No One Else Can Hunt Like Melvin Poe

Jan 16, 2011 - 7:00 PM
Melvin Poe (right) served as Orange County's huntsman from 1964 until 1991. Here he leads a meet from Whitewood Farm with whippers-in Christine Gray (left and Butch Gray.

Anyone who’s ever hunted with Melvin Poe during his incredible 64 years (and counting) as a professional huntsman knows he’s a living legend. They might not be able to explain why, but they do know that there’s no one else like him.

They know that no other huntsman brings his amazing ease and joy to the task. And they know that few huntsmen have ever practiced their craft while exhibiting such a remarkable relationship between human and hound, especially with the independent American Fox-hound. Hounds just hunt for Melvin Poe.

Should official documentation be required to prove his legendary status, look to the many articles in newspapers and sporting journals, including the British magazine Horse & Hound, which featured a photo of Poe on its cover; look to a book by Peter Winants, Foxhunting With Melvin Poe; and look to a documentary film, Thoughts On Foxhunting, by award-winning film maker Tom Davenport.

And finally, in December of 2010, to mark his 90th birthday, Melvin and his brother Albert (79), who hunted the Pied-mont and Middleburg packs (Va.), achieved official recognition from the Museum of Hounds and Hunting, which will list their names among the greats in their Huntsmen’s Room.

The latest honor is one Poe didn’t expect to see, because “most times those folks are either dead or have been out of the hunt field for at least 50 years. I never plan to quit hunting, so I figured there was only one option available,” said Poe with a smile.

Even after well more than half a century of hunting hounds, Poe insisted, “I enjoy hunting now as much as I ever have, maybe more because I can show people a good time, something a lot of people aren’t getting when they hunt these days.”

He explained further, “The fields can be so large that riders don’t get to see anything, and some packs have been bred to be so fast the field can have trouble keeping up. I want my fields to be able to see what the hounds are doing.

“Some huntsmen don’t want anyone near their hounds, for fear of interfering with the scent, but my hounds know how to recover a line,” he added.

Poe, who has conducted the choir in front of large, formal fields for Orange County Hunt and Old Dominion Hounds in the heart of Northern Virginia’s hunting country, now serves as huntsman for Bath County Hunt, a private pack followed by only landowners and invited guests in western Virginia. Bath County was founded in 1932 and declared inactive from World War II until resurrected by the late George Ohrstrom in 1992.

Poe was 70 at the time and had been required to accept mandatory retirement from Orange County the previous year, so the timing was perfect. “Being able to hunt the Bath County hounds saved Melvin’s life. He would die if he couldn’t hunt,” said his wife, Peggy.

Bath County’s territory includes Ohrstrom’s vast Fassifern Farm, as well as a section of George Washington National Forest. Hounds were drafted from Orange County’s kennel—hounds Poe had bred, hunted and won with at hound shows for 27 years.

In The Beginning

When not hunting in Bath County, hounds are kenneled behind Poe’s house in Hume, Va. On fair days Poe takes the hounds out from there, surrounded by family and a few neighbors, over territory not far from his family home, where he grew up hunting with his father and cousins.

When Poe was a boy, the men of the family would go hunting after chores were done on Sunday mornings, while the women were in church. The pack included seven hounds owned by Melvin’s father, Ollie Poe, and seven owned by his uncle Pete Pearson.

There weren’t many foxes back then, at a time when farm laborers were paid $1 per day and fox pelts were worth $5 each. Skunk pelts even brought $2.50, so “I learned to trap and skin a skunk when I was quite young,” said Poe.

The fox population had been helped along some by the man who was then the master of the Old Dominion Hounds. Sterling Larrabee paid farmers $10 if hounds started a fox on their farm and $15 if hounds ran him to ground on their farm. It was a useful incentive.

Poe got his first chance to hunt hounds himself when he was 10, using skill and knowledge acquired naturally. Foxhunt-ing was the recreational activity of choice in the county (along with jousting,baseball, and the occasional bare-knuckled fight, usually over a girl).

“We talked about hounds at ballgames, at school, at church—everywhere. We knew our hounds’ bloodlines and our neighbors’ too,” Poe said. (He played baseball in high school and after for little Hume’s highly competitive team.) “We knew what a hound was supposed to look like—pretty much like theylook now—but first of all a hound had to hunt.”

Kinship ties (of hounds and humans) run deep through Poe’s corner of western Fauquier County, down to Rappahan-nock and over through Culpeper counties. “At one time, huntsmen for most of the important packs in America came from this part of Virginia,” Poe said.

The late Alexander Mackay-Smith wrote in his book The American Foxhound that this corner of the world gave rise to the model of the American hound as recognized in the Master of Foxhounds studbook today.

After The War

Changes came with World War II—Col. Larrabee went to serve his country and sold the hounds and the rights to the country to Albert Hinckley, and huntsman Shirley Payne turned his talent to producing show hunters. During the war years, Old Dominion eked along under the guidance of Mrs. Hinckley (Mr. Hinckley also went into the service) and other war widows. With no able-bodied men left at home, hounds and horses moved to the nearby Front Royal Remount Station, cared for by incarcerated German prisoners of war.

