Smithtown Hunt Survives In Suburbia

Jan 19, 2009 - 4:44 AM

The British colonists who brought foxhunting to Long Island couldn’t have possibly imagined what it would face there in the 20th and 21st centuries. Since
World War II, the eastward expansion of the New York City suburbs have gobbled up the 110-mile-long and 21-mile-wide island and nearly wiped out the sport.

An 1892 print depicts the Queens County Hunt jumping an in-and-out over the Jericho Road, which today is Jericho Turnpike, one of Long Island’s busiest thoroughfares. The Queens County Hunt was reined in when the borough of Queens, the city’s easternmost borough, melded with the island’s expanding suburbs, leaving no recognizable boundary between city and country.

Nassau County, which borders on Queens, was growing in leaps and bounds, and the open spaces were rapidly disappearing.

The Meadowbrook Hounds, which had become a recognized hunt in 1881, disbanded in the late 1970s, because, as former MFH William Dobbs explained in 1987, “There was no place to go.”

Further east in Suffolk County, the Smithtown Hunt was formed in 1900, although local farmers had been hunting foxes long before. The first master was R. Lawrence Smith, who followed in the footsteps of his foxhunting ancestors. Large, impenetrable coverts made it difficult for hounds to work, so when Clarence R. Robbins took over from Smith in 1907, his hounds ran a drag line.

In 1912 Jimmy Clinch Smith traveled to England to acquire hounds to improve the sport, but he returned on the ill-fated Titanic and was last seen going down to the hold to release his new hounds.

He lost his life trying to set them free to take their chances in the frigid Atlantic Ocean.

In the 1920s, Edward H. “Ned” Carle, who cared more about watching the hounds work than he did about fast gallops over rough country, began to breed English hounds with a strong infusion of Welsh bloodlines. When Mrs. John Van Schaik Bloodgood became master in 1928, Smithtown had two types of hounds for both drag and live hunting.

Hunting flourished after World War I, but it stopped in 1941 for World War II. By the time MFH Frederick L. Johanns Jr. returned from the war to resume his responsibilities in 1945, he found there were no longer any hounds, subscribers or finances; Smithtown was a hunt in name only.

But the late Ward Melville revived the hunt in 1945 by purchasing hounds from Millbrook (N.Y.) and Middlebury (Vt.). He kept them at his Wide Water estate in Old Field.

Shortly thereafter, another problem negatively affected hunting. It was the golden nematode, a genus of roundworm that threatened the Long Island potato farms. It spread as truck farming expanded, until the government finally paid the farmers to plant cover crops in place of potatoes. Since many residents believed that horses carried the parasite on their hooves, the field was forced to skirt the farmlands, which made it easy to lose hounds.

Swallowed Up

In a February 1928 article in Field Illustrated, author M.K. Richards expressed surprise at finding a well-managed hunt only an hour away from New York City. But the travel time increased when the Long Island Expressway was begun in 1940 and completed in the 1950s. The addition of new bedroom communities along its path, stretching from the Nassau County border to the far reaches of eastern Long Island, resulted in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

As far back as 1938, Jo-hanns was complaining about land development closing in on Smithtown’s territory. And after World War II, housing developments and malls relentlessly replaced the open countryside. In the 1960s, under MFH Arthur Fredericks, the Smithtown Hunt ran foxes behind the Stony Brook railroad station while the State University at Stony Brook was under construction.

According to a description in the “Smithtown Hunt History,” published in 2000, the staff sometimes disappeared into sumps and the field jumped open

Dr. Fredericks, who was master from 1956 to 1981, lived and breathed hunting. His stamina was legendary. He started hunting as a teenager, maintained his interest while running a busy veterinary practice and raising four children, and hunted well into his eighth decade. He died on Oct. 2, 2003, at age 96.

