Friday, September 17, 2010

The Sun Also Rises in Chincoteague

In researching my posts on Howard Pyle’s Chincoteague trip, I found two letters from a Baltimore Sun correspondent, who visited the island around the same time. The first was printed on Thursday, August 17, 1876 (two days after Pyle’s first Chincoteague article appeared in the Wilmington Daily Commercial), and the second on Monday, August 28, 1876. As would be expected, they cover similar ground, and they also confirm - and call into question - some of Pyle’s observations. The correspondent, who signed his pieces “N.E.F.,” turns out to have been Norval Emmet Foard (1837-1906), who was associated with The Sun for almost 40 years. Here is a little from his point of view:
The Sun, Baltimore, Thursday Morning. August 17, 1876.


An Island World and its Inhabitants - Epicurean Living - Beach Ponies and their History - Interesting Sketches, &c.

[Correspondence of the Baltimore Sun.]


Having heard so much about Chincoteague since coming to this part of “the Shore,” I concluded that Chincoteague, which is an island on the east coast of Accomac, Va., must be a sort of pony paradise. Eastern Shoremen had told me that Chincoteague was a world within itself, having the best things to eat that the air, the earth and the sea afforded. I found that the Delawarians made up excursions to the Mecca from Georgetown and even from Wilmington, and that several trains a week ran down to the island, and that the islanders were always getting up a pony penning, a pony sale, a camp-meeting or some other divertisement as an attraction to allure visitors. So I determined to go to Chincoteague....
Indeed, the Wilmington Daily Commercial had noted that Chincoteague’s annual sheep-shearing would be held June 7, and (in the July 24 issue) that excursion trains would run to the island during the camp-meeting (held, evidently, August 5-17) and also that “special” excursion trains would run on the day of the penning (which day was not specified, but it was supposed to occur during the camp-meeting). Clearly, the place was not a well-kept secret. Now back to Foard:
I chose Sunday for my trip knowing that although the camp-meeting on the island had been closed there would be Sunday services in the pine grove where the camp had been held. Hiring a country conveyance, with no back to the seats, I drove from Ocean City to Berlin, where at 9.30 A.M. an excursion train from Delaware, comprising four coaches, and freighted with peninsula belles and beaux [or about 150 travelers in all], came along, and by eleven o’clock had reached the jumping-off place, which is Franklin, on the Boundary line of Worcester and Accomac....
By “Sunday” does Foard mean August 6? Or August 13? I think August 6 as he goes on to say, “Last week there was a penning of some thirty [ponies].” Also, Foard’s dateline was Wednesday, August 16; Pyle’s was Saturday, August 12, and Pyle referred to “the occasional penning of the ponies, or driving them into corral, one of which took place during our visit last week.” I assume they both meant the same “last week” and attended the same penning. Since Foard arrived midday Sunday and, as Pyle noted, “it was quite early in the morning when the penning came off,” I’m inclined to think it occurred between Monday, August 7, and Friday, August 11.

Furthermore, Foard’s Sun letter of August 28, shows that although Pyle reported on a pony-penning that summer, it was not the annual pony-penning as has been suggested or stated by Pyle himself and by some biographers - several of whom (starting, I think, with Charles D. Abbott in 1925) have also said that Pyle’s visit was in Spring 1876. Foard, again:
The Chincoteague annual pony-penning, occurring this year on the 23d and 24th of August, attracted many excursionists from Delaware and some from Baltimore. The recent completion of the line of railway to Franklin, and the employment of steam in the navigation of Chincoteague sound, are progressive steps in opening up this hitherto but little frequented section, which possesses attractions for sportsmen as well as for business enterprise. Chincoteague is now within easy reach of Baltimore and Philadelphia in a day, and large excursion trains from Wilmington, Georgetown, or Harrington, Del., to Ocean City or Chincoteague Island have been of frequent occurrence nearly every week this summer.
Maybe the precise date of Pyle’s particular penning will be found in one record or another, someday. Adding to the confusion is Foard’s statement that “the camp-meeting on the island had been closed,” whereas the Commercial stated it would be held August 5-17. Pyle, meanwhile, didn’t mention the camp-meeting in the Commercial, but in Scribner’s Monthly:
Sharing the interest with the pony penning is an occasional camp-meeting in the woods, occurring once in a year or so. In among the great pines of Chincoteague is a noble place for such a gathering, when at night their huge trunks are illuminated by the light of the “pine chunk” bonfires, in the gleam of which the distant trees flash forth for a moment and then vanish into obscurity again, - and when the solemn measured chant of the Methodist hymns is heard and the congregation sways with the mighty religious passion that stirs them, while over all hang lurid wreathings of resinous smoke.
Pyle certainly sounds like an eyewitness here, so maybe Foard was mistaken, or maybe Pyle was describing Foard’s “Sunday services in the pine grove.” (Or, yes, there’s always the chance that Pyle made more than one visit, which would render moot much of all this hand-wringing.)

