Based on thousands of fascinating primary accounts in letters, magazine articles, and interviews, Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers is the definitive social history of a vanishing American pastime—folk fox hunting.
Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Twenty-seven
Around a campfire in the woods through long hours of night, men used to gather to listen to the music of hounds' voices as they chased an elusive and seemingly preternatural fox. To the highly trained ears of these backwoods hunters, the hounds told the story of the pursuit like operatic voices chanting a great epic. Although the hunt almost always ended in the escape of the fox—as the hunters hoped it would—the thrill of the chase made the men feel "that they [were] close to something lost and never to be found, just as one can feel something in a great poem or a dream."
Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers offers a colorful account of this vanishing American folkway—back-country fox hunting known as "hilltopping," "moonlighting," "fox racing," or "one-gallus fox hunting." Practiced neither for blood sport nor to put food on the table, hilltopping was worlds removed from elite fox hunting where red- and black-coated horsemen thundered across green fields in daylight. Hilltopping was a nocturnal, even mystical pursuit, uniting men across social and racial lines as they gathered to listen to dogs chasing foxes over miles of ground until the sun rose. Engaged in by thousands of rural and small-town Americans from the 1860s to the 1980s, hilltopping encouraged a quasi-spiritual identification of man with animal that bound its devotees into a "brotherhood of blood and cause" and made them seem almost crazy to outsiders.
- Chapter 1. Introduction: Strange Pursuits
- Chapter 2. Red Fox, Gray Fox, and the American Foxhound
- Chapter 3. Listening in the Dark
- Chapter 4. Fox Racing
- Chapter 5. Coyotes, Deer, and Endgames
- Epilogue: Thought Foxes
Bob Lee Maddux of Cookeville, Tennessee, was eight years old when his life changed forever. As he recalled long afterward, the occasion was a fox chase.
>It was on Christmas Day in 1897 that I saw my first red fox being pursued by hounds. The hunters of that community had gathered on my grandfather's place for a hunt. Curiosity caused me to join the group up on the end of Seminary Ridge. They had found a fox in a cedar thicket above the family burial ground, and they said he was coming up our way. Mr. Pleas Randolph, the village blacksmith, picked me up and set me on his shoulder so that I could see over a ten-rail fence. A red fox soon slipped swiftly and silently across a haul-road, through the fence, over a bank and away. The hounds came into view, their great ears flapping backwards and forwards from their shoulders to the tips of their noses, and their tongues hanging down to their knees like aprons. The enthusiasm it imparted to me has never been extinguished, and that Christmas Day revealed to me the unsuspected intoxication of fox hunting.
Before young Bob Lee's eyes the red fox had materialized from nowhere and passed like an apparition. Red as a fire engine, great brush of a tail flowing out behind, the fox floated across the road and up the bank with no visible effort, like a furry ghost. Perhaps blacksmith Randolph needed to keep a firm grip on young Maddux to keep him from joining the chase? A surprising number of persons became so excited at the sights and sounds of their first fox race that they left the human world behind and joined the hounds after the fox. Alabama native O. M. Johnson recalled, "When I went on my first fox hunt, walking a little, running more, all night, lost in the dark, the dogs started a red fox about 9 p.m. and denned him at 8:30 the next morning, fifteen miles from home. Then I said I would not go fox hunting any more. I have been a thousand times since."
No wonder that Johnson initially vowed never to foxhunt again. He had lost control of himself, had run and walked after hounds and fox for many miles "all night, lost in the dark," then had returned to ordinary consciousness at first light, fifteen miles away from home. Surely he was exhausted by the time he reached his door; surely his parents were angry and concerned. But their recriminations (and possibly his father's belt) did no good. Johnson was hooked. He had had his bell rung. Having followed the fox and hounds one night, he then followed them all the days of his life. In 1967, when he wrote the brief description of his first hunt, he served as president of the North Alabama Foxhunters Association.
Whatever fox chasing was, it struck some people like a religious experience, and they were never the same afterward. This was not the foxhunting of formally clad horsemen pursuing fox and hounds across daytime countrysides, but that of small groups of hunters gathered around campfires, listening in the dark. Formal hunt clubs in the British tradition existed in North America, but their participants were far outnumbered by the nocturnal "folk" foxhunters, who stayed in one place and followed the race by ear. The sport went by several names. "Hilltopping" and "ridge running" referred to the common practice of loosing hounds from some high spot that provided good hearing of the chase. "Moonlighting" emphasized that the activity went on mostly at night (though some hunters believed foxes ran better when the moon was down). "Fox racing" revealed the intense competitiveness of hilltopping, in which each hunter's hound exerted all its power to lead the chase for the fox, which—if it was a red—outmatched the abilities of most dogs. "One-gallus fox hunting" suggested that this folk variety of the sport was practiced by the common man, by poor farmers in overalls. That had an element of truth, but doctors and lawyers, preachers and bank presidents also joined the tenant farmers around the hunting fires, though they might dress much the same.
In 1932 Frank Page, then president of the North Carolina Foxhunters Association, noted: "There is something in the makeup of most fox hunters that strongly appeals to me, and try as hard as I may, I can't definitely analyze it." Page had foxhunter friends—very close friends—who were very rich and very poor; Republican, Democrat, or completely apolitical; teetotaling and hard-drinking; well educated and completely illiterate; court judges and convicted felons; black and white. "I turn then to the intellectual qualities and that has no influence, for some of my best friends among the fraternity can't read or write, including a number of faithful colored men with which I have hunted and camped, and whose color of skin is quickly lost sight of and forgotten."
On the lonely hilltops, around the hunters' fires, what men did in the light of day seemed to matter little. L. A. Jordan of Sardis, Alabama, listed among the reasons he was a foxhunter: "Because of the brotherhood that exists among hunters; because it is in the still of the night that all of God's creation is glorified, and in the middle of the chase, as all eagerly listen, that all men are equal—the rich and the poor, the Jew and Gentile, the white and the black, all share and share alike in the music of the hounds."
