Donald Leonard, founder of the Refuge Inn, seemed to have ponies in his blood all of his life. You could say that he was born into it– His great-grandfather Kendal Jester grazed ponies in the area known as “Wildcat”, on the north end of Chincoteague. As a child, Don spent a lot of time on the Beebe Ranch with Grandpa Beebe. He even got a job there gentling wild horses. Those who loved him knew that if he went missing, he could easily be found by looking for the ponies.
Of course, Misty was always special to Donald, and they had a lifelong relationship. When it was time for Misty to have her foal, Donald and his wife, Martha, drove to the home of Marguerite Henry in Illinois to bring Misty home. As an adult, he would take his wife and children “Down the Ridge”–that’s what they used to call the area now known as Ridge Road–to visit on Sundays. The adults would go inside with the Beebes to socialize, and they’d send the kids out to play with Misty and the other ponies in the Burton’s barn, which is now the Tom’s Cove Country Store. How many people can say they spent their Sundays with Misty?
Donald’s passion and dedication to the Chincoteague pony herd was persistent throughout his lifetime. He bought his first thirty acres of land for $1250 with the intention to graze ponies. He then bought his herd of ponies from the Beebes when they decided to go out of the pony business. When the next thirty acres went up for sale and Donald fell just short of the asking price, a friend purchased it for him.
The land Donald purchased in 1962 was widely considered marshland or wasteland by those who knew the island. Although many questioned his purchase, he kept his focus on the goal to have a herd of Chincoteague ponies like his grandfather did on Wildcat. After clearcutting the span of woods with his son, Carlton, he worked tirelessly to shape the land and create the pasture he needed to keep a herd of Chincoteague ponies for the rest of his life.
Donald’s enthusiasm for Chincoteague ponies was only matched by his commitment to the community. He had first-hand experience in understanding that tourism was imperative to the success and growth of Chincoteague. Here’s the story: As a young man, Donald quit school. Watermen jobs were the primary way to make a living on the island at that time, so his father put him on a boat and sent him to sea. However, Donald returned seasick and ready to go back to school. After ruling out a career as a waterman, graduating from high school, and serving in WWII, Donald and his new wife Martha set down a path that would lead them to becoming instrumental in moving Chincoteague from a fishing town to a tourism town.
During the Pony Penning, Donald took on the responsibility of working as a press agent for the Chincoteague Fire Company to help out with reporters, photographers, and others requesting special treatment during the festivities. He took all of the press that qualified out on his boat for the pony swim. As part of this role, he also catered to any press inquiring about Chincoteague Island. Some described him as a cross between John Wayne and Andy Griffith– he was well-spoken and personable, with a vast knowledge of the island and its ponies– and the future he had in mind for it. He joined other local men including Mr. Wyle Maddox in Washington, D.C. to begin the process of bringing a bridge to Assateague. Its arrival in 1965 gave visitors access to the only beach between Ocean City and Virginia Beach. The bridge to Assateague and the press coverage were wildly successful in their role to generate more tourism.
In the 1960s, Donald began to inquire about purchasing the property where the Refuge Inn now sits. It was more than he could afford. One day, as he was walking across the street, the owner of the property stopped him and offered the land to Donald if he could come up with $40,000 by 2 p.m. that day. His daughter, Donna, recalls, “He went into emergency mode and found the money. He said, ‘If I hadn’t been walking down the street that day, the Refuge Motor Inn wouldn’t have happened.’”
Another chance encounter brought his dream of a motel on Beach Road to life. He had secured the land, but needed a loan for construction and furnishings. He put on his Sunday best to go to a mainland bank to ask for the loan, but first he had to stop to speak to Mr. Wyle Maddox at his home to ask on behalf of the Chincoteague Fire Company if a piece of his land could be used for the pony swim. Maddox crawled out from under the piece of heavy equipment he was working on. He asked Donald why he was all dressed up on a week day. Donald replied that he was going to the bank to ask for a loan to build his motel. Maddox wished him luck and told him that if the bank turned him down, to come back and talk to him.
Given that Donald had no assets to speak of other than his land on Wildcat, which was largely considered worthless marshland, and $75 to his name, the bank turned him down. Maddox, however, took him to his lawyer to see about drawing up the papers for a loan. Wyle’s lawyer told him that he didn’t advise making this loan, but that he would handle the paperwork regardless. Maddox told him, “You may know the law, but I know the man. I’m going to loan him this money.”
Donald and Martha couldn’t make the first scheduled loan payment to Mr. Maddox, but the motel became very popular and successful that first couple of years, so they managed to pay off the construction loan for what is now the first section of the Refuge Inn in only two years. The motel was so successful that they decided to add on another section. Mr. Maddox told him, “not this time” but the bank decided he was worth the risk the second time around.
At the beginning, Donald promised his wife Martha that they would live at the new motel for two years. Then, they would hire somebody to run it. They moved in, along with their two children who were still at home, Donna and Arthur. The kids had bunk beds in the one bedroom.
