Smithtown Hunt History by Merri Ferrell

Fox Hunting on Long Island

By Merri Ferrell

 Fox hunting is not unlike a symphony.  For a brief time, you live in another world.  The burdens, vexations and even tragedies of life slip away and once again you feel kinship with earth and sky, and deeply grateful to be alive.

What is it about these hunting people which might explain their unusual ability? When a superlative horseman is also a passionate fox-hunter, one sees one of the most satisfying and lovely pictures possible.  I believe the foundation stone of this group is an overwhelming love for fox hunting; that to them it is more than a sport or pleasure, being pretty near a religion; that regardless of the seasons, they are acutely aware of the direction of the wind, the wetness or dryness of the earth, the harsh cry of crows, the scent of newly ploughed land, of hay warm with sun, of burning leaves, of rabbit tracks through the dew and of the first faint light of dawn–in fact anything to do with the earth and sky is inexorably interwoven with their love of foxhunting.

Notes on Fox hunting, Betty Babcock, 1967

Hunting quarry for food and sport has a long tradition in human history.  However, fox hunting, did not become popular until the 18th century in England where the population of the rural countryside regarded the fox as vermin and threat to livestock. The intelligence of the fox and its ingenious ways of confounding hounds with its cunning made it ideal as quarry for people who loved to ride.

From the beginning of the Gilded Age until the years after World War II, Long Island was a paradise for lovers of all equestrian activities.  Polo, coaching, pleasure riding, hunting, and horse shows abounded.  Children spent their days on the backs of ponies.  Horse dealers, saddlers and harness makers, equestrian tailors, trainers, stablemen, kennelmen and hundreds of other people who worked to support this activity abounded.  As land became increasingly developed, horse lovers, like purposeful nomads pursued open country, the indispensable ingredient for all equestrian activities.  The story of foxhunting on Long Island is a story of a changing landscape and people.

Fox hunting on Long Island dates from 1770 when John Evers of Hempstead hunted a pack of hounds.  George Washington, who avidly rode to hounds in Virginia, was one of the subscribers to this hunt.  In 1781, there is reference to the Brooklyn Hunt where hounds were cast at the estate of Denyse Denyse, the great grandfather of Henry Herbert of the Meadow Brook Hounds.  William “Bull” Smith, founder of Smithtown, is reputed to have fox hunted.

Fox hunting on Long Island became popular during the Reconstruction as estates began to be built on what had previously been farmland.  The wealth of industry, banking and other enterprises that flourished in Metropolitan New York created new American gentry.  The affinity for English sports such as coaching and fox hunted increased.  Over the next century, the Queens County Hunt, Rockaway Hunt, Meadow Brook Hounds, Suffolk Hunt, The Oaks Hunt, the Smithtown Hunt, The Long Island Hunt and the Suffolk County Hunt were formed to pursue the sport over the unique landscape of Long Island.

The Rockaway Hunt was formed in 1879 and located at Cedarhurst, a town on the South Shore of Long Island in Nassau County.  It was short-lived  due to the rapid development of the area.  In 1956, Wading River resident, George E. Hart remembered the Rockaway Hunt from his boyhood:

I well remember the Rockaway Hunt Club whose members followed the hounds     spring and fall.  A group of well-to-do residents of Far Rockaway and nearby villages made up the membership including the Hazzards, James Keene and his son Foxhall, the Rhinelanders, Whites, Potters and many more.

On a Saturday afternoon the Master of the Hounds with jumpers and grooms would assemble at or near the Lynbrook railroad station with the hound pack a necessary requirement.  The Wall Street gentry would come from the New York Train, change into riding togs and pink coats and be off after the hounds.  The    pack followed a scent laid down by a man on foot that morning.

 The course was usually the same each time:  north from the station on either side of a small creek over the farms of Jarvis Pearsall, Bill Davison, Hendrickson & Cornell, and Ackley and Cornwell.  They would then cross another stream on the Carman farm, then make a U-turn and ride south over some of the same farms to the place of beginning, in all a distance of perhaps eight miles.