"The music of the hounds" mattered most to foxhunters. To the highly trained ear, the hounds told the story of the chase like operatic voices. In one of H. I. Jenkins' earliest memories, his father returned to tell about the fox race he had just had, enlivening his blow-by-blow account with imitations of hound voices. This "stirred my blood even then to where I'd dream about it at night," Jenkins recalled. When Jenkins was about six years old, he and his brother began to simulate foxhound chases. The "fox" took an old Sears catalog and set out at a run, leaving a trail of torn pages across the countryside. After an interval, the "hounds" launched the chase, baying like foxhounds as they came. That was the best part of the game. Jenkins' father had a red hound with a "long horn mouth," and Jenkins and his brother practiced its voice until they could imitate it perfectly. By the time they were ten or eleven, the Jenkins brothers could sound like a whole foxhound pack. Once, on their way back from an errand to get milk from a neighbor just before dark, their man-made hound music was so good that a local foxhunter sent his two hounds out to join the chase. The delighted boys saw the foxhounds tearing up the hill toward them, as fooled as their owner was.
Almost all agreed, fox chasers were born and not made, though the event that triggered each person's realization of his basic nature might come early or late. In the nocturnal world of hilltopping, sounds of the chase often did this—unearthly, otherworldly sounds. The non-hunter, the person who did not understand and would not understand, might hear what was going on out there in the night as only a pack of dogs barking, but born hunters experienced it differently. People found it hard to express what they felt when the chase first passed close by in the dark; many spoke of "cold chills." Nor did it seem to wear off with repetition. Texan Glen Hayden wrote, "I have stood in places with the brush popping, feet thudding, and the wild-squalling anvil chorus of the pack drowning me in a wave of blood-hungry melody, while my hair almost stood on end, my throat tightened and my blood raced."
L. W. Stephens in Mississippi and Carter B. Strickland in Alabama each heard the "blood-hungry melody" as boys of eight and seven and a half, and they soon acquired some sort of hound and began hunting with hardened foxhunters of their counties. By around age nine, they were staying out all night on hunts with men often old enough to be their grandfathers, hunters who seem to have recognized examples of their own kind. Stephens' special hunting buddy was sixty-five-year-old Aron McClelland, "the only fox hunter in Montgomery County and deacon of the Methodist Church." Strickland hunted with three elderly men from adjacent farms. "We would ride mules to our hunting grounds some six or seven miles. Being a kid I would get so sleepy I had much difficulty staying on my mule in the morning hours. The old timers would really brag on my old Bluetick [hound]—to keep me interested, of course."
Strange as it may seem, many men recounted similar stories of their beginnings in foxhunting. First came "triggering" of the born hunter in boyhood, often by hearing a fox race for the first time. Then came the acquisition—somehow—of foxhounds, association with zealous foxhunters of the neighborhood, and the beginning of a lifelong practice of staying out late at night multiple times a week listening in the dark. Fathers sometimes tried to stop this from happening at a time when paternal authority was stern and severe, but they rarely succeeded. The born foxhunters had to do it. Denied a hound by his father at age nine, a Virginia hunter sneaked around to get two puppies, arranged with an elderly hunting buddy to keep them at his house, and somehow convinced his mother to cook dog food for them every day, which he slipped over to deliver.
The rest of this man's life also typified the born foxhunter. He grew up to become a harness maker, making not only harnesses but dog collars and nameplates for all the hunters within miles of his place of business in Roanoke, Virginia. "Buck's" shop served as the gathering place for foxhunters near and far, who often stood around telling stories of the chase and baying like foxhounds. Buck hunted all his life, hunted after he had gone blind, and was known as "the man with the infallible ear." Blindness mattered little in hilltopping if a man had good hearing. The old harness maker could listen to a pack of thirty hounds running far away in the dark and not only identify every hound's voice but tell exactly what was going on in the hunt. Hunters would argue over whose dog was ahead in the race, bet money, then ask the old man for his verdict.
Sometimes the triggering of the young foxhunter to join the chase joined with the compulsion to possess the hound he had just heard—whatever his father might have wished. In 1900 young Tom Benbow of Kentucky often drove his doctor father on his rounds in the countryside. One day he heard an unknown hound baying out of sight in the woods. "His voice thrilled me to the end of my toes," Benbow remembered. "His mouth was more like three Negroes playing a five string banjo with a bunch of Negro women taking on at a Negro's mourning bench during a camp meeting. Right then I made up my mind to own that hound." Presumably Tom did not reveal his compulsion to his father. First, he offered the old man who owned the handsome black foxhound everything he had—seven dollars and an old shotgun. No deal, said the owner of Old Black Joe. Then Tom offered him seven dollars, the old shotgun, and one of his father's best milk cows, and that was accepted. Tom knew that his busy physician father had a goodly number of milk cows and perhaps did not count them very often.
Virginia lawyer H. D. Dillard rode behind his father on his first fox chase one night at age nine and was never the same after that. Of foxhunting, he noted, "It is born in him, and all that is needed to bring out such traits is for him to hear just one real fox chase and the die is cast." Nor can the genetic foxhunter ever really escape this, in Dillard's opinion; though circumstances might make him give up the hounds and the chase for a time, he would always come back to it. Knowing full well his fate, Dillard, after he became a lawyer, set up law practice, prospered a little, and met the woman he planned to marry, drew up a prenuptial agreement for her to sign that accompanied his bended-knee proposal. It read: "I do hereby solemnly agree that H. D. Dillard shall keep as many as twenty foxhounds without complaint on my part." Perhaps not very surprised, his sweetheart signed the document.
Most fathers and mothers and children and wives did not understand the foxhunter in their midst. H. D. Dillard said that his wife wavered only once, the day when his favorite hound, Old Charlie, slipped into the dining room before a dinner honoring his oldest daughter's betrothal and took the ham off the table. Years of exposure to foxhunting and foxhunters did not mean that family members understood them. Rather often, they did not have a clue. A hunter wrote in 1964, "Sometime ago on a cookout and hunt, our daughter remarked along in the evening, 'Dad, is this what you do in fox hunting: bring them out, turn them loose, let them back, and load ’em up and go home?' Maybe so! At least it appears to the non-hunter."
