Our Honest Dogs and Horses…
Members of the Aiken Hounds “staff” wear green coats, in part because of the frugality of the 100-year-old organization’s founder, Mrs. Louise Hitchcock, Larry Byers explains to me from atop a beautiful and powerful horse, as we wait for the group’s annual Thanksgiving Day Blessing of the Hounds to commence.
Byers serves as co-Master of Foxhounds for the club, along with longtime club members Linda Knox McLean and Joey Peace. Staff members serve as hunt masters and organize the hunts, for the “field” of riders that include club regulars and guests. It’s a steeplechase-like affair, as the riders cross hill and dale following a pack of baying foxhounds. There’s no fox at the end of this chase, though, the hounds follow a “drag” (a piece of cloth inundated with fox scent) laid down prior to the start of the ride. In this case, the “hunt” is all about the dogs and the riding.
In the Lucas household, Thanksgiving morning normally involves a heavy dose of dogs as well, in the form of the sleeping late and rooting for the Labrador retrievers and other working dogs in the Purina National Dog Show. But this year the TV dogs would have to wait, as we were up early and headed up the road to horse- and dog-crazy Aiken, to meet up with South Carolina Wildlife magazine editor Joey Frazier, photograph the Hound Blessing for a future SCW article and soak up as much of the atmosphere at this revered Aiken tradition as we could.
What a fantastic time! If you love dogs or horses, there isn’t a better way to spend your holiday morning.
But back to the coats, collars and other regalia being sported by the riders:
Despite being a very wealthy lady, apparently Mrs. Hitchcock, a formidable horse woman and accomplished rider in her own right, still knew the value of a dollar, so when she decided to start an organization dedicated to running foxhounds back in 1914, she decided that the green coats already on hand at she and husband Thomas Hitchcock’s estate for use in running their beagle pack would suffice for foxhunting attire as well.
So, as several hundred spectators strolled the approximately three-quarters of a mile walk from the Aiken Historical Museum down South Boundary Avenue and along a lovely, sandy lane to the “Memorial Gate” entry into the Hitchcock Woods, gathering along the wall and on the overlooking ridge, horsemen and women dressed in green, black and other colors also began to fill the area around the gate. In addition to the blessing, the event would also include the awarding of “colors,” for several members, chamois collars that denote expertise in riding and dedication to the club, explained Byers.
The Hitchcock’s eventually donated a large portion of their estate to a non-profit foundation, and since then generations of riders, hikers, and nature enthusiasts of all stripes have been able to enjoy the 2,100-acre “Hitchcock Woods,” where a conservation easement signed in 1997 and a woods stewardship program that includes restoration of a longleaf pine and wiregrass ecosystem within the woods make this incredible urban forest a valued natural resource for the people of Aiken. Recently, the Woods was proud to become home to some endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers “translocated” from the Francis Marion Natural Forest, Hitchcock Woods board member Randy Wolcott told me. Wolcott had read my recent blog about the translocated RCWs at Donnelley WMA and was eager to talk about the future of RCWs in Hitchcock Woods. Hopefully a trip to see the birds there will be a future project for the SC Natural Resources Blog.
After the crowd had gathered and was welcomed by Ms. McLain, Mr. Byers delivered a brief history of the traditions of the club and the blessing, and then it was time to get down to business, the blessing of the animals by Father Grant Wiseman from St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church, a portion of which reads:
Bless us all, especially our honest hounds and our horses,
Keep us safe in our communion with these Woods.
Bless the creatures which fly, run, slither and scurry
Beneath this blessed canopy of trees.
There’s nothing quite like a morning walk in the woods to make you feel thankful for all the abundant natural resources that we enjoy in South Carolina. Consider a visit to Hitchcock Woods on your next visit to Aiken, or maybe even start a new Thanksgiving Day morning tradition in your house by attending next year’s Blessing of the Hounds.