Chasing Misty of Chincoteague—the world’s most famous pony after Black Beauty—down to a barrier island in Virginia is probably not everybody’s idea of a vacation. But as an English major, I romanticize all authors who create novels that had a huge impact on my life. And I am among that tribe who consider children’s books to be transformative*. So after I was vaccinated this spring, I booked a hotel reservation in Chincoteague in May.
My pilgrimage is to an island named Chincoteague (pronounced shing-kuh-teeg). The Indian meaning of the word Chincoteague is “beautiful land across the water.” And I can assert that as I travel across the bridge from the “mainland” to this “island hideaway,” I find a charming place.
Misty’s (not Marguerite’s) Home
Still let’s be clear. Marguerite Henry, the author of Misty of Chincoteague and sequels (Stormy, Misty’s Foal, Sea Star, and Misty’s Twilight), was not born and did not live in Chincoteague. (Henry hailed from Michigan.) But there is no doubt that this island was Henry’s creative home.
Her connection with a real-life palomino mare named Misty started with a suggestion from her editor to write a children’s book about Pony Penning Day held on the last Wednesday and Thursday in July in Chincoteague.
The island’s firemen (known as the saltwater cowboys) round up the wild horses and ponies and swim them over to Chincoteague. The foals are auctioned. The stallions and mares are rounded back up and returned to their wild home on Assateague. The first modern-day Pony Penning Day occurred in 1924. It was a fundraiser for the newly established Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. (You can still see the historic brick fire stations on Main Street but they are no longer in use.)
But according to locals, the practice of penning dates back centuries. It was a way for livestock owners to catch and harness their loose herds. According to locals, it became an annual event by the 1700s. The earliest known description of Pony Penning was published in 1835.
Buyers as well as the curious gallop, trot and lope to Chincoteague each July to witness the “Pony Swim” and Auction. Sadly, the pandemic resulted in 2020 as well as 2021 Pony Penning Days being canceled. But you can still visit the Chincoteague Wild Life Refuge to hunt for the wild ponies. The cost is $20 per vehicle unless you have an NPS park pass.
Miss Molly’s Inn
When Henry decided to write a children’s book about the annual festival, she needed to race down to the island. She then spent two months living at Miss Molly’s Inn on Main Street writing the beloved Misty of Chincoteague novel. It was published in 1947. (You can even book the grand room where Marguerite Henry stayed and wrote the famous book Misty of Chincoteague.
This book can still bring tears to my eyes about how two orphan children can save enough money ($102) to buy a wild horse named The Phantom and her foal Misty at Pony Penning Days. Her young protagonists Paul and Maureen Beebe come to live at Pony Ranch with their grandparents after their parents died. Grandpa Clarence sells ponies. The children earn money by helping Grandpa “gentle” the ponies—never “break”—who will be sold to families living on the “mainland.”
Wild Spanish Horses
Now in the novel, Paul spins a story for his younger sister Maureen about how the shipwreck of a Spanish ship off the coast of Virginia brought the horses to Assateague. Two hundred & fifty years later, these wild horses roam the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland and Virginia.
But the National Park Service warns that it may be only be a legend:
“Local folklore describes the Assateague horses as survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast. While this dramatic tale of struggle and survival is popular, there are no records yet that confirm it.”National Park Service
Rather the wild ponies may just be descendants of horses that 17th-century settlers from the mainland raised on Assateague Island to avoid fencing laws and taxation of livestock.
But there is the possibility that the 1750 wreck of a Spanish ship off the coast of Virginia may have resulted in the horses swimming to Assateague. Robert Watson lived on Assateague in the 1700s and was considered an expert on the island’s wild horses (who were described as ponies due to their small size). His descendant, Victoria Watson Pruitt, believes these horses came from Spain, as opposed to the mainland. She wrote, “Some people tried to discredit the story of the Spanish shipwreck as a source [from] which the ponies came. Others would like (now that the ponies are famous and have made Assateague and Chincoteague the talk of the entire country for beautiful ponies) to claim the honor.
“But go where you will, up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, from Maine to Florida you will not find the ponies. In fact, Assateague is home of their forefathers and it’s good enough for them.”Victoria Watson Pruitt (descendant of
Whether the wild ponies were owned by the colonists or the Spaniards, I may never find out. But I do know that a real-life pony named Misty lived in a stable on the island. In search of more information, I decided to stay overnight in Chincoteague to investigate Misty’s home. Before I even unpack my suitcase, I download the Misty of Chincoteague book tape on my Scribd app on my iPhone. The soothing narration of Henry’s beloved book about the mischievous Misty instantly transports me to another realm. I race out the door to start exploring Main Street.
While the island’s fame dates back centuries as the home of “Chincoteague oysters,” Misty put it on tourists’ maps in the 1960s. And I feel like the world is passing a little slower—a saunter rather than a sprint—in this town of 4,000 citizens. I roam down Main Street observing the couples walking hand in hand. Children run around the waterfront park. There’s an old-time book store called Sundial Books with used copies of children’s books for sale.
Horses don’t saunter through the streets but they show up everywhere—store windows, town signs, and posters. But the bronze statue of Misty of Chincoteague takes the place of honor at the Robert Reed Waterfront Park. It captures the pony’s significance to the island.
