“Some hunt to ride, others ride to hunt. I guess I lie somewhere in between. My favorite day is an early morning hunt in August. The sun is just beginning to stream through the trees, mist is rising along with the steam off the horses as we stand and listen for the hounds and the huntsman’s horn. It’s a spiritual thing for me. Nature at its finest.” As the honorary secretary for Rolling Rock Hunt describes her feelings on the hunt, she informs me that the tradition of Rolling Rock has carried over for eighty eight years.
Richard K. Mellon decided that it was time that foxhunting came to Pennsylvania in 1920. He and his family had spent a good deal of time hunting in places like Ireland and England(where it was seen as an upper-class activity), and decided to organize a club that would allow people in Pennsylvania to enjoy the sport. According to an announcement for the hunt, “The Rolling Rock Hunt has been organized by the members of the Club to promote riding and foxhunting (live and drag) in the vicinity of Pittsburgh…[and] to encourage horsemanship and to fill a much-needed want for an outdoor exercise in the autumn when other sports are drawing to a close.”
Mellon purchased two and a half couple (5 hounds) from Virginia, named himself Hunt Master, appointed several other Hunt members, and organized a drag hunt. A drag hunt is when the scent of a fox for the hounds to chase rather than chase a live fox. Mellon’s goal to begin foxhunting in Pennsylvania was questioned by many because according to Town & Country magazine, people in “Pittsburgh thought foxes should be shot.”
The Mellons wanted their venture to succeed, so they decided to buy the best hounds and horses to make their Hunt one of the best. In 1920, they traveled overseas to consult with the Masters of Foxhounds Association in England and Ireland to discuss buying well-bred foxhounds. These hounds were from the best breeding of foxhounds in all of England. They also purchased several horses while abroad. Because air travel didn’t exist in the 1920s, the Mellons arranged for the hounds and horses to be shipped over on an ocean liner. According to The Stewards of the Land, “to assure himself that they would be well taken care of, Richard K. Mellon arranged for their feeding with the ship’s head chef.” Once they arrived in the United States, the precious cargo was then shipped by rail to Ligonier.
In 1924, Rolling Rock Hunt was accepted by the Master of Foxhounds Association of America and Town & Country magazine proclaimed it to be “one of the finest in America.” Richard K. Mellon was given the honor of being one of the youngest Masters of Foxhounds (meaning he was in charge of the entire hunt). With this title, the Master of Foxhounds is privileged to wear a scarlet hunt coat. These coats are often referred to as “pinks” as a tribute to Mr. Pink who was known for tailoring them in London. Only well respected horsemen are given this honor to wear “pinks.”
The hunt itself continues to be an exciting endeavor, but in its origins, it was much more demanding on both horse and rider. During the hunt, the horses had to face many obstacles: natural obstacles (logs, limbs, etc), streams, man-made jumps, and post and rail fences. These fences range from one foot to four foot jumps. The Stewards of the Land states that “[t]he Hunt imported about thirty foxes a season, mostly from Michigan, and also raised its own ‘skulk’ of foxes. If the fox did go to ground, one member of the Hunt staff always carried a fox terrier in a specially constructed case to run it out. Two mounted ‘rail boys’ followed each hunt to keep the Farms’ post-and-rail fences in proper repair.” Since the Mellon’s were farmers, they respected the landowners’ property. The Mellons made every effort to keep them happy so the Hunt could continue to use the land to chase fox. The Hunt thanks its landowners, even today, by holding an appreciation party for them.
If a fox was captured by the hounds, members to whom this was there first kill were “blooded.” This tradition refers to taking the fox’s blood and smearing it over the hunt member’s face. While this may seem disgusting to some, it is a true honor to foxhunters.
The horses used for the hunt where mostly well-bred Thoroughbreds. This breed of horse is known for its speed and stamina. Some foxhunters felt that “in our country, a Thoroughbred is usually too hot (spirited) and lacks the bone for our hills and rough terrain. [Thoroughbreds] are often too impatient for single file trails and long periods of no galloping.” When the hunt first started, most members looked for speed horses to keep up with the fast-paced hounds. Now, the hunt isn’t as fast as in its yesteryears, so most members choose draft horse crosses. Draft horse crosses are a work horse breed, such as Percheron, Clydesdale, or Shire that are crossed with a light breed like the Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse. These crosses are heavy-boned, but still have the speed and stamina to perform well on the hunt.
Rolling Rock’s stable for the Hunt was first constructed in 1921, but with such a demand for more horses, a larger, more attractive stable was erected in 1928. “This 22,500 square foot Norman style building contains twenty-eight stalls, a tack room, veterinarian’s area, grooms’ quarters, food storage, equipment rooms, and a round tower room where the family displayed their growing collection of….trophies and…ribbons.” This stable’s architecture was so impressive that the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce named the Rolling Rock stable “the Best Domestic Building Erected” between 1925 and 1930. Rolling Rock Farms also had other stabling areas: Matthews Barn for 2 and 3 year old horses, Colonial Stables for hunt members’ horses, and the Golden Barn for weanling foals. The Mellons took great pride in the Farm and made sure that the horses had the best care.
The hounds’ kennels were also a pride of the Rolling Rock Hunt. The kennels “provided space for feeding, grooming, and treatment, and the dogs had outside runways for exercise. Model management kept the Rolling Rock kennel clear of a 1927 distemper epidemic that wiped out entire American packs” (Stewards of the Land). The hounds were mainly English foxhounds, but gradually American foxhounds were added into the pack. The Rolling Rock hounds travel in couples of two hounds. These hounds “have super type, uniformity, and big bones. They are the best of runners, model mannered, and under complete control” according to Town & Country.
Rolling Rock Hunt was extremely influential in gaining national attention to the small town of Ligonier. The Club was well-known as an upper-class organization. As stated in The Ligonier Echo, “[a] new era in the history of Ligonier has begun….Through the Club’s existence thousands of the nation’s prominent social leaders have come to know Ligonier. It is the valley’s most profitable and influential public medium.”
While the Mellons lost control of the Rolling Rock Hunt for a short time, in 1997, the family stepped in to rejuvenate the hunting tradition in Westmoreland County. The hunt now covers a 14 by 16 mile area of land, and the Hunt still honors the landowners with a party. Without the generosity of the landowners, hunting would not be possible. While the original hunt stable has been turned into condominiums, several other stables, including the Matthews Barn and Colonial Stables were maintained and continue to house hunt horses. The kennels are still the home to well bred English and American bred foxhounds. We no longer can “blood” members on their first kill, thanks to rabies and distemper scares. Rolling Rock also no longer stocks foxes, but rather allows them to breed naturally. The Rolling Rock Hunt focuses on the thrill of the chase rather than the kill.
The honorary secretary puts it best when she states, “[f]rom my first day out with the hounds, I was hooked.” Foxhunting has the ability to capture the hearts of those who are willing to give it a try. Because the “sport requires superb riding skills, stamina, discipline, fearlessness, a respect for tradition and proper behavior, as well as knowledge about the breeding of horses and dogs” (Stewards of the Land), foxhunting has continued to be an important part of Ligonier for eighty eight years.