Fox-Hunt Tradition Has Wide Following in Chester County

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At noon, on the first Saturday of March, 1796, there was an unusual stir at the old Barton farmhouse, just across the creek to the eastward as you leave Kennett Square by the Philadelphia stageroad. Any gathering of the people at Barton’s was a most rare occurrence; yet, on that day and at that hour, whoever stood upon the porch of the corner house, in the village, could see horsemen approaching by all four roads which there met.”

Anyone who fox-hunts in Chester County, as indeed many readers in the Brandywine Valley, would immediately recognize the preceding passage as the opening paragraph in Bayard Taylor’s The Story of Kennett. It tells of a fox chase about to get under way. Probably any veteran of the chase anywhere in the United States would recognize the same passage as the opening of the first full-length description of a fox hunt in American fiction. To the world Taylor was the Richard Halliburton of his day, and to many literary historians he was Pennsylvania’s greatest man of letters and a translator of Faust, but to the devotees of the hunt Taylor was primarily a fox hunter. They class his famous story about Kennett Square as a “sporting” novel.

During the first Saturday in March, 1978, fox hunters will surely be riding over the Brandywine country. Back from the main roads, the landscape is little different from that of 1796. Since this region can boast of some of the best foxhound packs in the world and the oldest organized hunts in the nation, little wonder it is that this sport has found its way into the abundant literature about the area. Indeed, no other section in America can point to so much native writing on fox hunting.

The best-known work in verse on the local chase is James B. Everhart’s The Fox Chase. This poem by a West Chester man is a long narrative of a fox hunt that takes place throughout a whole day over the Brandywine battleground area and upstream along the Brandywine’s nearby hills and valleys. The exciting full cry of the hunting pack has never been better described:

And surely, never yet was heard
From tongue of man, or throat of bird,
From reed or tube or string or key,
From all the craft of minstrelsy,
More stirring, joy-inspiring sounds
Than our rude orchestra of hounds
Pours on the land.

Probably no one, down the centuries, has excelled Everhart in catching the fox’s cunning during a chase:

He circles round and doubles back,
And crosses o’er his former track,
Confounds his course with frequent scheme –
And swims the dam and wades the stream,
And passes on, with spirit bold,
By stable yard and cattle fold,
And keeps, awhile, the beaten road,
Till turned by cur or creaking load –
Then mounts the fence and runs the rail,
And leaves pursuit without a trail.

A phenomenon peculiar to Chester County is that partic­ipation in this sport is by all. Not only the landed gentry, the banker, and the lawyer engage in the fun, but so do the plumber, the milkman, or anyone who can own or borrow a horse. It is the rugged, dangerous, and democratic sport in this area. If one cannot follow by horse, he can by walking, running, or driving his car to strategic points where the hunt is likely to reappear. Spot a long string of cars on a rural road during the winter and you know that a hunt is on.

Best of the native writers on the sport in recent times is J.Stanley Reeve, who authored at least eight books on the subject. This nationally famous authority includes in his Red Coats in Chester County an account of the Bayard Taylor Memorial fox hunt staged on the 144th anniversary of the chase described in the opening of The Story of Kennett. It was held on March 9, 1940, and indicates the local regard for the novel and for the hunt. It took place near Longwood after a pageant depicting scenes from the story. Seven packs of hounds took part in the presence of ten thousand people. Five hundred and forty horsemen and women followed the seventy couples of hounds in the largest hunt ever staged in America. Roads were clogged by two thousand automobiles that followed the hunt. Several of those present had attended a similar memorial fox hunt in 1896. In 1955 a like memorial hunt of almost the same proportions as that of 1940 was held at Cedarcroft, Taylor’s old estate. On this occasion, the late Christian Sanderson, local historian and folklorist, was inspired to say that The Story of Kennett closes with the greatest-half-page of prose in English literature, an estimate that some literary critics would attribute in some measure to local pride.

The literature set in the Brandywine Valley is extensive but its unique contribution to American literature is its prose and verse on a sport which Chaucer celebrated:

That he’n is clad and t’edy for to ride,
With hunte and home and houndes him beside.

 

A. J. Buono, who retired as Head of Chester High School’s English Department, traces his interest in Pennsylvania history to his Penn State courses under Wayland F. Dunaway and Sylvester K. Stevens.