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From a Town's Need, a Legend Was Born

The "pony penning" on Chincoteague Island was already a 200-year-old annual event when town governors turned it into a fund-raiser in 1925. Two devastating fires in 1920 and 1924 convinced them that the Chincoteague (Va.) Volunteer Fire Company needed a pumper. They passed the hat and netted $4.16.

Clearly, not enough.

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So the town decided to combine the summertime pony penning with a carnival. The foals of the wild ponies on Assateague Island, likely descended from livestock set loose by early settlers, had always been rounded up for use as work and racing animals. Now, the fire company sold them - $75 for a male, $90 for a female - and bought the pumper. A yearly event was born.

By 1935, people from as far away as Oklahoma came to watch. When the film version of Marguerite Henry's 1947 book, "Misty of Chincoteague," was released in 1961, pony-penning was drawing 50,000 people.

Today, the price of a Chincoteague pony averages $1,022, though one brought more than $13,000. In 1993, the event raised $58,000. Much of the money, which still pays for Chincoteague's fire-and-rescue equipment, is used to maintain the pony herd.

Pony penning takes place during the last full week of July, beginning with the pony swim (from Assateague to Chincoteague) on a Wednesday. The auction occurs the next day.

"Pony penning week is a big homecoming for local people that now live off the island." says Jackie Russell of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. "Everyone is there."

Chincoteague is the only town in Accomac County, Va., whose residents don't pay a fire tax.

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