Listening In With A Living Legend: Nancy Penn Smith Hannum

Oct 4, 2007 - 10:00 PM

Even in retirement, the country’s longest-serving master of foxhounds retains a fervent commitment to the sporting lifestyle and an enduring passion for open land. Though the grande dame of foxhunting now follows her pack in a Jeep rather than atop a hunter, her joie de vivre is unmistakable. After 58 years as the sole leader of Pennsylvania’s Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds—from 1945 to 2003—Nancy Penn Smith Hannum recalls her lifetime love affair with horses and hounds—a relationship she refers to as simply her “reason for being.”

Mrs. Hannum has seen changes in society come and go, but the sporting lifestyle has always continued to flourish in Chester County, Pa., thanks in great part to her tireless advocacy of the sport and land conservancy on the whole.

Helping The Hunt—How We Endured

While [World War II] was on, we never stopped hunting. There were fewer members in the field, but it always went on the same way. You never change. Whether come hard times or good times or war times, as far as the hunting is concerned, it’s all exactly the same. You go from one huntsman to another and they all do it properly or else they just leave. There were more women during the war, and I’d say the field was smaller because there were fewer younger men, but the older men were still here and they went on and on and on!

Our sort of environment was just the same, because the landowners and the farmers and everyone went on just the same. Everyone felt that the foxhunting was the reason for being. It was sort of an established fact that everybody hunted. Even people that came here from outside became foxhunters. They didn’t really expect to, but it was just like when you get up in the morning, you have breakfast. It’s just what everybody did. On hunting days, you went hunting.

The hunting of the packs of hounds, be they the American hound or the English-bred hound, was similar. The country was similar and the method of hunting was similar. The draw was decided by the Master and the huntsman as hounds met wherever they were going to meet.

The horn was blown to announce to the field that hounds were moving off, and when they reached a covert, they stood just quivering until the cue to “lui in.” And they flew into the covert with their noses on the ground, knowing exactly what they were supposed to do, which was to find a fox, and only a fox, and not to pay any attention to riot.

There were days when the scent was so bad that it was a very unpleasant day, but every day that you go hunting was worthwhile somehow or another, so I never thought it was a lost cause.

The best-known hunting day was “The Great Lenape Run” back when I must have been 10 or 11. That fox ran for 51⁄2 hours, all the way down through the Lenape amusement park and under the roller coaster. Luckily, at that time of year the amusement park was closed!

Unfortunately, that day, my mother finally said, “Nancy, you’ve got to take that pony home. That pony’s had enough.”

I said, “But she’s not even tired!” But I had to ride home, right before that they put that fox to ground.
Hunting today has changed enormously because there are fewer and fewer people who really understand what foxhunting is all about. They love to come to the meet and say “good morning” to their neighbors. That is what has changed. Back when I first started hunting, people would be seriously interested in hounds. Now the people don’t even really look at the hounds. They don’t admire the reason for being.

They love the atmosphere of hunting, and I don’t want to say in sort of a smug kind of a way that
it’s now a social game, because it isn’t. It’s just doing what comes naturally.

Hunting has changed as far as the knowledge of the real reason for being. How well hounds hunt is not as appreciated as it was earlier. But they’re still having as good a time. I think they hadn’t been brought up with a stable behind the house with horses in it that had to be exercised every day.

The knowledge of the average foxhunter is not as astute as far as the game of a disciplined pack of hounds drawing a covert, finding a fox, getting him on his legs, keeping the pack together, not running riot, and doing what they were bred to do.

I think this hunt will go on forever. They’re very much interested in Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire foxhounds, and they recognize it as being a very well-run establishment. We usually have close to 100 hounds in the kennels, and we’ll hunt maybe 50 hounds. Sometimes we’ll have as many as 300 people in the middle of the season, though I’d say the average field is about a good 100 people, counting children. That continues and it’s nice. We love to encourage them.

From Whence We Came

My stepfather, Mr. W. Plunket Stewart, came here to Unionville in 1912 from Maryland, where his family was always very much the backbone of the foxhunting world. He was the CEO of Cassatt & Co. [now Merrill Lynch] in Philadelphia, and my father had been the CEO of Cassatt & Co. in New York City, which was always considered one of the outstanding stock exchange corporations in the eastern part of America. My father and my stepfather had a similar interest in life, so that was the beginning of everything.

By 1929, Plunket and his wife were divorcing, and then my father [Richard Penn Smith] died, so his [joining the family] was all very legal and very proper, luckily! My father had died when I was about 8, and up until then we had always lived on Long Island because he worked in New York City, but my mother and father had a lovely, lovely farm of some 300 acres down in Virginia near Middleburg.