Poe came home from the war with five medals, earned as a mechanic whose unit helped keep vehicles moving forward following the D-Day invasion. Jobs for mechanics were scarce when Poe first returned home from war—“thank heavens,” he said, because soon enough he was hired to his first post as professional huntsman by Albert Hinckley. When Poe began at Old Dominion, only 14 aged hounds remained in the kennel, 10 of which he had bred before the war.

Poe formed his first pack in the country way, by drafting hounds from his farmer friends and neighbors for the day’s sport. At the end of the day’s hunt, hounds would find their own way back to their various kennels. The county had only a few partially paved roads then, because the sparse population drovefew cars. It hadn’t changed much when Poe moved his post to neighboring Orange County in 1964. U.S. Route 50 caused little problem, nor did I-66 when completed in the ’70s, because “any fox stupid enough to live near there died before hounds could get its scent.” More problematic were roads like U.S. 17, which carried just enough high-speed traffic between Rt. 50 and I-66 to endanger hounds.

As huntsman, Poe was responsible for the hunting territory, which after the war “was quite rough.” Vast grass fields lay fallow, and trails over the wooded foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, once made passable by crews paid by Larrabee, were badly overgrown.

The burden of setting things right again was made easier when Hinckley purchased the first Bush Hog ever sold in Fauquier County. Then, with the kennels moved to Hinckley’s farm on the south side of the territory, the master purchased a van to get staff horses and hounds to the meets.

Although today there are a lot more houses and paved roads in Fauquier and Rappahannock counties, Poe said that the territory around Hume is relatively unchanged from a hunting standpoint, as most of the new houses have been built on or near roads. Orange County is fortunate to have many of its large estates placed in permanent conservation easements.

Hunting countries everywhere must be paneled today, generally with chicken coops. Wire fences first started coming into Poe’s territory in the ’50s, when many old stone walls fell into disrepair and the stockpiles of chestnut rails, cut from trees felled because of the blight of the early 20th century, were no longer available to mend the once-prevalent post-and-rail fencing.

Social Changes Too

In Poe’s time, medical bills or personal expenses, such as a child’s college tuition, might be handled by “noblesse oblige,” with a member or MFH reaching into his own pocket to help. Charles Matheson, who served as Orange County’s president during part of Poe’s tenure there, said hunts nowadays must provide competitive pay packages, including insurance and retirement benefits. Matheson said staff paymakes the proposition of funding a hunt much more expensive than it used to be.

Matheson also noted changes in the place of the professional in the hunting field. He said, “Now you see paid professionals riding right up front. I have to think that they’re helping school horses for the members they work for and belong there.”

Poe said that one of his job conditions when he signed on at Orange County was that his wife, Peggy, be permitted to hunt in the field—the hunt bylaws at the time forbade family of a staff member from doing so. With a modest salary and no benefits for her husband, Peggy supplemented the family income by producing field hunters. Matheson and others sometimes began their hunting careers on horses bought from Peggy or boarded with and schooled by her.

Poe and Matheson pointed to other changes in the ’50s. Between Hume and Middleburg, you would pass 50 to 60 horses being exercised on the roads. A person would hunt five or six days a week, and members of the field could really ride.

“Now, there’s a field for everyone—you can pretty much go at whatever speed you want,” Poe continued. “That’s because hunts need to get morepeople into the hunting field and keep them there. They need the money.”

Poe believes that he contributed to the sense of hospitality offered at post-hunt gatherings and other social events, once closed to hard-working staff and grooms. This all got started with a party that he and Peggy pitched following a tremendous outing at a hound show by the famous red ring-necked hounds he bred for Orange County.

The year was about 1980, a time when more and more people who didn’t recognize the old hunting hierarchy were coming into the sport.

“Peggy, Chrissy [Peggy’s daughter, who has often whipped in for Poe over the years] and I piled into the pickup truck and took hounds to the Bryn Mawr Hound Show [Pa.]. After we won every class and every championship, there was no room for the trophies! So we decided to have a few people over to see what the hounds had won—usually the hunt just stored those prizes ’til the following year,” said Poe.

“I called every member and every groom and invited them over. That took me a while!” Poe said. That also swelled the guest list to 500. The Poes’ party became a legendary annual affair; its fame warranting inclusion in a book on best parties in the nation’s capital. Poe said that after his first party, grooms and staff began to be invited whenever there was a bite to eat after hunts.

If Poe could choose his own personal legacy, he’d like to be remembered as someone who enjoyed everything he did—his early days on the baseball diamond, working stock on his farm in Hume, raising his family and hunting, whether foxes, deer, rabbit or birds.

Anyone who’s ever hunted with Poe will remember the magic he brings to the field following him and his hounds. With more than 50 years of close observation to back her claim, Peggy declares that hounds, horses and even people just seem to automatically flock to Melvin.

Perhaps Orange County hunt secretary Mary South Hutchison put her finger on it when she described a day with Bath County, riding along beside John Coles, who’s a joint master at both Orange County and Bath County.

When she heard again, for the first time in 20 years, the famous shrieking Rebel yell Poe uses to signal his hounds, Hutchison said, “The hairs on my arms stood up. My horse, too, knew what was coming. It almost brought tears to my eyes. I turned to John, and he said to me, ‘I know.’ ”

Category: Biographies
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