Memorial Gate and The Blessing of the Hounds

Will Cole’s book The Many Faces of Aiken tells a legend about the woods in Aiken. An Indian chief was told in a dream to take his seriously ill daughter, of whom he was most fond, to the land of the rising sun where she would regain her health. He transported the princess on a litter until he came to the land of whispering pines through which ran a river of sand. Sand River, in Aiken, has been regarded as a place of health and healing since then.

Whether or not the legend is true, Sand River does run through the heart of what became known as Hitchcock Woods. Over a period of years beginning in about 1892, Thomas Hitchcock and William Whitney bought approximately 8,000 acres of land. A portion of that land eventually was placed in a permanent trust for the people of Aiken to enjoy as the undisturbed “land of the whispering pines.”

One of the entrances into Hitchcock Woods is through the Memorial Gate, located on the west side when entering from the junction of Laurens Street and South Boundary, and just a little north of Sand River. In 1929, this brick gate was erected as a memorial to Francis Hitchcock by several of his friends. Just past the Memorial Gate are acres of gently rolling hills, sandy cliffs and many varieties of trees.

Blessing of the Hounds

memorial gateEvery Thanksgiving weekend for almost a century, a celebration takes place that brings together local people, some descendants of the winter colonists and many holiday visitors to Aiken. “The Blessing of the Hounds” is a ceremony that has its roots in a centuries-old tradition.

Hubert, the first bishop of Liege, is reputed to be the originator of the Blessing sometime between 656 and 727 A. D., near Brussels, Belgium. On Good Friday morning, as the story goes, Hubert went hunting and suddenly came upon a huge and impressive stag in the forest. When Hubert finally cornered the stag, it turned and he saw a vision of a shining cross caught between its antlers. He immediately converted to Christianity and set out for a life dedicated to God. Hubert became the patron saint of hunters (along with mathematicians, archers and metalworkers).

Since that time, hunters have celebrated the Feast of St. Hubert each November, first with The Blessing of the Hounds and then with a hunt, followed by a large breakfast. Over the next twelve centuries, the hunt passed on to England where the nobles (royalty) hunted the stags and the gentry (aristocrats) hunted the fox. Fox hunting was supported by the Anglican clergy as “an antidote for the aggressive sins of the flesh.”

Foxhounds are large hunting hounds that follow their prey in packs and have an acute sense of smell. Their natural instinct is to find foxes—hence their name. During the last century, the Hitchcock family founded a group called the Aiken Hounds. The “hunt” initiated by The Blessing of the Hounds does not actually involve a live fox.

Scent of a Fox

Although red foxes do still live in Hitchcock Woods, the scent of a fox is “dragged” through a trail in the woods for the hounds to follow. What ensues is a lively chase over some of the best terrain in the world for a drag hunt. The mixture of sand and clay in Hitchcock Woods adds an element of sure-footedness to this somewhat dangerous sport.

The drag hunt season continues every Tuesday and Saturday in Hitchcock Woods throughout the winter. The Aiken riders still dress in the same hunter green jacket that Mrs. Lulie Hitchcock designed almost a century ago, and follow their pack of foxhounds on the scent.