Under a dazzling blue sky in early April, about 800 family members and friends bid farewell to a Chester County icon. The memorial service for Nancy Penn Smith Hannum was held under a tent on the grounds of her stately home, Brooklawn.
A red-tailed hawk crisscrossed the sky. As the service concluded, 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 the story about a friend of the family, Michael Daly, a World War II war hero who received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Speaking of Mrs. Hannum, Daly said, “Jock, never have I met anyone who could have led men into battle any better.”
They broke the mold with Mrs. Hannum.
A superb horsewoman and legendary Lady Master of the Hounds, her copper horn echoed through the Cheshire hunt country for 55 years.
A superb horsewoman and legendary Lady Master of the Hounds, her copper horn echoed through the Cheshire hunt country for 55 years. Those adventures were interwoven with this strong-willed woman’s dedication to preserving the gorgeous open country of southern Chester County. 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 Nancy 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, expanded in 1930, was deeded in 1688.
Classic oil paintings and plaques adorn the walls of her home, while pieces of period furniture anchor the rooms. A mix of family photographs and other memorabilia jockey for space with champion steeplechase trophies, foxhunting and racing books, and magazines stacked on bookcases and low tables. Bronzes of hounds, horses, foxes, and hunt scenes watch over visitors in the sitting room.
Dressed in a gray wool sweater, Mrs. Hannum was frail, yet 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.”
Introduced to the saddle at age five, Nancy grew up among barrel-chested ponies and the sounds of hounds and the copper horn. Born on Long Island, NY, she was the daughter of Carol Harriman, whose stepfather was the renowned railroad entrepreneur E.H. Harriman, founder of the Union Pacific Railroad; she was the niece of New York governor Averell Harriman. Nancy’s father, Richard Penn Smith, a distinguished businessman, shared the position of Master of the Middleburg Hunt in Virginia with her mother.
Following her father’s death in 1929, Nancy’s mother, Carol, married W. Plunkett Stewart. The couple and their children, Nancy and her sister Averell, moved to Unionville. Back in 1912 her stepfather had founded Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds with a pack of dogs he imported from England. 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 Mrs. Hannum 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.”
A Sarah Lawrence grad, Nancy married John B. Hannum III, who served as a US Federal Court judge, in 1940. The couple had three children, John (Jock), Richard (Buzz), and Carol. After her stepfather’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 70s, then led the charge from a battered jeep until she retired in 2003.
Her 55 years rank 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 the fight 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. With her horn tucked between the buttons of her hunting coat, a mud-splattered Mrs. Hannum jogged the hounds back to their elegant stone kennel after a hunt. At feeding time, the hounds spilled into the area near 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 steeplechase race) with Morning Mac in 1970, with her son Buzz in the irons. She repeated the feat in 1973.
In the Cheshire Hunt country, there may be more post-and-rail fences per capita than anywhere in the nation. Road signs shout: “Horse Crossing.” Over the past five decades many new landowners found Mrs. Hannum knocking on their doors. Introducing herself, she explained that land easements “are the way we do it in and around Unionville.”
Nancy Mohr met Nancy Hannum in 1964 when her young family moved to Unionville. Over that span, Mohr forged perhaps the closest personal relationship with Hannum. 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,” recalls Mohr, Hannum’s 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 her steely determination when he acquired a 568-acre tract near Unionville with plans to develop 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 jigsaw puzzle,” Mohr says. “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.”
Hannum’s legacy includes 30,000 acres of pristine forests, farmland, and streams in southern Chester County—to be enjoyed by generations in perpetuity.