AIKEN -- It took just one sojourn from a 6-year-old girl from New York to spark a 50-year influx of winter sports in Aiken.
Louise "Lulie" Eustis was her name. A descendent of two prominent families, the frail child was first brought to Aiken in the late 1800s by her aunt, who received word that the fresh air would help improve the girl's health.
Lulie continued to make annual visits to Aiken and her health improved immensely. During her visits, she mastered horseback riding and delighted in the outdoors.
While in New York, Lulie met and later married well-known Long Island sportsman Thomas Hitchcock.
She was able to coax him into spending a winter in Aiken, though Mr. Hitchcock, who was an Oxford graduate, had planned to return to England to indulge in polo, hunting and steeplechasing.
When he arrived in Aiken, he became enthralled.
Mr. Hitchcock began to see Aiken's potential for winter sports. He examined the mild, comfortable climate and sandy soil -- cooperative elements for horse training.
The city was already becoming a winter health resort in the late 1800s for Northern patients suffering from lung disorders. They ventured South to benefit from a more comfortable climate.
The Hitchcocks purchased a home in Aiken, at the southern end of Laurens Street, and persuaded many of their Northern friends to venture South.
"The Hitchcocks told them about the weather and the woods, horses and hunting," said Jane Davis, a member of Aiken's Historic Preservation Commission who has researched the Winter Colony. "Some of them are still here."
Mr. Hitchcock transported his horses to the town and introduced the English sport of steeplechasing to the area.
Upon Mr. Hitchcock's advice, New York banker and sportsman William C. Whitney even purchased winter stables in Aiken. A number of wealthy sportsmen from all over the world began to follow Mr. Whitney's lead.
The area was soon teeming with winter sports such as fox hunting, polo, horse racing and steeplechasing. This "Golden Era," as it was called, lasted 50 years.
During this period, Mrs. Hitchcock became one of the greatest horse women of her time. She earned the title "Mother of American Polo" after coaching young people -- including her children and grandchildren -- in the sport. Many of the youngsters went on to become internationally famous. Her own son, Tommy, was considered one of the most outstanding polo players of all time.
Shortly after World War I, Mrs. Hitchcock and her husband established the first drag hunts in Hitchcock Woods. Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Whitney purchased the 8,000-acre pine forest, consisting of sprawling fields and extending nearly to Warrenville.
During the hunts, trails were scented with anise seed bags dragged over the ground. Hounds were released on the trail and the riders followed the line of pursuit, often at a breakneck pace, explained author Kay Lawrence in her book Heroes, Horses and High Society.
Mr. Hitchcock died in 1934 from something that she lived nearly her entire life for. She died after she fell while leading a children's drag.
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