In fox hunting circles, Melvin Poe is a legend. His skills as a professional huntsman, responsible for training, breeding and taking hounds out to hunt, are revered not just in Loudoun and Fauquier counties, but around the world.
He trains the hounds to follow the scent of the fox and at the same time obey his intricate commands played on a cow horn. He knows every nook and cranny of the countryside and can recite the lineage of each farm and its owners.
At 83, Poe is still out galloping up and down hills, crossing streams and jumping over stone walls and ditches.
For Poe, hunting began as a necessity, evolved into a profession and grew into a passion.
"There were 10 kids in my family, and if hounds jumped a rabbit while we were shucking corn, then we'd go get it for dinner," he said. "Some people hunt to ride, but I ride to hunt."
Poe grew up in Hume and never left that corner of Fauquier County. He still lives less than four miles from the farm where he grew up. He rode his pony to school during the week and went fox hunting on weekends. It was an era when boys collected eggs and milked cows before school and were taught to shoot anything the family could eat.
"I learned to shoot squirrels with a .22 rifle so as not to ruin the meat," Poe said. "Muskrat is the best-tasting meat you can eat. If it didn't have the word 'rat' in it, people would eat it. There's very little fat."
Poe got his first job as a huntsman after being discharged from the Army in October 1945, when Old Dominion Hunt hired him for $90 a month. It lasted until 1962, when he was fired over a woman.
Poe had met Peggy Johnson, a recently separated member of the hunt, who shared his passion for hunting. He had been married to Jane Carter since October 1942.
"They gave me three choices: keep working and not see Peggy; get fired and have a recommendation; or get fired and get one month's pay," Poe said. He took the last option, and he and Peggy were married in April 1963, after he was divorced from Jane.
"In those days, a member of the field did not fraternize with members of the staff," Peggy said.
Poe then accepted a $300-a-month job with the Orange County, Va., Hunt, then one of the most celebrated fox hunting clubs in the country. "The money wasn't important," he said. "I would have worked for nothing. I would have been miserable doing anything else."
But there was an air of animosity as Poe took over from the retiring huntsman. Around these parts, the status quo usually prevails. "Folks just don't like change," Poe said.
Poe found that his stirrups leathers had been cut one morning. He started having trouble breathing. He ended up in the hospital for two months with no health insurance. He went through psychoanalysis and scores of allergy tests, paid for by a generous, anonymous member of the hunt.
"When I got ready to leave UVA [University of Virginia] Hospital, the doctors couldn't agree if it was allergy or psychosomatic," he recalled.
Poe came out of the hospital rested and relaxed and eased back into his job. He went on to cultivate a legendary pack of ring-necked red American foxhounds with a signature red ring around the neck, a white chest and white on the tip of the tail.
In 1992, after 29 years, Poe retired as huntsman with Orange County. He stayed on as kennel huntsman, caring for and feeding the hounds, for three more years. But his career wasn't over.
He helped revive the Bath County Hounds for owner George Ohrstrom. They still hunt every other week over 5,000-plus acres in southern Virginia. In hunting circles, an invitation to join the group is highly coveted.
Poe's skills in the hunt field were captured on film in 1979 when Tom and Mimi Davenport of Delaplane produced the documentary "Thoughts on Foxhunting."
Peter Winants, former editor and publisher of The Chronicle of the Horse magazine, wrote an homage for aficionados, "Foxhunting With Melvin Poe," for Derrydale Press in 2002.
"Melvin types aren't going to be around in the future. He's a member of a dying breed. The way we live today, there are not that many genuine outdoorsmen," Winants said in an interview.
During the recently concluded season, Poe hunted as many as four days a week. He also has 20 cows on his 39-acre Ozark Farm and helps his wife with "Poe's Petites," a miniature-horse operation with 20 horses less than 34 inches tall. They are at the height of foaling season, and most newborns weigh five to 10 pounds.
Poe has a touch of arthritis in his hands but no big aches.
"I don't get tired while I'm hunting, but the next day I feel it," he said.
Poe attributes many years of using a chain saw and riding on noisy tractors for his poor hearing, now helped by hearing aides. He makes wine and gives it to friends, but he doesn't drink and has never smoked. Like many, he watches what he eats. So, to what does Poe owe his good health? Chocolate milk. "I drink a quart of two percent every day."
Poe feeds a treat to Woody, who carries him on fox hunting days. Melvin Poe: "Some people hunt to ride, but I ride to hunt."