Riders saddle their horses outside white clapboard and green-shuttered stables designed by David Adler. Once mounted, the group trots down a winding tree-lined road. The men’s vivid scarlet coats contrast beautifully with the women’s crisp black coats. Their destination is a picturesque farm surrounded by fields of golden corn. They are greeted by the lilting sounds of a string quartet, the friendly smiles of spectators, and cups of warm port.
Under the glow of an early morning sun, all bow their heads as St. Hubert’s Blessing is read and St. Hubert’s medals bestowed. As the fog rises from the fields, thirty-seven hounds leap playfully when a local deacon sprinkles the pack with holy water. The Mill Creek Hunt Club’s Opening Meet has begun.
This same scene has been enacted since 1930, when the Mill Creek Hunt Club was established in Milburn, Illinois. The Mill Creek Hunt has been in existence since 1897 when it began at the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Illinois. Family names long associated with the Club—Wood-Prince, Hunter—are still represented among today’s riders and spectators. On this fall day, it seems as if the Mill Creek Hunt Club has been untouched by time The traditions of the hunt are deeply respected by the Club’s members. “We could do this in blue jeans and flannel but our dress pays homage to a sport that has centuries of history behind it. These colors also pay respect to those whose land we ride on, to the animals we ride, and the animals we pursue,” remarks Field Master Alex Kaplan of Glencoe. The traditions hold an allure for a diverse group of members: some young like Theo Yost, 9, and Ellie Sherman, 16; some lifelong hunters, like Chris Lane of Mettawa, the Club’s Honorary Whipper In, who began hunting at 10; and some social members, like Susan Cochard of Evanston, who treasures the friendships made at stirrup cups, hunt luncheons, and Formal Hunt Balls.
Yet, Mill Creek Hunt Club members are keenly aware of the challenges the 21st century poses for their centuries-old sport. Hunting requires large areas of undeveloped land; a particular challenge in an area surrounded by suburbia. Generations of landowners have generously provided the Club with over 7,000 acres of rolling, wooded farmland crisscrossed by creeks and dotted by log and wire fences. During the Opening Meet, Master of Foxhounds Roger Lane of Mettawa, encourages the riders to be “kind to our landowners by making as little tracks as you can” across fields soaked by heavy rains. Over the years, the roads surrounding this farmland have become busier as neighborhoods sprouted where crops once stood. Master of Foxhounds Keith Gray of Mettawa reminds riders to be especially aware of traffic.
Like many of the riders, he wears a protective vest connected to CO2 cartridges that inflate should a rider fall from the horse.
Communication plays an essential role in keeping both the riders and the pack safe especially when crossing busy Lake County roads. Handheld radios are carried by the Whipper-Ins and Road Whips, who help keep track of the pack. Both Whipper-Ins and Road Whips rely on horsepower, but of different types.
A Whipper-In rides horseback while a Road Whip is behind the wheel. “With the country being so densely populated and highly traveled, cars can get to an area much faster than horses can. If the quarry crosses the road and the hounds follow, we stop traffic so neither hounds nor riders get hurt,” explains Roger.
During every Opening Meet since 2007, Roger had ridden as Master of Foxhounds and his wife, Chris, had ridden as Honorary Whipper-In. Roger was paralyzed in a riding accident in October 2014. So, at this Opening Meet they ride as Road Whips in a customized handicapped-accessible Dodge Van. Ironically, Roger notes his accident happened while he and his horse were standing still. “I was in the ring on my horse. He bent down to nuzzle his hoof and then he gave me a big buck. I flew over his neck and snapped my own neck. After all the crazy hunts we have done all over England and Ireland on horses we’d never ridden, it is funny how it happened that way.
Rather than galloping across fields, the Lanes now follow the hunt by road. They stop often to listen to the sounds of the hounds or the Huntsman’s horn. Long periods of quiet, still time elapse. When Brenda Yost, Mill Creek Hunt’s Professional Huntsman, alerts them that the pack is “on,” Chris springs into action. She grips the wheel as she once did the reins, urging the van along with the same “tch, tch” she once used with her horse.
They arrive at the end of a gravel road to learn one dog has strayed from the pack. Roger listens carefully to the dog’s yelps from a nearby cornfield. He cannot see her through the thick cornstalks but Roger immediately knows the voice to be that of Lola. This is a familiarity born of regular contact between the Club’s members and the pack. As puppies, Mill Creek hounds are handled daily by both adults and children. Once the puppies are old enough, they are taken home by members to teach them basic manners and their names.
When a hound is no longer able to hunt, the hound is retired from the pack and moves to a member’s home. After Lola is retrieved, the hunt is ended. Riders return to the stables eager to celebrate at the hunt luncheon. There is said to be two types of riders—those who ride to hunt and those who hunt to ride. Both would have declared it to be a successful Opening Meet. The Blessing of the Hounds is a ceremony that dates to early medieval times. St. Hubert, the patron saint of the hunt, was born in the middle of the 7th century. A bit of a rascal and a devoted hunter, he had a spiritual awakening on the morning of a hunt.
As a result of his experience, he dedicated his life to God and the Roman Catholic Church.
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Conveying much of the sentiment of fox hunting, the Blessing of the Hounds goes beyond the hounds themselves. The prayer gives thanks for the beauty of the land, asking all who participate to be good stewards of the land and of the animals entrusted to their care. The blessing even extends to the quarry, asking not only that he may be cunning and give good sport, but that he may escape to run another day.
By Morgan Hogerty
Photography By Rick Myslinski