In the 1980s the hounds were housed on land owned by the Long Island Lighting Company, and an 18th century residence on the property served as the clubhouse. The LILCO land was close to the famous nuclear plant in Shoreham, but Bob Moeller, a joint master between 1981 and 1992, joked, “Our hounds did not glow in the dark.”

In 1989 public sentiment regarding hunting prompted LILCO executives to withdraw their permission for Smithtown to hunt on their property, although they permitted them to maintain the kennels, use the clubhouse and hold the Shoreham Cup, a special event, on their grounds until 1998.

Since 1999 the hounds have been kenneled at the Northport home of Dr. Richard Fredericks, son of Arthur Fredericks and also former master.
Toward the end of the 20th century, joint masters Moeller and Dr. Howard Schare opened up territory in Abequogue, Baiting Hollow and the Hamptons. The sandy terrain of the Long Island’s south shore provided a contrast to the hillier country of the north shore.

At the beginning of the 21st century, no longer able to negotiate with private landowners as foxhunters did in earlier centuries, the Smithtown Hunt became a non-profit organization devoted to land conservation. The masters and committee members began working with federal, state and local authorities to preserve Long Island’s natural resources and maintain open spaces. The change in status was a decision made by the hunt committee in response to the practical matter of retaining open land and to public concerns with ecology and animal rights.

Politically Correct

Smithtown now follows a scent instead of a live fox. “There is much more control on a drag hunt,” said Fred Grossman, one of three joint masters. “There are fewer concerns about the hounds getting into areas where they shouldn’t be. It’s also more socially acceptable. Drag hunting is more politically correct and makes it easier to deal with the state and other organizations.”

Besides, “There aren’t many foxes on Long Island any more,” said Jt.-MFH Alan Fairbairn, “and we now hunt on state and county land instead of private
land. We’re not actually hunting, but chasing the hounds.”

Smithtown Hunt members automatically become members of the Nassau Suffolk Horsemen’s Association, another non-profit organization with compatible goals. According to a 2003 study by past NSHA President Dr. Cyla Allison, more than 30,000 horses now live on Long Island.

The absence of natural obstacles means that the hunt must construct its own.
They consist of coops, log fences, in-and-outs and other typical cross-country obstacles, which Grossman described as “inviting and not too high.”

Ed Wrigley, a jt.-MFH from 2001 to 2003, admitted, “The country isn’t nearly as rough as it was years ago.”

Today the hunts are faster paced than they were when a live fox was the pilot and last no more than two hours. “We’re always trying to vary the runs,” said Grossman. “We simulate live hunting. It’s not always the same run all the time. We try to keep it interesting.”

Smithtown’s 2005 roster shows approximately 65 members and 18 hounds. The an-nual Smithtown Hunter Pace, which draws more than 160 riders, is held on the grounds of the State University at Old Westbury, the former Ambrose Clarke estate and part of the original early 20th century hunt country.

Participation in local parades, as well as exhibitions at the Hampton Classic Horse Show and at Old Westbury Gardens, formerly the John S. Phipps estate and nowadays a popular tourist attraction, have introduced the sport and its traditions to the public.

“We’ve survived all these years,” said Grossman. “We’re moving with the times.”

Hold That Train!

The Long Island Rail Road connects Long Island to Manhattan, the heart of New York City, and carries hundreds of thousands of daily commuters each year.

“We tried to time the hunt according to the train schedule,” said Marilyn Allan, who hunted for 40 seasons with the Smithtown Hunt and was a whipper-in for seven. She remembers that hunt secretary Emma Olsen once stopped a train that was about to leave the Setauket station to keep it from interfering with the hounds.

Allan also recalled hunting in the 1970s with huntsman Harry de Leyer, Long Island’s galloping grandfather and owner of the legendary jumper Snowman.

On a run from the Knox School to de Leyer’s Hollandia Farm, horses and hounds had to cross a wide inlet.

“We usually tried to do it at low tide,” said Allan, “but once the tide was high and the horses had to swim across.”

Category: Hunting

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