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Mrs. Hannum: Conscience of the Countryside
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Mrs. Hannum: Conscience of the Countryside
By Terry Conway - April 2010

 Nancy Penn Smith HannumThe news spread like a gusty March wind. It streamed through the rolling countryside of her beloved Unionville where spring was taking a crack at pushing winter away. Nancy Penn Smith Hannum had passed away on Tuesday evening, March 30.

One week later under a dazzling blue sky about 800 family members and friends bid farewell to a Chester County icon. The memorial service for Mrs. Hannum was held under a tent on the grounds of her stately home, Brooklawn.

A red-tailed hawk crisscrossed the sky. Off in the distance a lone red fox trotted across the countryside.

"Mom could walk with kings and not lose the common touch," said her eldest son John "Jock" Hannum, paraphrasing poet Rudyard Kipling. He then told a story about a friend of the family, Michael Daly, a World War II war hero who received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Speaking about Mrs. Hannum, Daly said, "Jock, never have I met anyone who could have led men into battle any better."

A superb horsewoman and legendary Lady Master of the Hounds, Mrs. Hannum's dedication to the hounds was extraordinary. Equally as important, she recognized the necessity of open spaces to hunt them. It became her mission to convince, cajole, and sometimes badger friends, neighbors and newcomers to the area to place conservation easements on their properties. Thank you, Mrs. Hannum. We will all reap the benefits for decades to come.

I said my good-bye to Mrs. Hannum on a sunny, blustery morning last December a few days before her 90th birthday. The meeting spot was Brooklawn Farm. Just off a shaded country lane, the red brick Federal-style mansion—that was expanded in 1930—was deeded in 1688.

Classic oil paintings and plaques adorn the walls of her home at Brooklawn, while pieces of period furniture anchor the rooms. A mix of family photographs and other memorabilia jockey for space with champion steeplechase trophies and foxhunting/racing books and magazines stacked on bookcases and low tables. B ronzes of hounds, horses, foxes and hunt scenes overlook visitors in the sitting room.

Dressed in a gray wool sweater Mrs. Hannum was frail, yet still determined. There were a few fuzzy recollections. The words tumbled out deliberately, sometimes haltingly but with her trademark passion and commitment. After swapping tales for a stretch of time we said goodbye, and I walked into an adjoining room. Not quite finished, Mrs. Hannum shuffled her walker into the room for one last message: "Please come again. There's so much history here, so many more stories to tell."


Horn and hounds

Introduced to the saddle at age five, Nancy grew up among barrel-chested ponies and with the sounds of hounds and the copper horn. Born in Long Island, N. Y., she was the daughter of Carol Harriman whose stepfather was the renowned railroad entrepreneur E. H. Harriman, the founder of the Union Pacific. He ran a pack of American Fox Hounds near the town of Westbury, Long Island from the 1870s through the 1890s.

Her father, Richard Penn Smith, was a distinguished businessman, who along with her mother, were joint masters of the Middleburg Hunt in Virginia. Smith was a prominent member of the Bryn Mawr Hunt who managed prized racehorses for the wealthy Cassatt family.

A.J. Cassatt, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co., was a horse enthusiast, foxhunter, and proprietor of Chesterbrook Farm in Berwyn, Pa. He owned 1886 Preakness Stakes winner The Bard, and three years later Belmont Stakes winner, Eric. In addition, Cassatt bred the winner of the 1875, 1876, 1878, and 1880 Preakness Stakes as well as Foxford who won the 1891 Belmont. Cassatt was one of nine prominent men who founded the National Steeplechase Association in 1895.

Following Nancy's father's death in 1929 from pneumonia, Carol married W. Plunkett Stewart. The couple, Nancy and her sister Averell moved to Unionville. Stewart had moved there in 1912 from Greensprings, Md., purchasing Chesterland Farm where he stabled horses and built kennels across what is today Route 82. He chose to call his pack the Cheshire Foxhounds because of his love for the picturesque English town of Chester in the county of Cheshire. Gradually, English foxhounds—the first lot from Warwickshire— replaced the American hounds in Stewart's private pack. The foxhunting organization is still known as Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Foxhounds.

Over the next few decades Stewart built his land holdings to nearly 5,000 acres. Always the visionary, the Master of the Hunt encouraged his well-heeled friends to buy property in the Unionville area.

"Mr. Stewart was a genuine leader and admired by all," recalled Hannum in her family room that December day. "He made all the calls when we were hunting and when an order was given he expected it to be carried out. I was also taught the value of preserving the land. To me this countryside has always been God's heaven."

