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Erskine Bedford, MFH
By Tommy Lee Jones
In & Around Horse Country

On a sharp December afternoon beneath a slate gray foxhunter's sky Erskine Bedford followed the Piedmont Hounds home one final time. They headed a funeral procession nearly five miles long. Erskine would have been happy. He loved leading a big field.

The previous Sunday his horse suffered a heart attack 20 minutes into what was by all accounts the best chase in two seasons. The sudden collapse of his mount sent him face first into the drought-hardened turf. Many people out that day thought it was an easy fall and expected him to jump right up. When he did not, the rescue squad was summoned by a field member's cellular phone and he was air lifted to the Washington Hospital Center where he died later that Sunday evening, with his family at his side.

He was born of foxhunting parents, Dean and Louise Lott Bedford, both masters of foxhounds and founders of the U.S. Pony Club. With them he often visited Dr. and Mrs. A. C. Randolph of Upperville, where he hunted with the Piedmont and grew to love the countryside, including an aged estate in need of much care, Old Welbourne.

He attended Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, and graduated from Cornell University with a degree in agriculture.

After a short stint in the Army he bought and moved to his beloved "Old Welbourne" in 1961 and at Mrs. Randolph's invitation began hunting with the Piedmont shortly thereafter. According to Albert Poe, Piedmont's huntsman at the time, the invitation was extended to quiet his chain saw on hunting days.

Erskine's first love was the land and working on it. He was twice honored as Loudoun County's Farmer of the Year. He spent a great deal of time with Piedmont's landowners, championing open space and conservation, discussing crops or chasing stray cattle. He was at the front of new methods of farming and was among the first to use no till planting. His farm became a demonstration site for the area.

His life touched many in the horse world. He was a former treasurer of the U.S. Combined Training Association, one of two trustees for the race course at Glenwood Park, a trustee of Morven Park and one of the founders of the Museum of Hounds and Hunting. He was a former steeplechaser and a senior member of the National Steeplechase Association and often officiated at race meets. But he was most renowned for his abilities as a field master.

According to ex-MFH Gail Wofford, "He had a sense of the country and a feel for what was going on with the hounds. He was a gentleman, kind, and a mentor to the children. Everyone loved him."

William "Billy" Wilbur remembers him much the same way. After serving as master of the Warrenton Hunt for 14 years, Mr. Wilbur shared field master duties with Erskine at Piedmont before and after Erskine became joint master in 1979. "I led the field when Erskine forced himself to go into work. At that time he worked for the investment firm of Alex. Brown in Leesburg. It was always fun, hunting with Erskine, when things were slow, bad scent or something, he would wait at the jumps and grade you as you came over."

This was something he continued and expanded on Sunday rides in the summer where he not only graded each jump but would often dismantle the jump to help a green horse or rider come along. He encouraged children's participation and would often call them to the front of the field to discuss the day's events. He loved the sport of foxhunting and his joy was infectious.

"In many ways we couldn't have written a better ending," said Cricket Whitner, his daughter. "It's hard for us to say because we don't want him gone, but he went out doing what he loved."

Country folk have a different relationship with death. Growing up on a farm around large, yet fragile, animals conditions them to the fact that death is just a part of life's cycle. The dangers inherent in foxhunting are given little notice. For foxhunters the chase has always been more important than the death. Erskine's service was a celebration of life rather than a ceremony of a death.

Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, was packed to capacity and its stone courtyard overflowed with the huge crowd. The police conservatively estimated 700 but it was closer to 1,000. Cars lined Route 50 for at least a mile in each direction as the local community and the community of horse and hound gathered to say their last goodbyes. Nearly two dozen huntsmen, with a few masters who hunt their hounds, followed the pastor through the tall wooden doors in full hunt livery. To the left of the family they formed a scarlet color guard and stood as six young men carried the casket down the aisle on their shoulders. The pall bearers were all young men who Erskine had infected with his enthusiasm, encouraged, and then cultivated into foxhunters. He had cleared trails with them, preached the gospel of open space, and lectured them on Civil War actions on the land they were hunting over. Another two dozen of Erskine's peers, friends, and hunting companions formed the honorary pall bearers following behind.

Among the prayers and traditional hymns sung by the congregation, which included "Amazing Grace," "All Things Bright and Beautiful," and "Go Forward Christian Soldiers," Julia Ross and the Willisville & St. Louis Village Singers performed the wonderful Southern gospel "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Julia Ross worked for Erskine most of her life, helping to raise his children, Cricket, Daphne, Dean, and Lilly. The rest of the group worked either for Erskine or his neighbors and had known him most of their lives. Their voices echoed among the wooden beams lifting spirits and setting the tone for the service.

Neighbor and friend for nearly 40 years, Victor Dupont, spoke of the farmer, conservationist, and family man who he came to know, after thinking him crazy for buying that old run down farm next door.

Gail Wofford, who had served with Erskine as joint master, read a poem by G. J. Whyte-Melville, "A Rum One To Follow, A Bad One To Beat." A fitting tribute:

Come, I'll give you the health of a man we all know
A man we all swear by, a friend of our own,
With the hounds running hardest, he's safest to go,
And he's always in front, and he's often alone.
A rider unequaled, a sportsmen complete,
A rum one to follow, a bad one to beat.

Shelby Bonnie shared a family secret with the congregation that the children wanted to be told. For years their father had claimed that his hearing was failing. "The children," Shelby began, "want everyone to know that Erskine was not deaf. It was just a trick to get you to come closer so that he could quiz you on your time of return on Saturday night or a forgotten chore.

"He reveled in his joys, made fun of the hard time," Shelby continued, "He fancied himself a gentleman farmer, but he was also a historian, a conservationist, businessman, ambassador, and partner."

The Piedmont hounds and staff met the hearse and led it to the stone walled cemetery on Old Welbourne. The founder of the Piedmont Hounds as well as the Upperville Horse Show, Colonel Dulaney, lies buried there as well as several Randolphs.

The Morrison family gave permission for Erskine to be interred in their family cemetery for no one had loved this land more than Erskine. As the hearse pulled up to the wrought iron gates the procession stretched back nearly to the church. The hounds were held at the lower end outside the grave sites as the field between the manor house and the walled plot filled with cars and people. The sky grew a deeper shade of gray and a hush fell over the crowd. As Julia Ross, Ann Lee, Kay Lemon, and Lottie Payne sang "Just A Closer Walk With Thee,"the six young men lifted the casket to their shoulders and slowly walked to the final resting place of their mentor and friend. Softly the choir sang as the casket was placed down onto the grave.

Erskine's traditional blue hunting jacket lay draped across a prayer bench at graveside, a single rose rested across the lapels.

After the committal and the Lord's prayer, Andrew Barclay blew and Joint Master and Huntsman Randy Waterman stepped forward and said, "For one last time, good night, Master." He then turned down the hill and mounted his horse.

Quietly the staff and hounds filed past the cemetery. The large crowd turned, as the hounds passed, and watched them disappear over the hill. Never have so many horsemen gathered together been so quiet. They stood there, the profoundness of the moment settling upon them. This was truly the end of an era for the Piedmont Hunt. Two Junes before, Erskine's mentor, friend, and joint master, Mrs. A. C. Randolph, died. Together they had guided the hunt for nearly 40 years.

There was what some may call a strange parallel on the days of their deaths. Mrs. Randolph's death brought severe thunder storms and flooding as she galloped around getting things straight up there. Erskine's death was also followed by rain. It broke a long, hot drought. But, predictably, it was not a violent storm. It was a slow, gentle rain, a rain that was good for the land.