Foard’s second Sun letter does, at least, corroborate the presence of Otto Lugger (1844-1901), who later became State Entomologist of Minnesota. Pyle called him “Otto Leugger” in the Commercial, but he is an unnamed “learned naturalist from the Baltimore Academy of Natural Science” and “the professor” in Scribner’s Monthly. Foard says:
In addition to sportsmen several widely known scientific men have during the past few weeks made Chincoteague the scene of their investigations, with valuable and interesting results. Mr. Otto Lugger, curator of the Maryland Academy of Sciences, has spent two weeks pursuing scientific research under the direction of Prof. P. E. Uhler, president of the academy, who also spent five or six days in the interesting field offered to the enthusiastic naturalist. Capt. Caulk, a Chincateager, who is given to kindred pursuits, says Mr. Lugger is the quickest bug catcher he ever saw, and that he has an eye as sharp as a microscope.
Other parallels can be found, but, over all, Foard, the well-seasoned journalist, is more generous - or just objective - and less prone to comic exaggeration and condescension than Pyle. He introduces Kendall Jester, for example, but doesn’t touch on his drinking. And here is his take on a typical Chincoteague home:
As their houses were all open to enjoy the cool air from the water the interiors were fairly exposed. In a ramble that took in thirty or forty small dwellings there were none which did not reveal a family party comprising parents and three or four children, with here and there a single aged relative seated at the little family board, the mother busily ministering to the wants of the family. Each dwelling had but one large room on the ground floor, an attic overhead, a back building for cooking, a little meat-house, pantry or safe in the yard put up on one or two posts, and in many cases an arbor or small shade tree, under which the table was spread. All the exteriors of the dwellings and fences were neatly whitewashed. The front room, in which the large high post family bed, protected with mosquito netting, stood the conspicuous article of furniture, was invariably a model of cleanliness. The bed clothing was of snowy whiteness, and the housewife’s hands appeared in many bright specimens of patchwork, while the husband’s taste was apparent in colored prints of marine subjects or trophies from the bay associated with his calling.
But Foard’s style is also much less evocative: compare the dramatic sweep of Pyle’s prose with this brief, bland description of (presumably) the same event:
Last week there was a penning of some thirty head belonging to the estate of a deceased testator for sale. The herd were driven by mounted riders down the beach into the enclosure, where the squealing, kicking, biting and tumult was immense. In order to catch and reduce or break them, the lasso had to be used, and a fight, in which several men engaged with each pony, was the invariable result. Breaking is always a difficult matter, but when finally accomplished and the mastery secured the animal is always characterized by docility afterwards....
And, according to Foard, the annual penning held later that month was even more dull:
The pony-penning was not so interesting as former occurrences of the kind are represented to have been. The ponies, several hundred of which were driven up from the beach, showed the wildness of any unrestrained stock, though there were but few that appeared desirable, and these were held at very high rates. In catching the animals after they were driven to the corral, Kendall Jester, who is a large and powerful man, employed a slip-noose, which he put over the heads of the wild ponies, and a great deal of kicking, neighing and dust, but nothing exciting in the whole business.
Well, we know what Chincoteague did for Howard Pyle, but Norval Foard seems to have been relatively uninspired by the place. Still, a more thorough side-by-side comparison of their respective reports would be useful to chart out, one of these days.

No comments: