By Kerry Phelps Dale
Donned in a button-down shirt and Levi blue jeans, John Coles slides onto the bench seat of his 1983 GMC two-tone farm pick-up truck, 183,000 unverified miles. A ball cap hangs on the 4-wheel drive stick, and the requisite dirt and hay remnants are scattered about the cab. He makes apologies for that day’s ride–his usual vehicle, a clean, client-approved Suburban, is in the shop this day, but the farm truck fits the horseman in Coles just fine.
Coles drives down the country roads of a region he knows like the back of his hand from countless hours behind the wheel as a realtor and even more intimately from atop a horse foxhunting. Coles is a superstar at both: many times named Leading Agent in Northern Virginia and longtime Joint Master of the exclusive Orange County Hounds.
Pulling to the side of the road, Coles jumps out of the truck to talk to some men building a fence. His demeanor is collegial; he laughs and converses with the men. He’s already talked to the landowner and wants to confirm that a way is left for the hunt to get through—one of the responsibilities of a MFH.
A compelling number of the farms on these back roads of this treasured part of our area have been listed or sold by Coles over the past 40 years of his affiliation with Thomas and Talbot Real Estate in Middleburg. The former board member of Piedmont Environmental Council knows the conservation easements of all the properties in OCH and had a hand in most of them.
Sometimes the easements are in place with the listing; oftentimes they are put in place before, during and after the sale. “They are such a good tax benefit, and it’s still a great deduction. It isn’t a hard sell,” Coles says of the easements that safeguard the area from the rapid and haphazard development in surrounding areas.
“We’re very lucky to have all the country roads and open spaces. This area has changed very little compared to others,” says Coles. “In general, this is a very caring and generous place.”
A little further down the road, in an area protected by easements with rolling hills as far as one can see, a fox runs across the road and into a field. “That’s the third one I’ve seen today,” says Coles, an advocate of preserving the fox population. He explains that in the hunt field, “we try to do everything we can not to catch the fox.”
Virginia bred and raised, Coles was the 12th generation to grow up on the family farm, Cloverfields, part of what was a land grant to his mother’s distant relatives in 1704. The Keswick farm Coles still calls home lies in the shadow of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson of whom Coles is a direct descendent on his mother’s side. Like Jefferson, Coles is the quintessential Virginia Gentleman: a fine horseman, savvy businessman, land owner and gentleman.
Coles’ earliest interest in foxhunting and land conservation were seeds sown by a father who conveyed a love for the land and was for many years Keswick Hunt MFH.
Coles began his riding career after attending Virginia Tech and raced over timber in Charlottesville and then in the Virginia Piedmont when he moved north to Middleburg more than 40 years ago, a migration from one venerable slice of Virginia hunt country to another.
Coles showed up in 1975 as a young, aspiring timber and hurdle rider. He rode for different stables before he landed in the barns of George Ohrstrom, an owner and breeder of fine Thoroughbreds, who passed away in 2005. Ohrstrom had the horses that Coles wanted to ride, and Coles had the faithful persistence and talent to ride some of the best horses over fences. In time Coles became the regular timber jockey, trainer and manager of horse breeding and racing operations at Ohrstrom’s Whitewood Stables.
Though Coles came to Whitewood Stables already a gifted and accomplished rider, Ohrstrom took young Coles and schooled him in the businesses of racing, breeding and real estate and conveyed his passion for land conservancy.
It was a match made in heaven: Coles and Ohrstrom. “He was like a dad to me,” Coles says. “He was better to me than I ever expected.”
Coles worked for Ohrstrom from the age of 23 until he was 50 and was both launched and mentored by him. “There were many paths I might have taken had it not been for Mr. Ohrstrom,” says Coles. Not necessarily all good ones, he points out.
His admiration for Ohrstrom, from the way the global businessman conducted transactions with integrity to how he showed faith in the people with whom he chose to surround himself, has informed Coles in every facet of his life. “After 25-plus years with someone, you can’t help but be influenced by them,” he says.
Coles has combined a real estate sales career with a passion for preserving our beautiful countryside and way of life—an alchemy sometimes difficult to achieve.
