Queen of the Chase

Nancy Penn Smith Hannum is the last of a dying breed—a true foxhunting institution. Everything she owns is tied up in her acres, and her fight to maintain that land is legendary.

Photo by Shane McCauleyIn the rooms at Brooklawn, family mementos share space with oil paintings and bronzes of hounds, horses, foxes and hunt scenes—the focal points amid period furniture and bookcases stacked with similar topical material, including a collection of the Annals of Sporting. Despite the mansion’s expanse, its matriarch, Nancy Penn Smith Hannum, spends her days in a long, narrow butler’s pantry. The mounted mask of the last fox that didn’t survive her hounds’ chase is a riding crop’s length away. A window affords a view of her country driveway.

At 88, Hannum remains ever idealistic. For 58 years, she was lady master of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds—and of much more than that in and around Unionville. A leader in stalling, redirecting and collapsing developers’ plans, Hannum has inspired a pack of hunt country disciples in buying vulnerable parcels of land, preserving and reserving them for other carefully chosen buyers or their children.

And while it’s the nature of a master of hounds to be a confident authoritarian, Hannum is more modest and mellow these days. Playmate, a Jack Russell terrier the size of a fox, is her only “hound.” As she works her way into a sitting room, hunched over crutches, she turns on a light switch. “You’d think we live in the dark around here,” she remarks.

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The irony is, they do. At night, Cheshire Hunt Country is called “the black hole,” a triangle of darkness. There’s plenty of power—just a lack of usage. Inhabitance is sparse, but open acreage is plentiful.

Late in returning from an errand, Hannum set off alarm when, at first, she couldn’t be found. Her eldest son, John B. “Jock” Hannum Jr., returns a call to check on her. “God,” he says to his mother. “Why do you do this to people?”

Hannum apologizes for her voice. She has a cold, and takes a cough drop from Nancy L. Mohr, a friend and the executive director of Chester County 2020, a community and environmental leadership trust. Hannum needles Mohr once the medicine dissolves. “It didn’t work,” she quips. “She’s a great friend, but a lousy doctor.”

Propped up on the sofa, Hannum is immersed in the printed foxes on its cover, a gift from Jock’s wife, Anne Stroud Hannum. “She saw it in a store and couldn’t think of anyone who should have it more,” Hannum says.

She recalls an argument she once had with Anne’s now-deceased father, W.B. Dixson Stroud of Stroud Water Research. He suggested that her hunt shouldn’t ride through the local streams. “My God,” she remembers telling him. “Mr. Stroud, what are you talking about? Should we build bridges over every stream?”

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On horseback, Hannum broke nearly every bone in her body at least twice. She cracked her collarbone so many times “it became boring.”

Mohr says the lady master has a high pain threshold. Even with a body that’s riddled with arthritis, she doesn’t admit she hurts.

Hannum’s demeanor is still driven by determination. In her post-riding days—which lasted into her mid-70s, when she broke her pelvis a third time and said, “To hell with it”—she led the hunt from a Jeep Wagoneer. Always blue and battered, the only thing it couldn’t do was jump fences.

In Unionville, there’s more post-and-rail fence per capita than perhaps anywhere in the country. It’s as symbolic as the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall, though immensely more peaceful in purpose. Crossing signs abound: “Hounds and Horses Ahead.”

“Take away the 6 a.m. singing as the hounds are fed in the kennels, and half the neighbors would oversleep,” Nancy Mohr wrote in The Lady Blows a Horn, her mid-’90s chronicle of Hannum’s life.

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There are only essentials in Unionville, which is bisected by Route 82 (Doe Run Road). You’ll find a small animal vet, a saddle shop, a country deli, a cabinetmaker, a life insurance and real estate office, an art gallery, a jewelry, home décor and antiques shop called Three French Hens, and Catherine’s Restaurant in the old general store.

Grace Fellowship Church holds services in the old fire hall. The newer sections of Unionville Elementary School are built with the same red brick as the new firehouse. There’s a cemetery next to the former grange, and Village Hall nearby. The firehouse is on Firehouse Drive, the cemetery on Cemetery Lane. About 1,000 P.O. boxes keep Uncle Sam at bay.

What amounts to progress everywhere else is seen as encroachment in Unionville. Suburban sprawl is downright sacrilegious in these parts.

Likewise, Hannum—and her manner—conflict with current ideals. To her credit, she remains stubbornly visible in preserving “the continuity of this way of life.” Coupled with her stepfather, W. Plunket Stewart, the two have issued almost a century’s worth of edicts (Hannum calls them suggestions) that have largely directed land transfers and determined Unionville’s population, in both number and kindred kind.

