Bothering nobody, the little country town of Middleburg (pop. 700) sits athwart the Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway in the undulant bluegrass meadows and farmlands of northern Virginia. Alongside the road—called Washington Street within the city limits—there are only a couple or three filling stations, only one sizable grocery store, one cafe, a telephone-pole Greyhound bus stop and a dilapidating, shut-down movie theater. If ever there was a one-horse town, this has to be it.
But hold the phone. This same tiny village is also chockablock with interior decorating and antique shops (Mrs. Greer's sells a nice little porcelain figure of a jockey on a Thoroughbred with his silks colored to your liking for $525), and it has an inn with a French chef (who cooked a saucy dinner recently when Hodding Carter's son married the daughter of the State Department's George McGhee), the editorial offices of a nationally and fashionably circulated horse magazine, a liquor store that is awash with a vast, nonrural inventory of highfalutin imported booze and last year did a $400,000 business, Foxcroft, the horsy girls' school, and a half-million-dollar community center where farmers and their wives go bowling, ladies and gentlemen attend black-tie hunt balls and the President of the U.S. goes to Mass. Forty miles west of Washington, this is the stratified, socially correct home of the red fox, the pedigreed horse, the pedigreed hound and the pedigreed person. "Oh, sure, I suppose we live in a rather unusual community," says a longtime resident, "but really, all things considered, we're pretty ordinary people."
He means that in Middleburg and the surrounding pastoral countryside of Loudoun and Fauquier counties, it is perfectly ordinary to be named Mellon, Phipps, Iselin, Du Pont or Jack Kennedy, and that it is downright commonplace to think and to talk about the horse most of the livelong day. Horses outnumber people in Middleburg just as they do in Outer Mongolia, and the minority wouldn't upset the imbalance for the world. "Take away the horse and do you know what's left?" challenges the president of the Middleburg National Bank, Mr. Donald F. MacKenzie. "Nothing!"
The horse is king in Middleburg, and his subjects show their obeisance by riding horses, playing polo on horses, hunting foxes with horses, breeding and training horses, buying and selling horses, racing horses, betting on horses or simply leaning on gateposts gazing fondly at horses. If a Middleburg citizen dies while riding a horse, as an interesting number have done, many count this a stroke of remarkable good fortune and dwell on the matter for years afterward. And when a Middleburg horse passes on—provided he has led a useful and worthy life in the field—he, too, achieves a kind of immortality: he is fed to the foxhounds of his old hunt. "It is an honorable, fitting end," says a Middleburg lady. "Why," says another resident, "I think you can say we pay far more attention to our horses than we do to one another. Since there's very little to do here, there is plenty of time for sociability, but friendship rarely runs very deep and seldom crosses caste lines."
February 11, 1963
The same may be said of marriage, which in Middleburg is not the most rock-steady institution. A devoted resident of the area makes this observation in Merriman Smith's new book, The Good New Days: "Some of these wonderful people spend so much time breeding horses that they tend to confuse themselves with their animals and this is not always conducive to marital stability as many of us know it." If you should visit Middleburg and fail to meet somebody's first wife or stepson by midmorning, you're probably not getting around with the right crowd.
What horses and their owners are doing in Middleburg—and other places where it matters—is carefully recorded by the horse-set handbook, The Chronicle of the Horse, published every Friday in Middleburg. The Chronicle, which today has 9,700 on its subscription list, was established in 1937 by two Middleburg men—one the great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, one the husband of Rachel (Bunny) Lambert. She is an heiress to the Listerine and Gillette fortune and is now the second wife of Multimillionaire Paul Mellon, whose first wife, Mary Conover Brown, was fatally stricken with a heart attack while horseback riding one morning near Middleburg.
