Most visitors to Middleburg are well aware of the town’s reputation for great restaurants and cafés and upscale shopping venues. But dig a little deeper, and the visitor will find a hidden treasure—the National Sporting Library & Museum—that is not so widely known.
That’s something the institution, founded in 1954, is working to change, with the strong support of the town.
The organization’s aim is to “preserve, promote, and share the literature, art, and culture of equestrian, angling, and field sports.”
The enclave of buildings at the western end of town now houses the library’s 20,000-book collection on the sporting community across the U.S.; the adjacent museum, opened in 2011 at the 1804 Vine Hill property; and The Chronicle of the Horse.
In 1954, George L. Ohrstrom Sr., then president of the Orange County Hunt, and Alexander Mackay-Smith, editor ofThe Chronicle of the Horse, co-founded the National Sporting Library, aided by Lester Karow of Georgia and Fletcher Harper, Master of Foxhounds for the Orange County Hunt.
After his father’s death, George L. Ohrstrom Jr. took over as chairman, in which role he continued for more than 47 years—working with Mackay-Smith to expand the collection, as people would send in books from over the country. Their quest was greatly aided in the 1990s by the donation of more than 5,000 sporting titles from NSL board member John H. Daniels, and his wife, Martha, necessitating the construction of a large, modern addition. The donation included books, diaries and 19th century panoramas and scrolls.
Growing interest in the sporting library—including its growing collection of art—led to the renovation of Vine Hill as a museum in 2011, with two floors of gallery space.
The heart of the organization is the library—a research center focused on the literature and culture of equestrian, turf and field sports.
The collection includes rare books dating back almost 500 years, as well as articles and documents on sporting literature and communities across the country—most of them donated. Patrons need to call for an appointment, but whether they are interested in foxhunting, steeplechasing, eventing, dressage, carriage driving, wing shooting, fly fishing or falconry—they will find it. It’s a place one can willingly get lost in.
On a recent visit, Head Librarian John Connolly carefully presented the oldest book in the collection—the Italian “Il Duello,” printed on vellum and dated 1523, on the art of the duel.
The “Trattato de Mescalzia,” on horse diseases, was written in 1614, while the “Livre Journal de Dépenses des Equipages et des Ecquires,” is an 18th century ledger listing horse-related expenses over a 14-year period. As Connolly noted, “the horse industry has not changed much over 300 years.”
Turning from horses to fish, Connolly moved to a novel item in the collection—Alfred Ronalds’ “Fly Case Containing Flies for the Season.” A keen fisherman, Ronalds also wrote “The Fisher’s Entomology.”
Obsessed with finding the best flies with which to catch fish, Ronalds built a hut on the riverbank with windows below the water level so he could observe the fish feeding—to find out which flavors they like so he could make the “perfect fly.” Apparently, they liked “spicy flavors.” His book is considered the first scientific examination on fly fishing, and marks the beginning of modern fly fishing literature.
The library has a robust fellowship program, as Fellow Charles Caramello can attest. He is professor of English at the University of Maryland, as well as a literary historian and amateur adult rider.
Applicants for the Daniels Fellowship program are evaluated by the board of directors after ensuring the projects for publication are “a good fit” with the library’s collection, Connolly said.
Caramello said the library’s vast book collections and art holdings constitute an important research library for both professional and amateur scholars. While most fellows come from elsewhere in the country, even abroad, for 4-8 week sessions, Caramello was able to commute to the library as a regional resident.
“My current scholarship, like that of other Daniels Fellows over the years, simply would not be possible without the resources available at NSLM—including not only the library’s extensive holdings, but also its very knowledgeable staff,” he said.
Catty-cornered to the library is the museum in Vine Hill. On entering the gallery one is confronted by a striking equine piece of art—reaching from ceiling to floor—a vertical head of a horse with its nose almost touching the floor—a gift from Paul Mellon. It is one of 1,200 objects in the museum, featuring paintings, sculpture, works on paper and decorative arts by American, British and European artists over three centuries. Most of the collection has been acquired through generous gifts and bequests from private donors.
Both Museum Curator Claudia Pfeiffer and Connolly cited future needs for the center. As the cultural institution has expanded, so does the need for a strong endowment—something that executive director Elizabeth von Hassell is pursuing.
“This is such an amazing facility,” Pfeiffer said, noting the number of public outreach programs sponsored by the organization— exhibitions from the museum’s own collection as well as loans from prominent museums and private collections, gallery talks, coffees with the curator, and free drawing sessions in the museum galleries led by area artists. It has generous donors, Pfeiffer said, noting the 2008 addition to the art collection of two paintings by 19th renowned British equestrian artist Alfred Munnings.
A recent exhibit on Sidesaddle, 1690-1935, was a huge success.
Other examples of recent exhibits included “The Horse in Ancient Greek Art” and “The Horse and The Camera,” from the Judith & Jo Tartt Jr. Photography Collection.
Both she and Connolly noted the museum’s strong membership program—the $100 level is very popular with a number of free events—and public outreach programs including family dinners, lectures, partnership with local schools. “We earn our bread and butter,” Pfeiffer said.
She notes that Middleburg naturally relates to the countryside around it, and she’d like mount exhibitions relating to farming practices today on the topic of food production.
The museum’s two floors include its own art, as well as art on loan.
“We look at different levels of life in the country—games, communities and events to evaluate where we are today culturally,” Pfeiffer said. “We’re lucky, we have a historical connection to country pursuits—that’s very important.”
In addition to the art work, the museum does have Paul Mellon’s riding boots and hunting vest, a collection of early American weather vanes and a large collection of antique dog collars, Pfeiffer said.
Town Manager Danny Davis said the town supports the organization both directly and indirectly.
“We provide an $5,000 grant each year and we apply on the NSLM’s behalf for a state grant of $4,500 from the Virginia Commission of the Arts,” he said. The town also publicizes the organization’s events, advertises them on the town banner and supports its concerts on Friday nights. It will be one of the key attractions on the town’s upcoming new website, which will list all the library & museum’s activities. “It’s a unique and amazing place,” Davis said.
Former Middleburg Director of Development Cindy Pearson is pleased to see the library getting exposed to a “wider public” around the county and the region through various initiatives, such as its “Open Late” Friday music concerts and late museum opening.
The Pink Box Visitor Center also is getting more enquiries about the sporting library, according to Middleburg Museum Foundation Executive Director Suzanne Obetz, who is in the midst of fundraising for the future Middleburg Museum, dedicated to the history of the town. Likely, the library & museum can only benefit from the town’s plans to build the museum next door to the visitor center.
For Punkin Lee, Middleburg businesswoman and owner of Journeymen Saddlers, the library & museum is “the cultural center of the town, as well as regionally and nationally.”
“With their exhibitions, concerts, family events—there’s appeal for everyone,” she said.
And for a town with a population of 800, “to have this gem in town is something special.”
Learn more at nationalsporting.org.