Chincoteague takes me back to my youth

Published 9:44 am Friday, July 20, 2012

Guest Column
 by James D. “Archie” Howell

It’s the middle of the night; I rub my eyes awake, get dressed and get to the kitchen.

My brothers are there before me; it’s about 3 a.m.

Food is packed and ready. The car — we have one now — has been gassed, checked over and is waiting in the driveway. We load up and head toward Franklin in the darkness.

The war is over, gas is readily available, and people travel. We’re going to see the pony roundup at Chincoteague.

Few lights are visible in our neighborhood. The Rural Electrification Association has made great progress in bringing electricity to small villages and rural areas, but power is not cheap and widespread illumination for security is not yet at the forefront of farmers’ thinking.

Most outside lights are a single bulb mounted on a pole. Some REA members read their own meters and send in the proper payment. Imagine that.

Franklin sleeps; we have the streets mostly to ourselves.

I nod off and awaken as we stop at the Kiptopeke Ferry landing just south of Virginia Beach. We’ll take the ferry across the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and land at Kiptopeke on the Eastern Shore.

It’ll take about an hour and a half for the crossing. This is one of the first ferries of the day; it’s still dark outside.

After boarding, and the ferry is under way, we are permitted to leave our vehicles; I can explore.

The boat has a large passenger-waiting area for those without vehicles, and a large refreshment counter at one end, with all kinds of food and beverages for sale.

I pass through, and outside a side door, is a large container full of cans. The labels read Hornung Beer. They sell a lot of Hornung Beer on this boat.

It’s just getting light outside; sunrise is not far away. It’s going to be another warm, hazy, summer, Virginia seashore day.

We arrive at Kiptopeke and start north.

Chincoteague is an island almost to the Maryland line; roads are not crowded, and travel is easy. We leave the main road and cross a short bridge onto Chincoteague Island.

It’s mid-morning. Signs abound with pictures and words about Misty the Chincoteague, advertising products and places. The signs refer to the popular book “Misty of Chincoteague” by Marguerite Henry.

The book is instrumental in making the pony swim a tourist attraction. We check for the scheduled swimming time and learn it will be around noon.

We kill the short time sightseeing around the small village and find a place to park fairly close to the small beach where the ponies will arrive.

The ponies occupy Assateague Island, across a narrow neck of water from Chincoteague village.

Nobody knows exactly how they arrived on the island. Some say a ferry capsized and the horses swam to shore; others say early settlers were trying to avoid taxes by raising their livestock in the wild.

The horses shrank to pony size because of the limited diet. The herd belongs to the village fire department today, and every year, in the summer, a roundup is held.

The ponies are herded across that narrow stretch of water and into a corral. There they are examined and evaluated and a decision is made as to which will be sold and which will be returned to Assateague.

Our place to view the swim is right next to where the ponies will leave the water. After a short wait, a horse and rider appear on the far shore and enter the water.

Following close behind is the herd of ponies, stretched out in a narrow column by men on horseback. They enter the water and swim, ponies and mounted horses alike.

They pass so close I could reach out and touch them. I’m enthralled, and it seems like only seconds pass, although I know it must be longer.

We move away from the beach area and visit the corral a short way down the road. There we can have a longer, lingering look at the herd.

The auction will occur later today, but we decide not to wait; it’s a long way home. The trip is uneventful; I sleep most of the way. It’s well after dark, almost bedtime, when we arrive.

I’ve yet to read “Misty of Chincoteague,” but I had a visit, in passing, with her family once. I found them to be animated, attractive and gentle spirited.

Each time I see a pony in pictures or in person, I’m taken back to a small island in northeastern Virginia, and once again I’m staring with excitement at ponies swimming and people cheering. I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at