A heart-stopping moment for a high-jump competitor, preserved in the Gerald Webb papers at the National Sporting Library
SOMETIMES you come across stuff you just have to share. That’s happened a lot in the last couple of weeks here at the National Sporting Library. I’ll be poring over dusty tomes from hunting history, or scouring a huntsman’s ancient scrapbooks, or perusing the leather-bound Country Life and The Field magazines from the last century, and something unusual or eye-catching will pop up. Most involve hounds but don’t really apply to my research. Some, like the Country Life photograph of a giant mushroom (37 inches in diameter!) that was labeled “Five Pounds of Edible Fungus,” don’t fit in anywhere. But these curiosities are too wonderful to let go. So they fit in here.
J. Mell, the oldest foxhunter of the time in North Carolina, photographed with his most unusual hunting horn
Like Mr. Mell here. There’s no telling what year he had his photo taken, but here’s what the back of the photograph said: “J. Mell, one of General Lee’s men, age 84, oldest fox hunter in North Carolina, wearing the horn which he carved from the horn of a steer captured by him from the Federal forces at Petersburg, Nov. 5, 1864.” That looks like a mighty nice Walker hound you’ve got there, too, Mr. Mell.
The silver collar was given in Madison County, Kentucky, "to the Fastest Foxhound in the State" at a field trial on April 25, 1866. It is lined in red leather and is fastened "by a small padlock with a secret spring by means of which its circumference may be adjusted to the neck of any Foxhound," according to its history. The field trial was held three times consecutively, and a foxhound named Rock, owned by Bill Terrill, won the coveted silver collar twice.
Some of the weirdest items in the National Sporting Library’s collection aren’t photographs. They’re words, stories, accounts of events that happened on the hunt field. Or in a Los Angeles office building. This is from The Sportsman’s Review in the early 1900s:
The chase began in the gymnasium on the third floor of the Knickerbocker Building on Olive Street near Seventh. It ended with the capture in a steam bath cabinet of a small but exceedingly spry and bloodthirsty beast of the cat, coon, or marten family.
For nearly two weeks the occupants of the big skyscraper have been mystified by tracks over the floors, desks, and furniture. The tracks were believed to have been made by an astonishingly large rat or a cat with a curiously shaped foot.
No glimpse of the strange animal was caught, however, until yesterday noon, when George Bartini, the jiu jitsu instructor in the establishment, opened a small dressing room in the gymnasium. Bartini has the reputation of being afraid of nothing, but when he opened the door he let out a yell that could be heard outside the building and made a dash for the stairway.
With brooms, fencing foils, Indian clubs, and other weapons, men chased the creature into a bath cabinet.
The hunt field, such as it was, managed to tip the creature into a cage, where “it barked much like a small and exceedingly peevish terrier and snapped savagely at any article stuck through the meshes of its cage. The animal is about two and a half feet long, brownish gray in color and has a long black-and-white ringed tail. ”
The verdict was that the quarry was a civet cat, but no one ever figured out how it breached the ramparts of the Knickerbocker Building.
If you think the civet cat sounded well dressed, how about Lord Ribblesdale (below)? The very essence of dash, yes?
The elegant Lord Ribblesdale shows how a gentleman dresses for hunting
The writing of the late 1800s and early 1900s was often clever and frequently florid. You could open The Field or Turf, Field, and Farm and find more words in a paragraph than most people put in a page nowadays. An example, from an 1873 story that led The Field‘s “Hunting” column:
“There is a story told, of the bygone three-bottle day, to the effect that an old gentleman, whose rubicund visage gave suspicious indication that his precepts as regarded temperance did not exactly tally with his practice, felt called upon to lecture his son on the vice of over-indulgence in stimulants.”
Got that? Essentially, he was a teetotal-preaching drunk.
For sheer beauty, it’s tough to beat the rare book room’s volumes of Daniel’s Rural Sports, the first of which was published in 1801. These were donated as part of the extensive and valuable collection that John and Martha Daniels donated. The leather covers surround inlaid watercolors on vellum. Together, the volumes are valued at $5,000, and it’s easy to see why.
A volume of Daniel's Rural Sports, part of the widely varied Daniels collection
Inside the covers of Daniel's Rural Sports, a history in bookplates
This volume tells some amazing tales of canine and hunting feats and also includes this nice sentiment: “Where has Zeal, Fidelity, Boldness, and Obedience, been so happily united as in the Dog? More tractable than man, and more pliant than any other animal, the Dog is not only speedily instructed, but even conforms himself to the movements and habits of those who govern him. Savage must that nature be, which can ill treat a creature who has renounced his Liberty to associate with Man, to whose service his whole life is devoted, who, sensible of every kindness, is grateful for the smallest favour, whilst the harshest usage cannot make him unfaithful; he licks the hand that has just been lifted to strike him, and at last disarms resentment by submissive perseverance.”
Feeling wrinkly? Consider Ulpian, who has, I assure you, got you beat in the wrinkles department.
Ulpian the Wrinkly
Ulpian, photographed in 1914, was one of many wonders to be found in Country Life‘s pages. This long-running magazine and its other British sibling, The Field, provided some of the most entertaining headlines and stories. I found a story this morning in an 1874 issue of The Field that discussed “The Octopus and Its Eggs.” Octopus? Eggs? Seriously? There was also a summary of a game–cricket, I think–between the Royal Engineers and The Wanderers; hard to imagine they were very compatible in temperament. The American periodical Turf, Field, and Farm also provided an impressive array of topics for its readers’ edification, ranging from “Strange Stories about Rooks” to “Gudgeon Fishing” to “A Wonderful Eel,” as well as a surprisingly riveting competition of “base ball” between the employees of the New York and Brooklyn post offices (presumably, their games were never called off on account of rain!).
Speaking of surprisingly riveting … It’s hard to tell who got more gussied up for this hound show, but they deserved to win–and they did!
While we’re talking about Country Life, how about this fellow? Word: you can’t beat the Country Life‘s letters to the editor department for obscure topics.
What the ... ?
I’ve also found a new artist to fall in love with. He’s not new (he lived from 1857 to 1927), but he’s new to me, and his name is Gustav Muss-Arnolt. The National Sporting Library has a group of nine hound paintings that Muss-Arnolt did in the 1890s, and they were my favorite things at the library. I will leave you with the largest of them, a portrait of a hound named Matchless who appears to personify the quality of sagacity that we always hear applied to hounds:
Matchless. Doesn't he look as if he sees right into your soul?
Needless to say, it will be hard for this houndblogger to leave the marvelous vault, shelves, and galleries of the National Sporting Library. Fortunately, I’ve stocked up on interesting stories that I can unwind over the next few months or years, so the National Sporting Library’s books, archives, photographs, and collections will continue to make regular appearances here.
Thank heavens we have such a priceless resource right here on our shores! I hope you will support them by joining, so that they can continue to help keep the history of field sports alive, thriving, and available to the public.