The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company announced April 25 on its Facebook page that it is joining the Museum of Chincoteague Island’s efforts to save the Beebe Ranch from possible redevelopment.
The beloved local ranch was the longtime home of Misty, the pony that put this tiny Virginia island on the map with help from Marguerite Henry’s 1947 book “Misty of Chincoteague.” Generations of Misty’s descendants have also lived at the ranch over the years.
The historic fire company, which raises funds every year through the island’s annual carnival and Pony Penning Day auction, plans to hold a special benefit online auction of a special “buyback” foal June 9-14. Proceeds of this sale will go toward the purchase of the Beebe Ranch, which the museum now has under contract.
‘We wanted to help’
“In support of saving the Beebe Ranch, the fire company felt compelled to help, but our sources of normal fundraising [the carnival and Pony Penning Day auction] don’t occur until after the Museum of Chincoteague needs all funding to be in hand,” the announcement reads. “A few thoughts were tossed around, but the general feeling was still that we wanted to help–the question was just ‘How?’
“Then an idea arose…COVID-19 brought us a tool that not only saved the fire company during COVID but set records for auction totals. That’s right, you guessed it: the online pony auctions! So, with special consideration from some members of the Pony Committee, it has been decided that we will choose ONE foal that will be sold as a BUYBACK in a one-time online auction with all of the proceeds going to help save Beebe Ranch.”
The announcement goes on to state that the fire company’s goal is “first, to choose a foal that is a good fit for the herd. Then, the next priority, if we are able, is to have the foal be a direct descendant of Misty or at the very least look like Misty. The purchaser would of course be granted the right to name the foal, which will become part of our herd and live its life in the wild.
“We are extremely excited to see what this foal brings and encourage everyone to start spreading the word near and far!”
Horses with a history
Contrary to their name, Chincoteague ponies and horses actually come from Chincoteague’s close barrier neighbor, Assateague Island (half of which is in Maryland and half is in Virginia), or are descendants of these same animals.
Assateague is home to two herds of feral horses separated by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia line. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service, while the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia herd.
Hardy and resilient creatures, these ponies and horses have thrived there in feral conditions for centuries. According to local lore, they are the descendants of Spanish horses that survived a 16th century shipwreck, a theory supported in part by a recently discovered DNA link. Some might also descend from horses brought to the barrier islands in the late 17th century to avoid fencing laws and livestock taxes on the mainland.
Pony penning had become an annual custom on these barrier islands by the 18th century, primarily as a means for livestock owners to claim, brand and tame these roaming animals.
In today’s version of Pony Penning, which starts on the last Wednesday before the last Thursday of every July, Chincoteague’s “saltwater cowboys” herd the feral ponies and horses from Assateague Island across the channel to Chincoteague. The ponies and horses, which had been checked by a veterinarian prior to their swim, are then “paraded” to the carnival grounds, where the foals are auctioned off on Thursday. The next day, the rested adult ponies make the return swim to Assateague Island.
The auction of these foals helps keep the overall size of the Virginia herd at a sustainable level. However, a few select foals may be designated as “buybacks.” These foals are auctioned with the stipulation that they will be donated back to the fire company and returned to life on Assateague. Interested parties sometimes form groups to purchase a “buyback” foal, with the average price reaching well into the five figures in recent years.
Chincoteague’s modern-day Pony Penning owes a great deal to the formation of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. “After a string of disastrous fires in the town of Chincoteague, the villagers realized their firefighting equipment was seriously inadequate,” the fire company’s website relates. “In 1925 the town authorized the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to hold a carnival during Pony Penning to raise funds. That year over 15 colts were sold to benefit the fire company, and the carnival was a huge success.
“Bolstered by the interest in the pony swim, visitors began arriving from across the country for the annual penning… the increased revenue from the carnivals and auctions enabled the fire company to modernize its equipment and facilities, and in 1947 it began to build its own herd by purchasing ponies from local owners. They moved the herd to Assateague where the government allowed publicly owned, not private, herds to graze on the newly established Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.”
In the spirit of “giving back,” the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company uses some of its annual auction proceeds to ensure that the island ponies and horses in its care receive veterinary attention throughout the year.
According to the fire company’s announcement, more information about the Beebe Ranch benefit auction will be shared as it becomes available. For updates, visit the fire company’s website or its Facebook page.
If you want to help but can’t bid in the fire company’s special auction, donations may also be made through the Museum of Chincoteague Island website, GoFundMe or by mailing a check payable to the Museum of Chincoteague Island (noting the donation is for the Beebe Ranch) to P.O. Box 352 Chincoteague Island, VA 23336.
Landing page image of Assateague Island horses by Aschen/iStock.