(04/17/2018)
By Sidney Underwood 2018
My Granddad, Johnson Williams, was an avid foxhunter in the early part of the 20th century. During the 1930’s he was President of the Doddridge County Foxhunter’s Association that evolved into the Middle Island Hunt Club in the 1940’s. If you have a copy of the HISTORY OF DODDRIDGE COUNTY published in 1979, you will see a list of over two hundred fox hunters. Fox hunting was a very popular sport in rural counties in the 1930’s.

Tavern owners, George and Wilmah Whitehill, were active in the Middle Island Hunt Club starting in 1946 with Mrs. Whitehill serving as treasurer. They provided a building for club meetings near the mouth of Rock Run and were instrumental in obtaining an old school bus that was placed on the ridge on their property near the top of Rock Run hill. I remember walking past that old bus when I was a kid. The interior contained a potbellied stove and comfortable seats on each side. I’m sure it was a comfortable gathering place on cool fall nights. During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s foxhunters would gather there on “Hidden Hollow Farm” and turn their hounds loose.

I remember hearing foxhounds late on a Friday or Saturday night during the fall months. The sound of the hounds running on the ridge would always awaken me when I was sleeping upstairs in Granddad’s house on Upper Nutters Fork. On those nights when I was awakened, I would think of my Granddad who was sleeping downstairs. I would wonder if he heard those hounds, too. And if he did hear the hounds, did their baying bring back memories of an earlier time?

Granddad retired from fox hunting in the mid 1940’s when he was in his seventies. Over the years he had owned several Walker foxhounds, and I remember his last one. “Old Cream” was an arthritic old hound who could no longer run. By 1950 he was thirteen years old which was ancient for a hunting dog and he was in constant pain when he moved. I remember him lying on the back porch in the morning sunlight during the summer months. Later during the heat of the afternoon, he would slowly hobble to the cool concrete floor of the barn. “Old Cream” had a good disposition and would tolerate my roughhousing with him. He would never bite me but would eventually grow tired of my silliness and head for one of the box stalls to find some solitude.

I remember the foxhunting stories told by my Granddad and his nephew Floyd Knight on summer evenings on the front porch. This was a time before television during the early 1950’s when conversations were held at the end of each day and the entire family would gather there until well after dark. As a little kid, I knew to be quiet and let the adults do the talking. The following text concerns what I overheard and remember from those conversations. But there is so much more that will never be told. In hindsight, I wish I had written it all down.

The events described as follows are true as I remember them to be including the names of the fox hunters who shared a campfire with my Granddad. I have taken the liberty of inserting myself back in time to 1934 although I was actually born in 1942. Born too late to actually be there, I have to assume what I don’t know and explain as best I can what I do know. So now it is 1934 and I am a 12 year old kid transported back in time. Granddad is a spry 64 years old. His nephew, Floyd Neeley Knight, is 38 years old and is the son of Granddad’s sister, Nora Bell {Williams} Knight. She being the wife of Flave Knight of Piggin Run.

It is late October and FDR is President of the United States holding the office since March of 1933. The country is in the midst of a Great Depression with unemployment rampant and money scarce. There are newspaper accounts of food shortages and soup kitchens in the big cities. “Brother, can you spare a dime?” is a phrase often heard on the Movie-Tone News Reels. The country is in a general malaise and everyone hopes Roosevelt will guide the country back to prosperity. Once a week, most people tune in for the radio broadcast of the President’s,” Fireside Chats.”

Against that backdrop, my story begins: Granddad and Floyd are preparing to join other foxhunters who are gathering on a ridge overlooking Jockey Camp which is the next valley over the hill beyond Granddad’s farm. Hunters are expected to be there from Israels Fork, Jockey Camp, Morgans Run and Smithburg.

Granddad tells me that if I want to go with Floyd and him, I must get ready as they are preparing to start. He tells me that I must keep up as they will not wait for me. I promise that I will do my best.

It is almost dark when we start up the dirt road to the head of the hollow. Granddad has his lantern, pipe and tobacco and I see a poke of Mail Pouch in his coat pocket. He also is carrying an unusual thing that looks like a curved cow’s horn and it appears to be hollow and has a rawhide strap attached to it. It is slung over his shoulder and bounces around when he walks.

The leads to the collars of two Walker hounds are connected to one single leash. Granddad tells me that I might as well learn about hounds since this is my first time. He hands me the leash and warns me to not lose my grip as the hounds will be gone in an instant. I immediately find that they are hard to control. They are whining and lunging with excitement. They seem to know what is going on and pull me along straining against their collars. Floyd shows me how to hold the leash so my fingers won’t get burn marks and says the hounds definitely know what is about to happen since they were bred for the hunt.

