplines to Continental Acres Equine Resort.

Individual and group tours of the museum take one and one-half hours and are available year-round Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00am - 4:00pm and Sunday from 12:00 - 4:00pm. Admission is $10 per person. Special rates are available by request for bus tour groups of 10 or more. Advance reservations are required for guided tours and/or group lunches and should be made through the Marketing office. Proceeds benefit the Austin Foundation – a 501(c)3 not-for-profit foundation and the Austin Education Center (Austin Foundation subsidiary).

The resort is located at 3000 Marion County Road, Weirsdale, Fla., 32195; and directions are available by calling (352) 750-1763. For more information, visit the resort's home page at http://www.continentalacres.com.

Lake County, is an off-the-beaten-path destination less than one hour from Central Florida's famous attractions…but light-years away. Quaint inns, graceful rolling hills, clean lakes, preservation areas and a family friendly atmosphere attract visitors looking for Florida the way it used to be, and the way it is today in Lake County.

For a free Lake County vacation guide, visitors can call (800) 430-LAKE or they can visit the county's homepage at http://www.lakecountyfl.com.

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