At one time, a mere few controlled what are now 32,000 contiguous acres in five townships—all of it preserved in perpetuity. Most tracts, which are privately owned by about 100 entities, are donated Brandywine Conservancy conservation easements. Other easements were created by the purchase of development rights under Chester County’s farmland preservation program. The most recent addition is the ChesLen Preserve, a 1,068-acre parcel created by the combined land gifts of media entrepreneur and philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and the county’s Embreeville Park. Eased under the Brandywine Conservancy, the tract is managed by the National Lands Trust.

As for what remains of Hannum’s land—some 600 acres—individual and collective corporate entities have already provided for its distribution among her children and grandchildren as part of her estate planning. From her fox-print sofa, she points in three directions: “Jock is over here,” she says. “(Younger son) Buzz is across the road, and just down a piece, there’s (daughter) Carol.”

With Mohr, then a Brandywine Conservancy consultant, Hannum signed papers in 1990 to initiate her easement—up against a pump at the now-defunct Riggins gas station where, by her mandate, she was one of the few allowed to dispense their own fuel. Mohr’s 37-acre Sevynmor Farm is also in easement. “You feel so good,” Mohr says. “It’s knowing that 100 years from now, it’ll all relatively look the same.”

A nonprofit arm of the Cheshire Hunt Conservancy, Hannum’s Land Preservation Fund is run by her nephew, Cuyler H. Walker. Its latest thrust is expunging potential housing sites so the land remains open to the hunt. Hannum and Mohr each removed an approved house site on land they owned in 2000.

“There’s a lot you give up with an easement,” Jock Hannum says. “It’s replaced by knowing a McDonald’s or Wal-Mart won’t pop up in the middle of those fields.”

Even at her age, Nancy Hannum insists that her role is still to “emphatically show” others how to preserve the land.

“I just found out something exciting,” says Hannum, just two days after her last birthday. “I thought I was 89, but I’m only 88. I have another year to live before I’m 89.”

And how many more birthdays will she celebrate?

“One hundred fifty-five,” she says.

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Few would put it past her. All her life, as close family members have died around her, Hannum has endured. Her father, Richard Penn Smith Jr., died of pneumonia at 36. An older sister, Carol, succumbed bone cancer in 1927; another sister died at birth. Her husband, federal judge John B. Hannum, died last April, though a stroke had left him debilitated since 1991, the same year her lone sibling, Averell Penn Smith Walker, passed away. “Avie” wasn’t as fortunate in horseback mishaps. She was paralyzed and wheelchair bound at 37 when a horse flipped her during the Cheshire Ladies’ Race in 1961.

“She’s a very durable lady,” Mohr says.

While other hunts surrendered to age, a lessened vitality or the lack of country, Hannum tirelessly recruited to keep hers alive. When John and Nancy Mohr moved to Unionville with their five small children, Hannum saw “five future foxhunters.”

A week before Christmas, as per tradition, Hannum hosts almost 50 of her own clan at Brooklawn. The guest list includes 16 grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They call her “Gran.” Jock and Buzz are lawyers. Carol was once married to Olympic and world champion horseman Bruce Davidson. Their son, Buck, is a successful rider and now trainer.

“All is well in the world,” Hannum says. “But what I want most is to see these beautiful, beautiful acres of open space and farmland continue to be preserved as our forebearers founded them to be.”

Hannum’s stepfather, W. Plunket Stewart, first hunted this region in the early 1900s with Charles E. Mather’s Brandywine Hounds at Pocopson. By 1912, he’d begun staking out country in Unionville. In 1913, Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds became a recognized private pack by the now-100-year-old Masters of Foxhounds Association. Stewart, who worked in Philadelphia, lived on the Main Line during the week. He returned to Unionville to host friends on weekends.

Ironically, Hannum’s father, who went by “Buzzy,” was born in Unionville. But his father, R. Penn Smith Sr., left Unionville to run Chesterbrook Farm near Valley Forge and the Chester Valley Hounds for the Cassatt family—made wealthy by banking and famous by impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Stewart’s first wife was Elsie Cassatt, the artist’s niece.

Hannum’s father, an investment banker, and her stepfather, a securities trader, both worked for Cassatt & Co. They had a three-month foxhunting trip to Leicestershire, England, planned when Penn Smith took ill in January 1929. Stewart, who divorced Elsie, later married Hannum’s mother, Carol Harriman Penn Smith. Cold to him at first, Hannum was soon captivated by her stepfather. At 10, she moved to Unionville and “became Plunket’s shadow.”