The current editor, Alexander Mackay-Smith, is a cordial host, a frank, sometimes dispassionate observer of horses and horse people, and is a New York-born, Harvard-educated Virginian who came to Middleburg 30 years ago to ride and write. In a recent editorial he wrote that the job of a master of foxhounds, the preeminent rank in any horse-set community, might well be compared with that of a city recreation director. Consequently, it ought not to be considered the frivolous pastime of privileged playboy sportsmen and owes apology to no one. For example, the editorial continued, a well-to-do master need not think that "he should also have some sort of paying job—an idea which harks back to frontier days." Mackay-Smith, a past master of foxhounds around Middleburg, would lift the anxiety of other masters so the sport will continue to prosper in the days of the New Frontier. But he admits he may be talking to himself. "I leaned rather toward the liberal point of view at Harvard, and I still carry a United Mine Workers card. I suppose, therefore, that I give more thought to justifying a way of life that depends upon money and leisure than do some of my neighbors. They probably never give it a thought." (Mackay-Smith's second wife, Jean Bowman, hopes they never do. A horse portraitist, she sells up to $20,000 in paintings every year to members of the crowd, who frequently are portrayed along with their favorite mounts. The demand for her work is explained by another artist patronized by the horse set, who has said: "Would one, ever, want portraits of one's family sitting in, or draped about, the motorcar?")
Since the horse supplies Middleburg's primary social and commercial adhesive, it is logical for him to give the community its recreation which, fall, winter and spring, is fox hunting—or fox chasing, as some prefer, because of the comparative infrequency with which the fox actually is caught and killed by the hounds. Encouraged by the rolling country, the good pasturage and the large, wood-fenced estates, fox hunting has been the area's game since Thomas, sixth Lord of Fairfax, introduced it in the early 1700s and taught its technique to his American-born neighbors, including young George Washington. Like yachting, fox hunting cannot be done in a few minutes and with a handful of change. Depending upon one's zealousness or outside distractions, the time given over to fox hunting in Middleburg can be as much as six hours a day, six days a week, six months a year. (Mackay-Smith rides or hunts about four hours a day, puts out his Chronicle in the time remaining.) The expense is quite as formidable. Costumes for the hunt, unchanged through centuries of tradition, cost about $1,500, and good hunting horses—at least three are required to keep the active fox hunter in the saddle—run in the neighborhood of $2,500 apiece. Add to that the expense of helping support the hunt's kennel of hounds, the subscription fees for the several area hunts (for yourself as well as your groom), salaries for stable hands and the cost of running a farm. Says one resident, blandly showing off a quantity of fox heads accumulated over the past 50 years and now mounted in his hallway: "They represent a couple of hundred thousand dollars, is all."
With fox hunting demanding so much time and money, there is an appreciable interest around Middleburg, as you may imagine, in tax rates, dividend announcements and bond maturities. Understandably, too, Middleburg's hunt set is, as a rule, middle-aged or older. "You don't see the young, because they really can't afford it," says an older lady who can. "And besides, I don't think the place is particularly wholesome for youngsters. The base of our society is scarcely broad enough for them to find out very much about life in the raw."
Geographically, Middleburg has existed since 1787, when one Leven Powell, a politician and Revolutionary War officer who fell sick at Valley Forge and went home, founded and subdivided the town and named its streets after every Federalist he could think of. Middleburg still hews to Powell's politics, going Republican in the last four presidential elections, but Miss Eleonora Sears is allowed to raise racehorses with impunity on a Middleburg farm despite the fact she is a great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, whom Powell could not abide.
Socially, Middleburg is years younger. It did not come into prominence until the early 1900s, when a number of wealthy New Yorkers moved there to hunt fox and to escape the pressures of inchoate suburbia back home. Thereafter the area began to thrive. The hardware store soon had a liveried doorman, The Illustrated London News began to keep up with the social notes, and the New Yorkers were followed by more and more Easterners and Midwesterners until, as Ogden Nash observed, "The Virginians from Virginia have to ride automobiles because the Virginians from Long Island are the only ones who can afford to ride horses." The few Virginians from Virginia, indeed, are almost curiosities nowadays on their own land. Still, it's hard to tell who's who anymore because most of the outlanders have swallowed their accents of origin to affect Virginia's distinguishing o's and a's that sound like oohs and ahs.
The owners of the big estates that give Middleburg its character of serene prosperity live in mansions with enormous front yards stocked with cattle and horses and surrounded by miles of whitewashed or split-rail fencing of the kind suburbanites like to tack up around their-acre plots. As in some suburbs, too, cast-iron colored boys beside the driveway are popular. The houses have high ceilings, thick walls, rich furniture, expensive bric-a-brac and paintings and photographs of horses aplenty, and some of them literally hum with the activities of unseen servants. When one of these estates changes hands, the asking price is likely to be well into six figures; the land is generally estimated to be worth $1,000 an acre, easily 75% higher than comparable farmland where picturesque fox hunting is never seen.