Long Island Forum, July 1956

Belmont Purdy, William E. Peet, F. Gray Griswold and Robert Center convened to organize a pack of foxhounds, which became the Queens County Hunt. This was considered the first drag pack in America. A farmhouse was leased and on October 4, 1877 and their first meet was held.  Neighboring Quakers farmers protested this activity, but the sport survived opposition.  In time, farmers prospered from the hunt by supplying hay, feed and bedding.

The following year, the Queens County Hunt moved to Central Morrisania in Westchester Country. The area proved to be too congested and unsuitable.  In his absence, Griswold’s fellow huntsman, Belmont Purdy, organized a subscription pack with the assistance of Thomas Hitchcock, Jr. that became the Meadow Brook Hounds in 1881.  The primary country of the hunt was in Nassau County, which was relatively unpopulated at the time.  Gray Griswold returned and eventually became their first Master. In 1882 the Queens County Hounds returned to Long Island and united with the Rockaway Hunt Club.  In 1893, Griswold was elected MFH of Meadow Brook Hounds, and all three hunts united.  The proximity to New York City which had been so convenient during the foundation of the Meadow Brook Hounds, soon posed a long-lasting threat to open country.  As described in the Meadow Book Club 1930 and The Field Illustrated, January 1927:

The Meadow Brook Country lies in Nassau County, formerly a part of Queens County, Long Island, and extends twenty miles or more from East to West and about twelve miles from North to South.  It is intersected by the Jericho Turnpike, the main thoroughfare from Jamaica east through  the middle of the Island.  The hounds at that time met as far west a Jamaica and ran over a fairly open country to the eastward.  The character of the country has, however, long since changed owing the steady extension and growth of the City and villages.  Formerly snake fences, easily negotiable, were numerous, as well as the post-and-rail, and there was at one time a short stone    wall on the north side of Wheatley Hill.  At present, the chief obstacles are the strong straight post and rail fences ranging from four to five feet high.

Soon after this date the country began to fill up.  Many houses were built, truck gardens appeared, villages all along the line as far as Garden City began to spread along the Sound and the South Shore.  The housed were slowly driven further and further away from the settlements to that in 1914 the kennels at Meadow Brook were found inconveniently from the places at which meets were called  and the hounds were moved to Syosset.

Regardless of the persistence of population, the Meadow Brook Hounds continued to hunt in country that was comprised of woods, fields surrounded by post and rail fences on large estates most of which had over 1,000 acres.  The Meadow Brook Hounds earned a reputation throughout the riding and hunting communities of America as one of the most challenging. Its reputation was also based on its members, many of whom were not only recognized for their position in society, by also were ranked among the best horsemen and women in America.  Its Masters included Elliot Roosevelt, brother of Theodore Roosevelt, Francis R. Appleton (1882), Edwin D. Morgan, Jr. (1883), Thomas Hitchcock, Jr. (1889), Gray Griswold (1893); Foxhall Keene (1903); Samuel Willets (1908)  Harry T. Peters; and  Devereux Milburn.   Huntsmen over the years included Thomas Allison, Charles Plumb and Michael McDermott.

Noted for its heart-stopping fences that started at four feet, the Meadow Brook Hounds followed live and drag hunts until it closed. Among the more serious impacts on this hunt were increasingly high taxes, which forced many of the stables to close. A member of Meadow Brook Hounds explained that the contrast between riding to a meet versus spending an hour or more on crowded highways heading East with your horse in a trailer was one of the reasons that the hunt closed. After WWII, many members of Meadow Brook did not return, and the hunt felt their loss.  The post war years also proved to be a boom in housing for those who did return and accelerated suburbanization began to change the face of Long Island forever. As traffic increased on the growing number of roads that divided up Meadow Brook country, it became unsafe for the hounds as well as the riders.  The final blow came with the arrival of the Long Island Expressway, which cut through the country like an unhealing wound.  The Meadow Brook Hounds was terminated at the close of the 1970-1971 season and a glorious history found its final page.

The Smithtown Hunt was organized in 1900.  According to Norman Fagan, who eloquently chronicled the history of the Smithtown Hunt, it was comprised of the members of the Bayside Hunt who moved to Smithtown when they ran out of country.  The first Master was R. Lawrence Smith.  At that time the hounds were bred locally and in an effort to improve the pack, Jimmy Clinch Smith was sent to England to import English hounds.  Unfortunately, Smith and the hounds perished on their return trip on the Titanic.

