- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Kendy Allen remembers the first time she read “Misty of Chincoteague,” the book that has sparked the hopes and dreams of many a young girl who longed to own a horse since author Marguerite Henry wrote the story in 1947.

“I just loved it,” says Mrs. Allen, a self-described “horse-crazy kid,” who swears that her first word was “horse.”

“The love of those books really influenced my choice of career.”

Today Mrs. Allen, a former school librarian from Manheim, Pa., runs the Chincoteague Pony Centre along with her husband Keith, whom she calls a “horse atheist who has been brought into the fold.”

There, they showcase Misty’s descendants and veterans of the celebrated annual pony swim, roundup and auction, an event that dates in one guise or another to the 1700s and in its present form to the 1920s. The watery stampede across the channel to Chincoteague from the tough little horses’ grazing lands on neighboring Assateague Island takes place on the last Wednesday in July — that is, next Wednesday.

And now, Mrs. Allen is even penning her own new stories of the Misty family, due for release this fall.

The real-life Misty

The famed pony that gave Chincoteague its extra cachet was a real foal born on Assateague in 1946. Driven across the channel that year with her dam, she was spotted by Mrs. Henry, an Illinoisan who was then on the island researching a book on the annual pony penning.

The author bought the pony from the Beebe family and had her shipped to the Henry home outside Chicago, where Misty lived until 1957, when Mrs. Henry decided to return her to Chincoteague to be bred.

Long-time islanders Donald Leonard and his wife, Martha, hooked up a trailer to the back of their truck, took off for Illinois and brought the pony home to the Beebe ranch. Misty died on Chincoteague in 1972.

Today, Mr. Leonard and his family run the Chincoteague Pony Farm, surrounding a house built way out “up the neck,” on the island’s north end. They also own and operate the Refuge Inn in town.

And the Leonards’ daughter Donna, who started working as a preteen collecting minnows for the tourist trade, has her own memories of the celebrated horse.

“I can remember feeding Misty,” she says.

Eyes on the ponies

Today there’s no way to ignore the pony herds that make the swim from Assateague each July.

“You can’t really talk about Chincoteague history without talking about the ponies,” says Lorraine Faith, director of Chincoteague’s Oyster and Maritime Museum.

Two herds, each numbering about 150 horses, now roam free on the Assateague Island National Seashore for most of the year. The one on the north, or Maryland, end is managed by the National Park Service; that on the south, or Virginia, side of Assateague is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

It’s the latter brood that will make the crossing next Wednesday from Assateague, home to 38 miles of wildlife refuge and pristine beach. That’s when Chincoteague’s population of some 4,300 swells by 40,000 — the number of folks who come to see the ponies make the trip. Proceeds from the sale of the ponies at the auction that follows benefit the fire company.

“It’s something everyone should see at least once,” Mrs. Allen says.

A bit fatter than a conventional pony thanks to the amount of salt in its marsh-grass diet, the wild version of the Chincoteague pony is about 12 to 13 hands high (a hand is 4 inches), with a gentler disposition than similar horses, which makes it a perfect pet for youngsters fresh off their first “Misty” read.

Chincoteague ponies raised on regular feed may grow as tall as 14 or 15 hands. By comparison, regular horses range from 14 to 17 hands.

“It’s a good children’s pony,” says Mr. Leonard, who has been raising the little horses since he bought his first one back in 1937, when he was 12.

“For a child to take care of any animal is a good thing — and good therapy,” he says. “All of our children and grandchildren have had ponies.”

Fact and fantasy

“Legends, now — they go deep down and bring up the heart of a story,” says a character in “Misty of Chincoteague.” And the long-standing pony legend, retold by Mrs. Henry in the “Misty” books, has it that the ponies were descendants of Spanish horses who survived a shipwreck off the coast in the 1500s.

But even Chincoteague folks acknowledge that this is pure romance. Most likely the animals spring from horses that early settlers set loose on Assateague, which even in the 1600s was home to a variety of freed farm animals.

“I don’t want to upset tradition, but I have my own theory about where they came from,” says Mr. Leonard, whose roots run long and deep in the sandy soil of the island. “I think the early settlers brought them.”

Today on uninhabited Assateague, purchased piecemeal by the federal government — in 1943 and 1965 — for a wildlife refuge, birds mark the passage of time and place in this, a major stop on the Atlantic flyway.

“Assateague is just like a busy airport,” says Ms. Leonard. “It’s like they’ve got a billboard over there that says ‘all you can eat.’ It starts with the ospreys, then the shore birds, and in the winter we have thousands of geese. You can see all the different flocks coming in.”

An island sui generis

But there’s more to Chincoteague than just Misty, even if the famous pony still holds pride of place around town.

From its pre-Revolutionary roots to its staunch defense of the Union during the Civil War to the special brogue of longtime “Teaguers” (the moniker given to those who were born and raised on the island), Chincoteague is sui generis. In fact, it takes more than just one old pony to make this place run — and then some.

