The little gray fox that recently charmed many — but not all — residents in The Village of Arroyo Grande is no more. The fox was trapped and euthanized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services not long after it became a well-known visitor to the park and creek area.
Foxes have plagued farmers and ranchers in the Arroyo Grande Valley since the 1880s. While some foxes were present in ranchero times, the numbers of the small canids (belonging to the dog family) were reputedly increased by an English rancher and later popular novelist, Horace Annesley Vachell.
Vachell, like many English landed gentry, had a penchant for fox hunting and polo. He aptly named his 556-acre ranch, in what was then rural Arroyo Grande, “The Tally-Ho.” Today a street within the city limits perpetuates the name.
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Vachell was descended from a French-Norman family that arrived in England with William the Conqueror in 1066. He attended the elite “public school” at Harrow and graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1881. When he sought a commission as an officer in one of the more prestigious regiments of the Royal Army, he learned that there would not be an opening for several years. So he decided to travel abroad.
He had read Charles Nordhoff’s “California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence: A Book for Travelers and Settlers,” first published in 1872. This pioneering example of California boosterism had led thousands of young Englishmen to “try California” in the late Victorian era.
In his 1913 book, “Fellow Travelers,” Vachell recounts how he came by steamer to Port Harford (now Port San Luis Obispo) and took the recently completed narrow gage Pacific Coast Railway into San Luis Obispo.
Here he met banker and land developer Chancy Hatch Phillips, who later became his father-in-law. Phillips convinced Vachell to invest in the well-watered Arroyo Grande Valley.
He took the PCR to Arroyo Grande and met fellow Englishman William Moreton, who “looked the country squire, a lover of horse and hound.”
Moreton was in financial straits. Vachell purchased Moreton’s ranch “at a modest advance upon what Moreton had paid for it.”
Vachell’s brother, Arthur, soon joined him. They entertained guests in classic English country style, with lavish breakfasts of kippers, lamb’s kidneys, grilled tomatoes, cold toast and marmalade served in silver dishes.
Despite the strangeness of the cuisine (Vachell detested most “American dishes”), the locals relished having “aristocracy” in residence. He wrote in “Distant Fields,” his autobiography: “Our ways, our very English ways, amused them; their ways amused us.”
Vachell constructed an English-style house that still stands near Tally-Ho Road. Here he either bred or kept ponies and hounds and foxes for hunting.
The red fox was the preferred breed for fox hunting in England, but the larger gray foxes were available locally.
While the goal in foxhunting results in the death of the fox, the population seemed to grow. Within a year or so, neighboring farmers became concerned over the destruction of chickens and game birds. Vachell also introduced polo to the Pacific Coast. The Santa Barbara Polo Club and Will Roger’s Polo Ranch off Sunset Boulevard near Pacific Palisades are part of this legacy.
In 1887, in honor of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the Vachell brothers invited other English residents to join them in a polo match against young men from local families, who — though excellent equestrians — had little knowledge of a game with its origins in Afghanistan and British India.
Vachell later wrote that the match was “almost a free fight,” ending in a draw.
As sorry as I was for Arroyo Grande’s “Foxy,” his death gave me a reason for recounting the story of this English legacy in our region.
Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com.