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Frances Dodge (1914–1971)

Frances was born in 1914 to John and Matilda Dodge, the couple’s first of three children. Her father died in January 1920 when she was only 5. After her mother settled her father’s estate, Frances traveled with her mother, brother Danny, and sister Anna Margaret in 1922 on an extended vacation to Nice, France, in the French Riviera. The family stayed abroad for more than a year before returning to the United States.

In April 1924, Frances’ sister died at the age of 4 from complications following the measles after the family had returned from Europe.

Her mother was remarried in June 1925 to Alfred Wilson, co-founder of the Detroit-based Wilson Lumber Company, and built Meadow Brook Hall on the family’s Meadow Brook Farm estate. When the hall was completed in 1929, Frances was 14 and moved to the hall with her mother, stepfather, and brother. In 1930, her parents adopted Richard, an 18-month-old boy. They then adopted Barbara, a 3-month-old girl, in 1931.

Frances finished boarding school at Mt. Vernon Seminary in 1933. Her debutante ball was held in Detroit that same year.

In 1934, Frances accompanied her parents on a six-month trip to Egypt, India, Spain and South Africa by ocean liner.

 

Frances married James Johnson in July 1938, and had one daughter, Judy, who spent much of her childhood at Meadow Brook Hall. Frances’ brother Danny was married just a month later in August 1938 to Laurine MacDonald and died on his honeymoon after being injured in a gunpowder explosion and drowning.

On Frances’ 25th birthday in 1939, a party was held at Meadow Brook Hall, in which a young Frank Sinatra sang accompanied by Tommy Dorsey and his 22-piece orchestra. On that day, Frances also came into her share of the trust fund her father left, which totaled $9.5 million.

An internationally known horsewoman, Frances was a pioneer in the harness and saddle horse world. She became interested in show horses at an early age and founded the Dodge Stables at Meadow Brook Farm, where she bred harness race horses. In 1940, she set a record for time in the saddle at the Red Mile that stood for 54 years. In 1945, she purchased Castleton Farm in Lexington, Ky.

In 1948, Frances and James divorced. The following year, Frances married Frederick Van Lennep and moved Dodge Stables to Castleton Farms. The couple had two children, Fredericka and John.

Frances and Frederick owned and managed a few racetracks including Pompano Park in Florida and Wolverine Raceway in Michigan. Throughout the years, they were leading supporters of many harness racing organizations, including the Lexington Trots Breeders Association, Tattersalls, Hamletonian Society, Hall of Fame and Grand Circuit. In 1969, The Horseman & Fair World, a weekly harness racing publication, honored the Frances and Frederick with the coveted Horseman Award. When first notified, Frederick said, “Give Frances all the credit. It belongs to her.”

Frances’ stepfather died in April 1962 from a heart attack. Her mother also died of a heart attack in September 1967.

A day after Frances and Frederick celebrating their 22nd wedding anniversary, Frances became ill at their winter home in Deiray Beach, Fla., and died the following morning at a Boca Raton hospital on January 24, 1971, at the age of 56. Funeral services were held at William R. Hamilton Funeral Home in Detroit on January 27, 1971, and she was buried in Detroit. She was survived by her husband; two daughters; a son; brother Richard; sister Barbara; a stepson, Hector McNeal Van Lennep; and a grandson, James William Bartlett.