Now, she may be his ghost.

Stewart’s financial standing paled in comparison to Hannum’s maternal grandfather, Edward Henry Harriman. A 19th-century Wall Street whiz and railroad financier, he controlled the Union Pacific and other lines that eventually connected three continents. William Averell Harriman, his son and Hannum’s uncle, was the 52nd governor of New York and later U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and also Great Britain.

“My family was always admired,” Hannum says. “Both sides had pedigrees, and were viewed as capable.”

Her grandfather also founded the Orange County (N.Y.) Hounds, later moving them to The Plains, Va., but retaining the name. Hannum’s parents were joint masters in the 1920s. During polo’s heyday, Hannum spent her falls and springs at Meadowbrook in Long Island, N.Y. From late fall to midwinter, she’d hunt in Virginia. In summers, she boarded a private railroad car hitched to a New York Central train—ponies in tow in their own cars—and pulled into Arden, the Harriman country estate outside Manhattan.

During those seasonal stays, Hannum would ride her pony and follow the huntsmen as they maneuvered hounds. At 8, she had her first horseback mishap on Feather Foot. Another came on Bright Star after a ride through the woods and across a highway. She was almost 9 when she and her father won the parent-child class at the Piping Rock Horse Show. She rode Silvan Artist. A portrait of her on that pony still hangs at Brooklawn.

Always obsessed with her hounds, Hannum named, raised and trained them. She coaxed and coached them, and was continually energized by their courage and rewarded by their attention to detail. She respected how they’d adhere to discipline without resentment.

“Their job was to find a fox and not run a deer or a little boy on a bicycle,” Hannum says. “Today, people don’t understand discipline.”

In all, she has worked with more than 1,000 hounds. At 13, when she left for the all-girls boarding school Foxcroft in Middleburg, Va., she had permission to bring her beagles.

Shortly after leaving for Sarah Lawrence College, Hannum met John B. Hannum at a barn dance after the Fair Hill races. She cut her schooling short. “I had a much better life to lead,” she says now.

Four days before Christmas in 1940, she married John. When he finished law school at Dickinson in 1941, he joined the U.S. Navy as an enlisted officer the day after Pearl Harbor was hit. Following the war, he joined his father’s firm in Media, Hannum Hannum Hunter and Hodge. By the early 1950s, John had joined what’s become Pepper Hamilton.

Also from foxhunting stock, John rode thoroughbreds in four Maryland Hunt Cup races from 1948 to 1951, finishing second twice. Buzz, his son, won that prestigious event in 1970 and 1973. Jock took second in 1987. Their mother owned and trained her sons’ winning horses.

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When Hannum’s mother and stepfather died six weeks apart in 1948, she inherited half of Plunket Stewart’s 5,000 acres and his hunt, where she’d been joint master since 1945. Hannum’s sister, Avie, inherited his racehorses and a split of the land.

“This place is God’s heaven,” Hannum boasts. “We used to go to Leicestershire, England, and everyone would ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ But I couldn’t wait to come home.”

For decades, Stewart converted farmland into grasslands, transforming the countryside from “birdcage farms” surrounded by wire fences into post-and-rail foxhunting country. He traveled from farm to farm plunking down cash on kitchen tables in exchange for lifetime tenant rights. Hannum fondly re-enacts how the deals went down:

“Let’s say that red leather chair you’re sitting in was your land,” she begins by rote. “Let’s say he followed a fox onto your chair. Then, he’d visit the next day and say how lovely he thought your land had been, how good a day he had and how much it meant to him to have been on your property. Then he’d say, ‘Jim, you shouldn’t be milking cows at 3:30 a.m. Jim, you should sell me your land and your place, and I’ll see to it that you won’t need to milk cows. I’ll invest your money, and you will make money, and you can sell your cows and chickens, and make more money’—and damn if he didn’t get good money for his cows.

Hannum continues: “Then, the first thing you know, Jim sold the place but kept on living there as long as he wanted without any expenses until he’d leave or die. No fuss. No furor. No taxes. He was set. Everyone else makes the process so complicated. It’s simple, really.”

At the end of those visits, Stewart would ask for a glass vase to tuck his offer in. It took a long time for Chester County farmland to draw much interest from anyone else—and bit by bit, farm by farm, Stewart came to own much of it.

