It began with a subscriber’s question. Vicki Reeves wrote, “A friend inherited some hunt buttons which have a hunting horn on them and "M.B.H. 1881." How can I find out what hunt they represent or any additional information about the buttons?”
Foxhunting Life was able to identify the buttons as those of the Meadow Brook Hunt (NY). Once that was established, the owner of the buttons, Connie Rhodes West from Tampa, Florida was able to surmise the likely provenance of the buttons back through family history. Her story was so interesting, and the chronicle of the fabled Meadow Brook Hunt is so extravagant, we thought our readers would enjoy a trip back to those bygone days.
The Meadow Brook Hunt Club
The history of the Meadow Brook Hunt is noteworthy for the club’s two most prominent features—its larger-than-life members and their devil-may-care disregard for the integrity of their bones.
The hunt club was organized at a meeting in Delmonico’s and incorporated in Westbury, Queen’s County, Long Island, in 1881. The club attracted the cream of New York Society—men whose names ring through the history of sport, commerce, politics, philanthropy, literature, and art in America: Frank Appleton; August Belmont, Jr.; F. Ambrose Clark; F. Winston Guest; William Averell Harriman; Thomas Hitchcock, Sr. and Jr.; Foxhall Keene; Harvey Ladew; P. Lorillard, Jr.; Harry Nicholas; A. Belmont Purdy; Elliot Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt; F. Skiddy von Stade; Franklin and Ned Voss; and four Whitneys, to name just a few!
These men, their wives, sisters, and daughters hunted both the drag and the fox. They jumped line fences made of pinned locust posts with chestnut rails “as thick as a man’s thigh,” many a full five feet high. The Long Island footing was the best, but hunting over it was a remarkable test of men, women, and horses. One journalist of the time wrote that the fashionable young men from New York happily paid for the privilege of breaking their necks at Meadow Brook.
Even the Long Island Railroad bowed to the needs of the Meadow Brook Hunt by extending their 1:05 P.M. train from Long Island City—which previously ran only as far as Jamaica—to Hempstead, on all hunting days. Eventually, special box cars and dining cars were attached for the convenience of the hunt followers.
Meadow Brook Masters and members lived life to the extreme. Foxhunters today are familiar with the beautiful Hitchcock Woods in Aiken, South Carolina. Tommy Hitchcock, Jr., Meadow Brook MFH from 1889 to 1893, was born in Aiken at the family’s winter estate. His mother, Louise Eustis Hitchcock, was the first MFH of the Aiken Drag Hounds. His father, Thomas Hitchcock, Sr., is recognized as the father of steeplechase racing in America. Hitchcock, Sr. captained the first American International Polo Team and served as the second president of the Masters of Foxhounds Association.
Tommy Hitchcock, Jr.—a foxhunter and the finest polo player of his time—left the fields of sport to join the Lafayette Escadrille (flying corps) in France at the outbreak of World War I. He was shot down, captured by the Germans, but escaped by jumping out the window of a moving train. He alternately hid and walked a hundred miles to safety. At the outset of World War II, he was assigned to the American Embassy in London and played an instrumental part in the improvement of the P-51 Mustang, the fighters that escorted Eighth Air Force bombers in their missions over Germany. Tommy was killed testing the plane when he was unable to pull it out of a dive.
Tommy Hitchcock, Jr. was the inspiration for two of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters: Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Tommy Barban in Tender Is the Night.
James R. Keene considered his son Foxhall to be the greatest athlete in the world. He offered a standing bet of $100,000 against any man in the world to compete against his son in ten sports of Foxhall’s choice. There were no takers. In 1887, Foxhall rode in 101 races and won 79. He was a member of the first American International Polo team, was handicapped at ten goals for four years, and nine goals for sixteen more years.
Foxhall Keene took a lodge at Melton Mobray and soon established a reputation for being one of the best over the Leicestershire country. Foxhunting was his chief love which he made evident by saying, “I used to infuriate the Polo Association by telling them that I was keener about the standing I had in Leicestershire than about being a ten-goal man at polo. And it was the truth.”
