Standing in the kitchen of the house where Misty of Chincoteague rode out the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962—and doing it for my job—was not something I ever expected to happen, yet there I was on a bright morning in March. Working in this field in Virginia has brought me in contact with a lot of our nation’s history. As a land conservation professional working for The Conservation Fund, I’ve had opportunities to help protect properties ranging from the homes of the Founding Fathers, to Civil War battlefields, to the lands held sacred by Virginia’s tribes—treasured places that tell our nation’s story and the story of its people. I never anticipated that one of the stories I’d come into contact with was one I loved as a child, the story told by Marguerite Henry about the Beebe family and their pony, “Misty of Chincoteague.”
My journey to the Beebe Ranch started while I perused the Virginia news headlines. It had already been a big news year for the Chincoteague ponies when they were designated the “Official pony of the Commonwealth of Virginia” by our General Assembly, and I was immediately drawn to an article entitled “Museum issues appeal to save Beebe Ranch, famed home of ‘Misty of Chincoteague.’ ”
Like most horse-crazy kids, I devoured Henry’s books to satisfy my craving for all things horses. I didn’t have my own pony, so the longing of the Beebe children for a pony of their own resonated with me.
Chincoteague Island is a barrier island along the Eastern Shore of Virginia, situated just behind Assateague Island. It hosts a small, tight-knit community dominated by its fishing industry, the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and is best known for the annual Pony Penning Day where a herd of ponies—descended from horses lost off a Spanish shipwreck—swims the channel from their home on Assateague to Chincoteague for an auction in support of the local fire department. Each year, the herd is thinned by rounding up the ponies on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island and auctioning about 70.
The fictionalized story of Misty, as told by Henry, centers on children Paul and Maureen Beebe. Misty herself was a real pony who was born on the Beebe Ranch, which once covered 100 acres near the south end of the island.
The original house where Misty rode out the infamous storm that devastated the island, right before giving birth to Stormy, her last foal, is still standing on the property. When I stood in the kitchen where Misty once hunkered down, talking to Cindy Faith, executive director of the Museum of Chincoteague Island, I could almost hear the wind and rain swirling outside. When Faith told me how Jeanette Beebe worried about leaving Misty, who apparently cribbed, barricaded in the kitchen with her brand-new dining room table, I could picture the pony alleviating her stress on the family’s furniture.
Over the years, various pieces of the ranch have been sold, leaving just 10 acres remaining in the hands of two Beebe family members. As they looked to the future, they realized it was worth protecting that remaining core of the ranch.
The family approached the Museum of Chincoteague Island and offered to sell the property for $625,000, as long as the sale happened quickly. The offer came in the context of Chincoteague’s booming real estate market, with demand for homes in this beach community surging and offers from developers plentiful.
Since helping protect properties like this is what I do for a living, I made a cold call to the Museum of Chincoteague Island to see if there was any help The Conservation Fund could offer. I figured, even if I could just point them in the direction of some likely grants, it could be helpful. And if they needed more help, I was here for it. It’s not often that my career and horse habit collide, so I was going to make the most of this opportunity.
That’s how I ended up standing in front of the Beebe house, talking to Faith. The museum issued its fundraising call for help to buy the property in early March, and its staff was amazed by the response. Not only have locals stepped up to support the effort, museum staff is hearing from people all over the world.
“My heart is overflowing with gratitude,” Faith said. “We’re receiving letters saying, ‘I am sending a check for $15, and I am on a fixed income, but I have loved Misty my whole life;’ ‘I reread the books every few years and it is like visiting an old friend;’ ‘Thank you for helping to preserve the rich history for future generations. My heart is with you.’ ” In just a month, the museum has raised nearly half of the money need to purchase the farm.
“I’m worried about a plateau in donations,” Faith admitted, as we walked around the small farm. “The most money raised by a lot of local charities for efforts like this is just $200,000-250,000. The good news is that this isn’t just a local story. Misty has touched the lives of people across the world.”
In talking to my own friends and colleagues, practically everyone remembers Misty from their childhood. Some of my colleagues at the Fund—some horse people, some not—gushed about their love of the Misty story. In fact, the article about the museum’s effort was forwarded to me by multiple colleagues suggesting we might help out. Other friends, now parents themselves, are sharing the story of Misty with their own children.
As we toured the farm, talking about the challenges of raising money for an effort like this, we also talked about the museum’s plans for the property.
Although the original house still stands its barn was destroyed in a 2019 fire, and phragmites (an invasive marsh plant) are slowly claiming former pastureland in the rear of the property. If successful in purchasing the property, museum officials hope to expand programming to include tours of the property, rebuild the barn, and reclaim the pastureland. They also plan to continue the tradition of keeping Misty’s descendants on the ranch.
I won’t lie: I got a little excited when I met Drizzle, the most recent generation of Misty’s progeny to live on the ranch. I tried to remain a consummate land conservation professional, talking about land management and fundraising, but the little girl in me thrilled to oblige another Chincoteague pony with scratches.
Land conservation makes real the stories we are told, and in this case, the stories we read. Although most of my professional work for the past 20 years has centered on broad, sweeping landscapes and deeply historic places, projects such as this one touch people in a different way, often closer to the heart. Knowing the fiercely determined people involved in the effort to save Misty’s home and the love people have for the story of Misty and the Beebe children, as well as for the community on Chincoteague Island, I’m optimistic that this place will be saved for generations of children to come.
For more information on the Museum’s efforts to Save the Beebe Ranch, click here.
Heather Richards is the Mid-Atlantic regional director and Virginia state director for The Conservation Fund. In her free time, she is an amateur dressage rider working towards her silver medal with her 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, Halcyon. The closest thing she has to a Chincoteague pony is her 25-plus-year-old Welsh pony, Sundance.