AIKEN — One of Aiken’s most cherished and unique traditions turned 100 on Thursday.
The Blessing of the Hounds – the formal start of the drag hunt season for the Aiken Hounds – was held in Hitchcock Woods as hundreds gathered on a crisp, clear Thanksgiving Day morning.
The ceremony to give hunters and their animals safe passage originated in the eighth century with St. Hubert of Liege, patron saint of hunters.
In Aiken it began in 1914 when the Aiken Hounds were founded, and the annual blessing has evolved into a Thanksgiving Day tradition for the fox hunt club.
“It’s been 100 years,” said Linda Knox McLean, one of the hunt’s three joint masters. “It truly is amazing.”
The ceremony was held at Memorial Gate, which is dedicated to Thomas Hitchcock’s brother Francis. It was Thomas and Louise Hitchcock who started the Aiken Hounds and helped acquire the large tract of land so it could be enjoyed by future generations for equine activities.
Today, Hitchcock Woods is the largest privately-owned urban forest in the United States.
“Aren’t we the lucky ones to be in the woods as the Hitchcocks were so many years ago,” McLean said.
Bob Greiner and his son, Joe, were among those who attended. Greiner moved to Aiken in 2010, and he quickly discovered the Thanksgiving tradition.
“I think this is the neatest thing in Aiken,” Greiner said. “It’s a real class act.”
The Rev. Grant Wiseman, rector of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church, officiated the brief service as dozens of riders gathered in the clearing. For the 100th blessing, an expanded liturgy in the Old English tradition was included.
“We beseech you to bless our Aiken Hounds in these hallowed Hitchcock Woods,” Wiseman said during the traditional prayer. “Keep forever safe the souls of those who have galloped these forgiving trails in the past, in the present and in the years to come.”
After recognizing members and conferring St. Hubert medals, the riders broke into three separate groups. And with a “hip, hip hooray” from one of the riders, the hunt was under way.
“On to the next 100 years,” McLean said. “Happy Thanksgiving.”