By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published May 15, 2002
For most people, fox hunting is something out of movies or history books. Nattily dressed men and women on horseback following a pack of dogs as they chase the scent of a fox. Horses leaping fences and hedges as they pound across farmer’s fallow fields.
Even on the Main Line, it is a sport that hearkens to days when urban sprawl was unknown, and on farms, life was paced by the seasons.
As America grew, especially on the densely populated East Coast, fox hunting moved from being a method of eliminating livestock predators to one of the major supporters of the conservancy and open spaces movements.
The Radnor Hunt – which will be held this weekend at its traditional site on Providence Road in Malvern – is today one of the oldest of the 171 recognized hunts in the U.S.
It started in 1883 at its original site on Darby Paoli and Roberts roads in Radnor Township. James Rawle was named president, with Horace B. Montgomery as master of Foxhounds.
“When I was young most members hunted or had at one time,” said Malvern native Rad Hundt. “That’s all changed now. It began when people who moved out here realized the hunt was a force for keeping the land natural and open as well as keeping developers at bay.”
In addition, being an avid fox hunter requires a significant investment of time and money. For many longtime hunters, such as Hundt, horses are a part of their lives. They were raised around them, often continuing the family horse farm not just as an avocation, but many times it became a vocation, as breeding, raising and training horses is a thriving industry in America.
But to keep the hunt viable, it has changed through the years. “A lot of members now don’t hunt or even ride,” Hundt said. “We also have tennis, a shooting club and of course, because of the clubhouse, many people who live here just want to be a part of it,” he said.
But even among those who hunt, there’s a difference. “In the past, everyone who hunted came from a hunting background,” said Hundt, whose grandfather, George Climer Stout, and mother rode with the hunt. “Today that’s not true, and some are better riders than others, but we’re glad to see them.” For him, it’s clear that for the hunt to continue to be successful, it must embrace those who are new to the sport.
Fox hunting is an old sport in America, and even its beginnings in Great Britain probably only organized something done for centuries. In an agrarian society, it was work to get rid of the predators, and like quiltings and roof raisings in pioneer America, making a social event out of a necessity certainly improved its chances of success.
Fox hunting in America can be traced back to 1650 when Col. Robert Brooke brought hounds to Maryland from England – at least that’s the earliest record of hounds being brought to the Colonies. Many of the founding fathers, being of the landed gentry, were avid foxhunters. George Washington, who hunted from the age of 16, kept a splendid pack of hounds and blooded hunters for the chase.
Washington’s diaries are laced with frequent references to fox hunts near the nation’s capital. On one occasion while Congress was in session, hounds ran near the Capitol. Many congressmen ran outside to watch hounds, and some jumped on their horses and joined the chase.
According to Hundt, there’s a direct link from George Washington to fox hunting in the Delaware Valley. “We hunt red foxes, which were imported by Washington and Lord Fairfax,” he said. “The indigenous fox here is the gray fox. But they climb trees, which is no fun at all during the hunt.
“This is just a chase, we have no interest in killing foxes now – there aren’t many of them,” he said.
Fox hunting gained its greatest popularity in the middle-south, which maintained many of the traditions of aristocratic England and which had land favorable to the chase.
Radnor Hunt began just as the Pennsylvania Railroad was encouraging the wealthy to move to tracts along its tracks in what used to be the Welsh tract. Many of these men, such as Alexander Cassatt, became avid gentlemen farmers and horsemen. In the late 19th century, even an engineer such as Cassatt understood horses. Everyone did.
But deep in Quaker country, the hunting of vermin was becoming organized, as the members of the Radnor Hunt subscribed to maintain the pack of hounds and the land upon when they hunted. Originally there were no scheduled meets, and each member was allowed to hunt the pack of dogs whenever he chose. But after three years, the group became more organized.
Radnor Hunt began scheduling regular meets and was incorporated on Sept. 20, 1886. For decades, hunting continued there until suburban encroachment and growth of the membership led to the purchase of the old Gallagher Farm on Boot Road (now Providence Road), where members built stables and kennels.
“The hunt was moved in 1931 and been here ever since,” Hundt said. For more than 50 years, fox hunting has been conducted three days a week from September through March on farms in the surrounding countryside.