Local Outings | Chincoteague Island

Tracing Historic Hoofprints on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

By Sandra Friend | Photos by Cameron Davidson/Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC), chincoteaguechamber.com, Alex Wong/Getty Images, Sandra Friend, John M. Keatley

Walking into the Museum of Chincoteague Island, I didn’t expect to meet a childhood idol face-to-face. Nor did I expect her preserved in perpetuity, life-sized. Misty of Chincoteague was a fictional character—wasn’t she?

When I was little, every girl wanted a pony. A parade of books about horses—Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, The Black Stallion—lined library shelves at school. But Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry, stood out in my mind. Misty lived on an island! She ran on the beach! She swam in saltwater! “Misty was my crush,” said my good friend Joan.

When my family moved to the country, I begged my parents to let me have a pony. And they did. Micki, however, was no Misty. She was a spirited Welsh pony. She’d stomp on my feet. She’d struggle when I combed her mane. She’d toss me off her back. She quickly cured me of my equestrian aspirations. So what if those kids in the books had perfect ponies? Those were only stories. On Chincoteague (SHIN-co-teeg) Island, I learned the truth.

I’d wanted to visit here ever since reading Misty of Chincoteague. Although the story is fictional, Henry based it on a real pony. Published in 1947, the book became a movie in 1961, and Henry took the real Misty on tours, to the delight of schoolchildren across America. The phenomenon also brought fame to Chincoteague and the not-at-all-fictional Beebe family, Misty’s original owners. (Henry bought Misty from the Beebes and later returned her to their farm to have her foals.) Misty and her foal Stormy—the subject of another Henry book—lived out their lives at the Beebe Ranch; Misty died in 1972, Stormy in 1993.

“Misty and Stormy were loaned to our museum in 2011,” said Ennis Barbery Smith, the museum’s executive director. “They are still currently on long-term loan, with no plans for the loan to end.”

“I saw Trigger once,” my husband, John, said, as we gazed at the taxidermied steeds. “So this is my second famous stuffed horse.”

Here on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, we set out to find the living Chincoteague ponies.

The Search

Chincoteague and Assateague Islands are two of the 23 barrier islands along the Eastern Shore. We left the museum, which is on Chincoteague Island, crossed the causeway and bridge that connects with Assateague Island, and entered the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, where the ponies reside most of the year. I thought I saw a pony in the distance, along the channel.

“Isn’t that one?” I asked.

“Just shadows,” said John.

Told it was uncertain we’d see ponies along the nature trails, we headed to the beach at Toms Cove. I’d imagined the ponies dashing through the surf. After all, the legend—amplified by the book—was that the ponies were descendants of Moorish ponies that escaped a Spanish galleon that ran aground four centuries ago. And why was Misty called Misty? She came up out of the sea.

Toms Cove provided a view of the rocket launch towers at NASA’s nearby Wallops Island facility and of the oyster beds, but no ponies.

We took a slow drive along the Wildlife Loop. The first cluster of cars off to the side of the road got us all excited. Then we discovered they were watching an eagle. The refuge is a prime birding spot, but that wasn’t why we were here.

We came around a curve. “There they are!”

Everyone was piling out on the edge of the road to see ponies grazing along the vast flats of saltgrass marsh in the Assateague Island interior. There were only a few, but I stood mesmerized. Finally, I’d found Misty’s herd.

We watched for a while, but they didn’t move much. No galloping across the landscape, no dramatic toss of the mane, just nuzzling the grass for another mouthful of salt hay. Daylight was fading, and the refuge would close at dusk. We left the ponies for the day to find our hotel.

As the mist lifted the next morning, we walked Chincoteague Island’s shoreline. We looked across the Assateague Channel and saw that more of the herd gathered along Assateague Island’s shoreline, grazing within sight of kayakers.

The steeds were stout-looking in shades of chestnut, bay, black, and brown. One moment, all was calm. Their heads were down as they grazed. The next, tails flying, the horses wheeled about with whinnies and snorts, nudging the others in the herd into a trot through the marsh.

The Herd

“Misty put us on the map back in the 1940s,” said Denise Bowden of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (VFC) that evening at Don’s Seafood Restaurant in downtown Chincoteague. “We’re pretty proud of our traditions here.”

Such as the annual Pony Penning and Swim.

“It’s the oldest continuous roundup east of the Rockies,” Denise said. Although the ponies of Chincoteague are wild, the VFC owns and cares for them.

The modern tradition, Denise explained, dates back to 1925, but even a century before, locals were penning the ponies. The herd isn’t permitted to grow above 150, according to an agreement between the refuge and the fire company. Population control comes the last week of July, when the Saltwater Cowboys—wranglers with years of experience riding through the salt marshes—round up the herds for the Pony Penning. About 30 ponies frequent the south end of Assateague Island, and up to 120 are on the north end.

“The cowboys walk them down the beach to meet the south herd,” Denise said. Once they’re in the corral together, a veterinarian checks them to determine which ponies are healthy enough to swim. Pregnant mares and ponies with injuries never swim; the youngest foals are ferried over in a boat.

Crowds of up to 50,000 people gather on Wednesday to see the Pony Swim, which happens during the slack tide, when the water is calmest. You don’t wear your best clothes to watch the swim—for a good view, you’ll be tromping in marsh mud. The Saltwater Cowboys swim the ponies from Assateague Island, across Assateague Channel, to Chincoteague Island for the annual auction. The first foal to come ashore is gifted to the holder of a raffle ticket.

A Pony of Your Own

The brightly painted Carnival Grounds on Main Street are about a half-mile away from the fire company, which uses the annual auction to raise funds for the fire department, for local charities, and for veterinary care of the herd.

“The Carnival is nice, with all these people and the ponies that are being auctioned,” said Tommy Clark, the owner of Don’s Seafood. “Our first summer here, this old black pony comes up [for auction] and my wife raises her hand, and not another damn soul raises a hand. I had been 40 years without a pony, never had no desire for one, and here it is: I’ve got a new wife and a pony.”

Walking away with a pony, though, is what little girls dream of. The average auction bid hovers around $2,000. The highest bid in recent years was $21,000. That’s a bit steep for an eager youngster, but miracles—like Misty—still happen.

“It’s not all about the money,” said Denise. “One of my favorite stories is about a little girl who saved 300 bucks. That’s all she had, and $300 is not going to buy you a pony now, and she kept getting outbid. Finally one of our spotters caught on to that. The buzz went right up to the auction stand. The last pony came out of the chute, the auctioneer says all right, we’re going to start this one at $300, the little girl put her hand up, and he goes ‘Sold.’ And the girl went home with her pony. It meant something to us to be able to do that.”

There is also the Feather Fund, founded by the family and friends of Carollynn Suplee, an auction regular who died in 2003. Although fighting cancer, she helped several children buy ponies. “Every year, the Feather Fund helps two kids buy a pony in memory of Carollynn,” said Denise. “They sit there at the auction with their feathers in their hands. And these kids who get these ponies, it’s like you’ve handed them everything in the whole wide world.”

You can also change a pony’s life without ever taking it home. “Our buyback program allows people to bid for a certain pony, name it, and it returns to Assateague to live out its natural life without ever being sold again,” said Denise. “You’re welcome to visit your pony during the roundups, too!”

I liked that idea—“owning” a pony without having to brush it, saddle it, buy hay for it, or get stomped on. Perhaps there’ll be another Micki in my future. At a safe distance.

 

 

 

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