Last Saturday was shaping up to be a perfect spring day for the Hytla girls. Douglas Hytla and her youngest daughters, 5-year-old Eleanor Rose and 7-year-old Hattye, went riding and picnicked. In the heat of the afternoon, the girls, and their ponies, took a dip in the pond at their Fauquier County farm.
In the late afternoon, Douglas Hytla sternly shooed the girls inside and set to the task of clearing a field of three-foot-tall grass near their house. But the sisters decided to play hide-and-seek instead, the family said, setting off a terrible tragedy that occurred when Eleanor picked a hiding spot in the path of her mother's tractor.
The little girl's death has prompted an enormous outpouring of sadness and support in Hume, a rural community in western Fauquier where dozens of friends, and even strangers, have driven down the three-mile dirt road leading to the Hytlas' Wheatfield Farm to deliver cards, condolences and food, the family said. Some neighbors are planning to start a scholarship fund, and a local market and firefighters are going to plant a rose garden for Eleanor, who will be remembered today in a memorial service at Leeds Episcopal Church.
"My Bush Hog, I hope, is buried somewhere far and deep, and I hope I never see it again," Hytla said of her mower. "I'll get through it because I have to get through it. I have three other children that need me, and I have to make sure they get up in the morning and go to school."
Hytla said it is impossible to imagine the farm, and her family's life, without Eleanor Rose, a smiling and energetic girl who was crazy about horses, dogs and chickens and considered honey buns among her favorite foods. Her love of animals extended to bugs, her family said, and she recently persuaded her father to bring two cicadas from Maryland because none could be found on the farm.
"She had this huge band of freckles across her nose and an impish smile," her mother said. "Five or six times a day, for no reason, she'd come up and say, 'Mom, I love you,' and then disappear and go back to her own business."
Eleanor was a talented rider who took her Welsh pony, named Seashell, riding with the Old Dominion Hounds, the hunt club her family has belonged to for years.
Gus Forbush, who along with Hytla served as joint master of the Old Dominion Hounds, said he recalls Eleanor riding in her mother's arms as a toddler. Before long, the girl had her own pony and was keeping up with the other riders.
"This 5-year-old could ride like the wind and just loved it," Forbush said. "She was just a wonderful child, bright and funny and full of energy."
Forbush said he is struggling to find the words for the eulogy he will deliver today. He said the Hytlas, incredibly devoted to their children, always stressed safety. The day of the accident, he noted, the girls wore life jackets as they took their ponies across the pond.
Hytla said that for now, she is leaning on her family, friends and neighbors. She said she's amazed at how many people have come to see her and her husband, David. In addition to Hattye, Eleanor had two other siblings, John Hartz, 14, and Medora Hartz, 16.
Visitors "stay with us just to hold us and laugh with us and remember," Douglas Hytla said yesterday. "All I can say to people out there is, go knock on your neighbor's door because you never know when something like this will happen."
When Eleanor's garden is planted, her mother said, the family will visit and add some of Eleanor's favorite flowers from the farm. Maybe, she said, they'll have some honey buns.