“John is good at getting deals made,” says Okey Turner, designer and home renovations expert. “It’s hard to get two people, a buyer and a seller, to agree. John is easy to talk to, down to earth and very reliable.”
But Coles’ affable personality and sales finesse explain only part of his real estate success. He has a way of envisioning the potential of a home that is key to selling it to a client who can’t quite see it. “He’s good at seeing what to do with a property. He only comes to me when he’s stumped,” says Turner, who has collaborated with John on many properties.
Coles also is keen about divining what a client wants, even if the client doesn’t really know or thinks he knows. He has one client to whom he’s sold multiple properties after changes in life circumstances led to different home needs. When the client first was looking in the Middleburg area, Coles showed her what he thought would be the perfect place; she shunned it and ended up buying something else. Years and three properties later, the original farm was again available, and Coles took the same client to see it. “She loved it,” he says, and she even asked why he’d never shown it to her before. “I told her I had shown it to her years before, and she said she didn’t remember it.” He knew all along they would make a perfect fit, all in due time.
Upon first moving to the area, young bachelor Coles made a fortuitous friendship with Helen Wiley (“She was like a mother to me.”) and her family at Gordonsdale Farm in The Plains. “He came to the farm all of the time for meals,” says Wiley.
Her young girls were crazy about Coles, and they all noticed they hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks. Wiley caught sight of Coles at a gas station, jumped out of her car and asked, “We haven’t seen you in weeks. What’s her name?” After some prodding, Coles responded abashedly, “Julie.”
Julie Coles, who would become John’s wife a few years later, was an accomplished rider in her own right and rode hunters professionally. She continued her career until she became pregnant with her third child, when the maternal instinct tempered her fearlessness. Though she gave up competing professionally she continued to show and foxhunt and later teach riding to young boys and girls.
John rode and won countless steeplechase and hunt races sporting the Whitewood silks and a few others, always as an amateur. He counts his three Maryland Hunt Cups in the early to mid- 80s as the highlight of his racing career. Bittersweet was in the 1982 running when he was beat by a nose, in the closest finish in Hunt Cup history. In 1985, John’s last ride of three in the Maryland Hunt Cup, wife Julie remembers standing at the finish line handing off their newborn to her sister-in-law in fear she might drop the baby.
The Coles foxhunt together regularly, John in front, Julie back with the hunt. “He’s amazing on the back of a horse” says Julie. “He hunts with the same mentality as he did when I met him.
“John is a real horseman: He thinks like a horse,” Julie adds. “He has a real connection with the horses.”
The real estate success that John has enjoyed takes no backseat to his horsemanship. “He works harder than anyone else,” Julie says. “He’s up until midnight trying to get things right—making the best connections between buyers and properties.”
And about his vision with properties, she brings out a fitting analogy: “A good horseman can see through a muddy horse.”
When not on the road with a client or out foxhunting, John can usually be found on their farm. The Oaks, 100 acres smack dab in the middle of Orange County Hunt, has been the Coles’ home for the last nine years. The c.1929 stone house sits on a hill that affords a view shed miles and miles to the west and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Within their view in an intimate valley lies Springfield, a 350-acre farm where the Coles are in the process of renovating the main house, c.1780, with the intention of moving there sometime in the future. Many of the dependencies have been restored, and Springfield already is where most of the retirement horses they care for are pastured.
There are three grown Coles children. Youngest daughter Sloane, a professional rider and trainer, works out of one of the main barns at The Oaks when not in Wellington, Florida, for the winter show jumping circuit. Son Peyton lives and works in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife, often makes it up to Middleburg on business, and still likes to foxhunt. Fraley, the oldest and married is a social worker in Baltimore and the mother of the Coles’ lone grandchild, John, named after his grandfather.
The richness of Coles life lies in the sum of its parts. It’s the combination of the love of family, the adrenaline of a real estate deal or a chase in the hunt, and the authenticity of farm life which brings him pleasure.
“It’s all part of the game,” says John. “Happiness is having a good day, and I have a lot of good days.”
Gentle of spirit, fearless on horseback, talented at deal making, John Coles is the real thing, a country gentleman who lives with cultivated balance. ML