Fox Hunting In America
Riding to hounds has been as much of a sport among well-to-do Americans as among the British gentry
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
The decade of the 1870*5 saw a great burst of new hunting clubs. The year 1877 was the birth date of the Richmond County Hounds on Staten Island. Foxes were abundant there, and the island was said to be ideal for the sport. It consisted largely of farms and dairies with lots of fences, and scenting conditions were excellent. Not one farmer denied the hunt permission to ride over his land. In turn, the Master held a Farmers’ Ball and supper each year to be sure to stay on the good side of the landowners.
In Maryland, a state still renowned for its beautiful horses and horse country, the Elkridge Hunt was formed in 1878. It soon had a rival in the Harford Hunt (with which it has since merged), but the oldest Baltimore families at first refused to patronize the latter because it was started by one Foxhall Keene and some Long Island friends. The thirdoldest hunt in Maryland, the Green Spring Valley Hunt, introduced in 1894 the Maryland Hunt Cup, a point-to-point steeplechase run over four miles of high fences, water ditches, and other unpleasant obstacles. The race was the result of an argument among five Baltimore horsemen as to who had the best hunter in the neighboring area. (Incidentally, the word “steeplechase” comes from the old custom of using a church steeple as the goal of a race.) The Hunt Cup was so popular at one point that in 1928 special trains were run from New York and Philadelphia to carry the racing enthusiasts to Baltimore, and local hotels were booked solid. Even today the race engenders a weekend of parties and social events, picnics, and other festivities, although many viewers are so full of spirits by the time the race takes place that they are either uninterested in, or perhaps incapable of, watching. According to Dixon Wecter, one prominent Green Spring Valley devotee of the late nineteenth century was General Felix Agnes, “an Irish boy who had come over steerage, saved enough to buy an interest in a newspaper, risen to great affluence in business, and more because of his blarney and personal charm than increasing wealth became a favorite of Baltimore society. In Green Spring Valley he kept a vast establishment with a black boy to wait on every guest, and computed that 10,000 mint juleps were required to run it from Friday to Monday.”
There are, of course, many other hunting clubs in America founded during the last two centuries; there are even two organized hunts in California at present, but foxes are scarce due to the arid climate of the state. And there are many stories connected with the eccentricities of those who have followed the sport. Dr. Rush Shippen Huidekoper, a founder of the Rose Tree Hunting Club, near Philadelphia, had a fantastic hunter named Pandora. He thought of her as such a rare piece of horseflesh that upon her death he served her up in steaks to some friends at a dinner at his club.
There are others who are devotees to the utmost, such as one Master of Foxhounds who said in 1933: “Foxhunting is not merely a sport—and it is more nearly a passion than a game. It is a religion, a racial [sic] faith. In it … is … the attempt at escape from life as it is to life as we would have it.”
There also are those who scorn the sport as atavistic or absurd and mock it much as William Shenstone, the English poet, did in 1760. He observed: “The world may be divided into people that read, people that write, people that think, and foxhunters.” Certainly the sport’s excessively proper and rigid structure would invite humorous remarks by the disdainful, such as Oscar Wilde’s caustic quip describing fox hunting as “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” Despite all of its excess of folderol, fox hunting really remains an exciting sport for which it is easy to become an avid and lifelong enthusiast.