Mother [Carol Harriman Penn Smith] had an outstanding group of Thorough-bred broodmares and a good stallion with which she bred Grade I stakes winners. One of our horses, called Pasteurized, later won the Belmont [Stakes, in 1938]. That is just an example of the type of Thoroughbred race horse that mother was producing on her farm in this lovely area of Virginia. If you go from Unionville to there, the country is very much alike. And believe it or not, it’s what Long Island was like back in the 1920s or early ’30s.

We would go down to the farm in hunting season and might stay for two or three weeks. After my father died and my mother married my stepfather, we moved from having been Long Islanders and Virginians, to becoming Pennsylvanians.

A Family Tradition

My father [Richard Penn Smith] had been joint-Master of the Orange County Hounds in Virginia. [After he died], we graduated from that, which was a pack of well-bred, outstanding American hounds, to Pennsylvania, where the pack that was introduced to us was of outstanding English hounds bred by my stepfather, W. Plunket Stewart.

My stepfather asked me to join him as joint-master of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire foxhounds in 1945. I had graduated from the Foxcroft School (Va.) in June of ’37, and had already started a pack of Beagles called the Foxcroft Beagles with my friend and roommate, Tillie Tuckerman. We showed them at the Aldie [National Beagle Club] trials and had many trophy winners. Later, my daughter Carol, who was four years younger than I had been and just entering Foxcroft, took the Beagles over.

[My children and grandchildren] all feel the same way—they’re all enthusiastic about the foxhunting and the horses. They’ve all followed in the family tradition.

Our son Buzzy won the Maryland Hunt Cup three times, and [our other son] Jock was beat there by just a hair. [Our son-in-law Bruce Davidson is a five-time Olympic eventer, and was a fieldmaster for the hunt, and] our grandson Buck [Davidson] is doing a good job with the eventing. Hunting has always been, on all sides of the family, a part of our lives.

As for horses, we’ve had so many good ones that I think I can say that almost all of them became my favorites. It’s just like asking, “Which one of those three children are your favorite?”

There were those that we ran in the Maryland Hunt Cup, like a horse called Our Hobo, which my husband John rode, and I rode in the ladies races. He was well used all the way through the hunting season and then all the way through the racing season in the spring. I think that when a horse is going well under you, you think he’s the best you’ve ever had, and then another one comes along and does just as good a job. But I know that all of them carried me very well.

We were also sent a horse named El Arabi that was bred by the Aga Khan. That horse was such a rogue, but he later won the Middleburg Hunt Cup [in 1954]. The owner finally gave him to us, and he said, “I can’t do anything with him so go ahead and put him down.” But I hunted with him, and he loved the excitement of the hounds. He just had a mind of his own, and it was when he got to foxhunting that he got interested. It just entertained him. And my husband John rode him in some good races.

The Life And Times Of Nancy Penn Smith Hannum

•    Nancy is the granddaughter of Union Pacific Railroad tycoon Edward Henry Harriman, who had the Orange County Hunt in Orange County, N.Y. In 1902, he moved the hunt to The Plains, Va., to avoid loss of territory from development.

•    Although Nancy attended private school for the majority of her childhood, she and her sister Averell did go to the local public primary school in Unionville for a short time immediately upon their move there. Because children of wealthy parents were considered prime targets for kidnapping for ransom in the early 1930s, Nancy and her sister were escorted to school each day with a hired driver and a governess.

•    A lifetime involvement in horse sports has given Nancy countless broken bones, but her first major accident came at the age of 5 from another form of transportation: a bicycle. A broken wrist from that incident was the first in a series of thrills and spills that Nancy still regards with a casual air. “I’m held together with iron and nails and metal!” she said shrugging.

•    Though she enjoyed an upper class, East Coast upbringing, Nancy also relished trips to Montana and Wyoming as a young teen. “In those days out there, there was no particular legislation about whether girls were allowed to ride in races or not,” she said. “So Mom and Dad stayed home and did the work while my sister and I went out and had fun!”

•    In 1940, Nancy married the late John Hannum, a successful trial lawyer who later became a U.S. District Court Judge. The couple had three children, Buzzy, Jock and Carol.

•    Though she has arguably cheated death on multiple occasions, nothing is more impressive than Nancy’s survival of a lightning strike through a second-floor window of her home. She doesn’t recall much of the incident, but maintains that it was nothing to fuss about. “I didn’t have time to be struck by lightning,” she said. “There were too many things going on in the kennels and the stables and the dairy.”

•    Alfred Hitchcock chose the Hannum’s Unionville estate, Brooklawn, for the filming of his 1964 movie Marnie. The main house was built in 1682 and has been home to Nancy’s family for several generations.

Category: Hunting

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