Growing up in Keatchie, Louisiana, young Steve Milam gradually became aware that his father did not behave like other fathers. Despite a demanding job as a high school teacher and head football coach, Bill Milam stayed out all night foxhunting an average of three nights a week. Steve had grown up with this, in no way understood it, but took it for granted until he noted that his fellow students looked at him strangely when he mentioned it. Apparently their fathers did not do this. Three times a week, as he had done for the last thirty-five years, Bill Milam came home after football practice, put his dogs in his truck, left for the woods, and hunted all night. He returned home early the next morning, ate breakfast, and left for work as if he had not just lost a night's sleep. Asked one day why he did this, he told his son, "Well, Steve, when I walk out to the pen and see the fire in my hounds' eyes, it builds a fire in my heart, and they just seem to say, 'let me run,' that's all they really want to do."
Across the United States, from Iowa to Florida and from Texas to Kentucky, tens of thousands of foxhunters did much the same as Bill Milam. Foxhunters had a fire in their heart and had to do what they had to do. Sometimes family life and daytime employments cracked under the strain. Harriette Arnow's classic novel Hunter's Horn (1949) tells of a poor farmer in the Cumberland Mountains who became so obsessed with the chase of a certain notorious fox named King Devil that he starved his family and ruined his daughter's life. Other children laughed at Nunn Ballew's children in the rural school they attended, taunting them that their father hunted all the time and left his family to live on "rabbits and poke shoots cause he's too lazy to do nothin but fox-hunt."
Arnow's story was not unrealistic. At about the same time as her fictional tale of the Cumberlands, set in the 1930s, Dr. R. D. Williams of Arkansas suffered a physical breakdown and a family intervention because of his obsessive foxhunting. Only just recovering from a bout of dengue fever, Williams nonetheless rose from his sickbed and went foxhunting all day in the cold and wet. He became exhausted during the long hunt and commandeered a horse from a passing black man after he could no longer walk. Then he relapsed with the "break-bone" fever, and while he lay in bed his sheriff brother came up from Alabama and took away all of his foxhounds. "He said if I had not better sense than to kill myself following them, he would relieve me of them." Dr. Williams accepted this, partly because he could not get out of bed, partly because "I am neither financially nor physically able to maintain and hunt that pack of hounds—they will make any man, who is a fox hunter, kill himself trying to hear their races and keep up." The fire in their eyes would do it. He was out of foxhunting—at least until he regained his health.
As H. D. Dillard asserted, many things could intervene to drive the foxhunter away from his passion. Illness, a new job, a new wife, moving to a new town—all of these things could do it; but it was common to relapse and return to foxhunting. As the twentieth century advanced, "running conditions" deteriorated in many areas with the coming of wire fences and high-speed roads, and the return of deer, and all such things resulted in dead foxhounds. Many hunters became disgusted and quit, then could not stand it and got back in. (One preacher retired from the hunt until a good race came past his rural church one Sunday morning.)
Eventually, old age put every foxhunter out of business, since keeping a pack of hounds was both costly and time-consuming, and only an able-bodied man could do it. Cooking the daily dog food for a pack of twenty required hard labor. But even after giving up their hounds, born hunters often managed to hear other men's hunts.
Many sad letters bemoaning old age, ill health, and a lack of good foxhound music appeared in the hunting magazines. Herschel Rawlings wrote that advancing age had forced him to give away his hounds two years before, but he still missed them and from time to time traveled to visit them and listen to them run. Eighty-year-old George W. Brown's health broke, doctors told him he was dying, and he got rid of his hounds. Then he asked for one back, since he realized he could not even die without at least one hound around. George Washington Pratt of eastern Tennessee hunted for more than eighty years. After he could not leave his home anymore, he often sat up all night on his porch listening to races on the nearby mountainside. Pratt had a house with what some people called a "foxhunter porch," a porch built on all four sides of the house to facilitate listening to the hound music, whichever direction it came from. (Fox chases normally ran in big circles.) In Kentucky, G. H. "Chick" Story hunted almost until his death at seventy-six, usually going out two times a week. Two months before he died, Chick suffered a crippling stroke, but he still "had to have a little running." His sons would cast (release) the hounds, and after they had jumped a fox the sons would load their father in the car and drive him around so he could listen. They did this for the last time only three nights before the night Chick died. They buried him in the Fooks Cemetery, a traditional casting site for neighborhood foxhunters.
Three years younger than Chick Story, Brown Whittington of Magnolia, Mississippi, told a friend that "when the Good Lord gets ready for me, there would be no time or place that would be better than sitting on the bank of a roadside listening to all the voices [of the hounds] coming toward me." And John Wiseman of Coryell County, Texas, died exactly like that. A hunting companion said: "When he died his boy come up there and was running a fox pretty close to the house, and he died listening to that fox race. He was in a bed. They had to raise the windows, and he could hear these dogs running. He died listening to the dogs."
Many rural Americans knew a foxhunter or two in the decades before World War II, but most did not understand them. Rural life in the small-farm era had a practical bent which in no way fit with foxhunting. Nearly every farm boy grew up with a multipurpose hound or two, perhaps of no particular breed, able to tree possums and coons by night and run rabbits by day, game that often ended up in the pot. They also kept varmints away from the henhouse and gave the alarm when a stranger came down the road. Some were even good about killing snakes. Such hounds often took cues from their masters about what they were expected to do. Men on horseback in daytime with certain gear signaled hounds to quest for free-range hogs and cattle. People with lanterns on foot at night meant a search for possums and coons. And boys with guns in daylight cued hounds to look for rabbits or squirrels.
These multipurpose hounds would run deer, but there were few left to run. White-tailed deer had mostly disappeared from the eastern United States by the meat-starved 1930s, although remnant populations of whitetails survived in remote locations such as the Maine woods, parts of Appalachia, the Big Thicket of East Texas, the South Texas Brush Country, and the deepest and darkest Southern swamplands and river bottoms. Many rural boys grew up roaming the woods without ever seeing a deer. People hunted for sport, and the sport mattered and was enjoyed by many men and boys, but hunting had a materialism and a practicality to it. The exciting nineteenth-century big game of black bear, puma, and deer had virtually disappeared. Hunters now primarily sought small game for the pot. In the oft-told story, parents sent their son out with only three shells for his gun and expected him to return with three squirrels for the frying pan. After the country boys grew up and moved to town, they still hunted for bobwhite quail and ducks and squirrels and rabbits, all things they could bring home and cook and eat. But foxhunting was entirely different; nobody ate foxes.