“There’s a certain atmosphere here that’s different, more relaxed,” says Donna Leonard, who grew up on the island but said she never realized how special it was until she left.

“People tell me all the time about the ‘need for Chincoteague.’ It still has that small-town charm.”

Doing it their way

Teaguers have their own way of doing things. For years they had to, because they were essentially cut off from the mainland; the bridge arrived only in 1922.

The isolation is reflected in the way born-and-bred islanders refer to off-islanders: “Misty” author Mrs. Henry, for example, was not only no Teaguer, she wasn’t even a “Come Here,” the term used to denote those Johnny-come-latelies who have made the island their home after years spent somewhere else.

During the Civil War — despite being Virginians — Teaguers voted solidly to remain in the Union, which left them surrounded by enemy territory.

That was when Captain Edward Whaley Sr., a War of 1812 veteran, reportedly shouted, “I will defend the old flag to my last drop of blood, against the lazy, slave-holding aristocrats and their lackeys in Richmond.”

A number of Teaguers went on to serve during the war, including Mrs. Mary Thornton Young, who enlisted along with her husband and did duty as a cook. Several black Teaguers served in the United States Colored Troops.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the markets for their oysters and clams tended to stretch in a northerly direction. The USS Louisiana was quickly dispatched in order to ensure that the goods got out and to protect loyal Teaguers from sniper shots from the Confederates on the mainland.

For years afterward, notices appeared in Northern papers stressing the delectability of Chincoteague’s “patriotic oysters.”

Or patriotic “arysters,” as a Teaguer himself might say. That’s another things that make Chincoteaguers unique: they tend to pronounce the English language a bit differently from everyone else.

Call it “Chincotalk.” “Fire” becomes “far.” “Stir” becomes “steer” and “downtown” sounds like “danetane.”

And don’t expect directions with the words “east,” “west,” “north” or “south.” Teaguers travel “up and down” the island. East and west don’t hardly matter here, since Chincoteague is only about 1½ miles wide.

History and change

In the early days, Teaguers penned sheep as well as ponies. Mr. Leonard used to help out with that chore when he was a youngster.

“Back then everybody was poor as church mice,” he says. “There was no such thing as rich people.”

There were, instead, “characters,” like Mr. Leonard’s renowned forebear Kendall Jester, an island landowner who trained his horse to take him home after a night of drinking around town.

But travel Chincoteague from tip to tip, and you’ll get another lesson in history and change. The oyster industry, which produced about half a million bushels a year in the 1870s and sparked the infamous “oyster wars,” between rival companies, is mostly gone now, with just a few shucking shacks still standing.

The chicken industry, which once employed hundreds of Teaguers, lingers on only in a couple of street signs and a few memories, a victim of a violent Nor’easter in 1962, known as the Ash Wednesday Storm.

Misty’s last foal, Stormy, was born during that blow — but other creatures didn’t do so well.

“All the chickens drowned,” Ms. Leonard remembers. “And afterward, people didn’t want to go back into the chicken business.”

A character in Mrs. Henry’s third book in the “Misty” series, “Stormy, Misty’s Foal,” published in 1963, sums up the devastation succinctly: “They was all drowned, two thousand little baby chicks.”

After the tempest, tourism became the primary focus on the island, thanks in no small measure to the popularity of Misty and the ponies.

Today those modest tourist homes once run by middle-aged widows and maiden aunts have given way to bed and breakfasts, chain hotels, and a few comfortably old-fashioned and scrupulously maintained trailer parks.

Miniature golf courses and ice cream stands dot Maddox Boulevard, the center of new commercial development. Downtown, Marguerite Henry’s own tourist house, where she stayed when writing “Misty,” is now Miss Molly’s Inn, resplendent in summer flowers and a Victorian aesthetic.

Meanwhile, new development is replacing long familiar landmarks with upscale condos and luxury residences.

That special pony

What has changed hardly at all is the pony penning, at least since the local volunteer department took over the duties in the 1920s. There’s a carnival, run by the volunteer fire department just as in the Misty stories.

And the same “saltwater cowboys,” a longtime cadre of firemen and friends, still await the call of the U.S. Coast Guard, via smoke signal, to know when the tide is slack so they can start ponies on their 1,000-yard swim from Assateague to Chincoteague. That means some folks wait for the ponies for 10 hours or more.

While they wait, youngsters still prod their parents to buy them that one special pony. Of course, the prices have gone up: $2,255 was the average cost last year, compared with $340 in 1988. And there’s a buy-back program now that allows ponies to be returned to the wild. The ponies themselves are carefully monitored by veterinarians throughout the year.

Once the ponies arrive on land, they are guided down the beach, onto the street and into the carnival grounds. On the way, they’ll notice a few things that Misty’s compatriots never saw, including a new skateboard park and some brand new condominiums crowding the route.

But all the new development doesn’t bother Mr. Leonard or his family.

