A McDuffie County icon turns 40 this weekend.
The Belle Meade Hunt that begins the first weekend of each November started in 1966 with Pete Knox and James Wilson.
The yearly Opening Meet and Blessing of Hounds ceremony is the largest in the world with hundreds of spectators. That is something the two founders didn't plan. They just wanted to combine several of their favorite pastimes.
"They both loved to ride horses, and they loved to get together with lots of folks and go out and have a good time," said the late James Wilson's son, Epp, who is the honorary huntsman and one of three masters of the fox hounds.
From its simple beginnings, the Belle Meade Hunt has become one of the most prominent of hunts. James Wilson's widow, Ruth, remembers the first blessing ceremony when the hounds didn't even know they were supposed to stick around.
"The hounds really didn't know exactly what they were supposed to do, and they just disappeared before we got to really have a ceremony," she said. "They were anxious to get out there and chase."
At the first Opening Meet, Epp Wilson said several people were interested in following along and becoming spectators while the hunters chased after the game. James Wilson made the first wagon - called the Tally Ho wagon - with old school bus seats on the chassis of a '43 Ford.
Mr. Knox had a second one commissioned for the next year called the Tally Ho Ho. A third wagon was made for the following year called the Tally Ho Ho Ho. Now people bring their own wagons as well as plenty of food and drink for the day's journey.
"We try to give them a taste, try to do some hunting in close enough proximity so they can see what's going on," Epp Wilson said. "They like to see the horses canter by. They like to see them take jumps. They like to see the kids riding. It's very family oriented."
He added that several factors have made the hunt so successful. The topography and climate are conducive to fox hunting, he said. Also, generous land owners allow the use of 35,000 contiguous acres where most hunts have access to around 6,000 acres.
Mrs. Wilson said the best part of the entire event is the people that get added to her fox hunting family with each new hunt.
"We have met hundreds of wonderful people, and they're not just horsemen but their families," she said. "‚Ä¶We have friends all over the country as a result of the hunt contact."
Though she didn't participate on horseback, Mrs. Wilson has played a huge part in the hunt each year taking care of her husband and four sons as they rode.
"I did pleasure riding out here at the farm with the family and enjoyed that. But I wasn't crazy about the fast business," she said. "I always felt as if I had to be available to nurse them through their various mishaps."
And they have been through several just such mishaps racing through the McDuffie County woods and fields.
"The only thing between you and disaster is a handful of leather and the grace of God," Epp Wilson said.
For the many involved in the hunt, it is a lifestyle. Opening Meet and the new hunt season is something that they look forward to with great anticipation.
"We hunt like we mean it. We're serious about our fun, and we ride hard, and we ride long," Epp Wilson said. "‚Ä¶Some like football. Some like golf. And all that's fine, but fox hunting is the thing that races my motor. The music of 60 hounds in full cry hot after a coyote makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck."
This year's activities surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Belle Meade Hunt include breakfast at Boots Hall on Saturday from 8-10 a.m. A barbecue following the hunt will take place at Boots Hall at 3 p.m.
A live "pre-game show" starring MFH Charlie Lewis and Jim Hicks, Sr. will take place at 10:30 a.m. to inform the crowd what to expect, where to stand or sit to get the best views, as well as some old hunt sories.
The blessing ceremony - a 1,200-year-old tradition - takes place at the Larry Knox home at 11 a.m. with Father Ed Frank who has served as the hunt's chaplain for all 40 years. The ceremony is free to the public and lasts about 20 minutes.
Epp Wilson wants all the former staff and riders to dress out, participate in the ceremony and receive their St. Hubert Medal.
"Since this is the 40th year, we want to recognize them for all they did to help make Belle Meade the success it is today," he said.
Tickets for a spot on the Tally Ho wagons are for sale in advance. Call Angela Smith at White Columns, 595-8000 for more information.