In fact, foxhunting brought no material gain whatsoever, and so the obsessed foxhunters were puzzling to their practical neighbors, who usually tried to get something useful or to advance themselves with every expenditure of effort. Survival on the hardscrabble, half-subsistence family farms that dominated rural America in the decades before World War II demanded it. Fox pelts had value, but foxhunters ran foxes entirely for sport and normally did not try to catch them. If an accident happened and their dogs did catch the fox, the dogs usually spoiled the pelt. Pelts were a sore spot for foxhunters in any case, since they detested fur trappers and their fox-killing, hound-maiming steel traps.
Foxhunters did not even help out much with varmint control. Rural Americans had no good opinion of the fox, which they almost universally regarded as a chicken-stealing predator deserving of eradication. Virtually every rural home had "yard chickens" that roamed away from the henhouse every morning, searching for grasshoppers and other insects in nearby pastures and woods. Farmers' wives depended on them for Sunday dinners and "egg money." Rather often, not all of the chickens turned themselves in at dusk, and people blamed foxes for the disappearances. Some farmers also thought that local foxes had designs on their pigs, spring lambs, and even calves, all improbable targets for an animal weighing eight to twelve pounds that subsisted mainly on rodents, insects, and wild fruits, with an occasional big-game cottontail thrown in.
Nonetheless, farmers hated foxes and approved of foxhunters on their land partly in hopes that they might catch them. The farmer who heard the dogs barking, lit his lantern, and came over to the foxhunters' fire to ask, "How many have you caught?" was an old story among hunters. Sometimes they told the truth—"We don't actually try to catch them"—but more often they said, "Oh, maybe five or six." The fox chasers' real attitude toward foxes is revealed by a grandson's story about his Mississippi grandfather. Whenever the old man saw a dead fox on the highway, he invariably remarked, "There's many a good race gone."
Foxhunters paid a large price for what they did, in sleep lost, families abandoned, daytime work neglected, and money spent—or so many neighbors thought—and got nothing back for it. The neighbors might go out with their hilltopper friends or relatives once a year or so in perfect weather and hang around their fire for a few hours' socializing and listening to the dogs bark, but that was all. These people were not real foxhunters, only curious tourists looking over the fence into the lunatic asylum. Nunn Ballew, the obsessed hunter in Harriette Arnow's novel of the Cumberlands, often felt that his friends and even his family were laughing at him (as well as the fox) and that he and King Devil, the fox he pursued, both "lived in some God-damned bewitched world that other people didn't know about." He knew of no way to explain that world or to explain why he did what he did.
Other foxhunters made some attempts, however. They spoke of good clean fun, the brotherhood of the campfire, the stars in the sky, and—sometimes—the fox left alive to run another night (a rare conservationist stance for the early twentieth century). Religious reasons for foxhunting often were hinted at. Charlotte Crockett of Wayne County, West Virginia, noted: "No one has ever felt the presence of the Almighty God until standing at the break of day on some hilltop and watching the sun sneak up and chase away the darkness as sleeping birds sing a welcome song and the broad stillness comes slowly to life." Then she, as did many others, mentioned the stars in the sky and the wonders of the night experienced by foxhunters: "No one can feel how unimportant he really is until he glances up into the endless night sky cluttered with stars, their numbers too great to count." N. D. Craft, Sr., of Mississippi, added, "Folks, in such a situation you can get closer to God than to your own existence." Bob Lee Maddux of Tennessee seemed to step outside of a Christian worldview when he spoke of a "brotherhood of blood and cause," the "hound voices riding on the wind," and "something lost and never to be found." Foxhunting, Maddux said, was at its roots a certain "emotion" similar to that evoked by "a great poem or a dream." Similarly, Mason Houghland wrote in 1933, "Fox-hunting is not merely a sport—it is a racial faith that harks back to the clear and simple outlook of our tribal gods." But only very occasionally, and writing for other hunters, did someone mention those gods' bloodlust experience of the chase, "the wild-squalling anvil chorus of the pack drowning me in a wave of blood-hungry melody."
Still, many people thought hilltoppers a bit deranged. From time to time, newcomers showed up to sample their nocturnal pursuits, and a good many soon became sorry that they had done so. Hunters built a fire, cast their hounds into the dark, and listened. They spoke in low voices or not at all (some zealots even refused to build a fire because of the noise it made). After the dogs had jumped a fox, the visitor commonly found that nobody conversed with him to explain what was going on, so focused were they on sounds coming from the dark. Listening required the discipline of silence, and the visitor soon found himself standing among men listening so intently that they seemed to be having out-of-body experiences. Time meant little to real foxhunters (which the guest was not), and as hours passed, the fire burned on and the stars swung across the sky. The hunters reconstructed the intricate story of the hunt from the hound music, while the guest heard only a bunch of dogs barking. The guest grew sleepy, cold, and bored, trapped in a social situation from which it was impossible, or at least impolite, to escape. He could neither identify the dogs' voices nor follow what happened in the chase. His experience resembled standing on his feet all night in the cold and dark hearing someone read a Russian novel in Russian.
Folklorist F. E. Abernethy of Nacogdoches, Texas, who had a scholar's interest in foxhunting, accompanied local hunters a number of times in the 1960s. He liked to hear the hounds run better than most, but he did not like staying up all night in the way the committed hunters did, and he did not like waiting and searching for wayward hounds in dawn's early light. One of the last times he went out, the folklorist grew sleepy, hungry, and ready to go home well before daylight. Hunters finally caught their last hound by midmorning and began to leave the woods. However, on the drive out, a fox ran across the road in front of the hunters' pickups, and they skidded to a stop, jumped out, and released the dogs!
Things like that made rural Americans from Maine to Texas shake their heads about hilltoppers and remark, almost as a saying, "Foxhunters are crazy." Insanity was an old accusation. Eighteenth-century Englishman Peter Beckford had heard that too, and in his Thoughts on Hunting (1781) he responded: "It is said, there is a pleasure in being mad which only madmen know; and it is enthusiasm, I believe of fox-hunting, that is its best support: strip it of that, and you had better leave it quite alone." American foxhunters sometimes made cryptic statements not dissimilar from Beckford's. W. C. Boone of Palo Pinto, Texas, on a characteristic pilgrimage out of state to visit a fellow foxhound breeder, remarked that hunters were born and not made and said, "Unless when they are running you can hear the angels sing, you just as well not go out with ’em."
Having heard the angels sing himself once or twice, F. E. Abernethy was one of the very few folklorists, social scientists, and historians to have written about American folk foxhunting—hilltopping. Histories of hunting in the United States form a very short list, and novelists like William Faulkner, William Humphrey, MacKinlay Kantor, and Harriette Arnow have gone more deeply into the subject than most of the scholars. Kantor's novella The Voice of Bugle Ann (1935), later made into a movie starring Lionel Barrymore, told a realistic story of foxhunting, dog murder, and man killing set in early-twentieth-century Missouri. Arnow's Hunter's Horn (1949), noted earlier, portrayed a poor hill farmer obsessed with one of those "dog killing" red foxes that hang around for years, take on a public persona and a name, and vanquish every pack of foxhounds that goes after them. Harriette Arnow grew up in Kentucky and lived in the Cumberland Mountains precincts she wrote about, and her book about hilltopping finished runner-up to a work of William Faulkner's in the 1950 Pulitzer Prize competition. Some readers may have questioned the believability of Arnow's crazed foxhunter, uncatchable red fox, blowing-horn concerts played at twilight, quitter foxhound thrown in the hunters' fire, and other unusual local details recounted in her novel, but all such things are paralleled in historical sources. If hilltoppers were not crazy, they were certainly very strange.
A very considerable literature exists about British-style equestrian foxhunting, whether practiced in Great Britain or in North America. There are hunt-club histories, memoirs, and general books about foxhunting, like the excellent 1975 work of Englishman Roger Longrigg. Occasionally social scientists, such as anthropologist James Howe, have tried to explain this sort of daytime foxhunting on horseback in such scholarly journals as American Ethnologist (1981). The legions of American hilltoppers have been neglected, however, though as Mason Houghland pointed out, they far outnumbered British-style adherents to the chase. Houghland had a foot in both foxhunter worlds, since he was both the "master of hounds" of an American organized hunt and a hilltopper. He wrote in 1933:
It is these Brahmins of the chase who make the picture the world sees, the scarlet coats on green fields, the great leaps, the beautiful backgrounds. But in shadowy outline behind them, outnumbering them a hundred to one, are the legions of Fox-hunters, like Franciscan Brothers, whose profession of faith neither poverty not sacrifice can dim, some who must even deny themselves the necessities in order to keep a couple of hounds. On horseback, on mule back, or more often afoot, every night of the year, somewhere in every state of the Union, the horns of this vast army of hilltoppers awaken the echoes of field and forest.
To this neglect of the shadowy hilltoppers there is one serious exception that has enlightened my general social history of the activity. Folklorist Mary Hufford's book Chaseworld, besides being an interesting application of ethnographic theory, is an excellent case study of an elderly group of die-hard fox chasers still contriving to run "outside" in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. By the 1980s, when Hufford participated in their hunts, the Pine Barrens men had adjusted in many ways to modern circumstances. Foxes had been rehabilitated in the public mind, deer had returned, and there were many competing interests for recreational land use in the large state forests that occupied much of the Pine Barrens. For a century, many foxhunters had practiced conservation of the fox, but Hufford's hunters had gone entirely "green." They no longer tried to catch foxes (and used dogs almost too slow to catch them), hunted in daylight so they could better control the chases, avoided deer season, and practiced a pickup truck and CB radio form of hilltopping that was also characteristic of most other places across the United States during the last years of "running outside." By the time of Hufford's study, most American foxhunters had either quit the chase entirely or begun to hunt "inside," as they euphemistically termed it—within the electrified wire fences of special hunting clubs. The anachronistic New Jersey hunters' days were numbered when Mary Hufford joined them and told their story.
There are several justifications for a general history of American fox chasing—something never before attempted. For one thing, hilltopping was a unique nocturnal activity of obsessive seriousness for tens of thousands of Americans for more than a century. Many people, almost all of them male, literally built their lives around the sport of foxhunting. In fact, the term "sport" hardly seemed to apply. Foxhunters always were a minority group within any given rural community, but few other rural Americans practiced any recreational activity with the frequency, intensity, and overall obsessiveness with which hilltoppers chased the fox. No other form of traditional hunting resembled this hunting of the inedible fox—not even close. In attempts to explain the zealousness of fox chasers, Mason Houghland and others suggested that there was a hidden religious dimension to the activity and that it fit better with "tribal gods" than with Christianity. Hilltoppers performed their rituals in the wilderness of the night, chasing a creature almost too swift and enduring to be caught, with hounds that they rather often named for themselves. Foxhunters commonly did that, and an observer did not need to be a credentialed psychologist to imagine that it might be significant that a hunter named Taylor would choose to call his hound "Taylor's Iron Man" or even "Iron Man Taylor," launch it into the dark after the wonderful fox, and listen to it run. Hunters intensely identified with their hounds. Mary Hufford noted a telltale pronoun shift in fox races she observed, when at some point an excited participant might cry out something like "I'm crossing Bedford's Creek!"
This is the existential (psychological, philosophical, or theological) reason for the study of foxhunting, but there are other good reasons. It is worth noting that George Washington, the Father of Our Country, was an ardent foxhunter and practiced it at the true-believer level, two or three times a week during the two decades before the Revolutionary War and the decade after. Washington's Mount Vernon journals of the 1760s contain more entries about foxhunts and his kennels than almost anything else. None of the first president's biographers really have known what to make of this side of the great man. On April 11, 1768, Washington wrote, "Went a fox hunting and took a fox alive after running him to a tree." On August 13, 1768, he recorded, "Lady brought four puppies—named that with the most black spots, Vulcan, the other black spotted dog, Searcher, the red spotted dog Rover, and the red spotted bitch, Sweettips." The United States, it seems, began with a crazy foxhunter.
Another reason for a study of foxhunting is that, arguably, foxhunters were among the first American conservationists. A few true naturalists such as John Muir were abroad in the late nineteenth century, but they were well in advance of their time. No effective state game and fish departments or well-enforced game laws existed in any state in the Union much before 1900. Hunters all across the East shot the white-tailed deer until most of them were gone; the need for saving a "seed stock" for the next generations occurred to almost no one. Professional hunters killed ducks and geese and passenger pigeons by the ton, hauled them to railroads, packed them in ice, and shipped them away to cities by the boxcar load. Tourists on the first transcontinental railroads fired indiscriminately into bison herds as they passed, often sportingly focusing on calves, which were easier to kill but harder to hit. The trains, of course, never stopped. Then, in the 1870s and 1880s, hide hunters slaughtered the giant herds by the many millions until they were all but extinct. Meanwhile, within this same cultural milieu of game gluttony, commercial exploitation, and idle slaughter, foxhunters studied the red fox, fed the red fox, trapped and released it, and assisted in its gradual spread south and east across the eastern half of North America. They behaved like the first wildlife conservationists.
Some red foxes were native to the extreme northeast of North America, Pennsylvania through the Maritime Provinces, but British settlers soon arranged for more. Old World or New, the species was the same. Hunters on Long Island and Maryland's Eastern Shore released red foxes from England around 1730. These flourished, crossed the ice of frozen Chesapeake Bay during the hard winter of 1779–1780, then spread south and west, ably assisted by foxhunters who fed foxes, dug dens, and bought foxes for release in their hunting areas. The foxes prospered; the mixed, human-altered landscape of farms, pastures, and woodlots that developed across the East exactly suited the red fox and resembled its favorite landscapes in Europe.
Study of the fox and assistance to the red fox—one might almost say game management of the fox—continued and became a tradition of hilltopping. From the 1920s to the 1960s, a North Carolina hunter named J. F. Manning served as middleman in an elaborate fox-planting program. Manning imported several hundred red foxes a year from commercial fox raisers (and den diggers), then sold them at cost in small lots to his fellow foxhunters for raising and release. By sometime in the 1950s Manning had his fox-planting program down to a science; hunters easily converted the board-and-wire crates in which he sold the young foxes into dens where they lived until they adjusted to local circumstances and were able to take care of themselves. Manning was exceptional, but thousands of foxhunters did much like George Rambo of Ohio, who for thirty years purchased six to ten fox pups annually, usually from Minnesota, usually in May, and placed them in an existing den that he knew was not occupied—an old groundhog hole or a sawmill slab pile. He put out plenty of food around his den site, usually meat scraps or chicken parts from chicken-processing plants nearby. The young foxes stayed around, prospered, and later ran like the wind before Rambo's hounds. Nothing made foxes faster than plenty of chicken heads to eat, George believed. But foxes ate many things. Some hunters went around planting persimmon and mulberry trees to provide them fruit.
Hilltoppers not only planted and fed foxes, they watched foxes with a field naturalist's eye. Many hunters knew every den within miles of their homes. They knew when the vixens were cleaning out their dens in preparation for giving birth and when a bumper crop of seven-year locusts left every local fox fat and ready to run. Whenever fresh snow fell, they tracked foxes to see what they were doing. T. L. Smith observed the rising waters of the new dam built by the Alabama Power Company threatening foxes' dens along the Coosa and Chattooga bottoms, and he appealed for help from fellow readers of Hunter's Horn magazine. Smith knew the locations of many dens and had already dug out and saved many young foxes, but he needed other hilltoppers with shovels. Thirty years before, Robert Thraves had watched over his local foxes in a similar way. Thraves preached the doctrine that "the fox is the farmer's friend" to local farmers for miles around and had many of them convinced not to use their steel traps or shotguns. He knew most of his fox families individually, and wrote in Chase magazine: "The histories of these little families in their struggle for existence, their problems, their troubles, their heartaches, disappointments and thrills, would fill many pages. For example, over at Little Piney Mountain there is today a dog fox risking his life in the struggle to keep alive seven undernourished half-grown cubs." Their mother had been killed by a "gun hunter," a hateful term when used by hilltoppers, who prided themselves on never carrying a firearm.
A study of American fox chasing, especially in its troubled latter days, also casts a revealing light on a reality of rural life rather neglected by historians: the system of customary use rights that people called the "open woods," or, if stock were involved, the "free range." Very early on, rural lands in the lower and upper South and the more wooded parts of the Midwest were all in private hands, but owners' rights over their properties were limited by customs allowing other people access to private property for certain traditional purposes.
Southeast Texas serves as a case in point. During the 1950s, this part of the pine-forest South represented not so much an extreme example as it did a place where customary rights, once common elsewhere, had survived unusually late. People fenced their cultivated fields in southeast Texas to keep out stock in 1950, but stock otherwise wandered everywhere, on their land and on the land of others. Nobody built perimeter fences or put up Posted signs. These were unneighborly acts, since they impeded stock movement and human travel. Trespass in open-woods times was an alien concept. Stockmen had the customary right to follow their hogs and cattle anywhere they went, without asking anyone's permission. And with the right to run stock at large went other use rights—rights to "take the near cut" to the river or a road, to gather firewood, to cut bee trees, and various other things, including the right to hunt. The open-woods practice had a certain logic to it; other people used your land in various ways, for various purposes, but you used theirs as well. That you had eight hundred acres and they had eighty did not matter. Among this array of customary use rights, the right to run hunting dogs across private land seemed to most a minor issue. Everyone understood that the quarry and the hounds ran where they willed, heedless of property boundaries. A farmer might hope that the fox and hounds would not crash through his cotton field just at cotton-picking time, when the lint hung precariously in the open bolls, but he could do nothing about it. Most people regarded running hounds on their land as a matter of small concern. Even local courts often recognized these traditional "hunters' rights."
