By Heidi Baumstark
They say legends never die. When it comes to the late Melvin Poe, his legacy in the world of foxhunting lives on.
Poe, a native of Fauquier County, was noted as the most celebrated huntsman in American foxhunting and famous worldwide. A beloved member of the equestrian community for more than half a century, Poe captured the hearts of hounds and hunters.
A man of modest background, Poe was born on August 24, 1920, raised during the Depression on a farm in Hume with hounds, horses, cattle and a bounty of animals to trap for food. He grew up hunting with his father, siblings, cousins and neighbors. The third of 10 children born to Ollie and Eva Poe, his boyhood home was five miles down the road from Ozark Farm, which is where he lived until his death at age 94 on Sept. 13, 2014.
In the book (published 2017) “Foxhunters Speak: An Oral History of American Foxhunting,” which is a compilation of interviews and photographs, in Melvin’s own words, he shared, “My dad worked for a dollar a day. As poor as we were with so many kids to feed, we took our hounds out every day to catch game.” Game included opossum, squirrels, skunks and muskrat. “Muskrat is one of the best things you can eat … [and] I got fifteen squirrels in one day with a rifle.”
In those days, many farmers had their own pack of hounds. On Sundays, they would join the packs together. “We’d have a big go of foxhunting…We were ole country boys that came up the hard way and weren’t scared of nothing,” said Melvin.
During World War II, he served a tour in the Army as a jeep mechanic, taking part in the June 1944 Normandy invasion in France. In October 1945, he returned to Virginia, and a month later, he was hired as professional huntsman by Old Dominion in Orlean, where he stayed until May 1962. Two months later (July 1962), Orange County offered him a position as huntsman, and he remained in that position until his retirement in April 1991, four months before his 71st birthday.
But that was not his final destination as huntsman. In “Foxhunters Speak,” Melvin said that Mr. George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. came to him in 1992 with an offer “to start a little hunt in Bath County [in Warm Springs, Virginia] with me as huntsman.” Ohrstrom, a long-time president of Orange County and admirer of Melvin, hired him to be huntsman until that folded in 2011. (Bath County was founded in 1932, but the hunt was declared inactive during World War II until Ohrstrom revived it in 1992.)
With all this experience, Melvin was known as the dean of American huntsmen, breeding, training and riding hounds to conquer the ruses of the fox. Wearing the traditional scarlet coat and carrying an English horn during hunts, Melvin and his famous pack of American “red ringed-neck” hounds led horses and riders on exhilarating chases through the Piedmont’s forests and fields. He was a familiar name in Middleburg circles, well known by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, sports magnate Abe Pollin, actors Robert Duvall and Dick Smothers, and some of Virginia’s most distinguished families.
But to those who knew him best, he was a pure countryman who raised cattle and made hay on his 70-acre farm in Hume. He played baseball, umpiring or coaching his Hume teams, and competed in jousting tournaments. Famed for his down-to-earth southern charm, Melvin performed his duties with amazing ease, achieving a remarkable connection between foxhunter and hound.
“He was a real countryman, quite a character,” remembers Malcolm Matheson III of The Plains. Matheson is a joint Master of Foxhounds at Orange County Hounds since 2004, along with MFHs John Coles and Neil Morris. Matheson first met Melvin in the early 1970s when he would come from Washington, D.C., to hunt at Casanova in Fauquier County. In a 2007 document written by Matheson, he describes Melvin: “By far the most recognized name associated with the Orange County [Hounds] is that of the legendary Melvin Poe who is revered worldwide for his skills in the breeding, training, and hunting of hounds.”
To further cement Melvin’s role as huntsman, the award-winning film, “Thoughts on Foxhunting,” was released in 1979 by Delaplane filmmaker Tom Davenport, and it remains a popular classic. The film includes Melvin’s wife, Peggy, who hunted with him. The premiere of the film was at the Kennedy Center in D.C., but the first showing locally was at the Middleburg Community Center.
Furthermore, “Foxhunting with Melvin Poe” was published in 2002 by the late Peter Winants, who himself was a celebrity in horse circles as long-time editor and publisher of The Chronicle of the Horse magazine and a driving force—along with Ohrstrom—behind the creation of Middleburg’s National Sporting Library. Melvin was also featured as the cover story in the Feb. 21, 1991 issue of Britain’s leading equestrian magazine, Horse and Hound. In 2011, Melvin was inducted—along with younger brother Albert—to the sport’s Hall of Fame: the Huntsmen’s Room at the Museum of Hounds and Hunting at Morven Park in Leesburg.
But back to Orange County: Originally, Orange County Hounds dates to 1900 and was formed by wealthy foxhunters in Orange County, New York (hence the name). But by 1903, urbanization and cold winters caused enthusiasts to seek happier hunting grounds in Virginia. In 1905, Orange County purchased William Skinker, Jr.’s 70-acre farm and pack in The Plains, where it remains today.
Stephen “Reg” Spreadborough, a native of England, has been Orange County huntsman since 2006 and remembers Melvin well. “Melvin would come by to say hello at the kennels, and I’d see him at hound shows,” Spreadborough says. “He gave pointers. I’ve always listened to the older generation, including Melvin.” In England, foxes are more of a pest in the farming community. But here, it’s about the sport, the thrill of the hunt, chasing the fox to ground.
“Definite dedication,” that’s how Spreadborough describes Melvin. “If you don’t love it, you can’t do it for long. And he dedicated himself [to Orange County] for roughly 30 years. That was Melvin.”
Matheson remembers, “Though he brought his homemade wine for after hunts, I never saw him actually drink it. Melvin would say, ‘You’re out there for fun.’ He knew his hounds, and his hounds loved him; he was so fun to watch.”
And, the birthday parties. “We loved going to his birthday parties,” Matheson said. “Especially, my wife, Gail—she loved them. He had bluegrass bands. It was in August, and we’d sit out there on his farm in Hume and dance on his walkway going to the house.”
Up until the last year of his life, he hunted his hounds and managed his farm. As stated in “Foxhunters Speak,” Melvin said, “At the age of 93, I still hunt my hounds on Fridays and Sundays from my backyard kennel. I love all types of hunting, not just foxhunting. Foxhunting was the only sport that paid me to do what I’d do anyway! … If you love to hunt like I do, it’s just who you are, and I’m too old to change!”
One of the most beloved and respected huntsmen in North America, Melvin Poe is truly a legend whose memory lives on. ML