Once upon a time, the Orange County Hunt met on Opening Day at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Furness, Waverly, in The Plains Virginia. The Washington Post covered the elegant event in the section that used to be called For and About Women
Looking at all of the color photographs, 55 years later, I was shocked to realize I knew every single person in those pictures. This happened when looking through old boxes of memorabilia. We found this 1967 article; a society piece about the Orange County Hunt in The Plains VA. At that time I had just begun my first season of hunting. It was all new to me. My husband and I were guests at that hunt breakfast on opening day on November 5th so many years ago. It was the first time I had ever been to a hunt breakfast. Everything was strange to me, exciting and unfamiliar. It made me feel like an outsider and slightly off balance. I longed to be a true part of it.
I remember that I did not know exactly what to wear, as I was a guest, not a rider in the hunt that day. My husband was familiar with hunting because his uncle was a Master of Hounds at Casanova Hunt for some years before this. He was always self-assured and perfectly dressed. My own ideas about what to wear were more eclectic and dramatic. I was not then nor am I now “preppie”. So I wore a Chanel suit which my mother had brought me from Paris. (Can’t go wrong in Chanel, right?) It was almost tweed, but not quite. I was 25 years old and more or less physically flawless, though of course, that fact escaped me. It is only looking back at photos of me at that age that I realize how lucky I was.
Seeing these photos is a real lesson in how things change over time. We mingled with the guests some of whom I had just begun to know from my hunting with them that season. There were a few old friends. But most were just beautiful people, strange and exotic. When first meeting those glamorous fox hunters in their completely correct “kit”, I was intimidated. It was like going to a stage play and meeting the actors but not feeling like one of them. They and their manner of speaking, their clothes, their very sport was a mystery to me. And yet I learned to know all of them well over the succeeding years. Foxhunting became completely natural to me. It was both comfortable and fun, exciting and uplifting as a sport can be.
Yes, within three years I was giving my own hunt breakfasts as we moved from Washington to live full time to The Plains. We began to acquire more horses, more gear, more clothes, and in my case much more experience as a fox hunter. I was a good rider all my life, but hunting had been minimal in my teens. So it was necessary to catch up. With the help of an experienced friend Bettina Ward, I bought a lovely thoroughbred hunter. He made it easy for me to enjoy hunting.
We had our first hunt breakfast at Heathfield on a Monday in December 1971. I can prove this, I recently found the fixture card. Our breakfast which was well attended was lots of fun. Throwing a party is something that I learned how to do when I was young. We provided a rollicking good meal, lots of beer, wine, and whiskey, plus Irish coffee topped with whipped cream. We must have passed muster because after that we were given meets on Saturdays at our lovely farm, Heathfield.
Reading the article makes the people sound so snobbish, with long pedigrees and social standing but little character. Having hunted with all those people for years afterward it is time to set the record straight. They were true fox hunters. John Warner rode to hounds with gusto. Later he married Elizabeth Taylor and became a US Senator. He became our good friend during that time. Even Annie Taylor with her false eyelashes and a bowler hat she never removed, hunted seriously. I believe she was 6 years older than her devastatingly handsome husband, “Moose “Taylor, but you would never have known it. She had been a ski instructor in her youth and learned to fly an airplane at age 12. She had guts and stamina.
Betty Furness who was the hostess that day was a legend. She was only 69 when she gave the breakfast noted in the article. Years later, after a heart attack in her mid-seventies, she was forced to cut back on her Foxhunting. Her doctor told her not to jump fences anymore. For the most part, she obeyed. But one day in a great open field not far from my house I was riding behind her at a gallop. Hounds were running and we could hear their glad cries, their strident voices, and I heard someone call “Gone Away!” And as I rode behind her Betty Furness jumped the stone wall at the end of the field instead of following some others who went further up the fence line to a gate. After we were both safely across, I rode up to her and asked, “I thought you were not jumping fences?” She turned to me and grinned, “ I never jump a fence, “ she said, “Unless it is in my way!”
Margaret White was extremely knowledgeable and was responsible along with Eve Fout for making sure the Pony Club was strong and viable. She always had a horse show at her place Halfway Farm. She knew so much about everything horse related, she terrified me. Evelyn Baird (Mrs Charles) was my good friend for all those years, helping me find my way as she was honorary hunt secretary for over 20 years. She lived to be 98 years old, but she too is gone. Old Mrs. Harper who was out hunting sidesaddle that first opening day had been married to Fletcher Harper. He was the legendary Master of Foxhounds who held sway over the field and the landowners in his territory for many years.
All the people in the photos in the 1967 article are gone now. Margaret White, John Warner, W.B. Lambdon , CeeZee Guest, Charles Turner, Pappy Hulbert, Bettina Ward, Hank Woolman, Chauncy Brown. Melvin Poe our huntsman, and Mr and Mrs. Furness all gone to that great hunt field in the sky. Only Mrs William DuPont (Carolyn) and I and our ex husbands are left standing. And the children mentioned in the article who are now in their sixties.
No wonder it sounds mythical to me now. It all came back at me almost as a dream. As a mysterious game, which I mastered, along with my husband and family. Populated with magical people, who became our friends for years. My husband, Charles Matheson, became president of the OCH. And the opening day hunt was held at our farm, Heathfield. For many years this continued as a tradition just as firm as that original breakfast I attended at Waverly. People expected it, and asked their friends to join them for opening day at our place. We often entertained over 150 guests at these breakfasts. We had parkers to help with cars and extra kitchen and serving help, but I cooked most of the meals with their help. I prided myself on being able to do it well.
Then after 43 years my husband and I divorced, Heathfield was sold and later torn down to the ground. Jacqueline Mars became President of the hunt. Opening day is on her property now. Everything is different, changed, new. People still remembered the Heathfield hunts and the breakfasts afterward for a while.
And then, time began to grind it all away into pulpy blurred memory. The details are lost, the days run together, the stories fragmented. One hunt melds with another, misty mornings, long views, miles of open country at our pleasure. The famous hounds, red and white markings showing that they were OCH hounds. All those hunt breakfasts, mixed up remembrances of Virginia country ham, tiny flaky biscuits, pots of rabbit stew, hominy with melted cheese, quiches made with ham and veggies, rich chocolate mouse, and cookies called “cow pies” eaten with appreciation by happy hungry foxhunters.
Those days are barely remembered now, by a very few old people. But for those of us who lived it, it was splendid!
Copyright©. 2022 Bonnie B. Matheson