Donald and Martha slept on a pullout couch in the living room behind the office. Donald, of course, brought a few of his ponies with him to keep in a pasture there. He installed gumball machines filled with corn so visitors could feed and visit the ponies. The official story is that he thought the ponies would be a big draw to his motel, but some of his family members think he simply couldn’t stand to live that far away from them. The ponies have been a fixture at the Refuge Inn pasture ever since.
As it turns out, Donald and Martha’s residency at the Refuge went from two years to seventeen; however, Donald retained his land and his herd of ponies. When Donald made the decision to retire, he offered his four children the chance to buy the Refuge Inn before he put it on the market. Three out of four jumped at the opportunity to continue the legacy, so the Refuge Inn was turned over to the next generation.
As his children grew older, he gave them each a piece of his waterfront land on what is now called Leonard Lane. His children and grandchildren grew up with the same love and respect for the island and its ponies that he carried with him all of his life. Before Donald passed away in September 2010, he expressed his wish to have his ashes spread out in the water right by his home. Donna explains, “When he stood on his deck, he considered that he was in heaven on earth. He felt he had really achieved what he wanted in life, which was looking out on this view.”
After Donald passed away, his ashes were divided into five bags. One went to each of his four children, and his wife kept the fifth one. At first, the family did not do anything with the ashes. A few years later, his wife passed away. While cleaning out her closet, Donna discovered the ashes. She said, “I was like, ‘Dad would not be happy with us. He told us where he wanted to be, and we haven’t done it. He was very clear.’”
With her older brother, Carlton, who owned a tour boat company, she began making plans for the whole family to go out on the boat and spread her father’s ashes. She combined her parents’ ashes into small milk bottles with a cork on them to distribute them to each family member on the boat cruise. On the day of the cruise, several people were late, the tide was low, and Carlton had a busy afternoon tour schedule. Carlton informed Donna that there was no way they could get to Oyster Bay, where Donald requested his ashes to be put. Instead they chose to travel the Assateague Channel and stop at places such as Little Beach, Pony Swim Point, Assateague Lighthouse, and the bridge that connected the two islands. These were all important spots in Donald’s life, and truly honored his memory and lifelong dedication to these islands. The end of our story, though, is that three of Donald’s grandchildren, Cynthia, Hunter, and Ayden, did not disperse their ashes along with the rest of the family at each stop.
Cynthia, who grew up at the Refuge Inn and is still there nearly every day, took her little piece of Pop Pop and Nana to work. They loved their little motel, and now they’ll always be there. Their memory is also a guiding light during tough decisions or in times of trial– “What would Nana and Pop Pop do?” is often heard in the office there– and the answer is the same most of the time. Do what you know is right, take care of the staff, take care of the island, and the rest will come. Don and Martha worked so hard to build and expand this dream, and it’s Cynthia’s honor to keep the spirit of the little motel on Beach Road alive and family-owned and operated for generations of visitors to come.
Hunter, who spent all the time he could around his Pop Pop Don and his ponies, had other plans. He had grown up watch ing the “Saltwater Cowboys” video of the fire company when he visited his grandparents’ house, so it was no surprise when he joined the fire company as soon as he was old enough, as a junior fireman, and got involved with the roundups and the swim. The summer after the family boat cruise, as the horses came down the marsh for the pony swim, Hunter was in the lead.
Donna recalls the moment she saw him and realized how proud her dad would be that Hunter was following in his footsteps with the fire company and the ponies. After the event was complete, Hunter told his family, “Yeah, Pop Pop was in my saddle bag. Before I took off for the round up, I said, ‘Pop Pop, you’re going with me.’” The little corked milk bottle had made the first of many journeys with the Chincoteague ponies, and a legacy was born.
Ayden, Hunter’s younger brother, followed his brother’s lead and joined the fire company as a junior fireman and Saltwater Cowboy. On a boat trip to lead a stallion and his herd back to their home from a nearby island, Ayden set his milk bottle on the boat. When asked what it was by the veterinarian on board, Ayden replied, “That’s my Pop Pop. We carry him hunting and out on the boat with us. We carry him on the round up.” He is the reason all this is here, and the reason we do what we do for the ponies and this island.
As time marches on, many things about the island change. However, the love that people carry in their hearts for the seeds planted here long ago remains strong in the traditions carried on by islanders of all ages. It lives on in the experiences of the thousands of visitors who enjoy the Refuge Inn ponies and hotel, and it lives on in the saddle bags of two young men who carry the memory of their grandfather every time they embark on a new adventure. As Grandma Beebe once said, “Nothing ever dies as long as there is a memory to enfold it and a heart to love it.”
This blog is the first in a “Legacy Series” that aims to tell the untold stories of the Leonard Family, the Refuge Inn, and Chincoteague Island. It was created as a joint effort by Hayleigh Bradbury, writer, Donna Leonard, past owner of the Refuge Inn, island historian, and tour guide, and Cynthia Leonard Wilder, representing the third generation of the Leonard Family, who own and operate the Refuge Inn on Chincoteague Island, Virginia.