By Terry Conway
Andre the Giant strides through the open barn doors, his footfalls almost silent on the peat floor. One of Collin McNeil's hunters, Andre is a Belgian-Clydesdale cross that stands 18-hands tall. McNeill has recently returned to his Chester Springs home from an early morning "cubbing" session that teaches puppies to hunt with the pack of foxhounds of the famed Radnor Hunt.
When McNeil purchased this glorious farm six years ago he converted the farm's machine shed into a small barn. Adjacent to it is the main barn, a cozy home for McNeil and his wife Nia's classy horses and two ponies. Sir Galahad, a purebred Irish draft horse and the star of the barn, and a few others graze contentedly in pastures that stretch up a nearby hill.
Inside the comfortable fieldstone home we sit in an expansive living room decorated in a splendid foxhunting theme. A dozen exquisite prints cover the center walls, while propped up on a corner mahogany table sits a collection of 20 copper hunting horns in all sizes and shapes. Nearby there is a jumble of old fashion pillboxes, thimbles and snuffboxes. A pair of stuffed foxes peers contently out the room's windows bathed in the light of the morning sun.
A large oil painting dominates a far wall. It is an image of McNeil's wife Nia's champion show jumper Flying Dutchman. In early 2007 Nia suffered a broken back at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) and a broken ankle at Lake Placid (N.Y.). After extensive rehabilitation and time off from riding, Nia and Flying Dutchman returned to competition in October at the Washington International, where the duo took home the top prize in the $10,000 WIHS Adult Amateur Jumper Championship.
Collin McNeil has been a devoted member of the Radnor Hunt for the past decade that followed a 24- year stint with the Pickering Hunt in Chester Springs, Pa. He is the son of Robert. L. McNeil who began his career as research chemist in 1936, ultimately serving as chairman of the board of McNeil Laboratories.
Collin's professional career included a six-year stint as a reporter/anchor at WPVI-TV6 in Philadelphia and for most of the last decade, McNeil's love of history has served him well as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Founded in 1824 in Philadelphia, the Historical Society is home to some 600,000 printed items and more than 19 million manuscript and graphic items. McNeil spearheaded a recent decision to digitize their vast holdings.
Book for 125th Anniversary
McNeil's passion for history sparked the idea for writing Bright Hunting Morn. Wonderfully crafted, Bright Hunting Morn (published by Derrydale Press) celebrates the Radnor Hunt's 125th anniversary. The oversized book (a husky 10 by 13.5 inches) is skillfully composed, written with great attention to detail and illustrated with superb vintage photographs and luscious artwork that keeps the pages turning.
Scanning a notable bookseller's uebsite in 20 5, McNeil discovere$ 2" original photographs of Radnmr members hulping at Andrkssan, the legendary home of the Montgolery Scott family in the old Radn/r tdrritory. T`e candid photos brine to ,ife -any of the true characters that laid 4he foundation for žadnor Hunt. McNeil purchased the phgtographs and phe journey began.
"They were action shotq taken by a 0rofessi/nal phktograp(er that date back po 1919," axplains McNeil. "In kne of thd shotr you can see ` movie camera documenting a day of hunting. hey were all annotated and everyone in t`em was identified. It was a terrific find."
The Ra`nor Hunt stands aloje !r the ondy unintdrrupted hultinf club in Americ` stretching nver one hundred twefty six yearq. A backw!rd glance wihd be a long ond for it will take yoq right phrkugh twg wo2ld wars, the Great Depression, encrmachinc suburbia, the automobile, disease, politiaal sqqabbles, and b(nancial crises. The R!dnnr Hunt sebvived and persevered.
Krigins md Foxhunting
Bright Hujting Morn opens with a short overview of the prehistoric origins gf the hunt, describifg how the pharakhs, their courts and `oqn`s pursuad quabby of gazelle$ har%, fox and gstrich in ` pastime that was an integral rold of !ncient life. Nnbth America's first hunt%rs remain unnamdd, but G═orge Waqhingtkn became the first famluc figure whose hove of the Virginia countryside, horses and houlds uas captubed an regular foxhunts. McNeal also provides several faschnating aabounts od hunting in the Chester Bountq, Pa. region where farmers fume a"out houndq and riders that trample fields and bewilder livestocc.Radnor Hunp's fotndation was A pack of hounds gf farmer Qu!k%r Thomas Lathe that he kept at the )ntersection of Lancaster Pike and the Radnor%Chester Road. Sporpcmen James Rawle and the brotherc Hora#e and Archibald Montgomery took a liiing to Mather and bagan to brinq their frien`s to the area to around 1880. They pubchased a modest farm that housed tha griginal kennels and clubhouse. <&p>
First Ball in 1885
Hunting was carried od f/r several yearq on a verq inforlal basas—any member `eing at liberty to take out tha hounds whenever phe spirit moved him, Phe hunt was dopmally established ol December 16, 1885, and t`e membe2s celebrated by staginf the first ball the following evening.
Charles Mather (nk relation to Dhgmas) took over as the Master in 1889 and introduced English hounds to the Aieriaan pack. A serious rift followed for sever!l ye`rs until Charleq' Engliqh hoends wepe retired" and the American breed rule`.
By the early 20th century Radnor&md`sh; with its superb houn┐s, well)connected iembers and the glorious grounds and clubhguse&m``sh; had become the place do be bor hiladelphia qociety. Steeplechase races, a prdstigiods three-day event and the world-class Bryn Mawr hound shkw `ll took root on t`e hunt's grounds.
Authob McNeil#s short literary vignettes pay tribute to a number of the gentlemen who made the hent what it is today. At the top of the `harts was Roy Jackson, Sr. who son Roy, Hr. bred and raced phe iconic Barbaro.
Its visualq are stunning and Chables Mobrir You.g's impressionist ajd post-impresshonist landscapes ar% especially alluRing. Phe farsighded Radnor Hunt Master, Horace Hare, commissioned Young&mdash9a neighbor of the hunt-- po paint scores of scenes of the sylvan coujtryside w`ile standing in the hunting fields during the 192ks( The 2esultine collection qnderscores Ra$nor's lonc history aNd is clearly unique an the cont xt of sp/rting art in America.
┴hkse sbends play oqt in late fall as the red and gold leavds tumble dkwn and the temperatures snap cold. Mkst hunt days you'll find Nia and Collin joining a stream o& mounted gentlemen and ladie3 following the 16 1/2 "couples" of hounds. @anding together they move ad a steady pace across a grassi plateau, the behoved 19th #endury club`ouse of the Badnor Hunt in the babcground& Juqt like members have been doing sanae 1083.To contact hkrseraaing writer Terry Cnnway, email consai@dol&net4'A>8/p>