Nancy Hannum: The matriarch of Unionville

Staff photo by Larry McDevitt Nancy Penn Smith Hannum with her daughter, Carol, and son, Buzz, in her home.

Nancy Penn Smith Hannum is often described as a key founder of Chester County's venerable land conservancy movement.

It's no wonder.

For 58 years, the lady master of Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Foxhounds, a premier fox-hunting group in Unionville, the feisty, yet patrician Hannum spearheaded fellow hunters and others interested in conserving the natural beauty of Chester County to buy at-risk pieces of land.

By doing so, they preserve acreage for their children and other buyers intent on keeping the land the way it is, rather than peppered with McMansions.

Hannum, a physically frail but spirited 89-year old, still owns 800 acres surrounding the red brick Brooklawn, her sweeping home on a verdant and rolling horse farm whose original deed dates back to 1628.

But she has also placed conservation easements on many more acres, parcels of land that she has divided among her three adult children - Jock (short for John B. Hannum Jr.), Buzz and Carol, all of whom live nearby.

"We've tried to see that there's very little change in Chester County," said the tiny and self-effacing Hannum. "Everyone admires this area so much. We'd all be very upset if people started to build things that weren't right here."

Hannum believes that Chester County's natural beauty cannot be adequately described.

"This place is God's heaven," she told an interviewer last year. "We used to go to Leicestershire, England, and everyone would 'ooh' and 'aah.' But I couldn't wait to come home."

She proudly showed a visitor photos of herself as a young, vital woman atop her favorite fox-hunting steed. By her side was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, another avid fox-hunter.

"She came here twice to fox hunt and she was very nice," the ever-discreet Hannum said. "We enjoyed having her here."

Hannum broke many bones while fox-hunting over several decades, and cracked her collarbone so many times she contends it "got boring." After she broke her pelvis a third time, well into her 70s, she stopped riding during the hunt and commandeered the hunt from a Jeep.

She counts George "Frolic" Weymouth, Hal Haskell and Ford B. Draper, all of them intimately involved in conserving land along the Brandywine Creek, among her best friends.

"We brought in this new concept of conservation easements," she said, through the Brandywine Conservancy, which Weymouth helped to found.

A while ago, just a few owners controlled 32,000 acres of central and southern Chester County farmland, preserved in perpetuity and located in five contiguous townships. Now, those tracts are owned by 100 entities and protected by Brandywine Conservancy conservation easements.

The most recent addition, which made headlines when he donated it several years ago, is the nearly 1,100-acre parcel created by H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the founder of Suburban Cable, and the county's Embreeville Park, which kicked in another 500 acres.

The National Lands Trust now manages the tract.

A noted Philadelphia-area entrepreneur and philanthropist, Lenfest owned 568 acres of the former King Ranch. Originally, he wanted to develop it into a neighborhood of more than 100 homes. He had also planned to build his own 13,000-square-foot home there, the foundation for which has since been filled in.

Hannum intervened with characteristic bluntness and grace, an unusual combination in anyone, but one for which she is well-known locally.

As she recalled for a previous visitor, she asked Lenfest, "What do you think you're doing? Are you going to sell this land from under us? Why don't you give us your lovely, lovely land?"

Eventually, he did.

Lenfest also donated $6 million to maintain the combined property. "She didn't mince words," Lenfest said at the time. "She's a wonderful woman. They broke the mold when they made Nancy."

Nancy Penn Smith first moved to Unionville in 1930 with her mother and stepfather. She went to Foxcroft, a girls boarding school in Middleburg, Va., where she was allowed to keep her beagles. Then she went to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., but soon afterward met her future husband, John B. Hannum, at the Fair Hills races barn dance in rural Maryland. She left Sarah Lawrence, contending she "had a much better life to lead."

She married Hannum, an attorney, in 1940. He eventually became a federal judge. He died two years ago, though a stroke left him in poor health since 1991.

She has trained more than 100 hounds for the hunt but now has just one dog, Playmate, a rambunctious, curious Jack Russell terrier who jumps on Hannum's lap at the merest suggestion of an invitation.

Her body now bowed by arthritis, Hannum uses a walker to move around her vast home.

Surrounding her in the cozy library where she spends most of her days are silver hunt cup awards, a collection of the "Annals of Sporting" and a vast menagerie of paintings, sculptures and other renditions of foxes, horses, hounds and favorite hunting scenes.

"We are entrusted with this land and it's our responsibility to see that it remains that way," she said with conviction, as Playmate listened attentively in her lap.

comments powered by Disqus