Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Larry Lehew, Huntsman of the Rappahannock Hunt

But if thou needs wilt hunt, be ruled by me:

Uncouple at the timorous flying hare,

Or at the fox which lives by subtlety,

Or at the roe which no encounter dare.

Pursue these fearful creatures o'er the downs,

And on thy well-breathed horse keep with thy hounds.

-Shakespeare from "Venus and Adonis"

We live in an area often referred to as the "Virginia Hunt Country". This colorful collective refers to the various fox hunting clubs that dot the landscape. Prima fa├žie these clubs appear to be an anachronism of landed gentry and aristocrats. Their existence flies in the face of today's egalitarian, anti-elitist zeitgeist. Sporting tuxedo-like regalia and riding boots, hundreds of riders dash across the landscape, following hundreds of baying hounds who are in turn chasing a fleeing fox.

This description is slight hyperbole because you don't really have to be an aristocrat to join a hunting club. It just appears that way to an outsider. Fox hunters are not all old-money and blue blood. But Larry Lehew, joint master of The Thornton Hill Hounds, might fit the definition of an "aristocrat" for his family roots run deep in Warren County and his mannerisms are as eccentric as, say, The Earl of Suffolk for whom Shakespeare wrote his famous poem cited above.

In short, Larry Lehew is a fox hunter and well-driller who descends from Peter Lehew who founded the town of Front Royal in 1754. He lives in what might be the biggest house in Front Royal. Sitting high atop a hill on land that had been in his family generations ago, it is a monument to Larry's outsized personality. From here Larry can look down at his well drilling business, entertain friends with music that he sings himself, and look after any of the dozen plus horses that he owns.

The day I went to Larry's house I met his new horse that Larry had just paid $6,000 to fly over from Ireland. The horse had no name so I suggested "Patrick" after Saint Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland, and the former Roman slave. Larry and his wife Pam embraced the name in part because this was just three days before Saint Patrick's day.

Although the Lehew family at one time owned much of the land which includes modern Front Royal, Larry inherited not much and had to buy Bel Air, his house, together with it's 21 acres. The house is filled to the rafters with memorabilia from his 66 years of life. Part of it is Civil War museum'Larry gave my friend Ellen a Civil War era Minnie ball. Part of it is a rambling bar with dozens of decanters of liquor many of which are shaped like automobiles.

From Pam LeHew's office, Larry can look at over the area where he was born and grew up. Larry says "I can see house where I was raised, the high school where I went to high school, the church where I got married, and the courthouse where I got divorced. And I got a mausoleum up there at the cemetery."

Larry might embellish some of what he says. Using a more colorful phrase, Larry admits to coloring his stories with what General Norman Swartzcoff once called "bovine scatology". Yet Larry has documentary evidence to back much of what he says. For example, Lucy Buck was a 19 year old who lived in the house during the Civil War and was there to document the arrival of Robert E. Lee when the Army of Northern Virginia came to Front Royal on their retreat from Gettysburg. The state of Virginia has sanctioned that claim with a historical marker down at Lehew Drilling company which sits at the bottom of the hill below the house. Back atop the hill at Bel Air, Larry showed us his attic roof which was scrawled over with the signatures of the many people who visited the house over the years. During a house renovation, Robert E. Lee's signature was cut out with a knife, says Larry, so Larry had the whole roof there covered with Plexiglas to preserve what remained. I did not look closely but there were many signatures dating as far back as 1901.

The historical marker reads further "When General Lee returned from Gettysburg he drank buttermilk and rested at Bel Air, then the home of William m. Buck The home of Mr. and Mrs. S. Burn Downing Sr. since 1905 ,the house is the oldest masonry house in Front Royal." Larry adds "and the county too."

As to his claim that he only missed one day of school in 12 years he showed us his report card. It is on a wall filled with photos of friend and acquaintances that include the Virginia former Governors Dalton, Robb, andr Godwin. My favorite memento was a pair of the dilapidated shoes dipped in bronze. These belonged to Ellwood, the town drunk. Larry gave Ellwood money to buy wine. Larry says "Never wore no socks. Never wore no underwear."

Down at his office are more photos and letters to attest to the many people has known or has met. He has a photograph of himself and Jackie Onasis riding in the fox hunt together. Elizabeth Taylor penned a salutation on a photo of herself and ex-husband Senator John Warner. She thanking him for the gallon of moonshine that Larry gave her and wrote "I am smiling because I just had a nip of your special gift." Larry shared some of his peach flavored corn liquor with Ellen and myself.

There is a monument at the downtown gazebo in Front Royal that was erected by the Lehew family. It reads "Peter Lehew founded Lehew town in 1754. Incorporated to Front Royal 1788."

Larry certainly likes to have fun and draw attention to himself. He has a small fleet of Cadillacs and a 1937 Rolls Royce that he uses to drive friends to their weddings. To point the spotlight on himself and entertain his friends he sings in a band. Larry used to sing for $1,000 per night at the Charlestown horse race track where Larry sits as a board member. He gave us a copy of an album he made and said he had sold "dozens of copies". But he gives away many more.

