Nancy Mohr hard at work in her Unionville kitchen//Photo by Jeff Wojtaszek
In Nancy L. Mohr’s home office, there’s a thick Webster’s dictionary and a World War II-era wooden letter set. Both, she says, serve as overt reminders that “words have been my world.”
Mohr values all words, even more so since her stroke—an internal lightning strike that zapped her language center in September 2009. The misfortune initially left her with the capacity to speak just six words, though today she can’t remember what they were.
“Six words,” Mohr emphasizes. “It was scary. I felt intensely alone. You want to be optimistic, but for anyone who has suffered a stroke, you feel like you’re inside a box and can’t get out—and those on the outside cannot get in.”
It is quite remarkable, then, that over the next five years, she’d rehabilitate, persevere and, at 82, publish her sixth book, Delicious Memories: Random Journeys Where Strangers Shared Recipes and Became Friends (Sevynmor Press, 148 pages). “This project … ” she says, thumbing through its proof pages. “No one will ever know how difficult it was to do.”
Mohr had journals, files and columns she’d written long ago—all “bridges to her past.” Her computer files offered a starting point, a safe place where she could cut and paste pieces into pages that her 88-year-old husband, John—once an advertising copywriter—could edit. A personal narrative that’s a blend of memoir and cookbook, the text avoids even a pinch of ego. “I just feel very comfortable, so I don’t have a lot of ego,” Mohr says. “I’m just me.”
Early on, Mohr discovered that people and food go together. Her book chronicles lively chapters in her life as a traveling writer for Countryside magazine, a restaurateur, a conservationist, a wife, and a mother. Bringing people together has always been Mohr’s goal, whether she was fundraising, coordinating feasibility studies, or hosting community forums. Mohr is a past president and executive director of Chester County 2020, the Kennett Square-based community organization. She once discovered a $2.75 million Cadwalader chair in the library at Upland Country Day School, where she taught.
On Friday nights in Unionville, she’d often host five of her kids’ friends (one guest per child) at Sevynmor Farm, named for the seven Mohrs—herself, John and their children, Timothy, Wendy, Jonathan, Margot and Peter. “The soup was always on for the weekend,” she recalls. “Bringing people together is a wonderful thing to do, and living in the country made it an easy thing to do.”
Delicious Memories has a distinct local flavor, with coverage of the Wild Goose Inn, Mohr’s 1970s foray into family-restaurant hospitality at Routes 82 and 926, where Thursday-night reservations became a must. Regulars included local fox hunters and Brandywine River Museum founder Frolic Weymouth, who brought along Chadds Ford’s well-loved pediatrician, Dr. Margaret Handy, and sometimes Andrew Wyeth and his family. Marvelous reviews written by Philadelphia Inquirer society editor and columnist Ruth Seltzer attracted others of note.
A bevy of Wild Goose Inn recipes are included in the new book. So are recipes from her visits around the United States—Montana and Texas, in particular—as a writer for Countryside. There’s even references to her three days with a circus in Cooperstown, N.Y.—a circus she eventually brought to Unionville, with help from Dick and Carol Vermeil and Suzanne Roberts (who dressed as a clown).
Two children wed at the farm, and there were the annual Chuckwagon Break-fast at the Laurels and the Christmas breakfast at the Mohrs’ farm, which began with 12 guests and grew to 200. “We really like people,” Mohr says. “We enjoyed scrambling them up.”
Just like the eggs.
Photo by Jeff Wojtaszek
Nancy Mohr’s painted-brick rancher overlooks the rolling hills of a 50-acre farm she helped put into a conservation easement in 1995 while working with the Brandywine Conservancy. She also assisted with the preservation of the former King Ranch property.
The stroke came while she was undergoing exploratory work on a troublesome heart valve. It necessitated her retiring from Chester County 2020 in 2010 and selling the farm a year later. The Mohrs traded 37 acres for a one-acre lot. “But we’re still here. We bought this for the view,” she says of the new house, which her architect son, Tim, expanded.
There’s a permanent telescope positioned to peer out the back window of the great room. “It took me four years to persuade that farmer to take the easement—and more loaves of bread,” she says. “Bread always comes into it, but I do cookies, too.”
Daughter Margot, a real estate agent, had the beloved farm sold in just four days to a classmate of the Mohrs’ youngest child, Peter. The new owner was a friend who’d visited on some of those Friday nights. He recognized himself in photo galleries in the converted 1867 barn-house.
Mohr and her husband figured they’d live at the farm forever. “But it just wasn’t going to work,” she says.
She had every intention of staying on one more year with 2020, basing her decision on her experiences with older contemporaries, friends, Chester County matriarchs and land preservationists Nancy Penn Smith Hannum and Eleanor Morris (founder of the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust). But she realized that they “held on too long.”
Mohr wouldn’t let that happen, though her stroke hastened plans to step aside. Within six weeks, she was back in the 2020 office. But at meetings, she knew what she wanted to say but couldn’t say it. At her retirement event almost a year after the stroke, she managed a seven-minute acknowledgement without tripping over a single word. She and her therapist, Melanie Hrytsak, wrote and practiced it. “She worked very hard,” says Hrytsak, a speech-language pathologist in the outpatient program at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital. “All I did was coach. Her strength was her writing. Though she couldn’t often think of a word, she could often write it.”
Mohr’s struggle was complicated by the fact that she appeared fine. “I looked like myself. But when I spoke, it was a different kind of me,” she says now. “Can you imagine how I felt when I thought I’d lost my writing?”
Heartbroken after her release from the hospital, she returned home. Up at night, sleepless, she took a long, yellow note pad and wrote and wrote. But it was “total gobbledygook,” she says. “It made no sense.”
Hrytsak gave her homework—usually sentences with blanks to fill in. They met three times a week, then twice, then once a week. There were seven months of work descrambling sentences, correcting words, and wrestling with numbers. “Nancy is a vivacious person who put herself out there within a strong support network of family, friends and organizations,” says Hrytsak. “What was so important was that she has the social network.”
The Mohrs came to Chester County in 1964, after a life in Manhattan. She worked as an editorial assistant—skills proudly honed at Mount Holyoke College—for the firm of J. Walter Thompson. She met John there at a holiday party, and they were engaged three weeks later.
Once engrained in the fabric of the community, Mohr also cofounded the Kennett Square Revitalization Task Force, chaired the Chester County Task Force on Tax Reform, and served on the county’s Agricultural Development Council and its planning commission. She spent nine years with Chester County 2020, spearheading annual “Keep Farming First” forums, the Chester County Land Trust Consortium, the master-planners program at West Chester University, and other initiatives. “She just never gives up,” says her husband. “I anticipated that she wouldn’t just rest at six words.”
“I’m determined in lots of ways,” adds Mohr. “But this was a different kind of determination.”