CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. (WFXR) — There have been wild horses on Assateague Island, a barrier island off the coast of Virginia, for hundreds of years. While there are a number of theories about how they got there, the most prevalent is they are survivors of the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon, America has been in love with the wild herd for nearly eight decades.

The reason?

The Misty of Chincoteague series of books by acclaimed author Marguerite Henry. Henry visited Chincoteague in the 1940s looking for a story idea. She found it in the annual pony swim and penning that the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company conducted to raise funds.

The story focuses on two children, Maureen and Paul Beebe, and their love of the Assateague ponies. The characters in the book are based on real people. The place where much of the Misty story takes place, the Beebe Ranch, is real, too. There was even a feature film made about it in 1961.

Beebe children with an Assateague pony (Photo: Museum of Chincoteague)

“Marguerite Henry writes the book in the 1940s and it sparks this nationwide interest in Chincoteague and pony penning,” said Museum of Chincoteague Curator Theresa Petroni-Conaway. “It’s such a sweet and really inspiring story about these children and about these ponies, and I think a lot of people really connect with that.”

Now, that cherished piece of Virginia heritage and American literary history is in danger of being taken over by developers.

Descendants of Misty at Beebe Ranch (Photo: George Noleff)

The ranch has been parceled off through the years, and now the Beebe family feels it is best to sell what is left. Developers have offered $625 thousand dollars for the property.

The citizens of Chincoteague, as well as the Museum of Chincoteague, did not want to see the ranch sold to developers. In an attempt to preserve their history, an effort is underway to buy the ranch.

“Chincoteague history is American history,” said Petroni-Conaway. “It is an essential part, the book, of American history.”

So far, $475 thousand dollars has been raised to buy the ranch. The museum has a contract on the property but must come up with the rest of the purchase price by the date of closing, June 30.

A GoFundMe has been set up. The Museum of Chincoteague is also taking donations by mail and over the phone. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company is also getting involved. It will hold a special online auction from June 9 through June 14. All the money raised will go to the effort to save the Beebe Ranch.

“We get so many phone calls from people who are concerned,” said Petroni-Conaway. “They are really inspired and want to contribute to saving the ranch.”

There are actual Misty descendants at the ranch. Billy Beebe still tends to them.

“All of my relatives are in the first Misty of Chincoteague book,” said Beebe.

Beebe wants to see the ranch saved, too. He spent his childhood there and tells story after story about the real Paul and Maureen, as well as the real Misty.

“Grandma actually woke us up over at her house and said she had a premonition, which I found out was a dream, that Misty had her colt,” Beebe said while recounting the story of one of Misty’s more famous offspring. “They had a contest in naming him, and they picked Phantom Wings.”

A rare photo of Misty with her foal Phanton Wings and Grandma Beebe (Photo: Beebe Ranch)

That contest only furthered the interest America had in the Chincoteague ponies. Marguerite Henry flew to Chincoteague to see the young horse, and a nationwide contest was held by Henry’s publisher to name the foal. Phantom Wings was selected by two sisters from South Dakota. Through the years, the Misty books continue to sell, entertaining generation after generation of people around the world, and bringing international acclaim to Virginia and Chincoteague Island.

“People come here every day, it is their bucket list item to see the place where Misty is from,” Petroni-Conaway said. “We have so many people who are concerned and want to help us save the ranch. We are very grateful to everyone who has contributed.”