Larry says he played at a restaurant in Winchester "for 20 years, 3 nights per week, one week per month.". Had two bands including one which was country. That including national fiddle champsion Buck Ryan. Jimmy Dean and Larry were pallbearers at the funeral. Willie Nelson did not show up because of a snow storm.

Larry says he hired a chauffer for $15 per night to drive him to his gigs "so I could drink a little bit and didn't want to drive home." The married driver had a mistress. The driver told his wife "I gotta go drive Larry" and used that as an excuse to get out of the house. Coming home the chauffeur wanted to sit in the back with his paramour and he would ask Larry to drive. Larry said,

"There's was something not right with this picture."

Larry says he has a ghost living at his house. Some people might doubt that, but the South in Virginia and elsewhere is filled with such tales. Larry says the PBS television network "interviewed me from 7:30 to midnight and they had me on for about a minute". The ghost's name is Lucy Rebeca Bach. She lived in the house during the Civil War. Larry says she was plain looking and unmarried. He says, "I have not seen her but the kids have. She plays tricks on us including turning rocking chairs around."

Last year was the worst drought that this region had seen in many years, so writing about a well driller is indeed timely. Charles Shepard, District Environmental Health Manager, said "From my perspective this was the most severe I had seen in 35 years."

People around the county are used to seeing Larry's big drilling rigs set up at farms and residential constructions sites. During last year's drought Governor Warner signed emergency legislation that let people drill wells without requiring a permit. Charles Spehard said no one actually did that because the bill said the well would have to eventually get a permit and might have to be moved if it did not meet legislative standards'that was too great a financial risk. Larry says Loudon County instructed him to ignore the governor by sending him a letter saying they would not honor this temporary suspension of the rules.

Much of the drilling that Larry does is for farmers. He says "I've done 100 [agricultural] wells in the past 3 to 4 years." One reason for this surge of business is the federal government pays 50% of the cost. Larry says "they used to pay more" meaning they would pay farmers over 100% of soil erosion and pond constructions costs.

Larry's brand-new drilling rig is a red Sarran rig with a towering drill assembly on the back. Driving it from Tennessee Larry worried that it would be overweight and he would be stopped by the police at the weigh station. The seller assured Larry that all his paperwork was in order. But at the Virginia weigh station the smiling officer said "You've only got a fuel permit." But the fellow added that the officer who would write the $1,500 fine had gone to court. Larry said "That's a good thing isn't it." And the officer replied "it's good for you."

When he's not drilling wells, working on his cattle farm, or singing, Larry can be found running the fox house. He describes the sport as "Fox hunting is an unusual sport I think because there are 40 to 50 to 60 riders, athletes; the riders riding 40 to 50 to 60 athletes, the horses; trying to follow 30 to 40 athletes the hounds; everyone trying to follow one athlete: the fox. No one knows the game plan except maybe the fox."

Larry was huntmaster of The Rappahannock hounds for 20 years until what he calls a "political disagreement" led him to split off from that hunt and form The Thornton Hill Hounds. This is named for Bill Fletcher's farm in Sperryville, Thornton Hill, where the hunters often meet. This farm is where the fox hounds are kept as well. Larry and his son Jeff are joint hunt masters and Bill Dodson is the huntsman. After the split Larry went around to many landowners in the Rappahannock Hunt area and secured permission to ride on a sprawling stretch of land that extends from Ben Venue on the Aaron mountain side of 729, across Eldon farms down highway 231 to State Mills on 707."

Larry says "We have the second largest hunt territory of any club in the country."

Bill Fletcher says he does not ride with the hunt anymore because of a motorcycle accident. Larry jokes that Bill lacks balance on either a horse or motor cycle. He says "Bill Fletcher would get on one side of the horse and fall off the other." Riding is indeed dangerous for Larry broke two ribs just this year as well as his collarbone.

I asked Bill Fletcher what is Larry's role in the hunt. He said, "Larry and Jeff Le Hew, Larry's son, are joint master's of Thornton Hill hounds. The huntmaster is head of the field. He is in charge of entire operation." Contrast that with the huntsman, Bill Dodson, who is charge of the hunting hounds. Of Bill Dodson Bill says that "He is half hound." Bill Dodson says of Larry. "He is a character."

Bill Fletcher continues, "Larry has been fox hunting 30 or 40 years--at least 30 years. He is a much better husband of the land than any other fox hunter I know. He is dedicated to the sport. He is respectful of the landowner's rights." By that he means the riders are careful not to ride over crops or tear up wet fields. The hunters alert the landowners to trespassers, sick livestock or anything else amiss and are careful to close gates.

Bill explains that the advantage to letting people fox hunt on your property is it keeps the trails up. "It's real important to do that in time of drought. If you had a fire and you didn't have fox hunting trails throughout the farm you would be in trouble".

Larry adds that fox hunting is good as well for real estate property values. He says "people always put in their ads 'located in the Virginia Hunt County'. Even the people who want to keep you off the land."

Copyright 2003 Rappahannock News. Reprinted with Permission.

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