The showplace of the area belongs to Paul Mellon of the Pittsburgh Mellons, and to see it is to wonder what's the use of trying to keep up. Mellon has 3,600 acres near Middle-burg's closest neighbor, the town of Upperville (about which John Updike once wrote in The New Yorker: "In Upperville, the upper crust/ Say 'Bottoms up!' from dawn to dusk/ And 'Ups-a-daisy, dear!' at will—/ I want to live in Upperville"). On the Mellon farm there are 1,000 head of cattle, 65 horses, 25 houses for employees and their families, a private laundry, a fire engine, a paved airstrip and a million-dollar twin-engine propjet airplane to go with it. It also has what must be the best-designed, best-tended stables in the country. The lighting in the broodmare barns is diffused and comforting, the floor of the stalls is rubber and each mare's breeding and racing history is posted on the door, under glass and trimmed in brass. In fact, brass is to be seen everywhere—hinges, latches, catches and handles—and all of it is polished once each week, oftener if company's coming. "Notice how I turn off the light with just my fingertips," said a Mellon man the other day. "Keeps smudges off the switch plate." Paul Mellon, benefactor of noteworthy stature in Middleburg and Upperville, has supplied much of the money used to build the community center (not forgetting, at the same time, the colored community center), the health center, an Episcopal church and a public training center for racehorses. His own excursions into racing, however, have yet to produce many outstanding winners, but his hopes do not flag. "We paid $83,000 for a filly at the Saratoga Sales last spring," says the manager of the Mellon training center. "That's a record for a yearling filly, and we kind of count on her to set a few more."
The domain of a fox hunting group in the U.S. is typically about 10 miles square and is frequently adjacent to that of another hunt. Today in Virginia there are 18 organized hunts, all but three contiguous, and the three best known happen to fall in and around Middleburg. They are the Middleburg Hunt, the Piedmont Fox Hounds and the Orange County Hunt.
The largest—and, oddly, the most exclusive—of the three Middleburg hunts is the Orange County. It is sometimes known as the Toothbrush Hunt, because of a rule that limits guest riders to those who are visiting the homes of bona fide members (who incidentally must own at least 200 acres within the limits of the hunt's territory). Joint master of the Orange County is Tom Furness, a retired stockbroker from Chicago who has a milk farm and a silk necktie that says "torn" from top to tip. Furness says his group does not want to be written up in magazines of mass readership (The Chronicle of the Horse doesn't qualify for this category), but his aloofness can be readily understood: he has to contend with fellow hunter Jacqueline Kennedy and the publicity incidental thereto and, along the way, Tom had the singular misfortune to be photographed by LIFE'S Ed Clark while falling off his horse. (A horseman able to take such mishaps in stride is Middleburg's Paul Fout. He once sold a hunter to Mrs. Kennedy, a close friend of his wife Eve, that dumped the First Lady on her head. Sure enough, somebody got the picture.)
The Orange County Hunt was organized in 1903 and takes its name from Orange County, N.Y., once the home, particularly around fashionable Tuxedo Park, of a large number of estate owners and horsemen. Fearing that their fox hunting faced disruption by the encroachment of highways, wire fences and people from New York City, 40 miles to the south, many of these families reestablished themselves in the Middleburg area just after the turn of the century. "I remember E. H. Harriman coming down in the old days in his private railroad car," says a reminiscent Middleburger about the New York railroad tycoon. "He'd hunt part of the day and transact his business the rest of the day by telegram. He carried his own telegrapher, of course."
The Piedmont Fox Hounds is one of the oldest hunts in America, having been organized in 1840. The master today is Mrs. Archibald (Theo) Randolph, a crisp, tweedy woman with a no-nonsense manner who has been called by some The Kingfish. She is prominent in horse show circles and owns, for rainy afternoons, a made-in-England recording of foxhound sounds. To ride with Piedmont, says The Kingfish, a stranger need not spend the night with anyone or even know anyone. He need only be able to stay upright in the saddle and be willing to pay the $15 capping fee, fox hunting's traditional offering from outsiders when the hat is passed. The money is pooled with the dues of regular subscribers and with the proceeds of hunt balls and the like to support the pack of hounds and to pay such expenses as repairing a farmer's fence disarranged by a low-flying horse.
