Monday, November 15, 2010

Full cry

Here in Chester County, the English traditions are alive and well. Among them is the spirited tradition of foxhunting. Here on our side of the pond, the fox is rarely killed--he is an important and respected participant who simply is chased. There are several hunts, but the most legendary is Mr. Stewart's, also known as the Cheshire Hunt. November is the high time of the season here, and this season it is a time to remember Nancy Hannum, a major figure in these parts who died earlier this year. Mrs. Hannum has been credited with single-handedly preserving more land here than anyone else.

Introduced to the saddle at age five, she 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.

Following her husband's death, Carol Penn Smith 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.

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).

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 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."

RIP, Mrs. Hannum,


Kathie Truitt said...

Exactly - and to new landowner in Middleburg who don't agree to 'ease' ;) find themselves ostracized from the entire community.
I stopped riding a few years ago. Oh I'll saddle up and 'hilltop' if the opportunity arises but I just couldn't see myself jumping, running as I got older. I'm only 48 and I've been riding since I was 13 months old (literaly) and I have never had a serious injury after a tumble. And in the horse business it's not IF it happens but WHEN it happens. I guess now after being out of the country and in the city I've softened and afraid I wouldn't recover as swiftly - or maybe not at all.

CZ said...

What a lovely and fascinating post! Thanks for sharing. Love those photos!

Bumby Scott said...

Anne, truly a gracious post. Glad you're back.
Always, Bumby

Donna said...

Fascinating history and tradition for those of us not in that part of the country. I am an Anglophile though as well as horse/hunting afficianado. Love the hunting scenes and all things riding.
Thanks for an interesting post!

sle said...

Love, Love, Love this post!! I'm thinking of driving to Middleburg for the Christmas parade just to see the hounds.

Summer is a Verb said...

My father's family, the Coppages, brought the first pack of fox hunting hounds to America in 1650 and the line lives on today at the Marlboro Hunt in Maryland. And, I've convinced myself my fascination is truly in my blood...XXOO

Main Line Sportsman said...

I used to work with Nancy's son Buzz....met nancy once...quite a unique old broad...
Love this post...and speaking of Southern Chester County hunt country...I may be meeting "The Trad" at The Whip this Saturday evening.

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