Gradually, beginning at different times in different places, customary use rights began to be withdrawn, as landowners gingerly exerted more complete private property rights over their lands. Exclusion of other men's stock became the most important modern improvement. The stock law or fence law arose as a bitter local political issue at many places across the East and the South from the 1880s to the 1950s. Opponents claimed that much more than the stock law was at stake, and they proved correct. Once a stock law passed, landowners soon began to build perimeter fences and to limit access to their lands for other customary purposes. Now a man ran stock or hunted squirrels or gathered pine knots only on his own land or in the nearby state or national forest.
Running hounds, however, was another matter. That use right persisted long after all the others were dead. Fox chases took in great swaths of countryside, and foxhunters (being who they were) long felt that they absolutely had to hunt, and so the fox and hounds crashed through or over the woven-wire or barbed-wire fences that landowners had put up, though the hunters themselves might follow the chase in pickups on county roads. Matters went on like that for a couple of decades, different decades at different places, but after World War II the state game and fish departments reintroduced deer, the deer spread, and battle was joined between dog hunters and, as foxhunters sometimes termed them, "those who loved deer." A great many people soon joined the ranks of deer lovers. As a retired game biologist friend once said, "First came the hog wars, then the dog wars, and the dog wars were worse." Foxhounds invaded private property as the shock troops of the dog wars, and many of them paid the price. (I tell the story of what happened in chapter 6, "Coyotes, Deer, and Endgames.")
The conflicts that accompanied the end of the old use rights, what some contemporaries called "closing the woods," can be followed in fascinating detail in three hilltopper magazines, which collectively suggest a final reason for a social history of American foxhunting. There is a wonderful body of first-person primary accounts with which to do it, virtually untouched by historians or social scientists. Red Ranger, named for the hunter's term for the red fox, began publishing in 1911, Chase in 1920, and Hunter's Horn in 1921. Chase was the official publication of the National Foxhunters Association, formed in 1893, but—varying somewhat as editors came and went—all the magazines were much the same. They published monthly, with all of their contents except the editorial page coming from unsolicited and uncompensated submissions from their thousands of subscribers. And what submissions! What an outpouring of primary sources from nameless men in forgotten communities at the end of the county roads!
A hundred or so foxhunters contributed primary accounts to every magazine. These include columns, personal stories of hunting or hounds, announcements of various sorts, and a great many letters to the editor or just "open" letters to the readerships of the magazines. Some of the contributors' names occurred again and again, and some people became regular correspondents, often writing about some particular strain of American foxhound or about some part of the country where they lived. Others, including some of the most interesting, appeared only once. The reader gets a sense that some lonely foxhunter, his passion long misunderstood by friends and family, perhaps a little bit of a laughingstock to his neighbors, finally has been goaded into print. Many one-time contributors number among the sources used to present the cradle-to-grave portrait of the "born foxhunter" in the first section of this chapter.
Writers are often impassioned, emotional, and confessional. A. E. Hull wrote in his subscription-renewal letter (editors published everything): "Here I sit, 82 come June 1, as the rain comes down. I feel about as low as a man can get as I lost my old Tony dog this A.M. I think he was the best wolf dog I ever saw to jump a coyote and put it to running. If there is a heaven for hounds he will be there. He had the least faults of any hound I ever owned. I sure did enjoy Hunter's Horn this past year."
Men say things in the magazines to their fellow fox chasers—to Bob Lee Maddux's brotherhood of blood and cause—that they probably would not say to anyone else. They admit that they cried when their best hound passed away. They recount humiliations suffered by their hounds after the first coyotes showed up. They tell how sorry they are now that they sold a certain dog and lost it from the personal bloodlines. They invite their readers to come visit them and they give careful directions to their homes. They ask for help in saving young foxes from rising lake waters. They post angry and despairing letters to dog thieves, who they assume to be reading the magazine. Fourteen-year-old Brent Edwards of Louisiana, for example, wrote of his grandfather's stolen foxhound J.R.: "Now, I would like to talk to the lowdown, snake-in-the-grass who stole our dog. I hope he got you a lot of money when you sold him. But if you have any sense and keep him, I hope you aren't starving or mistreating him. He is much too good a dog to be treated that way."
They also post astonishing challenges to other hunters to come and run their dogs in a fair race, with winners to take something meaningful. For some reason, elderly Mississippi breeder L. W. Stephens decided in 1956 to pit his champion stud hound Blue Steel against the nationally advertised stud hound of any man willing to come down and challenge him in a match race, winner take the other man's dog. Stephens was in effect risking everything he most valued. "Blue Steel is the fruits of 49 years of my own handpicked breeding, the best to the best," he wrote. "I started this breed of hounds in 1907 by breeding Will Turner's old Vester to Lelia. Vester was sired by Cardinal, he by Jay Bird that won the first National Derby and was out of Clara that was out of Lottie, and was owned by Maj. Val Young and Capt. Billy Young. Vester was the gamest hound I believe I ever hunted." Vester had foot problems, but he would hunt on to the end in an all-night chase, leaving bloody footprints.
Stephens did a lot more calling of the ancestral hound names in his challenge to all comers. The larger point was not the challenge—impassioned stud-dog owners often issued such challenges—but the way in which a given stud hound might embody to its owner a long, ghostly line of remembered hounds, passing back through the owner's personal history. Stephens admitted that if Blue Steel lost the match race, he would pay almost anything to buy him back from his new owner. The living stud incorporated all the ghosts; he was more than the fleshly hound of here and now, he mingled honored blood. When he did a certain thing, looked a certain way, he reminded L. W. Stephens of Vester of the bloody footprints.
Something authentically strange and mysterious lay at the heart of hilltopping, and it came to a focus in the night hunt. Sometimes the magazines printed fiction and nonfiction that dealt even with that, inasmuch as it could be dealt with. In 1970, Red Ranger, the most eccentric and unpredictable of the three magazines, began excerpting selections from Judge Hugh P. Williamson's unique stories about the great hound Bolivar and his descendants, which had been written years before. The judge had penned a mythic cycle of prose poems, delving into inner mysteries. Williamson set the story of Bolivar somewhere in Callaway County, Missouri, and put the following words about a night hunt in the mouth of an old hunter.
