In November 1956, on an unseasonably warm day, a group of riders dressed in scarlet and black followed their joint masters Mr. Junius Fisher and Mr. Hugh Heafner, their huntsman and hounds into the forests and fields near the small city of Charlotte, North Carolina. By doing so, they officially began the first season of Mecklenburg Hounds Inc. (MHi). Dwight D. Eisenhower had just been elected to his second term as President of the United States. Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” was the number one song in the country. There were no such things as cell phones, MRI’s or GPS.
All ages enjoy following the Mecklenburg pack. Photo by Rick Johnson, Owahay Studios.
Sixty years later, on November 5th, 2016, a similar group followed Mr. Jay Thomas, huntsman and MFH, and joint masters Mrs. Jeanine DeVaney and Mrs. Maria Stine into the dwindling natural areas on the outskirts of a city that has grown over 400% in six decades. This marked the Diamond Jubilee of the MHi, which has adapted to the 21st century and continues to provide good sport.
When these men and women gather as they do every fall around the world, they are taking part in a tradition that dates back to Assyrian, Babylonian, and ancient Egyptian times. Their clothing, the respect they give the Masters, and the protocol they follow in the field are all homage to the ancients, as well as men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both maintained packs of hounds. The members of MHi are not princes or titled aristocracy, but they are the spiritual descendants of those hunters from long ago. Members of MHi are cowboys and CEOs, engineers and entrepreneurs, showjumpers and chefs, but they all share a passion for horses and love of the music their hounds make in full cry.
A large portion of any foxhunter's passion lies in the pride they have in their pack, and the members of MHi delight in their hounds and their ancestry. Several hounds in kennels trace back to the famous Mountain and Muse, who were gifted by the Duke of Leeds to friends in Maryland in 1814. In 1858, a pair of their descendants was sent to Colonel Miles Harris of Sparta, Georgia. They arrived on the first of July, and the dog hound was promptly named after that month. He fathered the famous July strain of foxhounds, recognized by their unique blue merle color. One of his progeny is in the arms of the young lady pictured below.
The famous July bloodline is still present in the pack. Photo by Dean Kelsey.
As Charlotte expanded, developments replaced agricultural land and fallow forests, making hunting territories smaller and threatened by the now common issues of urban sprawl. Mecklenburg adapted to this, becoming what many would term an urban hunt. One primary fixture, Larkspur Ranch, is less than 40 minutes from the center of Charlotte. This 1200 acre area is surrounded by busy highways, modern strip malls, and large housing developments. Fortunately, it is also the home of several gray fox and at least one pack of coyotes.
The challenge for the club is not finding scent, but heading the pack before they leave the property. On any given hunt, members who have proven they have knowledge of the territory and are confident riders may be drafted to help whip-in and turn hounds. The club has taken to this rather nontraditional staffing with grace and humor. Their hunt breakfasts are filled with laughter and “Tales from the Border,” as newly created staff tell of their exploits.
This commemorative opening meet was attended by over 75 riders and two tally ho wagons with social members and guests. Hunters from several states trailered their horses to honor the occasion; most notably members of the Lowcountry Hunt (SC). This contingent was led by two of their joint masters, Mrs. Melinda Shambley and Mrs. Christina Bates, as well as their professional huntsman, Mr. Martyn Blackmore.
As development threatens, the Mecklenburg country remains well-foxed. Photo by Dean Kelsey.
Following the traditional blessing of the hounds, riders followed huntsman Thomas to the day's first covert. The blessing must have had effect, as the hounds were soon on the scent of a shrewd gray fox. The field was on one side of the covert and the tally ho wagons on the other, when the latter got the first view of the day. While this fox was caught on several cameras, he was too smart for the hounds and was lost. After a particularly refreshing check where the contents of several flasks were sampled and discussed, the hunt shifted to another area. Promptly a cry went up and the chase was on again, this time on coyote. This quarry soon ran out of country and hounds were summoned back.
At the lavish catered breakfast, tales were exchanged and wounds tended. The few riders who had come off displayed their grass stains and muddy bottoms, and were gently teased on their involuntary dismounts. We can only imagine that on a similar day 6000 years ago, young Assyrians gathered with their horses, hounds and friends, telling tales of their hunting exploits. We know that under solid English oaks, princes, dukes, and farmers did the same into this century. Let’s all hope that a few hundred years from now, there will be equestrians who still cherish their horses, the land and each other enough to celebrate their hunt as we do.