The next Master was Clarence R. Robbins, who assumed his duties in 1907.  At this time, the Smithtown Hunt ran a drag line.  He was replaced by Allan Pinkerton in 1913, who was Master until 1916.  In 1922, Alice T. McLean of St. James and Edward H. Carle of Millbrook, New York became Joint Masters and began to bred a pack of English and Welsh hounds.  He reinstated a live hunt.  From 1928 to 1932, Mrs. John Van Schaick (Lida Fleitmann) Bloodgood was the Master of Foxhounds, the first woman to hold this position.  By this time, Smithtown maintained a drag as well as a live pack.  In Fagan’s recollections, Harry T. Peters (who was not only an internationally recognized fox-hunting man but also the publisher of one of the seminal works on Currier & Ives prints) was Master during the years following World War I.  It was not uncommon during these early years for the Meadowbrook Hounds and the Smithtown Hunt to have highly competitive joint meets.

From 1932 to 1936, Tim Durant was Joint Master with Edward S. Voss (brother of noted equestrian artist, Frank Voss) and Randall E. Poindexter respectively.  Durant was known as the “flying commuter” because he lived in Connecticut and flew to Long Island to hunt.  Randall Poindexter shared the title of “Master” with Old Field resident, Frederick L. Johanns, Jr. until World War II.  During the War, the hunt was inactive.  Following the war, there were no hounds, no subscribers and no money in the treasury.  With the assistance of Ward Melville and Frederick Johanns Jr. as Master, the hunt was re-established.  The kennels were at Wide Water, Mr. Melville’s home in Old Field and Gustav Mollet, who worked for him and had been the Huntsman since 1938, worked towards putting together a fresh pack of hounds.  From 1949 to 1952, the Masters of the Smithtown Hunt were Mrs. Edward A. Gorman and Honorable W. Royden Klein.  Klein continued to serve as Master until 1953.  Tim Durant returned as Master from 1954 to 1956.  He was followed by Dr. Arthur Fredericks and Edward Gould where were Joint Masters from 1956 to 1964.  Dr. Fredericks, “Doc,” a Veterinarian from Northport continued to serve as Master until 1981.  A consummate horseman and huntsman, Dr. Fredericks was described by Fagan as “a tremendous inspiration during his twenty-five years as Master of Foxhounds.  It was evident to fox hunters that his heart and soul were devoted to his job.  Dr. Fredericks hunted in all sorts of weather, over all types of country, and hence provided good sport to his field.” During an interview with Dr. Fredericks in 1995, he stated that he hacked to St. James where the hounds were usually cast from the old polo fields on Fifty Acre Road from his farm in East Northport. As described by Norman Fagan in 1984:

That such views are rare only serves to increase the magic, and hunting with Smithtown is filled with small wonders.  Hounds working like ghosts under the reddened maples of River Road.  The enchantment of scarlet coats against the March sky when the late snow still covers the fields behind Setauket Station.  The icy misery of the January wind that howls off the sound at Blodget’s.  The bright decorum of the field meeting at Shep Jones lane under the yellow banners of hickory.  The thrill of a fast burst, or a big fence.  The quiet contentment of the ride back home after a good day and the satisfaction of being able to say simply:  ‘I was there.’

Smithtown Hunt is the oldest continuing hunt on Long Island today.  Its members represent a cross section of Long Island’s population, and its educational mission is underscored by its 501.C.3 status.  Its Masters since the 1980’s have included Robert Moeller, Dr. Howard Schare, Peter T. Demetrious and Angela Pecora.  Current Masters are Brian Quinn, Angela Chewning and Julie Rinaldini.  The spirit of the hunt lives through the people who love the sport.  The endurance of the Smithtown Hunt and its rich history is a testament of its members, past and present, as well as the unfailing leadership of its Masters, hunt staff and dedication of its members. The story of foxhunting on Long Island is a story of a changing landscape. The spirit of the hunt continues through people who love horses, hounds and sport.

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Contact Infomation

Honorary Secretary:  Christa Duva
205 Cuba Hill Road, Huntington, NY 11743

Email: thesmithtownhunt@aol.com

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