When Foxhall became MFH in 1903, he bought forty-two couple of hounds from England in one fell swoop. During the 1905/1906 season, Meadow Brook members had nine days a week of hunting available to them. The drag pack went out in the afternoon three days a week; the American hounds hunted the fox three days a week in the mornings; and the English hounds went out three days a week.
The Meadow Brook had a reputation for fast going and big fences. In 1886, Teddy Roosevelt wrote about a drag hunt at Sagamore Hill.
“We ran about ten miles, at a rattling pace, with only two checks, crossing somewhat more than sixty fences, most of them post-and-rails, stiff as steel, the others being of the kind called ‘Virginia’ or ‘snake’ and not more than ten or a dozen in the whole lot under four feet in height. I had the curiosity to go on foot over the course we had taken, measuring the jumps. The highest measured five feet and a half an inch, two others were at four feet eleven, and nearly a third of the number averaged about four-and-a-half.
“When the hounds were cast off some forty riders were present, but the first fence was a savage one, and stopped all who did not mean genuine hard going. Twenty-six horses crossed it, one of them ridden by a lady. A mile or so farther on...we came to a five-bar gate, out of a road—a jump of just four feet five inches from the take-off. Up to this, of course, we went one at a time, at a trot or hand-gallop, and twenty-five horses cleared it in succession without a single refusal and with but one mistake; which speaks pretty well for the mounts we were riding.”
One day during Harry Peters’ Mastership, sometime during the second quarter of the twentieth century, he was returning to kennels feeling quite proud of his hounds’ performance under their brilliant huntsman Tom Allison. The hound work had been superb, but Peters discovered that their performance went unappreciated by his field. They had jumped only two small fences!
On another day, Peters returned to kennels quite discouraged. Although hounds were flying, the field was always in the wrong place and never saw any of the hunting. The field, on the other hand, was ecstatic. They ran and jumped and thought it was the best day of the season.
As huntsman and Master wended their way back to kennels, Allison turned to Peters and said, “You got it right boss. All they want is a circus!”
The Meadow Brook Hounds were disbanded around 1971, due without doubt to the intensive development of Long Island.
[Sources: The Story of American Foxhunting: From Challenge to Full Cry, J. Blan Van Urk, Volume II, 1865–1906 and Wikipedia]
Connie Rhodes West writes, “My sister Robin Rhodes Browning (Greenwich ,CT) had the buttons. I was with her after Christmas, and we were going through things from our parents. Robin had this box full of buttons, and I found the four buttons with M.B.H., 1881, and neither of us could figure them out. When I came back to Tampa, I showed them to my close friend, Sharon Blanchard, who is a member of the South Creek Foxhounds. They hunt through her beautiful property of more than two thousand acres, Little Everglades, and hold steeplechase races there. Sharon immediately emailed Vicki, and Vicki contacted Foxhunting Life.”
Having learned that the buttons were from a Long Island hunt, Connie figured the family connections back through time.
“My father, Robert Lee Rhodes, bought them from his sister, Charlotte, who was the second wife of Dudie Van Duzer Burton. Mr. Burton’s first wife was the daughter of Sir Ashley and Lady Sparks of England. Sir Sparks was the head of Cunard shipping line. My aunt Charlotte and Mr. Burton lived on Long Island, rode horses, and must have ridden at the Meadow Brook Hunt.
"Neither Robin nor I have any connection to Long Island. Neither of us foxhunts, but our mother did, and we both love horses. One of my granddaughters rides, and the Sewickley Hunt uses my son’s property in Sewickley, PA. The world gets smaller; Charlotte’s daughter, Mary French Shaffer (Mrs. Carl) is a foxhunter in Parkton, MD. Obviously, the love of horses, riding, and foxhunting runs in the family."
Posted February 18, 2013