Henry’s Misty novel ran away and won the Newbery Honor Awards. And then the movie moguls in Hollywood took notice. They came to Chincoteague to make the heartwarming 1961 movie—Misty of Chincoteague—and turn children everywhere into her biggest fans.
Misty’s Hoof Prints
Misty’s fame as a movie star is memorialized at the Island Theater. To kick off the Twentieth Century Fox premiere of “Misty,” the horse was led down Main Street by Ralph Beebe (son of Clarence and Ida Beebe).
“In front of the Island Theater Misty put her front hoof prints in the cement, and Marguerite Henry wrote Misty’s name in the cement underneath.”Chincoteague.com
Misty’s hoof prints can still be found on the sidewalk in front of the newly renovated Island Theater. I stare in utter joy to see Misty’s hoof prints pressed into the cement outside the Island Theater. And the cursive scroll of Misty’s name makes my own heart leap like a pony over a fence.
The Island Theater is still in operation. So if you stay in town over a weekend, you might want to buy some popcorn and watch a movie.
Misty left the island in 1946 after Henry convinced Clarence Beebe to let her keep the pony. Henry shipped the pony to her home in Wayne, Illinois. Many families made pilgrimages to meet the real-life pony.
“If a troop of Scouts or Bluebirds arrived on a pouring-down, drenching day, we brought Misty into the house where she shook hands all around and posed obligingly for all the Brownie cameras that came out of pockets and bags.”Marguerite Henry
Henry published A Pictorial Life Story of Misty based on her experiences. Without question, Misty was her muse. She stayed for a decade with the author before being returned to Chincoteague so she could bear foals. In 1961, Misty again rocketed to fame with the release of the Misty movie.
One of my favorite parts of the movie is the crowd scenes, such as the Penning Day carnival, featuring local children. If you watch the screen credits, the Community of Chincoteague is recognized.
Chasing Wild Dreams
Since I first read Misty of Chincoteague to my children over two decades ago, I have wanted to see the wild horses living on the historic seashore in Maryland. Looking back, I am not sure why I never found the time to drive three hours to Assateague National Seashore. I certainly wanted my kids to see the wild horses. But I think stories of the traffic jams to Ocean City in July dampened my enthusiasm. I regret it now.
If I could go back in time, I would pack up my kids in our family van and spend a long weekend. Seeing the wild ponies gallop along the beach or woods would have electrified us. I can picture us reading the book again in our hotel room. But no matter. I still had the chance to visit Misty’s “hometown” and experience Chincoteague’s community this year.
And Misty follows me in my imagination. Like any good children’s book author, Henry implanted her little pony in my mind.
“Why not dream your own wonderful sequels? When you have finished a book, it can go on in your mind, the characters doing just what you want them to do.”Marguerite Henry (Dear Readers and Riders)
Misty of Chincoteague Foundation
During my visit to the island, I learned about the Misty of Chincoteague Foundation from my walking guide from Step Through Time Tours. (I highly recommend booking this downtown walking tour; it is 5-star!) It turns out that a little girl named Becki Giusti helped save the land where Misty had lived from being sold to developers.
“The Misty of Chincoteague Foundation was able to raise the money needed to purchase Misty’s homeland on Chincoteague Island. The mission of the Foundation is alive today to promote literacy, writing, and conservation of places that allow the imagination to soar unfettered. The Misty of Chincoteague Foundation, founded in 1990, is a group of educators, professionals, business people, artists, and children of all ages, worldwide and on the Island of Chincoteague.”
I am not alone with this fascination about horses. My colleague Wendy Ahlm visited Chincoteague annually with her parents. In fact, her career as an artist was launched in elementary school when she would only draw horses. Her teacher gave her a B in art because she wouldn’t try any other subject. She wrote a lovely blog called For The Love of Horses about why horses are her spirit animal.
“I’m not sure why I settled on horses as my childhood spirit animal. Perhaps it was their size, big eyes, curious nature and grace. Or perhaps it was our annual summer vacation to Chincoteague Island in Virginia, home of the wild animals. For whatever reason, I dreamed of horses. I breathed horses.”Wendy Ahlm
Like Wendy, I have been obsessed about horses since I was a little girl. I didn’t actually get to ride a horse until I was in my 20s. But I am always grateful that my love of horses merged with my love of travel writing. My first experience was riding a horse in the foothills of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I will never forget our morning chuckwagon breakfast at sunrise.
I think we are all anxious to start dreaming again about where we want to travel and what we want to do. I have set a goal to visit the homes where some of my favorite female authors lived. High on my list is Charlotte Bronte’s parsonage home (Haworth, West Yorkshire, England), Emily Dickinson’s The Homestead and Evergreens in (Amherst, Massachusetts), Jane Austin’s museum house (Chawton, England), Lucy Maude Montgomery’s childhood home (Park Corner, Prince Edward Island) and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s historic home and museum (Mansfield, Missouri). And I just crossed off my list seeing Marguerite Henry’s Chincoteague (Virginia).
Where in the world do you want to travel?
** I highly recommend the purchase of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. It is written by Bruce Handy. I wholeheartedly agree with Handy who wrote that “one of the unexpected joys of parenthood . . . was reencountering books from my childhood that I had loved and that, much to my relief, I found I still loved.”
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