Guest status is wonderful. You succumb to the wind and currents and allow yourself to be carried along—no other chores, no responsibilities. The day begins with an enormous buffet style breakfast at the Belle Meade Country club (no relation to the hunt)
Eggs, Biscuits, Bacon, Sausage and cheese grits.
Over breakfast, I chat with an attractive out of town couple full of Questions about foxhunting. How did this Harvard—trained attorney and his wife happen to be there? “We bid on it at a silent auction in Atlanta And Won!” said his wife. I would see them at various intervals during the day, and their curiosity, enthusiasm and sense of adventure never flagged. Chalk up a new friend of foxhunting.
Time to mount up. I am privileged to be asked to ride to the blessing of the hounds with huntsman, hounds and staff. As we approach the site of the blessing, I get my first view of the enormous crowd assembled there. The logistics had been planned and excited well ahead of time by Epps tireless volunteers and everyone— wagons, spectators, honored guests mounted field and presiding pastor – was in place and ready for us. Master, Hounds, staff and your reporter make a grand entrance by jumping a coop into the field, then walking v-formation of dismounted riders and horses – more than 40 on each side of us – toward the waiting pastor.
Reverend Father E.R Frank has been performing the blessing ceremony every year since the beginning, 34 years ago. He hunted with Belle Meade and senior Master James Wilson for many years, and although he has given up riding, his enthusiasm and love for the hunt still glows. Father Frank begins by relating the story of Saint Hubert and hoe he became the patron Saint of hunters to the assemblage. He then invokes the blessing, copies of which have been handed out so all may participate in the responses. We then, each and every one of the mounted riders, come forward to receive our own Saint Hubert medal from Father Frank. Many will carry the new medal with them through the entire season, and then add it to their collection of medals from prior years – each a unique design to commemorate the occasion.
Time to remount. We move off with the hounds, staff and field. The first exhibition of the day is a drag hunt for the benefit of the crowd in the tally-ho wagons. And it takes considerable time to move 728 people and park them so they can see. The radio finally crackles that all is ready, and we jump into a field where the drag has been laid. Hounds do there part, running and speaking to the line in full view of the assembled wagons. Cameras click, videos whirr, and huntsman, staff and field follow the hounds around a pond in this natural amphitheater. We complete the segment by jumping the final panel toward waiting photographers and gallop to a finish between the two rows of parked wagons.
While the wagon train moves to the next location and assembles to view the final drag, Master Epp takes the opportunity to hunt live quarry. At Belle Meade chances are 50-50 of finding either fox or coyote. Although he never served in the navy, Epp has adapted a system of station keeping for his staff’s formation at all times, he wants hounds and huntsman in the middle and whippers-In at each corner. Ahead and behind
To Help “Keep station” each wears a wrist compass.
After drawing a short while through a thickly wooded covert, hounds open with a Glorious Sound much different of their notes from the drag! And we were treated a nice burst of action. A whipper-in reports viewing a coyote, but with the noise, traffic and confusion of the day, neither the coyote nor the hounds seem to be able to settle down to their respective duties.
The final segment brings hounds, staff and field to their conclusion at the top of a hill in the midst of the hunting country, where Miraculously, a graciously laid table of hors d’oeurves and champagne materializes, Hot and perspiring after hours in the boiling sun under wool hunt coats, we gratefully accept the sparkling beverages offered. “Welcome to Champagne Hill” says Epp. For more information please visit https://www.deerhunters.net/.
I arrived the afternoon before the big day and was met at the airport by Lucy Bell, a foxhunting attorney who, when she moved to Thomson, inserted a clause into her employment contract ensuring that she may hunt on Wednesdays. We pulled up to the farm just as a riding and jumping demonstration by four ladies for the benefit of the spruce Creek Flying Club had just ended, (Did I mention that 21 private planes of the Spruce Creek Flying Club landed at the McDuffie County Airport that day filled with guest for the Belle Meade festival?) As laid back and relaxed, as Epp Wilson appears to be, there is something of the Barnum and Bailey in him. While Epp was showing me around the farm, the young ladies that had just finished giving the Demo. Were cooling their horses in a field of Permanent schooling jumps. At some invisible single, two of the four girls peeled off, cantered toward us, jumped a big log fence abreast and halted in front of us “I’d like you to meet Mandy and Kim said Epp nonchalantly, As we completed our hellos, the two remaining girls hooked up at the canter jumped the same fence abreast and halted. This is Susannah and my daughter Wendi, Said Epp.
In the very next moment, a boy on a Pinto pony, energetically waving one arm over his head and using his voice as hunting horn, came galloping into view followed by six hound puppies. The small huntsman and his miniature pack disappeared from view only to appear again in a few minutes still in full cry— the boy, not the puppies. That’s my son Chase, Epp explained. ” He takes care of the hound puppies, exercises them every day and teaches them to follow”
Epps wife, Sharon, met me with a hug my first conventional greeting of the day.
In Thomson, Georgia they know when Belle Meade holds its Opening meet. You just can’t hide 1,000 people in Thomson. Nor do 200 out of towners filling rooms and restaurant tables go unnoticed. It all started 34 years ago. the hunts very first year, when James E Wilson Jr, MFH decided to invite Neighbors , landowners and friends to join in the Blessing of the hounds and to follow the hunt in tally-ho wagons. Belle Meade has staged this special day every year since for two worthy reasons to make friends for foxhunting by sharing and demonstrating the joy of their sport and to raise money for the hunt. Lots of money.
There are foxhunting purists who deplore the notion of staging a foxhunting demonstration for a thong of party-goers, but the concept works in Thomson because for the rest of the hunting year, the Belle Meade subscribers Hunt the fox and the coyote behind one of the finest packs Crossbred foxhounds in the country and in accord with the highest traditions of the sport. It also works year after year because the joint masters—James E Wilson, his son Epp Wilson and Charles Lewis— are held in the highest esteem by their hunting members and by their community. Indeed Many who have moved from Thomson to other parts of the country come back, year after year, to man their old jobs and help make a success of this special day in Belle Meade’s hunting year.
The big money makers are the tally-ho and the book. This year a record 728 people, most of whom paid $30 each for the ride, piled into more than 30 wagons, many decorated, pulled by all manner of tractors and pick up trucks. These wagonloads account for over $12,000 of net income to the hunt.
The book, a picture filled yearbook of the previous Year’s activities, is unveiled on Opening Day. Of the 2,000 that are printed many are distributed at the weekends events, but the local Chamber Of Commerce also uses many, by the local businesses and by the local Hospital in its recruitment packages for the doctors. The book contains stories of special hunts,
Profiles of honored individuals, trips taken by the Belle Meade hounds to other hunting countries, reprints of articles about the hunt and reminders concerning hunting etiquette and correct attire. Members list, hound list and landowner list are included. And the ads. Well over 100 net another $10,000.
The proceeds of the Tally-ho feed the foxhounds for the year. Ad revenues from the book have, from day one, been reserved for capital needs such as kennel repairs, hound truck and trailer and the like.