Aiken's 'Blessing of the Hounds' set to turn 100

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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- It's an Aiken Thanksgiving tradition almost as common as turkey and dressing. Each and every thanksgiving crowds gather for the Blessing of the Hounds near the Memorial Gate in Hitchcock Woods. This Thanksgiving, this tradition will turn 100 years old.

"This is probably the high point of the Aiken Hounds in their whole existence," says Aiken Hounds Joint Master Larry Byers.

Each year, after the blessing, huntsmen mount up for a fox hunt. It's an activity ingrained in American history. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were fox hunters.

"We're a drag hunt," explains Byers. "So being a drag hunt means that the quarry we hunt is a line that's artificially laid."

Recently, News 12 got a behind the scenes look at the preparations for this year's hunt. No foxes are harmed. Instead, you could say Bennett Tucker and Carolyn Rees-Potter are the foxes. The not-so-glamorous part of the hunt consists of the two of them taking turns walking through the thick brush dragging a rag coated in a mixture of fox urine, glycerin, and hot water.

"So they have to go out, they have to lay the line, they have to think like a fox," says Byers.

Then, there are the hounds. They're a full-time job for Katherine Gunter Dunbar, between training, breeding, shows, and hunting. She explains the dogs are mostly Pennmarydels, which, as the name suggests, originate from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware.

"Their nose is unbelievable," says Dunbar. "They know who stepped where 20 minutes ago and where that drag person went or where the fox went if they were hunting a real fox."

Finally, there are usually around 100 horses. Some groups of huntsmen, known as the first flight, jump fences. Others, like the group called the hilltoppers, prefer to watch on horseback. Hundreds more on foot, from near and far, do the same.

"Looking forward to it," says Dunbar. "I can't even imagine the crowd we're going to have on Thanksgiving."

"It's being out in the open. It's being able to watch hounds do what God made them to do," adds Byers.

Byers says the tradition of a blessing comes from the Patron Saint of Hunters, St. Hubert. Story says that as he was chasing a stag, a crucifix appeared between its antlers, so Hubert converted to Christianity.

Everyone is welcome at the centennial celebration. It starts at 11 AM at the Memorial Gate inside Hitchcock Woods. You can park near the Aiken County Historical Museum or closer to Downtown Aiken. Close parking is limited.

The museum will offer Bloody Marys and bagels before the event in nearby Hitchcock Woods. Donations will be accepted for the Aiken Land Conservancy during the 4th Annual Bloodies & Bagels from 8:30 AM to 10:30 AM.

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