The Middleburg Hunt was organized in 1906 and, like Piedmont, is public in the sense that anybody of reasonably good horsemanship and manners may ride along. Membership fees can be whatever the subscriber wishes to contribute, but if it's a lot, that's all right, because the hunt's operating expenses come to about $30,000 a year. The master of the Middleburg is Newell J. Ward Jr., an altogether pleasant and informative gentleman-farmer who tills a little but tends mostly to his interest in the $18 billion Prudential Insurance Co., which his great-grandfather helped found. Buddy Ward's wife, Bettina, busies herself with breeding and selling exotic little Basenji hounds, and her grandfather was August Belmont who, among other successful exploits, bred Man o' War. Fox hunting beside people of such prestigious lineage is not the intimidating experience some might suppose. "A typical hunt is pretty much a horseback democracy," says a fox hunting member of Middleburg's shopkeeping class. "When hunting, a man is judged not on his worth at the bank but on how well he rides and contributes to the sport. After the hunt, of course, we normally go our separate ways, just as members of a college football team might. Some belong to the right clubs and some don't, but this doesn't matter during the game."
In Middleburg one of the three hunts meets every weekday, so that a really dedicated man can join all three and never find himself with nothing to do. The hunt season runs from mid-October into March (an informal training season for horses and hounds begins in September), and the hunt begins in the morning at 10 or 11. The hunters often go in motorcars to a selected farm a few minutes beforehand and park them on the grass beside the vans and trucks that have brought over the horses and hounds. The men, women and children who will hunt are all impeccably dressed, for fox hunting is unbending on this score and deviationism will not be tolerated or excused in anybody. "I saw a boy riding with his coat unbuttoned the other day," a Middleburg lady said recently, "and I wanted to throw up."
As time passes, the hubbub of assembly gains volume, what with the chattering of friends, the introduction and assessment of strangers, the snuffling of horses and the building excitement of the pack of hounds. Smart foxes within earshot do well to move out at this time, but usually one lingers and, with luck, is shortly discovered in a covert as the hounds take to the field followed by the horsemen. The chase then is on, and the up-hill-and-down-dale pursuit that goes with it is a sporting, dangerous, exhilarating enterprise for all concerned. That the fox is the odds-on favorite to get away scot-free bothers no one. It is the careering over the creeks and fences and through the trees that is valued more highly than the brush of the fox, and the better the run—which may be as long as 15 miles—the more desire to let him go and find him another day. Once a week or so, the exertions of the hunt are followed by a breakfast, so called regardless of the hour, and the menu leans heavily on the salubrious benefits found in ham and eggs and bourbon.
Apart from fox hunting, quite a social do is made in Middleburg each fall and spring for the race weekend, when more than the usual number of non-Virginians are seen on the sidewalks. The races of steeplechase and timber horses (which actually last only one day but serve as the excuse for a fair amount of dancing and partying) are held on Middleburg's Glenwood Park Course, through the courtesy of a wealthy town benefactor named Daniel C. Sands. Proceeds go to area hospitals, and the horses that run come from such horse-set outposts as Southern Pines, N.C., Camden, S.C., Ligonier and Unionville, Pa. The horses are appreciably below the caliber of those seen at major flat tracks in the U.S. but, then, people come to the races not to see Kelso and Carry Back but to see and be seen by one another.
Taking all this into account, the local chamber of commerce is prompted to say that Middleburg "is as quaint and unspoiled a community as one is likely to find anywhere in this modern world of jets and atoms," and it leads another citizen to say, "We don't want civilization intruding down here." But the worry is how long can Middleburg remain as it is? Virginia's Dulles International Airport has just opened halfway down the road to Washington, nearby towns are building up fast ("My God, they even have a golf course over in Warren-ton," says a Middleburger) and the Kennedys, now building a home there, have unavoidably put Middleburg where it least wants to be: in the prying public's eye. "We need a chamber of commerce like a hole in the head," says one landed lady.
Of course, we don't mind if others of the horsy set move in," Tom Furness explains, "because these people appreciate what we stand for and won't break up the farms into the small pieces that make fox hunting impossible." The president of the bank goes on to say: "On the other hand, if wage earners and people who work with their hands—aircraft mechanics, for instance-should begin to settle here—well, fox hunting and a very pleasant existence will be snuffed out."