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Thanksgiving Meet – Horses, Hounds and Foxes Before Turkeys – A Countryside Tradition

President George Washington proclaimed Nov. 26, 1789, the last Thursday of November that year, to be a “day of public thanksgiving.”  

What is known as the “Gentry”, in New Jersey they held fox hunts on Thanksgiving Day. Fox hunts were not exclusive to the holiday — the horses and hounds trained all year long, and fox hunting was very much a fall sport. In Montclair, the Hunt Club had to pay property owners for any damage the horses and hounds did to their property.  

It was practical to wait until after the harvest to “run the hounds” so there wouldn’t be any damage to crops.  Just before the hunt started the riders and hounds would go to a point about a mile away from the fox’s cage, where they would be given the scent, taken from the fox’s paws.  

Before the Turkey, you have to go stroll in the New Jersey countryside to the Essex Fox Hounds annual Thanksgiving Day Meet.

We saw the post on Instagram from Turpin Realtors last night reminding me of the story that was written by the late Jack Turpin on an event that has been going on for over a century. Back in 1910 – Charles Pfizer and his wife Nana E. purchased the John S. Miller farm, a 128-acre farm and Miller house, just off Holland Road near Vliettown, in Peapack, New Jersey. The farm had once been owned by John Honeyman, the grandson of John Honeyman, a noted spy for General Washington during the Revolutionary War. FYI, Honeyman also had another farm on Long Lane in Bedminster.

Many don’t know that Peapack was once part of Bedminster. Every year since, the annual Thanksgiving morning event has happened near what is now the home to the Essex Fox Hounds. That same year, Charles Pfizer and Ken Schley brought out the hounds for their first event in the new location – The Somerset Hills.

The First Essex Fox Hounds hunt in the Somerset Hills – The Fro-Heim estate of Grand Schley. The property is currently owned by the Far Hills Race Meeting Association of Far Hills, New Jersey and the current site of the Far Hills Race Meeting.

Ellistan Estate and the Essex Fox Hounds Thanksgiving Meet

Held every year since 1910, the Thanksgiving Meet is a holiday tradition that has been held at various properties over the years at places like Hamilton Farm, Burnt Mills Road, Holland Road. Since around 1931, the event has been hosted at the Ellistan Estate near the EFH clubhouse up the road in Peapack.
Take Holland Road to Fowler Road, it’s immediately on the right – can’t miss it!

Today, the annual Essex Fox Hounds (EFH) Thanksgiving Day meet, a festive local tradition is held at Peapack’s Ellistan estate, currently owned by Hank and Sarah Slack. While riders, neighbors and spectators prepare to gather and send off the pack, hot toddies in hand, let’s look back at the history of its elegant host estate: Thanksgiving morning is filled with family traditions, one of which has become the annual Essex Fox Hounds hunt held at or near the Ellistan Estate every Thanksgiving morning since at least 1910 when once neighbor Charles Pfizer relocated the Essex Hunt Club from Montclair to Peapack.

Completed in 1931, Ellistan was built for the family of Francis Edgar Johnson (1883-1968), whose avid interest in equestrian activities, particularly polo and foxhunting with the Essex Fox Hounds, brought them to the area in 1927.
Eventually, the estate came to comprise nearly 150 acres, which were developed as a working farm, as well as stables filled with polo ponies and hunters. Outbuildings included a nine-stall stable with attached two-story groom’s house and a five-car garage with chauffeur quarters above.

Source: In the Somerset Hills-The Landed Gentry
Ellistan, the storied estate designed by Musgrove Hyde and constructed in 1930 of topaz-colored stone. Ellistan South facade showing the white garden. The garden was designed in the mid-1980s.

Sited on largely open rolling pastures that stretched northward toward the Essex Hunt clubhouse and stable property, the Norman-style residence known as Ellistan features a high, steeply pitched roof, large dormers and tall chimneys, and is faced in mottled brown stone from Preen’s quarry near Whitehouse, New Jersey.

Original interiors were furnished by E. Louise Vanderbilt, a Johnson cousin, with many of coming from a castle in Austria. Subsequent decor was undertaken by the illustrious New York firm of Parish-Hadley, founded in 1930 by Far Hills-native by Sister Parrish. The grounds at Ellistan have been enhanced over the years by design that is both thoughtful and serendipitous. During the Great Depression, an unsolicited visit to the Johnsons by a man with a truckload of young trees resulted in what is today an apple orchard.

The estate is located on Fowler Road, named after Arthur Fowler, the first secretary of the Essex Hunt Club and one of Charles Pfizers partner bringing the Essex Hunt Club to Peapack. At the Far Hills Race Meeting, the New Jersey Hunt Cup is actually called the Arthur Fowler Trophy, who was actually the first winner of the New Jersey Hunt Cup back in 1915. Arthur was also the first Secretary of The Essex Fox Hounds, which became incorporated in 1913.

More recently, formal gardens and garden rooms were installed to incorporate the wider landscape and create spectacular views of the open countryside.

Thanksgiving Meet Gallery

Blessing of the Hounds – Another Seasonal Tradition

Back in 2007, before there was a Mr. Local History, there was just a local looking for fun historic events to go to. One day he ran into a few riders on a Bedminster side road and started talking. Next thing you know, I was invited to what’s known as the “Blessing of the Hounds,” a Thanksgiving tradition.

Once a very private event, now social media invites the community to join the Essex Fox Hounds to their annual “Blessing of the Hounds.” Starting at 10:30am Thanksgiving morning, it only lasts for a half hour or so, get there early.

Additional Information

Fox hunts were first organized in Montclair by the Montclair Equestrian Club in 1876.  They maintained their horses and dog kennels on Orange Road.  In 1880 they changed their name to the Montclair Hunt and moved the stables and kennels to the Sadler farm on Grove Street.  There continued to be strong representation from Montclair in its membership and on the board.  In 1910 the organization moved out of the area completely. It became known as the Essex Fox Hounds, with headquarters in Bernardsville.

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