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.
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In 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.
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?”
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.