Hannum is the first to admit she wasn’t a good businesswoman. But she’s always valued her land as open farmland, not as prime building tracts. She’s been able to convince others to share her perspective.

Take Gerry Lenfest, Suburban Cable’s founder. He owned 568 acres of former King Ranch property he intended to develop into a cluster of some 100 homes. He even dug—and then filled—what he calls “the most expensive hole in Chester County” for his own 13,000-square-foot home. Hannum intercepted him.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she recalls saying. “Are you going to sell this land from under us? Why don’t you give us your lovely, lovely land?”

And, by damn, he did—after his own entrepreneurial instinct kicked in. And he convinced the county to donate its adjoining 500-acre parcel.

“She first wrote me a letter that said, ‘How dare you develop that property,’” says Lenfest, who also made a $6 million endowment gift to maintain both properties. “She asked if I was that money hungry. She didn’t mince words, and she made me think. I attribute the idea to her nasty letter, but she’s a wonderful woman. They broke the mold when they made Nancy.”

You could easily dig up stories of Hannum’s efforts to browbeat landowners. She didn’t own a whistle, but she’d blow her hunting horn “to get your attention,” Mohr says.

For her part, Hannum doesn’t remember chastising or arguing with anyone.

“Mrs. Hannum, do you know what revisionist history is?” Mohr asks.

“Have I just rewritten history?” Hannum responds innocently. “Now that you say it, I do remember one time telling someone something someone else told me I probably shouldn’t have said—though I don’t remember what it was.”

Hannum can’t comprehend why money would interfere with her idealist interests. “It ruins anything that’s honest and true,” she says. “I would never put the land into as unimportant a reason as being worth money.”

She also can’t understand what politics have to do with preserving open space. “The land is just a piece of God’s blessing,” she says.

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Using the power of persuasion, Hannum’s stepfather convinced others to follow. Stewart was instrumental in the resale of some 8,000 assembled Cheshire acres that Lammont du Pont initially bought for its Buck and Doe runs to provide additional water to an expanding Wilmington. In 1943, however, he offered his Buck & Doe Run Farm first to Stewart. At his age, Stewart didn’t want more acreage—but with one phone call, he piqued the interest of Robert Kleberg at King Ranch in Texas. Du Pont accepted Kleberg’s offer—$80 an acre—over a Wilmington investor’s $100 per acre.

By the mid-1970s, Kleberg’s profits had dipped. Pastures were leased. Large portions were sold, including 2,500 acres to Campbell’s Soup heiress Diana Strawbridge Wister. In 1984, a limited partnership, the Buck & Doe Associates, bought the remaining ranch land, 5,400 acres, for $13 million. Soon, conservation easements were in place, as were development restrictions limiting new home construction to three houses per 100 acres. In 1987, the partners donated 771 acres of the Laurels section to the Brandywine Conservancy as a preserve.

The matron of this patronage dodges the question of whether she’s been crafty as a fox all these years. Hannum admits only that she’s “lived with the constant game of hide and seek, of finding and hunting.”

Since Hannum’s 2003 retirement, the hunt, with its $500,000 annual budget, has been run by a board and three masters. The lady master is Nina Stewart Strawbridge, Diana Strawbridge Wister’s sister-in-law and the granddaughter of Redmond Stewart (Plunket’s brother). She’s joined by Russell B. Jones Jr., a lifetime foxhunter, and F. Bruce Miller, who many consider the finest foxhunting field master in America. The Cheshire Hunt Conservancy, which was formed in 1986 to help manage escalating costs, supervises the land. Jock is chairman of the board.

As for Jock’s mother, the traits for which she is revered are also those everyone shakes their head at. One of the most endearing images is of her in an ancient Barbour coat layered in pounds of duck tape. Once, the family bought her a new horse trailer. She didn’t want it. In church, a minister once thanked her for taking notes on his sermon; she was matching hounds on a breeding list.

No matter how many more birthdays she celebrates, Hannum’s deepest hope is that the Cheshire foxhounds will last forever. She wants assurance that when they split their cry, the master will know which hound to trust for the pleasure of the field. Then the horn will sound—and the pack will understand.

“It’s all rather musical,” she says, slipping into hound-speak. “‘Go in. Go in, ’eh. Raze ’em up.’ Then the hounds explode.

“I loved everything about [the hunt]. But I especially loved the hounds’ cry, the bark—call it what you want. It was a sound the hounds made with such enthusiasm to announce to the world, ‘Here, I’ve found my quarry!’”

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