At the head of the hollow we start uphill following paths established years ago by Granddad’s livestock. We negotiate numerous switchbacks and enjoy a gentle climb instead of going straight up the hill. With the hounds pulling me along, I find that climbing the hill is rather easy as long as I don’t relax my grip. Over time, we approach the hilltop, the woods appear closer and I smell smoke. When we reach the ridge, I see a group of ten men tending a rock encircled fire on a neighbor’s property. Their hounds are tied to nearby trees. Everyone is in a festive mood and many conversations are going on, but one must strain to hear as the hounds are excited.

Someone asks Granddad who is that, “Young Squirt” walking behind him? He answers by saying that I am his Grandson on a first time fox hunt. Someone else sees that I have my hands full trying to control the hounds. Floyd says that I wanted to see what fox hunting was all about so I had earn my keep. Almost immediately a man steps forward and grins and shakes my free hand. He tells me that I must remember that what I see here tonight, what I do here tonight and what I say here tonight stays here when I leave. He is a friendly sort of fellow, but I can tell he is serious. Wow, I think to myself, I am going to be treated as one of the guys just like I’m all grown up. Well, Mom always said that I was big for my age.

Granddad introduces me to everyone. Some of the names I remember are Barr, Chapman, Coulehan, Heflin, Freeman, Holden, Swentzel, Shrader and Shuman. They all live nearby and most of them are farmers like my Granddad. They are apparently surviving the Great Depression and are not dependent on soup kitchens or government handouts. Money is scarce for them like everyone else, but with cattle, chickens, hogs, a milk cow and vegetable gardens, they are getting by. Since I am just a kid, they all look old to me. They are dressed in patch work clothing and most wear old leather boots. All wear hats and coats, some like Granddad have hip length denim coats with blanket linings and a few are wearing mackinaws because the night is bringing colder 40 degree air. The men poke fun at the sight of Granddad’s old wool hat that has a corduroy bill and earflaps that are tied up over his head with a string. They ask him if he bought the thing sometime during the turn of the century. He just grins and says he had had it so long they would not recognize him without it.

It is totally dark now, the moon is coming up and the stars are visible on this clear cold night. I shiver and look at the fire that seems so inviting. I can see distant gas lights below me in the windows of the farmhouses of Jockey Camp. The night is all encompassing except for the fire and good cheer of the men.

Granddad and the others confer and a decision is made to release the older hounds first because they are the most experienced and less likely to lose the scent if the fox back tracks. I learn that sometimes the fox will do that just to create confusion. I didn’t know foxes were that smart! I guess I have a lot to learn about fox hunting. The hounds belonging to Shuman are sent out first. One is a Walker breed and the other a Goodman breed. We wait and listen and the men try to keep the remaining hounds quiet without much success. Time passes and no one speaks. About five minutes later, we hear the hounds as they have taken up the chase. They sound far away to me on a distant ridge to the west. The order is given and the remaining hounds are released. An unusual thing happens next. Someone is there with a hound pup, not yet a year old. The plan is for him to learn to hunt from the older dogs and he is the last one to be unleashed. When he is set free, he takes off with his nose to the ground. He is so excited he actually runs headlong into a tree. Stunned, he takes a few staggering steps then starts running and yelping in the direction of the baying hounds. Everyone thinks this is funny except his owner. Unable to resist giving the owner a hard time, Floyd tells him that if the man had turned the pup a little to the left before the release, it would have cleared the tree! Laughter can be heard now. The pup’s owner unleashes a string of four letter words toward Floyd. Everyone is now roaring with laughter and some fall to the ground laughing so hard they have tears in their eyes.

I ask Floyd if the hounds will chase the fox clear out of the county. He responds by telling me that will not happen as the fox lives here full time in Doddridge County. He tells me that the fox will come back toward us pretty soon. I ask him how he can know that. He just grins and tells me to wait and see for myself. He adds that he thinks the fox enjoys the chase because it considers itself much smarter and way more cunning than the hounds. Floyd tells me that fox hunting is pure sport as the object is never to kill or capture the fox, only for the hounds to chase after it. He tells me that there will be discussions about whose hound is out in front since every hound has a unique sound or voice.

Floyd must be right as it sounds like the hounds are coming toward us now. Even though it is totally dark, I hope to get a glimpse of the fox if he runs past us. But, the hounds now have changed direction again and they appear to be running behind us on another ridge. Granddad tells me the hounds are now running on Lathrup Charter’s land above the Smith Hollow. All I know is that the sound of them is fading away.

Some men hunker near the fire while others sit on the ground. They are lighting up their pipes and cigarettes. I wonder if someone offers me one what should I do? No one does and I guess that is a good thing. Conversations continue and I hear Granddad and someone talking politics. I hear FDR’s named mentioned often. Bank closures are a hot topic. Farms being sold for nonpayment of taxes are discussed. Also, there is talk about a NEW DEAL to put people back to work.

