Marguerite Henry and the Chincoteague Ponies

When Marguerite was a young girl she had two great loves – reading and learning about animals, especially horses. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 13, 1902, she was stricken with rheumatic fever at the age of six, which confined her to her bedroom until she was twelve. One Christmas her parents gave her a writing desk, and that gift opened up the world of writing stories. Marguerite sold her first story when she was eleven, and continued to write throughout her life. Her last book was published when she was 94!

In 1923 she married married Sidney Henry and went to live near Wayne, Illinois. The Henrys never had children, but they had many pets, and some served as the inspiration for Marguerite’s novels.

In 1946 Marguerite Henry attended Pony Penning on Chincoteague Island, Virginia in search of an idea for a book. Each year the Volunteer Fire Department would round up wild ponies on nearby Assateague Island, have them swim across the channel to Chincoteague, parade them through town and into corrals, and then sell some of the colts at auction. Pony Penning not only raised money for the Fire Department to purchase equipment, but helped control the size of the wild pony population.

While on Chincoteague Island Marguerite met the Beebe family. Clarence (Grandpa) Beebe and his wife, Ida (Grandma), ran a pony ranch with the help of grandchildren Paul and Maureen. Ever since she’d been a sickly girl Marguerite had longed to own a horse, so she purchased a colt named Misty, and had her shipped to her Illinois home.

Stories she’d heard at Pony Penning became the basis for the children’s novel Misty of Chincoteague, first published in 1947. The novel became a perennial bestseller, and was nominated for a Newbery medal. In the book Misty is born on Assateague Island, and she and her mother are purchased by Paul and Maureen at the annual auction. In real life Misty was born on the Beebe’s pony ranch.

In 1949 Sea Star, Orphan of Chincoteague was published. This novel tells of two men who want to buy Misty so they can make a movie about her, and then take her to schools and libraries around the country so that children who’ve never seen a real pony could get to meet one. At first Paul and Maureen refuse to sell Misty, but do so after they learn money is needed to send an uncle to college. Soon after the sale the Beebe grandchildren find an orphaned new-born colt who will die if not cared for.

In real life no one made a movie about Misty until 1961, but during the famous pony’s time in Illinois she was taken to different locations so children could meet her. Marguerite would write in the mornings, and then take a “carrot break” with Misty and her stable mates – a Morgan horse named Friday (who’d helped inspire the book Justin Morgan Had a Horse) and a burro named Brighty (Brighty of the Grand Canyon). But Misty was the one children wrote fan letters about, and wanted to see.

Marguerite would answer every letter send to her, and allowed groups of children to come to her home and meet Misty. Many who couldn’t come to the Henry home got to see her when the pony was taken to schools, libraries and horse shows.

In 1957 Marguerite Henry returned Misty to the Beebe pony ranch to be bred, but she didn’t stay there long. That same year 21-year-old Paul Beebe was killed in an automobile accident, and two months later Clarence (Grandpa) Beebe died. Ida (Grandma) Beebe would die in 1960, but a few years before that she gave the pony to her son Ralph. For 16 years he and his family took care of Misty and her descendants at Beebe Ranch, and they allowed visitors to come and see the ponies.

In 1962 what became known as the Ash Wednesday storm hit the Virginia coastline, flooding Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. Many wild ponies drowned, and none were sold at that year’s Pony Penning. Fundraising began to buy back some of the ponies sold in previous years, in order to replenish the Volunteer Fire Department’s Assateague herd.

Marguerite Henry decided to write another novel set at Grandpa Beebe’s pony ranch, though there were no longer any ponies living there. In 1963 Stormy, Misty’s Foal was published. The novel was written as though the events took place shortly after the adventures told in 1949’s Sea Star, Orphan of Chincoteague, though Sea Star is not mentioned. Paul and Maureen are depicted as being about the same age as they were in the earlier books. Misty has been returned to them, and is now famous after appearing in a movie made about her life. She is overdue in foaling her first colt when the Ash Wednesday storm hits. The Beebes are ordered to evacuate their home, and Misty is moved into the kitchen after her stable is flooded.

In real life Misty did shelter in a kitchen during the storm, but that happened at Ralph Beebe’s home. She was about ready to give birth, but Stormy would be her third colt, and not her first.

In the novel Misty’s movie is re-released to raise funds to replenish the Fire Department’s wild pony herd. Ironically the actual movie entitled Misty had been released two years before Stormy, Misty’s Foal was published, and so that made mention of the fictional movie more believable.

Shortly after Ralph Beebe’s death in 1973 his family stopped raising ponies. For the next few decades Misty’s descendants lived on a secession of other Chincoteague Island pony ranches. Misty died in 1972 and her most famous offspring, Stormy, died in 1993. Both were preserved by a taxidermist, and can be viewed at the Museum of Chincoteague.

Marguerite Henry remained interested in Misty’s equine family, and in 1992 Misty’s Twilight was published. This novel told of one of Misty’s descendants who became a successful show horse.

In the late 1980s a young lady named Rebecca Guisti wrote to the author about Beebe Ranch being sold off in portions by Ralph Beebe’s widow. In 1990 Marguerite and Rebecca started The Misty of Chincoteague Foundation, which was able to obtain a small portion of the Beebe Ranch for the purpose of keeping it as open space on the island that was rapidly being transformed by housing developments. On July 29, 1997 a statue of Misty was unveiled on the property.

Marguerite Henry died on November 26, 1997. After her death the foundation she helped to start was mismanaged. The Misty statue was moved to Main Street in the town of Chincoteague, and the property it once stood on was sold for development.

Interest in Misty and her descendants remains high. Other writers have published books about Misty’s family, plastic models have been produced, there are websites about the Chincoteague and Assateague ponies, and the annual Pony Penning is now an event that attracts tourists from around the world.

My interest is confined to enjoying Marguerte Henry’s first three books about the ponies: Misty of Chincoteague; Sea Star, Orphan of Chincoteague; and Stormy, Misty’s Foal. If you’d like to read these novels they are readily available.

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2 thoughts on “Marguerite Henry and the Chincoteague Ponies

  1. Greg and his family go on vacation to Chincoteague every year. The girls love the ponies, have the plastic horses and the movie Misty. I don’t know if they ever read the books though.

    Liked by 1 person

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