Mrs. Hannum attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York until she met John B. Hannum. She left school and married in 1940. Hannum was an attorney, and eventually became a federal judge. He died two years ago, though a stroke left him in poor health since 1991. The couple had three children, John (Jock), Richard (Buzz) and Carol.

Taking charge

After Stewart's death in 1948 Nancy Hannum took over as Master of the Hunt at the young age of 29. Mrs. Hannum ran the hunt with the planning and execution of a general at war from her home at Brooklawn. She hunted well into her 70's then led the charge from a battered jeep until she retired in 2003.

Her 55 years ranks her number two on the list of longest tenure as an active Master of the Hunt, according to the Master of Foxhunting Association (MFHA).

"Her aggressiveness in fighting for the sport and for open spaces was extraordinary," says Dennis Foster, executive director of MFHA based in Middleburg, Va. "Mrs. Hannum wanted to shuck off the sport's elitist label and pushed for the "average Joe" to be in our subscribing membership. She kept at it and at it. Eventually it passed in 1996. She had more influence in foxhunting than almost anyone else."

"My mom used to say the best way to run the hunt was as a benevolent dictator," says Jock Hannum. "She was a steel hand in a velvet glove.

Her hounds knew that mix of discipline and love. Few animals had a better life. Hunters' days are crammed with heart-pounding jumps and a grueling pace. Her horn tucked between buttons of her hunting coat, a mud-splattered Mrs. Hannum jogged the hounds back to the elegant stone kennels. At feeding time the hounds spilled into a 50-foot long trough. Yelping madly, climbing and tumbling over each other's backs, they buried their muzzles into the trough. Only when the hounds were settled and her horses stabled did Mrs. Hannum call it a day.

Also an accomplished steeplechase trainer, Mrs. Hannum captured the 1970 Maryland Hunt Cup (America's premiere amateur steeplechase race) with Morning Mac in 1970 with her son Buzzy in the irons. She repeated the feat in 1973.

Preserving the land

It's been said that in the Cheshire Hunt country there may be more post-and-rail fences per capita than anywhere in the country. Crossing signs shout: "Horse Crossing." Over the past five decades m any new landowners found Mrs. Hannum knocking on their door. Introducing herself, she explained that land easements "are the way we do it in and around Unionville."

In the days after her death many local residents pointed to her as a pillar of the community.

"In her case I think it was even stronger, she was the foundation of her community," said Cuyler Walker, Mrs. Hannum's nephew, and the East Marlborough Township supervisor as well as a trustee of the Cheshire Land Preservation Fund.

"She will be remembered with affection and appreciation for all she accomplished. Without her leadership we wouldn't have the open space we have today. She instilled that commitment in the community and has inspired a lot of folks to carry it forward."

Nancy Mohr met Mrs. Hannum in 1964 when her young family moved to Unionville. Over that span Mohr forged perhaps the closest personal relationship with her outside her family. In 1997 Mohr authored Mrs. Hannum's biography, "The Lady Blows a Horn."

"She told the farm owner to sell the property to us, and he did," recalled Mohr with a chuckle. Mohr was her sidekick in preserving the countryside and working on community issues.

"She rounded up fat little ponies for our five kids and off they went with the hunt. Back then it was a much smaller community. If we needed a jump put in (on someone's land), she would get it put in. People tended to do things for her. You didn't want to wind up on the wrong side of her."

Suburban Cable's founder H. F. "Gerry" Lenfest felt Mrs. Hannum's steely determination when he acquired a 568-acre tract near Unionville with plans for developing a 10—home subdivision. Lenfest backed off. Today it is part of the ChesLen Preserve that comprises vast agricultural fields and densely wooded stream corridors, managed by the National Lands Trust.

It's symbolic of the Cheshire hunt country that Mrs. Hannum stitched together-- mile after mile of undulating, open-galloping farm and grazing land.

"It was a jig-saw puzzle," Mohr explained. "All these properties, one farm at a time, bought into the concept. Before the King Ranch was sold to the Brandywine Conservancy there might have been 700 acres conserved. I call her the conscience of the countryside. Mrs. Hannum was the catalyst and it was achieved through her tireless work."

Her son Buzz Hannum related that as he was leaving his office in Wilmington to go the memorial service it was raining.

"I thought the environment, like the rest of us, is shedding tears for our loss," he noted. "But when the sun comes out it will be celebrating what my mother has done for the environment.

"She would not want us to mourn unduly. She would understand that we would be sad but she would want us to continue and carry on her legacy."

Terry Conway, the horseracing writer for Pennsylvania Equestrian, can be contacted at tconway@terryconway.net

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