Although the Outer Banks is now well known as a vacation destination, that wasn’t always the case. For a long time these islands were considered just an isolated stretch of sand on the easternmost edge of North Carolina. That began to change once the Wright Memorial Bridge was constructed in 1930 and dramatically eased access to this area. By the end of World War II a new tourist-based economy was steadily blossoming on these islands.
From that time forward, a number of special efforts were instituted to encourage people to visit the Outer Banks not only in the summertime, but also in spring, fall and winter. Beginning in the late 1940s, one of the attempts to attract offseason visitors was the start of the Valentine’s Day Fox Hunt.
The premise was fairly simple. Rather than relying on the more traditional trappings of horses and fancy outfits, hunters, family members and their dogs would gather much more informally for a several-day foxhunt that relied on navigating the islands’ varied terrain in jeeps and other types of four-wheel-drive vehicles.
By all accounts foxes were extremely abundant on the islands at the time, and the event was popular from the very beginning and continued to grow in subsequent years. According to one reporter who wrote about the third annual hunt for the 1952–53 edition of Sports Afield magazine, that year’s event brought more than 100 foxhunters plus “spectators, writers and photographers from half a dozen states.”
Headquartered at the Carolinian Hotel in Nags Head, the festivities weren’t limited to the hunt itself and included other activities such as group breakfasts, evening dances, oyster roasts and horn-blowing contests. And although the event was originally scheduled to coincide with Valentine’s Day, it was pushed ahead to March or April by the 1960s.
The hunt was not without its detractors, however. By the early 1970s animal-rights groups and other concerned citizens were increasingly vocal about their opposition to the tradition.
In 1972 the Dare County Humane Society cited three state statutes that had a dramatic impact on the hunt. The three laws respectively pointed out that it was illegal to kill an animal unless it could be proved that it had harmed other pets or livestock, that it was illegal to pit animals against other animals for entertainment purposes and finally that cruelty to animals was a criminal act. According to an article in The Virginian-Pilot, each offense carried “a penalty of a $500 fine, six months in jail, or both.”
While some hunt organizers insisted that the annual event came to an end because development had drastically reduced the amount of free space necessary for their purposes, many others felt that the strong anti-animal cruelty sentiment was the real motivation. Either way, the 24th annual foxhunt in 1972 was the last— effectively ending a colorful chapter of local history.