Well, the stars moved acrost the heavens, and the moon climbed high. The wind lay. And it seemed like there wasn't nobody in all the world exceptin the hounds and the men and the fox. The men never seen the hounds or the fox, but the hounds talked back to the men all through the night, their voices soundin like church music; like a violin playin an old, sad song; like a young girl acallin her lover; like a child afeared. Sounds that take a man's soul out'n his body, and compels him to follow the sound.
And then, after a long time, the sound of the hounds faded away, and was gone in the dark, like the sweet voice of a young love that is silenced; like a child that is gone; like a violin that plays no more; like a bell that has stopped ringin; like a hope that has fleeted away and beyond recall.
And then the stars and the moon, they faded away and was no longer seen in the sky; and the light of day come on the men, and they stood lookin at the new-come day, and their hearts was empty, like a dipper with the bright, clear water poured out on the ground.
And then the men lay down on the leaves, in the little holler where they stood, and slept long into the day.
The fox, you say? No, they never seen the fox.
Wasn't there a fox, you say? No, there mayn't never, never been no fox. It may be that none of the things men follers is ever there.
Foxhunting of the hilltopper variety is nocturnal, it happens in the dark, and much follows from that. As a historian of the rural South before World War II, I first encountered foxhunters while doing oral history interviews as part of my research for books on Southern free-range stockmen, rural schools, and sawmill towns. Rural schools were often situated in remote locations and were favored meeting places for hunters to build their fires and cast their hounds for fox. Sawmills cut away from their towns until, after a decade or so had passed, the areas close in were grown up in young pines, blackberry thickets, and thick brush—prime fox habitat. Hunters sometimes cast their hounds on Saturday nights right from the steps of commissary stores. The foxhunting material seemed strange every time I encountered it. Elderly men, tired from recalling memories of school and church and cotton field to a historian with a tape recorder, became suddenly energized when they began to remember fox chases of long ago. To my amazement, some of them began to sound the voices of long-dead foxhounds.
One of these men was retired foxhound breeder Hinkel Shillings, of Shelby County, Texas, who kept a picture of a red fox over his television, drew my attention to it on each of three separate visits, and remarked each time, "Look at that. Isn't that beautiful?" As a some devout pilgrim might gaze upon a religious icon, so did this 92-year-old hunter gaze upon the fox. Later, I interviewed foxhunting sheriff Aubrey Cole of Jasper County, Texas, and Cole used his eloquence and blowing-horn voice to bring a fox chase right into his living room. Walter Cole, his 104-year-old father, only months from the grave, became so excited listening to his son that he tried to struggle to his feet and cried out, "It's the endurance of a dog!" Nothing raised fox chasers' passions so much as that. American foxhounds had been bred never to quit the chase and to run until they died.
In my years of interviewing rural people, I had never experienced anything like the foxhunters. I never forgot those interviews, and I never quite forgot the incredible fire-engine-red fox that leaped into a white sandy road on the way to our hunting club just after dark when I was twelve years old. The fox floated ahead of the car for twenty yards or so, a great flowing tail seemingly as large as the fox himself, virtually a second entity; then he levitated over the high bank like something not quite subject to normal gravity. There is a magic about foxes, especially the red ones.
There is also a magic about American foxhounds, a breed relentlessly crafted by man to face the super-runner and to never quit the race. They are like mortal, flesh-and-blood beings bred to chase ghosts. Hinkel Shillings had one great foxhound named Dawson Stride at the beginning of his career. He told me he hoped—in fact, expected—to meet him again in heaven and to listen to him run there once again (which clearly required that there be foxes in heaven, too). Dawson Stride had been interred as charter resident in the National Hall of Fame Cemetery of Foxhounds a few miles away from Hinkel's home. He had quite a large granite monument, as did a score of other outstanding foxhounds. In truth, Saint Francis' heretical doctrine of the animal soul seemed to have resurfaced among the foxhunters. One wrote Red Ranger columnist Emmett Adams of Forsythe, Missouri, "I wonder if it is heretical to believe that when at last my tired feet shall tread the other shore, a wildly welcoming swirl of exultant dogs—the splendid dogs that have been my chums here—will bound forward circling and barking around me, to lead me home. I want to believe it."
Presumably, none of the ones this man culled would be there. That was another side to the human-foxhound relationship, and a student of the phenomenon must not flinch from telling it. From the 1840s on, hunters resolutely culled the foxhounds they bred in a determined attempt to create a dog that could match the red fox, the wonderful runner. Dawson Stride could do this, but many lesser foxhounds lay in a century's worth of unmarked graves because they could not. Foxhunters loved their hounds like sons and daughters, but they treated them like the stern Roman paterfamilias, resolutely eliminating the incapable and immoral. "Babbling" hounds barked when there was nothing to bark at, "trashing" hounds went off after unworthy game, "cheating" hounds left virtuous track running to cut across and use other illegal means to beat other dogs to the fox. None of these things were tolerated very long by Hinkel Shillings or any other committed hunter, and such faults sometimes drew the death sentence.
Foxhunting still exists in the United States in a diminished form, though the fox is much more likely to be a coyote these days and the sport has changed. Most hunters quit the chase during the 1970s and 1980s. A minority could not stand to quit and in 2008 continued to hunt within fenced hunting clubs. The fences keep things out—deer, feral hogs, highway traffic, and hound haters with rifles—and they keep things in—coyotes and the chase itself. The chase goes round and round these days, bouncing off fences, when in the wild old times of running outside, the good-running fox or coyote might take it forty miles into the next county. Before the "pens," hunters never knew where races might go; every one was a dangerous and unpredictable tour of the countryside, linked to the quick wild mind of the fox.
Listening in the dark of a two-thousand-acre hunting club, it is easy to imagine the old days. I read W. C. Boone's strange comment about the necessity for the true fox chaser to be able to hear the angels sing several months after I wrote my field notes from the first night hunt I experienced, and Boone's words gave me a shock. I had written: "Sounds of running packs varied more than I had expected. Sometimes far-away packs did sound very much like wild geese. Hot races passing very close by sometimes made sounds that raised hairs on the neck, as dogs gave mouth to noises that I had never heard dogs make. Squealing, crying, undulating shrieks and carols, but still beautiful, as if fallen angels were under torment by demons."