Coker Farm, at 69 Stone Hill Road in Bedford, just east of the intersection with Old Post Road, is a fixture in the landscape that makes Bedford so attractive. The glimpse from the road of big red barns, paddocks, and horses out to pasture is an image that shapes every passer-by’s sense of the area’s particular charm.
But for equestrians, Coker Farm is Judy Richter’s place. Judy and her late husband Max Richter bought the property in 1977 from Butch Savin, a developer who used the farm to mine gravel for the construction of I-684. Judy has been a fixture in the local equestrian scene ever since. She’s earthy and elegant at the same time, comfortable in her own skin, and happiest at home - at Coker Farm - in her own pastoral oasis.
Horses have always been Judy’s passion - maybe even her destiny. Judy’s parents, Philip and Mary (Kain) Hofmann, met at the Saddle & Sirloin in Kansas City. “That’s where the fast young crowd would go. They rode and dined and did a little carousing”, Judy recounts. Her father had started in Kansas City as a shipping clerk with Johnson & Johnson and rose to become the company’s first non-family CEO. Judy recalls: “When my father was promoted to Northeast Branch Manager, my parents brought their horses on the train to Boston. I don’t remember how they got the horses to New Brunswick when my father’s work moved there.” Her parents bought a 55 acre farm in North Branch, near Somerville. Judy and her sister, Carol (who went on to ride for the U.S. Olympic Show Jumping Team), grew up with 10 or 12 horses in their care in the barn.
Judy grew up immersed in riding. Judy’s mother was Joint District Commissioner of the local Somerset Hills Pony Club, about which Judy reminisces, “That was one of the first U.S. Pony Clubs. It was a British organization that jumped the pond and became popular internationally. The U.S Olympic Team trained nearby and we would go over and get free lessons on Sunday afternoons. That Pony Club was one of the best in the world. I also did a lot of fox hunting with the Essex Fox Hounds. Those were good times. Warren Kennet, a reporter who wrote for the Newark Star-Ledger, used to say that we were ‘tops among the timber toppers’.”
For high school, Judy commuted daily from Far Hills, on the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, to attend Kent Place, an all-girls private school in Summit. She went on to attend Smith College. She met Max, her husband-to-be, when home in New Jersey on vacation. “Max grew up in Hamburg, Germany, and was working in New York City for a paper company. He met his boss, our neighbor, at The National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden and was invited out to Somerville. My mother asked him to ride my horse, Mr. Coker, whom I’d left at home that season to rest. He later invited me to the opera in New York City, but I think he really wanted another chance to ride Mr. Coker. The opera was our first date but the horse was my first love. This is why we named the farm after Mr. Coker.”
Max and Judy married, and lived in Manhattan. Judy reverse-commuted to teach English at Rosemary Hall in Greenwich, Connecticut. “We moved to a garage-apartment in Greenwich, and later bought a cottage on four acres. We had two sons, Hans and Philip. We built a little barn and started a small business with six horses. A decade later, Max purchased the folding carton division of Riegel Paper, and in the same year we bought Coker Farm in Bedford. My father told us it was a foolish risk, with our young family, to take on a new business and a farm at the same time, but we didn’t listen.”
Judy ran the Coker Farm business until she was sidelined by cancer in the ‘90s. She turned operations over to her once working student and assistant, Andre Dignelli. About the cancer, she says, “They scheduled me to die…but I didn’t… thanks to Max’s devotion and care.”
About her tenure as one of Bedford’s best known equestrians, she says with a twinkle in her eye, “It was fun to have both little kids and adults riding with us. At horse shows we did everything from Short Stirrup to Grand Prix. I probably taught hundreds of kids how to ride, as well as the great qualities that go along with being an equestrian. And I’ve had students win championships like the USET Equitation Finals and the Maclay Finals in Madison Square Garden.”
In 1999 the couple became concerned about preserving the future of the property, so they put an environmental conservation easement on the farm with the Westchester Land Trust. “This was the same year that Max sold the company he had acquired from Riegel Paper, which is still called FoldPak. They made those cardboard Chinese food pails with the wire handles. They had to get the lawyers to get the easement done on New Years Eve, and I remember that was also the year everyone was panicked about Y2K.”
Max passed in 2008. Judy has two sons. Hans lives in California, with his wife Jennifer, and two daughters, Maxine and Margot, and is a school teacher and administrator. Philip splits his time between Bedford and Wellington, Florida, and is a partner at Katonah-based Hollow Brook Wealth Management. He built and maintains the Turtle Garage, hidden away on the Coker Farm property, to house his car collection and share that passion with others. Hans and Philip are both avid equestrians, and it is Judy’s hope that “the boys will keep Coker Farm forever.”
For now, Coker Farm includes two first class operations. “They have separate barns lending themselves to separate businesses. Peter Lutz and Mary Manfredi, who were working students of mine, do everything: boarding, training, buying and selling of horses. Cynthia Williams, a colleague of mine for years, has a separate top-notch business and does everything as well.
Judy admits, “With Covid, I don’t get off the farm much.” Pressed to name her local eating spots, she says in her understated way, “I’ve been to The Bedford Post.” — while the restaurant is right around the corner! “I’m blessed with a strong support team. Besides my sons, my friends and neighbors on the hill overlooking the farm, Wyatt and Beth Crowell, watch our for me, as does my friend and neighbor Richard Ten Dyke. For day to day help, I rely heavily on my barn manager, Geralyn Campbell, and my maintenance man, Ramon Aquilera. They have been with us for over 20 years. And my dogs are good company and active watchdogs.”
Asked what four people - dead or alive - she would like to have to dinner, Judy revealed: “My husband Max, of course, then Abraham Lincoln and Robert Frost, and then George Morris - he was really important in the equestrian world and a mentor in my life.”