Q&A: Collin McNeil

The Radnor Hunt devotee and author recounts a rich foxhunting history.

Photo by Jared CastaldiA recent morning’s hunt, a 45-degree start in heavy mist, reminds Collin McNeil just how special the sport is. A devoted member of Radnor Hunt, where he serves on its board of governors as treasurer, McNeil authored Bright Hunting Morn (Derrydale Press, 256 pages) to help celebrate its recent 125th anniversary. Founded on Dec. 16, 1883, Radnor is the oldest continuously active foxhunt in America.

A former media executive, an award-winning journalist and an active philanthropist, the Chester Springs resident is also the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s emeritus chairman of the board of trustees. It doesn’t hurt, either, that his reddish-brown hair is much like the coat of a red fox. “I have enough Celtic in me—freckles, the whole bit,” McNeil says.

MLT: Was the hunt’s anniversary the sole impetus for the book?
That, and a circa-1919 series of 20-plus photos taken of the hunt when it was headquartered at Ardrossan (it moved to Providence Road in Malvern in 1931) that I bought on eBay from a bookseller in New York City. We had some blown up for the 125th anniversary. Some really drew me in—observations like Ellen Mary Cassatt (the niece of the famed artist) riding astride rather than sidesaddle.

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MLT: Hadn’t Radnor Hunt’s story been told before?
Radnor had done periodic histories through the years. In rummaging through the library, I found all the minute books dating back to the first meeting, written in fancy script on parchment. I wanted to offer a history—not a photo album.

MLT: How did Radnor Hunt begin?
James Rawle, of train and trolley fame, became the first president, along with the Montgomerys. They all began hunting with local farmers. Soon, they wanted to start their own hunt, and so, convinced one farmer to sell his hounds with the understanding that his son,
John Hughes, would be the first huntsman.

MLT: What are some of the biggest names in Radnor Hunt’s history?
Alexander Johnson Cassatt, Mary’s brother, was president from 1889 to 1907. Edward Beale—president from 1914 to ’29—for years was the longest surviving original member and the oldest to hunt. Archibald R. Montgomery first founded the Merion Cricket Club (in 1865). Then, almost 20 years later, he helped found Radnor Hunt—but he rode with only one hand. Roy Jackson, a former huntsman of Rose Tree Hunt in Media, married Almira Rockefeller.

MLT: What is the book’s most unusual account?
There are lots of funny stories, mostly from Stanley Reeve. One time, he was mounted on a runaway horse that raced into a farmer’s back yard. He was pulled off by a clothesline, and then found himself sheepishly wrapped in ladies’ underwear. In 1897, a fox crossed the field at a football game at Haverford College—and the game stopped for the hunt. It’s a charming vignette. Football was a young game compared to foxhunting.
MLT: What’s the status of hunts outside this region?
Many hunts no longer fox hunt. Some are called drags, where a scented rag is used to lay a course for the hounds because there are no foxes. Development curtails hunting. Drag hunts never see a fox, except by coincidence. Among the older drag hunts are the Myopia Fox Hunt near Boston, and one in Sewickley in western Pennsylvania. They have what amounts to a faux foxhunt.

MLT: Are hounds and foxes really enemies?
Around here, people have dogs that play with foxes in their backyards. The fox is vulpine, which is a canine subset. If not for the blood of the chase, the two wouldn’t actually mind each other. But it’s that glandular excretion the fox makes in the excitement of the chase that makes the hounds so set on the chase.

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MLT: As traditional as the hunt is, it has evolved.
In the beginning, fox hunting was a way of controlling the [fox] population. Farmers didn’t like them, and so they had to find a way to kill them. Now, we’re literally working for the preservation of foxes. If we manage the environment to provide proper food, we can celebrate the fox as a species. Technically, we’re just chasing foxes because we don’t kill them anymore. Humans, hounds and foxes can all work together.

MLT: There’s newfound cooperation between local hunts.
Today, Radnor has taken over Brandywine’s territory in a great expansion of hunt country. Northbrook Road once separated Cheshire Hunt country from Radnor’s, but now there’s a formal agreement to share the area along with the National Lands Trust management following the donation of a large amount of land by Gerry Lenfest. We’re still racing for open space to survive and exist. To pursue this sport, you have to have land.

MLT: What’s your own riding and foxhunting history?
I was an off-and-on rider in my youth. I took lessons in the Blue Bell area. But then, at 14, riding lessons took a back seat to rock music and girls. In college, I had a girlfriend who liked riding, and that brought my interest back. I began fox hunting with Pickering Hunt (where he’s also still a member) in 1985. In my years in the movie industry, out on the West Coast, I lay claim to having done some cowboy riding. My wife Nia, too, is an avid rider. One day, I asked her if she’d like to go fox hunting. She said, “What’s that?” I responded, “Well, it’s when these people wear red coats on horseback and chase a fox with hounds.” She’s so hooked that I tell people I created a monster.

MLT: What else have you done?
I was an English major at Lafayette College, then went to Temple University for graduate school in communication arts. I first worked in radio, and then at five television stations—five years elsewhere, then five more at Channel 6 [WPVI] in Philadelphia. I left for a decade [as a producer] in the movie industry. My most successful film was Cousins, starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rosselini. I sold my assets and moved back to Philadelphia full time, then, at the urging of Brian Tierney, landed at PENJERDEL, a 50-plus-year-old problem-solving group in the business world for a decade.

MLT: With all your experience, how do you define your current career?
I think of myself as a working writer, moving from project to project. If it interests me, and I care about it, I hope there will always be another and then another. I spent a lot of my early career chasing ambulances and writing about what other people were interested in, and not what I was interested in.

MLT: What’s next for you?
I’ve moved onto another book project that involves the horse—this time, the use of equines in World War I. Numerous horses (and mules) were sent into the war. Horses went down in France and everywhere. I’ve read nearly every book there is on World War I, but my focus is on the animals. The U.S. sent 600,000 horses overseas to war, and 200 came back. Australia sent 50,000, and one came back alive. It’ll be historical fiction. I’m 100 pages in, but what’s scary is that it’s only the first chapter. The working title is “Run.”

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