The Iroquois Hunt Club is one of those Lexington institutions most longtime residents have heard of, but few know much about.
It has always seemed like an odd bit of British tradition in the Bluegrass, these colorfully well-dressed equestrians who chase their barking hounds through the rugged farm fields along the Kentucky River.
Christopher and Glenye Oakford explain much of the mystery in their new book, The Iroquois Hunt: A Bluegrass Foxhunting Tradition (The History Press, $20). This thoroughly researched and well-written account describes the peculiarities of fox-hunting and traces the history of the third-oldest of the nation's 160 hunt clubs.
Over the years, the club's membership has been a who's who of Lexington society. And the clubhouse is one of Fayette County's oldest industrial buildings: Grimes Mill, built on Boone Creek in 1807.
"Even if you're not interested in fox-hunting, we tell the story of these people who played a big part in the town," said Christopher Oakford, a freelance writer who grew up around fox-hunting near Salisbury, England.
He met his wife, North Carolina native Glenye Cain Oakford, at a fox hunt in England. She is an equestrian journalist, longtime Lexington resident and Iroquois member since 1993.
While people have hunted with hounds for centuries, fox-hunting acquired its now-traditional dress, lingo and complex etiquette in Victorian England as newly rich industrialists sought to create their own gentry, the Oakfords write.
The Lexington Hunting and Riding Club was founded in 1880 by Gen. Roger Williams, a businessman, soldier, buddy of Theodore Roosevelt and all-around character. The club's name is thought to have been changed sometime in the 1880s to honor Iroquois, a horse that won the English Derby in 1881.
The club became inactive in 1914 while Williams was away on military duty, but it was restarted in 1926 by a group of prominent men. They included Maj. Louie Beard, later a founder of Keeneland, and Leonard Shouse, owner of the Lafayette Hotel, now city hall.
"We tried to give a glimpse of Lexington through several eras," Glenye Oakford said, "and write about how fascinating some of these characters were."
In 1928, the group bought Grimes Mill, thinking a clubhouse would give their organization the structure and longevity its predecessor lacked.
The rustically elegant building with three-foot-thick stone walls has lounging area on the first floor and a dining room on the second. Each member has a padlocked cabinet in which to store liquid refreshment for after a hunt or during social events three times a month.
The Iroquois has hunts most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from fall through early spring, but this year's snow played havoc with the schedule.
I got to attend the last hunt of the season, on a Sunday afternoon at the end of March. It was at the farm of Dr. Jack van Nagell, joint-master of fox hounds with the club since 1997 and current president of the national Masters of Foxhounds Association, the first Iroquois member to hold that post.
Some club members belong for the socializing, others for the riding. But dedicated hunters love to watch and listen to the hounds work as they chase the scent of a red fox — or, more commonly now, a coyote — across the landscape.
"It's watching them work together, getting to do what they have been bred for centuries to do," Glenye Oakford said.
What happens to a fox or coyote when it's caught? Well, it doesn't happen very often, she said. In fact, she has never seen it in her years of hunting.
But the hunt provides a service to farmers by keeping coyotes scattered, she said. When they get in packs, they have been known to attack livestock and pets.
"The purpose of the hunt is to watch the hounds puzzle out the scent of a coyote's line, and the hunt typically ends when the hounds can no longer follow that scent, either because the coyote has eluded them or because scenting conditions have become unfavorable," she said.
Coyotes and foxes are good at eluding their pursuers, Oakford said, recalling the time she watched the start of a hunt in England.
"After the hunt moved off, we drove up the road and saw a big, beautiful red fox sitting by the road and watching the hounds and the field ride by across the road and down a hill," she said. "That fox sat for a long time ... then he trotted off very nonchalantly in the opposite direction."