Thursday, July 30, 2015

Remembering Misty

Today, the last Thursday in July, is Pony Penning Day on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, home to a herd of wild ponies and the nearby Assateague Lighthouse on Assateague Island. The annual Pony Penning benefits the Chincoteague Fire Dept. and also the ponies. The herd needs to be thinned, so the fire dept. rounds up the ponies, swims them across the water between Assateague and Chincoteague, puts them in a corral, and auctions them. The ponies get loving homes and the fire dept. gets much-needed funds. Below are two images from Wikimedia Commons of the ponies swimming to Chincoteague and the auction.

For years, I've called them the "Lighthouse Ponies." That's because the handsome Assateague Lighthouse stands near the Pony Penning event. Sometimes, the ponies wander onto the lighthouse property and give tourists a great picture opp. Everyone yearns for a shot of the ponies and the lighthouse together! (Photo from www.assateagueisland, com)

The wildlife refuge of the area, the chambers of commerce, and the businesses of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland all provide a great deal of PR to both the ponies and the lighthouse. It's a winning combination for sure!

The pretty candy-striped lighthouse was built in 1867 to replace a crumbling 1833 tower. Lighthouse Digest has a nice article about the lighthouse with some old images and stories from the keepers. (

Photo from, the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society
The wild ponies were made famous by Marguerite Henry's 1947 book, Misty of Chincoteague. It's a true story about a family that adopted a wild pony and named her Misty. I read it as a child, along with many of Henry's other horse books--King of the Wind, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, and the Misty spin-offs. The book won a Newberry Award and has appeared with many different covers. The one below is the paperback I had when I was in fourth grade and the one I treasure most.  It shows Misty as originally drawn by Wesley Dennis, illustrator for the book. This cover was reprinted in later years.
I read it to my class of third graders in 1996. It's a poignant tale of capture, love, and letting go. At the end, the Beebe children released Misty back into the wild. Marguerite Henry expertly described the moment with great feeling, and made sense of Misty's name too, as the beloved little pony disappeared into the mists of Chincoteague to gain a hoof-print in posterity. I remember how quiet my third graders were when I read "The End," a bit choked up, and closed the book. I looked up at my students, and almost all of them had tears streaming down their faces.
I taught the students about Assateague Lighthouse along with reading the book aloud, and they all enjoyed making paper cup models of Assateague Lighthouse with bright red and white stripes. We passed out little plastic horses I had purchased at a discount store, attached the paper cup lighthouses to upside-down paper plates, and glued the horses to the plates. Small rocks and bits of twigs and dry grass finished the model. Then it was writing time...
I grew up riding horses and loving them, and I am passionate about lighthouses too, as you well know. The two subjects wove many wonderful threads into my daily lessons in public school--
  • Let's learn about horses and ponies! No Misty really wasn't a pony; she was a small horse. But we like to call her a pony.
  • The lighthouse on Assateague was built in 1867. How old is it now? It's 142-feet tall. Let's measure and cut a string 142-feet long and stretch it out on the playground to get a sense of the size of the lighthouse. Walk from one end of the string to other. Do you think you'd be tired climbing up the lighthouse stairs?
  • If you were a lighthouse keeper, what kind of chores would you do each day? What if a bad storm came....draw a picture of the lighthouse in a storm.
  • Misty and the Beebe family were real. Marguerite Henry based her book on their experiences. That's called historical fiction! Can you write a short historical fiction story about something?
  • Misty is named for the mists or light fogs on the island. Let's make a fog picture. Draw a lighthouse with Misty grazing nearby and then put a piece of waxed paper over the picture. This will make it look misty or foggy.
  • Let's go visit Chincoteague and Assateague on a map. What states are home to these islands? How far is it from our classroom. How long do you think we'd have to drive to get there? What is the weather like there in July when the Pony Penning takes place?
  • Why is there a Pony Penning? How does it help the herd of wild ponies? Who or what benefits from the sale of the ponies?
  • Imagine you could adopt a pony from Chincoteague! Write a story about it during writing time. Brainstorm for ideas, pre-write, draft, revise, and polish! Create a cover for your story and then share it with the class.
We got a lot of academic mileage our of pretty Assateague Lighthouse and Misty the wild pony and her adventures. We also learned about Marguerite Henry and her life as a writer. She wrote stories when she was a child and kept on writing. She wrote about events she had experienced and people she know. Henry actually adopted Misty for a time from the Beebe family and took the pony on book tours to schools and other places. My students were eager to write to Henry and ask her to bring Misty to our class. Alas, we learned that time had passed. Misty was gone and Henry was by then quite old.
It didn't matter though. Suddenly, the students wanted to read more of Henry's books and write their own stories! It's the best kind of inspiration for young writers.
For a wonderful write-up about Misty and Marguerite Henry, go to Linda Borromeo's blog here:
By the way, it was Linda's blog that set me reminiscing about Misty, my childhood, and my students, and inspired me to write this blog entry. Thanks, Linda!)
Below is a shot of Marguerite Henry with Misty, from the website
All kids want to visit Chincoteague and Assateague after reading Misty of Chincoteague. I did at age nine, but it took thirty years for me to get there! I first saw Chincoteague Island and Assateague Island in 1992 on a summer vacation trip. My editor at Mariners Weather Log had a cottage on Chincoteague and encouraged me to visit the place. It was a long drive from Connecticut, but worth the effort. The swimming was wonderful, the food was amazing, I met lots of ponies, and the lighthouse was as beautiful as in any photo, except that it needed a paint job and I couldn't go inside and climb it. It looks much better in this recent photo by my friend Kraig Anderson of, and visitors can climb it today.
I valso isited the Oyster & Maritime Museum in 1992 (now called the Museum of Chincoteague Island) to see the lighthouse's first-order fixed lens. It had recently been moved to the museum from the grounds of the lighthouse where it had sat outside for years, surrounded by a wire fence. This disregard for lighthouse lenses was a common practice years ago, before anyone realized what priceless artifacts Fresnel lenses are. They were removed from light towers, replaced with modern optics, and then placed on display in the bottom of the lighthouse or outside. Some of them were thrown into the ocean or the trash! Unguarded, bad things happened to them--neglect, deterioration, and vandalism. (At one lighthouse I visited, vandals had climbed up the stairs and peed down on the lens. Sad, but true. )
The U.S. Lighthouse Society entreated the Oyster & Maritime Museum to move the precious Assateague Lighthouse lens indoors and care for it properly. It is now out of the weather and nicely displayed. Blow are images of the lens when it sat outdoors with a wire fence around it and later inside the museum. (Both images from Kraig Anderson.)
I saw wild ponies from a distance in 1992, not far from the lighthouse, but also in a parking area on the Maryland side of the refuge. Those Maryland ponies were seasoned moochers, hanging out in the parking area looking for handouts. Signs everywhere said "Don't Feed the Ponies." Of course, some people ignored them. I was able to briefly pet one of the ponies, but as soon as he realized there was no handout, he snubbed me. He was not the sweet Misty I had read about as a child!
As Shakespeare wrote, "All's well that ends well." It sounds hackneyed, of course, but it's true. Today at the Pony Penning, some of the Chincoteague and Assateague ponies will find good homes. The herd will be culled a bit to protect it from disease and starvation. The lighthouse has had restoration work done and a paint job since I saw it last, and the lens that once sat in the rain and snow and wind and was mercilessly baked by the sun is getting lots of TLC in the Chincoteague Island Museum.
Most of all, kids are still reading Marguerite Henry's classic book and falling in love with ponies and lighthouses.


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