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The early morning fog wisps from Boone Creek near the borders of Fayette, Clark and Madison counties, north of the Kentucky River. The ground is littered with golden, cranberry and orange leaves. Across the narrow limestone valley, dogs bark as a pickup truck navigates the curvy Grimes Mill Road.
It’s the first Saturday in November, time for the annual “Blessing of the Hounds” at the Iroquois Hunt Club, which is housed in the mill built by Phillip Grimes when Kentucky itself was less than a decade old. One of the club’s current members, Betsy Bulleit, is the fifth-great-granddaughter of Col. Richard Callaway, whose daughters, Betsey and Fanny, were kidnapped in 1776 by a Cherokee and Shawnee raiding party along with pioneer Daniel Boone’s daughter, Jemima. “It doesn’t get much more Kentucky than this,” said Bulleit, who grew up in Clark County and lives and works in nearby Lexington.
A club member since childhood, Bulleit looks forward to the first Saturday in November the way others might Kentucky Derby Day or baseball’s opening day. “It’s about the love of the hounds and horses, but also the history and tradition,” she said.
To fully understand the “blessing,” turn the history pages back to 705 A.D., when Hubert—a son of Bertrand, Duke of Aquitaine and a French courtier—saw a vision of a crucifix between the antlers of a stag he was hunting in the forest. Following this vision, Hubert surrendered his possessions and entered the priesthood. Later, by virtue of converting hundreds to Christianity, he became St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters and the namesake of the nearby St. Hubert’s Episcopal Church.
It’s the vicar of the picturesque stone church—today either the Rev. Charles D. Ellestad or the Rev. Dr. Duane Smith—who conducts the annual ceremony, which includes a short sermon, the history of St. Hubert, and blessings of the hounds and horses. Each rider kneels to receive a St. Hubert medal from the pastor to wear throughout the season, which runs through March over a 10-square-mile assortment of cooperative wooded farms and pastures.
Area farmers welcome the hunters because the chase scatters the coyote population and keeps the coyotes from becoming bold around humans, threatening newborn calves and preying on domestic pets.
Stepping inside the Iroquois Hunt Club, named in honor of the first American-bred horse to win the Epsom Derby (1881), is like strolling into a bygone era. There are dark wooden floors and a roaring stone fireplace in the clubhouse that serves the third-oldest hunt club in the United States. It is easy to imagine Desha Breckinridge, one of the founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution, drawing up a chair, but today Nick Lawrence, host of WUKY-FM’s “Curtains at 8,” is seated there. He’s talking with painter Andre Pater, whose work has featured horses and hounds. Across the room are bankers, doctors, attorneys, stockbrokers and distillers. Lila S. Mason, Dr. Jack van Nagell and Jerry L. Miller, co-Masters of the Hunt, are decked out in the traditional red woolen jackets and tall leather boots.
A gourmet country breakfast, with mimosas, precedes the blessing and a hunt. The evening will bring everyone back for the Blessings Ball with all of its finery. A new season has begun, and it falls on St. Hubert’s ample shoulders to keep all safe.
By Stephen M. Vest
Hunt Club Heritage
Founded near Lexington in 1880—and re-established in 1926—the Iroquois Hunt Club is a small club in the heart of the Bluegrass. Its history is populated with vivid characters who had strong links to some of America’s most influential figures and most important movements of the last 120 years. Members participated in the Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870s, the fight for women’s right to vote in the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of national parks, and the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. At home in the Bluegrass, they also contributed mightily to the development of modern Lexington and were key figures in founding the iconic Keeneland racecourse and a number of historic Thoroughbred nurseries, including Calumet and the Whitney farm.
Perhaps the most extraordinary personality in the club’s long history is its founder, Gen. Roger D. Williams. A born adventurer and entertainer, Williams grew up in Lexington, but in late adolescence traveled West in search of excitement. He certainly found it. In just four years, he was a prospector, a deputy leader of the Black Hills rangers, a journalist and, finally, an actor with San Francisco’s California Theater Company. In 1879, perhaps finding life a little too exciting (he was lucky to avoid being stabbed by Calamity Jane in a Custer City store for laughing at her appearance), Williams returned home and established Iroquois, naming it after the first American-bred horse to win the Epsom Derby.
Williams’ aim in founding the club was to create an English-style foxhunt. But Iroquois was never simply a slavish imitation of an English hunt. (Williams was happy to hunt rabbit, raccoon and even an imported wolf, as well as fox.) Nor was it ever devoted exclusively to hunting. Instead, the club presented a constant stream of social entertainment, including torchlight picnics and dances in Russell Cave as well as two annual race meets at the old Kentucky Association track. Iroquois members provided the horses, riders and officials, but the whole town was invited to attend.
In 1914, Williams was called away on military duty, and without his organizing zeal, the club quietly folded. Although he returned to Lexington after World War I, it appears he didn’t think about re-establishing the club. It wasn’t until 1926—18 months after Williams had died—that the club was re-established at a dinner at Col. E.R. Bradley’s Ashland Club.
This time, the founders were determined to concentrate on foxhunting, but they were happy to do things their own way. When times were tight in the 1930s, Len Shouse, the owner of the Lafayette Hotel, fed the hounds scraps from the hotel’s kitchen. For the most part, the new founders were powerful and successful people. For example, Arnold Hanger, who was one of the first Masters of the Hunt, ran the company responsible for building the Grand Coulee Dam, while Maj. Louis Beard, another early member, is best remembered as one of the founders of Keeneland.
Perhaps the confidence of the club’s new leaders is best reflected in the ambitions of its first secretary in 1926. John Churchill Newcomb’s family had given the land on which Churchill Downs was built. When registering the newly re-established Iroquois Hunt with the Masters of Foxhounds Association in 1927, he was required to state where the club would hunt. Most clubs opt for a modest area of about 10 square miles. Newcomb reserved all the land between Louisville and Lexington—about 235 square miles. Needless to say, he was asked to think again and eventually selected the area around Athens, where Iroquois still hunts today.
The club was happy to continue the tradition of entertaining the entire town. Throughout the 1930s, under the leadership of Ed Spears and Fauntleroy Pursley, Iroquois held polo matches on three fields at Hamburg Place, regularly attracting crowds of up to 5,000. In the same decade, the club began the event for which it is still best known—the annual ceremony of the Blessing of the Hounds.
Today, the club continues the traditions of conservation, entertainment and innovation that Roger Williams so cherished. The Masters and members have helped put thousands of Bluegrass acres into conservation easements. In addition to the Blessing of the Hounds, the hunt puts on a hunter pace day for all equestrians in the area and regularly parades the hounds at events at the Kentucky Horse Park. Probably most important, in creating the Hound Welfare Fund—the world’s first foxhound-dedicated charity—Iroquois has taken the lead by ensuring its loyal hounds all receive a well-earned retirement when their hunting days are over.
By Christopher Oakford