“I still remember the smell of the oyster houses and the chicken shacks,” he says. “We think tourists smell better.”

WHAT: The 81st Annual Chincoteague Firemen’s Carnival, Pony Swim and Auction

WHERE: Carnival grounds, Main Street, Chincoteague

WHEN: Carnival began June 30, runs through July 29 (closed July 22). Opens at 7 p.m. most nights, with stage entertainment most nights at 11 p.m.

INFORMATION: Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce at 757/336-6161 or chincoteaguechamber.com/pony-events/ev-pony.html

WHAT: The Chincoteague Pony Swim

WHERE: Ponies swim Assateague Channel at Chincoteague Memorial Park on the east side of the island. No parking at Memorial Park. Free parking at Chincoteague High School on Main Street, with free Pony Swim Shuttle service from high school to swim site.

WHEN: July 26, upon notice of slack tide, usually between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. Pony Swim Shuttle service from the high school begins at 5 a.m.

INFORMATION: As above. Volunteer guides available on swim day.

WHAT: Pony Penning and Auction Day

WHERE: Carnival grounds, Main Street, Chincoteague

WHEN: 8 a.m.-noon July 27. Ladies’ Auxiliary dinner 11 a.m. Other carnival events begin at 6:30 p.m.

EVENT NOTES: Pony buyers must provide proper transportation (a horse trailer) and secure valid health certificates for transportation across state lines. Ponies must be picked up by 5 p.m. July 28.

INFORMATION: As above

WHAT: Ponies’ return to Assateague

WHERE: Assateague Channel

WHEN: Time to be announced, July 28

INFORMATION: As above

Places to visiton the islands

The Chincoteague Firemen’s Carnival, Pony Swim and Auction offers the perfect springboard to an exploration of Chincoteague’s tourist-friendly attractions and Assateague’s natural solitude. Whether you head there this week or hold off until a less-crowded season, here’s a guide to both islands and more. Meanwhile, all the “Misty” books are still in print.

Misty and Chincoteague

• Beebe Ranch: 3062 Ridge Road, Chincoteague. The stuffed Misty, along with her famous offspring Stormy, can be seen here near the home of Misty’s original owners. The ranch also has several live incarnations of the Misty line, including Angel, a fifth-generation Misty descendant, and much Misty memorabilia. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. May 2-Sept. 16. Special hours for pony penning week. Admission charge. 757/336-6520

• Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce: 6733 Maddox Boulevard, Chincoteague. Has information on hotels, restaurants, wildlife tours and the like. 757/336-6161 or www.chincoteaguechamber.com

• Chincoteague motorized trolley: Can’t walk the island? The island’s motorized trolley can take you to all the major stops. Trolley runs daily from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Cost is 25 cents. You can also take a one-hour guided tour, except during pony penning week. Those tours take place every Wednesday until the end of August at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. Admission $3 adults, $2 for children 12 and under.

• Chincoteague Pony Centre: Chicken City Road, Chincoteague. Kendy and Keith Allen’s showcase of Misty family ponies and swim veterans for riding lessons, pony rides, and a full range of Misty memorabilia. Summer hours 9 a.m.-10 p.m.. Closed Sunday. Pony rides 9 a.m.-1 p.m., 3:30-6 p.m. Riding lessons 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Chincoteague Pony Show, 8 p.m. Youngsters can attend pony camp and pony art lessons are available for all ages. 757/336-2776 or www.chincoteague.com/ponycentre

• Chincoteague Pony Farm: The Leonard family has Chincoteague ponies for sale. By appointment only at 757/336-1778 or 757/990-1772. Write PO Box 907, Chincoteague, VA 23336. See www.chincoteagueponyfarm.com

• Oyster and Maritime Museum: 7125 Maddox Blvd. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. in summer. 757/336-6117 or www.chincoteague.com/omm.html

Assateague Island

Assateague Island encompasses three major public areas: Assateague State Park, managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources; Assateague Island National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service; and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Park Service operates visitor centers serving both the Maryland and Virginia ends of the island.

• Assateague State Park: Enter via state route 611 south of Ocean City. Swimming, surf-fishing, and surfboarding areas. Administrative headquarters at 7303 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, Md. 410/641-2120 or www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/assateague

• Assateague Island National Seashore: Cross the southern border of the state park and head for the National Seashore entrance station. Administrative headquarters at 7206 Seashore Lane, Berlin, Md. 410/641-3030 or www.nps.gov/asis

• Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: Cross to the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center on Assateague via the Maddox Blvd. causeway. Located mostly on the Virginia end of Assateague, the refuge is home to white-tailed and Sika deer along with an astonishingly diverse collection of birds. PO Box 62, Chincoteague, VA 23336. 757/336-6122 or chico.fws.gov.

Wallops Island

• NASA Visitor Center: Building J-17, Route 175, Wallops Island. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., closed Tuesday and Wednesday until June 1, when it is open daily. Free. 757/824-2298 or www.wff.nasa.gov


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