Blogging Along the Brandywine: Christy’s ‘Gran’

I had two grandmothers. One quietly entertained my sister and me with tea parties, taught us German, to sew, to color inside the lines and to write in neat cursive. The other laughed out loud, feared nothing, wore slacks in the 1950s, and taught my country mouse sister and me to ride Washington, D.C.’s buses by ourselves.

Tuesday evening, I had the pleasure to see the award-winning documentary “Goodnight Ladies” at West Chester’s UpTown Knauer Performing Arts Center. The documentary is a joyous portrait of the amazing life of Cheshire Hunt’s legendary Master of Foxhounds, the late Nancy Penn Smith Hannum (1919-2010) of Unionville.

Christianna Potter Hannum

I was drawn to this event not only to learn more about this lady but because the documentary was beautifully created by her oldest granddaughter, Christianna Potter Hannum.

Nancy Penn Smith Hannum was Christy’s “Gran” and Christy’s love for her grandmother pervades every moment of this documentary.

Christy studied the history of art and Italian at The University of Pennsylvania, later studying at the Universita di Bologna in Italy. This is her first film.

The 37-minute documentary opens with Hannum reading her own obituary six years before her death at age 90. Written in error by a British publication, it was put on the web before the facts were confirmed.

Reading the copy to her granddaughter she begins, “Nancy Hannum, dead at 82.” Then pausing she considers, “He gave me two years. I thought I was 84, but that’s alright.”

Continuing she reads how she, “ruled the Unionville hunt country with what the locals referred to as a tyranny of expectations.” Turning to Christy she mused, “I’m not quite sure how to take that.”

Hannum was the granddaughter of New York railroad executive, E.H. Harriman, daughter of Richard Penn Smith and stepdaughter of W. Plunket Stewart. But it was her mother’s marriage to Stewart after Smith’s untimely death that brought the young family to the rolling fields of Unionville.

“Grandmother was famous for her passion for getting hurt,” Christy noted because, during her career as a rider and Master of the Foxhounds, she had broken every bone in her body including her pelvis and her neck.

So, when her doctor advised she couldn’t ride to the hounds anymore, she continued to lead the Cheshire Hunt, driving across fields in her navy-blue Jeep Wagoneer.

In one scene she points out her window and shouted directions, “Joe, Joe. That fox crossed up there.”

Even at age 80, a doctor inquired what medications she was on, she answered, “Two Excedrin every morning”.

Just prior to that visit, she had been struck by lightning. When asked if she had seen a doctor she replied, “There wasn’t any reason, I was still alive!”

One of the most memorable scenes in the documentary is the feeding of the foxhounds, known as the Cheshire Beauties. At one point, dozens of hounds rush into the feeding room of the large hunt kennel, literally inhaling their feed from both sides of a long narrow trough. Christy noted, “My sound person holding the boom was terrified.”

And her legacy? When the Plunket Stewarts first moved to Unionville, they owned 211 acres. But with Hannum’s fierce love of the land, and by a little cajoling of her neighbors, there are now 26,000 contiguous acres under conservation.

The next time you drive west of Unionville, down Route 82 between the miles of meticulously fenced fields of Doe Run, you’ll know who to thank.

The trailer for the documentary can be seen on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SV2_6V5DEM

Authors Note: Christianna (Christy) Potter Hannum was one of my students during my 6-year tenure at the Upland School in Kennett in the 1980s. I knew Mrs. Hannum as a loving grandmother always supporting her grandchildren at games, plays and choral concerts.

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About Sally Denk Hoey

Sally Denk Hoey, is a Gemini - one part music and one part history. She holds a masters degree cum laude from the School of Music at West Chester University. She taught 14 years in both public and private school. Her CD "Bard of the Brandywine" was critically received during her almost 30 years as a folk singer. She currently cantors masses at St Agnes Church in West Chester where she also performs with the select Motet Choir. A recognized historian, Sally serves as a judge-captain for the south-east Pennsylvania regionals of the National History Day Competition. She has served as president of the Brandywine Battlefield Park Associates as well as the Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford where she now curates the violin collection. Sally re-enacted with the 43rd Regiment of Foot and the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment for 19 years where she interpreted the role of a campfollower at encampments in Valley Forge, Williamsburg, Va., Monmouth, N.J. and Lexington and Concord, Mass. Sally is married to her college classmate, Thomas Hoey, otherwise known as "Mr. Sousa.”

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One Response to “Blogging Along the Brandywine: Christy’s ‘Gran’”

  1. brandywinebard says:

    Thanks! Love the UpTown Knauer!

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