The ponies bring the people

Chincoteague: The population of this island on Virginia's Eastern Shore swells tenfold each year for the famed pony penning.

July 25, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. - They crammed the shoreline looking out across the channel for hours yesterday morning, some standing in the mud, others waist-deep in the marsh and muck. They watched from boats and golf carts, from horses and ladders.

They came to see the ponies.

On the Wednesday before the last Thursday in July everything stops for them. In a tradition more than 75 years old, 150 or so ponies are rounded up on the southern tip of Assateague Island and herded into the water for a quick swim to shore.

Once they arrive they are treated like royalty, with an escort from the "saltwater cowboys" of Chincoteague's volunteer fire department and a parade through town.

"Some people say it's like Christmas. I've called it the Chincoteague Super Bowl," said carpenter Mike Ault. "It's this one event where everyone's huddled around to watch. There's this large anticipation.

"It might rain, but there's too much at stake - it's still on. When it hits slack tide, it don't matter, they're going."

The fortunes of Chincoteague and its ponies are deeply intertwined - even more so in the years since Marguerite Henry published her children's book, Misty of Chincoteague, in 1947. Her story was based on the true tale of a pony she purchased on the island for $150. When the book was released - and the motion picture followed - people started coming in droves.

The pony swim became the signature event in this town of 4,000 - which swells to four times its size most summer weeks, 10 times or more on the morning the ponies take their dip. It's this town's one big day in the sun.

"You can call people anywhere - we call vendors, professionals from all over the country - they say, `Oh, Chincoteague. That's where the ponies are,'" said James West, Chincoteague's town manager and a resident since he was 8 years old. "It is our identity."

Some locals skip town during Pony Penning Week. They complain that the two-lane country roads were not designed for all these minivans and SUVs at once, that there are only so many parking spots at the grocery store.

But mostly they understand it's the pony swim that has drawn people to Chincoteague instead of the other small towns up and down the Eastern Shore. While oyster processing and chicken farming used to fuel the economy here, tourism is now king.

It's a quiet, family-oriented beach town, quite unlike Ocean City and Virginia Beach, without the ticky-tacky shops and chains that make so many places look the same.

But that's starting to change even here. There's a McDonald's on the way to the beach. There are two new chain hotels, including a gleaming Hampton Inn that opened last week and was booked solid this week.

Before the 1920s, the only way to get here was by boat. There is still just a two-lane drawbridge connecting Chincoteague with points west. That, too, might change. Construction on a new bridge is scheduled to begin in 2004 - but a state budget crunch could push that back.

The debate over where the new bridge would go and what it would look like has been raging for years - even dividing families. Some residents worry that too many people will come if it is built.

"We've still managed to maintain a lot of the Old World charm we've had for years," said Donna Mason, who 15 years ago closed her family's waterfront oyster shucking and processing business and put up a motel in its place.

"But if you've never been here before and you end up here by accident [this week], you'd say, `Whoa. I thought this was a quiet little town.'"

The ponies, which live across the channel on Assateague Island, have been owned and cared for by the volunteer fire department since the 1920s.

To keep down the size of the herd, as required in an agreement with the federal government, 80 or so foals will be sold at an auction that begins at 8 a.m. today.

All proceeds go to the fire department - which has two of the nicest buildings in town. It's the company's main source of funding. There is no fire tax levied here.

Last year, the auction took in more than $166,000 - one person spent $10,500 on a pony. The average sale price of a pony has more than quintupled since 1988.

Lara Pickett desperately wanted one last year - and probably every other year since her mother started bringing her as a child. But the bidding got too rich for the 21-year-old college student.

The Frederick woman is ready this year. She has been saving like mad. She drove down with her horse trailer so she could take her new baby home with her.

How high is she willing to bid? "High enough to get one."

"We're buying a pony," she said matter-of-factly. "There's only one place to get true and bona fide Chincoteague ponies. You can't just run out to the island and pick one up."

Pickett already has four horses. "There's just something about the Chincoteagues - even the wild ones are tame. They're true American ponies."

Or maybe not. The legend heard most often in these parts is that they are descended from ponies that swam ashore after a Spanish shipwreck. It's more likely, though, that the ponies can trace their ancestry to ponies that were grazed on the island in the 17th century by those seeking to avoid taxes and strict fencing requirements on the mainland.

The ponies might get Chincoteague noticed, but it's the kayaking and bird-watching and beach-going that keep people coming back to the Leonard family's Refuge Motor Inn much of the summer.

Proprietor Donna Leonard appreciates the business. She appreciates the love of Misty that brings them in. Still, she's ready for tomorrow - the day the remaining ponies swim back to Assateague and disappear for another year, as do many of the visitors.

"It's very hard to feel road rage in Chincoteague - but it's possible this week," she said with a husky laugh. "Friday is sort of my personal celebration - `OK. Back to the sweet life.'"

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