Book Review by Martha A. Woodham
“Foxhunting with Meadow Brook on Long Island, New York, was always about more than the fox, the hounds, or the horses. Meadow Brook was about its people—some powerful, some idle, many wealthy—and their shared joy in galloping across beautiful country, only minutes outside New York City.”
This quote from the dust jacket blurb on Judith Tabler’s Foxhunting with Meadow Brook sums up her book well—except for one thing. Foxhunting with Meadow Brook Hunt Club in the early days was also about the jumping—the bigger the jumps, the better. Many members—high-powered businessmen from New York—were highly competitive, and every meet was a contest that, sadly, did not always end well. Over the decades Meadow Brook lost at least four members to dangerous riding.
Tabler, a writer and professor who lives in McLean, Virginia, hunted with Meadow Brook before it was disbanded in 1971. She has crafted a well-researched and engaging history that is the story of a hunt that people say shouldn't have lasted for ninety years. Over the decades, Meadow Brook was plagued by poor scenting conditions, scarce game, sandy soil, angry landowners, millionaires who lost their millions and a pompous parks commissioner who eventually succeeds at putting a parkway through Meadow Brook hunt territory.
Begun as a drag hunt in 1881, Meadow Brook was belittled for "following the anise-seed bag" instead of chasing real foxes. A New York Times article described Meadow Brook's style of drag hunting as a "manly sport" that "in time may become as popular in this country as hunting the fox is in England. As everybody knows, the anise-seed bag is one of the swiftest and most subtle animals ... fiercer and more courageous than the fox."
After that bit of bad publicity, Meadow Brook temporarily dispensed with the drag, but over the decades, the hunt alternated between drag and live hunting. After all, with the drag, riders could hunt and then get back to New York City in time for work. Devereux Milton Jr., Joint-Master from 1958-1968, once remarked that, “Meadow Brook has killed only one fox, and we are pretty sure that one was dead when we got there.”
Like many organizations, the hunt had its ups and downs. A barn fire in 1886 killed twenty-four hunt horses; only Elliott Roosevelt’s favorite hunter escaped. In 1904, Meadow Brook had two hundred hounds, and MFH Peter F. Collier sometimes would take them all out on the same day: The English foxhounds at 10:00 o’clock, the American hounds at 1:00 o’clock and the drag pack at 3:00. After the stock market crash in 1929, Meadow Brook members had to downsize, keeping fewer horses. Some members closed up their Long Island houses and moved to second homes in Aiken, South Carolina or Harford, Maryland, permanently.
During World War II, the hunt soldiered on despite gas rationing and the loss of members and grooms to the military. Due to its Long Island location, the hunt club also had to contend with shore patrols, coast artillery, even a new airplane factory built in Meadow Brook country. After the war, Meadow Brook’s territory continued to decline as new roads and subdivisions were built. In some cases, the old estates were bought by newcomers who did not appreciate foxhunting. They not only fenced in their property, but they also closed bridle paths used since the 1930s.
Over the decades, the Meadow Brook membership read like a Who’s Who in industry, politics and sports in New York. Many of the Meadow Brook members also were accomplished sportsmen in pursuits like Thoroughbred horse racing, yachting, polo, car racing, golf and others. Tabler ends each chapter with notes on Meadow Brook members with names like Bull, Keene, Clark, Collier, Belmont, Roosevelt, Hitchcock, and Whitney who made their mark on American history. As fascinating as this hunt’s chronicle is, the historical background and juicy gossipy tidbits on these captains of industry are what sets Tabler’s book apart.
Meadow Brook also received its share of visits from European and American royalty. In 1896, the ninth Duke of Marlborough, Lord Spencer-Churchill, dropped by to hunt before his marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt. In 1924, Edward, Prince of Wales, hunted with the Meadow Brook while on a tour of the United States to play polo. And Jackie Kennedy once hunted there after President Kennedy’s death.
What finally brought the hunt club to an end was a series of unfortunate incidents. When his horse slipped on wet grass in 1969, beloved huntsman Charlie Plumb was paralyzed. Plumb, father of Olympic event rider Michael Plumb, had been huntsman since 1951, and Tabler writes that the majority of the field had never hunted without him. Then 550 acres in the middle of Meadow Brook country became off-limits as a nature preserve with no hunting allowed.
In May 1971, the hunt’s leaders, facing the reality of dwindling coffers and membership, knew the time had come to disband. Although they looked for lifeboats, Tabler writes, “they realized they had been sitting in the last one for years.” Since the decision to terminate the hunt was made after the close of the season, Tabler writes that perhaps it was easier that way, so there were no tears on the final day.
But, Tabler imagines, if there had been a final hunt, it would have ended like all the others. After the hounds and horses were loaded into their vans, someone would have called out to the Masters, huntsman and whippers-in, “Thank you. It was a good hunt.”
Posted April 8, 2016