Looking to my left, I see and hear two men talking about a woman in West Union who is apparently real friendly. They are laughing and having a high old time. I try hard to listen to them amid the other conversations going on around the fire. I really want to hear what they are laughing about, it might be sex, but their talk is interrupted by Granddad who gives them a hard look and motions toward me. They get up and move away from the fire. Looking the other way, I see a bottle making the rounds. It is coming toward me and I suppose Floyd will hand it to the man sitting next to me. When Floyd does that, I watch the man take a drink and make an awful face like whatever is in the bottle tastes really bad. He starts to hand the bottle to me when Granddad reaches around me and takes it away and says, “I don’t think so.” Granddad takes a drink and there is no reaction in his face. He hands the bottle to the next man and then reaches into his coat for his Mail Pouch. Someone speaks up and says, “Let the boy have a sip, that “Shine” will put hair on his chest.” Everyone laughs except me.

The hounds now are getting closer and someone identifies the dog leading the pack as his. There is some disagreement as another man states it is his dog, “Sam,” out in front. I hear other names being mentioned such as Chester, Drum, Hoover, Ring and Trim. Every dog has a name and some seem more appropriate than others.

As the night wears on, the hounds continue the pattern of running closer and then fading away. There are various claims as to whose dog is out in front. The baying almost howling sound is constant and reverberates across the valley below us. They now sound to me like they are in a deep hollow below us. Their sound is getting louder as they climb the hill across from us. Granddad tells me the hounds have crossed the valley and are now on ridge property owned by Frank and Rennie Fox. I think it is so funny that the fox is now running on Fox property!

They may be coming around the ridge toward us. The howling rises to a new intensity as the hounds race nearer again. They are close enough that I can hear their straining voices! It gives me goose bumps hearing all that so close to me. There is something primeval about the sound of the hounds in the night!

Suddenly the sound of the chase stops. Someone yells and says the hounds are no longer running. The men are now concerned and all are silent. Something has happened. Granddad whispers to me about the possibility of the fox, “Going to ground.” I learn that sometimes the fox will tire of the chase and go into a den. The hounds will proceed to dig into the rocks and dirt sometimes injuring themselves in the process. If that happens, the hounds must be called in.

A short time later we hear the hounds running again and the men are much relieved. Someone says that the hounds momentarily lost the scent, but now have regained it. The men relax and light up their smokes. I watch Granddad reach into the fire for a burning twig to light up his pipe. The men become quieter and pull their coats tighter as the night becomes colder. All now stare into the fire that is turning to embers. The conversations around the fire diminish and everyone is alone with their own thoughts.

Time passes and someone mentions that it is 1:00 am and he has to get up early tomorrow for work. It is decided the fire will be banked and the hounds called in. The men stand up and stretch, some complaining about their lumbago on this cold clear night. Granddad and several others produce their cow horns and I listen as they blow on them creating a heavy rolling sound that echoes over the valleys and ridges and can be heard for miles in the clear night air. I wonder if Gabriel’s horn will sound like that on judgment day! A short time later several hounds approach our group. They come to the fading fire and lie down panting heavily. I learn that some hounds will not return tonight, but will show up later at someone’s house. All have name tag collars and will eventually be returned to their owners.

Presently other hounds approach the dying fire. I hear leashes being snapped on collars and soothing words spoken. The men are talking about this being a successful night’s hunt. Granddad’s hounds are coming in now and one of them apparently has a problem with a front foot as it is limping badly. Granddad holds the lantern as Floyd examines the dog’s foot. The hound yelps as Floyd removes a thorn with his pocket knife and holds it up for all to see.

The men inspect the remnants of the fire. Satisfied, they depart in all directions with their hounds and no one says goodbye. Going downhill into the darkness, Granddad is in front with the lantern that doesn’t provide much light. Floyd has the hounds and I am on my own trying to keep the glow of the lantern in sight. The cold night air has made my legs stiff and I stumble along behind. I suddenly realize that no one saw a fox tonight! I think they must be like ghosts. We know the fox is out there somewhere because we heard the hounds in pursuit. I think fox hunting requires a lot of faith.

Finally reaching the valley floor, Granddad stops and asks me if I enjoyed my first fox hunt. I tell him that I sure did and hope to go again sometime. Floyd speaks up quietly and says the real reason for fox hunting is so the men can get together, drink some whiskey, swap lies and get away from the women folk for a spell. Granddad chuckles but does not say anything.

Later that night, I see foxes in my dreams.

Post Script: Although this story is a work of fiction, it is based on actual events as told to me by my Grandfather Williams and his nephew, Floyd Knight. Now that I am in my declining years, I find myself eager to learn more about my Grandfather’s life, including his passion for foxhunting. By writing this story, I am able to vicariously share a moment in time with him.


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