Women's History Month: Nancy Penn Smith Hannum

Mar 1, 2011 - 12:21 PM

Having recently moved to Middleburg, Va., to work at the Chronicle, I was quickly mesmerized by the foxhunting culture. A neophyte to the tradition, I’ve spent hours talking to neighbors who lead the hunts and lend the land and whose walls, tables and mantels are complemented with fox and horn-themed décor.

In hopes of better understanding the grandeur and history of the sport, I’ve listened in on tales of snowy day hunts and six-hour chases. I’ve had lessons on lingo and canine cries. And through it all, I became enthralled with the legendary individuals who dressed in scarlet and donned velvet caps and top hats to follow the hounds.

That’s why I wanted to kick off Women’s History Month at the Chronicle by paying homage to a female rider whose name is synonymous with the great tradition of the chase.

This is the story of a late, great lady—Nancy Penn Smith Hannum—whose lifetime changed Chester County, Pa., forever.

Starting Young

Born into a foxhunting family, Nancy Penn Smith Hannum was destined to love the sport. Her grandfather, railroad industry mogul Edward Henry Harriman, founded the Orange County Hounds in New York and relocated the hunt to The Plains, Va., in 1902. Nancy’s parents Richard Penn Smith and Carol Harriman served as jt.-masters of Orange County, with whom Hannum began foxhunting when she was 4.

“Foxhunting was the reason for being,” Nancy said in a 2007 Chronicle interview.

In 1929 her mother remarried to W. Plunket Stewart after Penn Smith’s death, and Nancy’s family relocated to Unionville, where she grew to be an integral part of the community until her death in 2010.

Though she enjoyed an upper class, East Coast upbringing, the saucy young Nancy 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!”

But back in Unionville under her stepfather’s watchful eye, Nancy learned what it took to run a hunt properly. She started exercising the hounds, spending time with the huntsman and whipper-in of her stepfather’s eponymous club, Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds. His demands for excellence and discipline with his hounds and courtesy in the hunt field were characteristics she quickly adopted as her own. Years later, she was said to “rule” her field with “an iron fist” upon the same edicts.

Foretelling her own legacy, she observed Plunket’s efforts to keep the Cheshire Hunt in open country by buying property and working to secure the area as foxhunting-friendly.

“From the beginning, Plunket worked to create unanimity in the community. He wanted to have the very best hunting country anywhere. He wanted people to move in who liked open spaces and enjoyed having the hunt ride through their property,” she said in the book The Lady Blows A Horn, by Nancy Mohr, which tells the full story of her life.

After years of working alongside Plunket, Nancy was invited to be jt.-master of his hunt in 1945. She maintained that post until 2003, reigning 58 years as queen of the hunt country.

A Master Of Many Trades

As much as Nancy was a horsewoman, she was also “a houndswoman.” She took great pains to ensure the health and quality of her hounds, continuing to meticulously breed the English bloodlines that her stepfather imported years before. She also took great pride in her pack, and in 2002, she earned a lifetime award from the Bryn Mawr Hound Show (Pa.).

“You can’t talk about long, exciting days of hunting without focusing on good hounds. When someone asks me how to choose a hound, I have to step back and think about things I usually take for granted,” she told Mohr in an interview.

Nancy was a lot of things to a lot of people. Besides being the master of Mr. Stewart’s Chesire Foxhounds, she was the mother of three, a wife to federal judge John B. Hannum, “Gran” to a slew of grand and great-grandchildren and the owner and breeder of many successful steeplechase and timber horses. One horse, Morning Mac, won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1970 and 1973.

Nancy was also known to be injury-prone. Her years in the saddle left her with almost as many broken bones as foxes chased. “I’m held together with iron and nails and metal!” she joked in her later years.

Though she has arguably cheated death on multiple occasions, nothing is more impressive than her survival of a lightning strike through a second-floor window of her home, Brooklawn (which, coincidentally, served as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 classic, Marnie).

Nancy’s duties as a mother were equally as prevalent in her life. Not surprisingly, she produced three horse-loving children—Jock, Buzz and Carol. My favorite of Nancy’s myriad stories, as told to Mohr for her book, gives an example of her mothering technique while out riding with her daughter:

           “I don’t want to jump that fence,” said Carol. “I won’t jump that fence.”

            “Then we’ll leave you,” Nancy replied nonchalantly.

Carol finally jumped the fence, though tearfully, as her mother recounted. Scenarios such as this were typical when being raised by the lady master. Another incident ended with a young Carol kicking her mother in the shin. Nancy insisted that her daughter continue to aim her pony at a fence that the pony was unremittingly refusing, resulting in Carol parting ways from the saddle. The young rider had apparently had enough, and she let her mother know it.

Nevertheless, all three of Nancy’s children ended up being accomplished riders, nurtured by their mother’s tough-love lessons. The boys grew into respected hunt riders and race jockeys, and Carol went on to marry legendary eventer Bruce Davidson and become the mother of Buck, who’s making headlines as a four-star eventer today. 

A Lady Of The Land

Of all that Nancy was in her time, her legacy lies in what she left behind. Her tireless efforts throughout the years to preserve southern Chester County, Pa., eventually produced a unified and preserved tract of land of nearly 32,000 acres, and it’s still growing.

She was infamous for meddling in real estate agreements, more than once offending landowners. But her determination to protect what she called “God’s country” gained the respect of even non-foxhunting farmers. Following in her stepfather’s footsteps, she bought open properties and encouraged families who would support the hunt to move into the area.

Her involvement in the protection of the King Ranch property began at a young age, as she and her sister Averell herded Robert Kleberg Jr.’s Santa Gertrudis yearling cattle from pasture to pasture in an effort to convince him of the area’s worth and eventually purchase the 8,000 acres that were in danger of development.

Years later, when the King Ranch found its rightful place under the conservation easements of the Brandywine Conservancy, Hannum could breathe a sigh of relief. And in 1997, Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds was awarded the Hunting Conservation Award by the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America.

Whether she was on foot with her hounds, astride a horse or behind the wheel of the navy blue Jeep she was notorious for piloting on the hunt after her retirement from riding, Nancy worked persistently to maintain the unique, country way of life in her beloved Unionville.

Small in stature as she might have been, she was the driving force which ultimately led to the preservation of the land where signs reading “Hounds and Horses Ahead” line the streets, where post and rail fences track the countryside, and where the lyrical cries of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds still ring loud and clear.

Meghan Blackburn likes figuring out how we’ve all ended up where we are. And studying the history of the horse industry offers up plenty of answers. Whether it’s pilfering through countless vintage Chronicle issues in the attic, or propping her feet up to pore over one of the bound volumes which are piling up on her desk, she’s committed to getting the dirt on those who have helped the evolution of the equine world and blogging about it weekly.

Have ideas? Email Meghan at webintern@chronofhorse.com.

Category: Blog Entry

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