In September of 1777 at Brandy-wine Creek in the southeasternmost corner of Pennsylvania, a British force under Sir William Howe won a notable victory over General Washington that led to the occupation of the city of Philadelphia. The British held the capital for less than a year, but vestiges of British domination are still evident in the Brandywine country: a pack of English foxhounds in Chester County is still making monkeys of American foxes. They are Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Fox Hounds, of Brook-lawn Farms in Unionville—founded by a Philadelphia broker, the late W. Plunket Stewart, in 1912, and probably the best hunt in America today. Behind the Cheshire's planning and execution is one of the most accomplished foxhunters in the field, Mr. Stewart's stepdaughter, 34-year-old Mrs. John B. Hannum III, master-owner and huntsman of the pack.
Now it's cub-hunting time, those precious fall months before the formal opening of the fox hunting season, when the huntsman takes his new entry hounds into covert and works them into the pack.
Out by McConnell Farm, before eight o'clock on a brisk morning, the field stands waiting, anxious for the day's sport to begin. Someone cries, "Here they come," and 25 couples of massive black and white and tan beauties flock into the meeting place, sterns waving with eagerness and impatience.
A groom calls out, "Morning, Mrs. Hannum," and the velvet-capped Master of Foxhounds raises her whip in salute and smiles a greeting as she takes a center position, hounds at her feet and stern-faced professional whippers-in at her side. The hounds sit or walk about her horse, the young ones, not having yet learned to husband their strength, busy with their noses.
October 25, 1954
The copper horn announces time to move off. "On to him, woo-up," the whipper-in encourages and hounds spring up willingly as the huntsman moves off. Slowly the cavalcade approaches the covert—first the huntsman and hounds, with whippers-in posted at either side, and then the field.
COUNTRYSIDE AND COMMUNITY
They cross the road, go through a gate, and there stretched out before them is the Brandywine country, ablaze in its multicolored fall foliage, mysterious now in its early-morning shroud of mist. This is the Cheshire's hunting country; gentle valleys carpeted with hazel and oak copse, mile after mile of undulating, open-galloping farm and grazing land, a covert-filled fox hunters' paradise.
For a brief moment one can reflect on the beauties of nature and rationalize the perfection of the moment with the part this pack of hounds plays in the community. The hunt provides not only healthy and wholesome sport for everyone interested, but its members also support local ventures such as fire companies, hospitals, Red Cross bloodmobiles, churches and varied civic projects. The farmers' land becomes more valuable with its proximity to the center of the hunting country.
A whip cracks, and a too-boisterous hound rejoins the pack swinging its way to covert. From her horse, Mrs. Hannum watches the young hounds all the way. This is their day. For a year now their kennel training has been the groundwork for this moment—their first day to hunt a fox. On this final ability depends their future—whether they will be "entered" to stay with the famous pack or will be "drafted" elsewhere. Built and bred into each of these barrel-chested aristocrats loping their way to the hunt is the nose of a bloodhound, the speed of a greyhound and as bloodcurdling a cry as can be heard today.
THE SEVEREST TEST
Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Fox Hounds are a huntsman's joy. Once they hit the line, they are fury let loose, a spine-chilling, merciless pack of hounds outdistancing horse and field, checking, working, hitting it off again through five hours of relentless chase. Now is the apprentice hounds' big chance to win entry into the working pack. Now the huntsman will have a chance to see if Dixie is a babbler, noisy and giving tongue too freely, which young'uns will draw best, which can find a fox, which are the flighty ones and which the skirters.
Up past the Jones Farm and on to Trimble's Hollow the procession hacks to covert, the field following on behind—the riders in twos and fours, rat-catcher dressed, dropping back, now coming forward again, rising in the saddle to the trot-toe-trot, trot-toe-trot of their thorough bred horses.
The Cheshire isn't a flossy hunt, nor a social event with an easy ride and an early home. Not all its members are people of leisure and means; there are farmhands and steelworkers, too, rich only in their love of the sport. This is a huntsman's meet, packed with heart-pounding jumps at breakneck speed and a grueling pace which never seems to let up. This is the noble science brought to its peak in America, a matchless pack of hounds led by one of the best masters in the country.
Now they are at covert. They've approached upwind so as not to give warning to the young fox cub they hunt.
In cubbing, only the young fox is hunted, as the inexperienced hounds would never be able to match their wits against an old and wily fox, who would outwit and therefore discourage them before they learned what they were supposed to hunt.
The field stands halted outside the wood, waiting for hounds to draw. "Eloo-in, eloo-in," cries Mrs. Hannum, casting hounds into covert with a cheer. The old-timers crash into the undergrowth, noses to the ground. Fanning out, they work every inch of the ground, weaving, doubling back, their sterns feathering, silently nosing their fox. The young hounds bound in after them, not yet sure why but not wanting to lose the main pack.
"Yoi—rouse him, wind him," calls Mrs. Hannum, as she urges them to draw. Woods and brush come alive with the rustle of dry leaves and breaking bramble. Then suddenly comes an urgent, high-pitched yipping sound from old Raider on the left.
HARK TO RAIDER
"Speak to it, Raider, speak to it. Hark." A young hound joins him, nose to the ground, drawing in a scent which sets the hackle on its body stiff, and together young and old throw up their heads and send out their music.
"Hark to Raider, hark to Raider—Hark! Hark! Hark!" cries Mrs. Hannum, digging in her spurs and bolting after the black-and-tan blur ahead of her. And then every hound is on it, and a chorus of roaring and loud-ringing mouths shatters the crystal air as hounds are "gone away." The field flows after them over post and rail, ditch and stream, sending their horses on at a steeplechase pace where the going is good, steadying them at the rough or "trappy" spots.
Later in the afternoon they return—the huntsman, the hounds and what is left of the field. Some of the hounds are limping, bramble-scratched and lame, exhausted, filthy but triumphant. Like the novice rider in the field, they have been blooded to their first fox. They've made mistakes, been whipped at, scolded and praised, but in their noses still lingers a scent they will never forget. A mud-spattered and tired Mrs. Hannum jogs them back to the kennels, knowing now for sure that the coming season will have a pack as good as ever. Only when her hounds are settled and her horse stabled does she call it a day.
A horsewoman from the time she was 5 years old, Nancy Hannum has grown up to the sound of hounds and horn and running in her veins is blood rich in the hunt tradition. Her courage and tenacity in the saddle is inbred, for her father, mother and grandfathers were all Masters of Hounds.
From her home, Brooklawn, she runs the Cheshire true to tradition, with the care, planning and strategy of a general at war. Mrs. Hannum knows every inch of the Brandywine country she hunts, from Trimble's Hollow to Doe Run—every wood, every tree, every post and rail. To her, hunting is a way of life, and it always will be. From the time she gets up—often before sunrise—she is out working in kennel or stable, conferring with her hunt-staff, inspecting a lame or injured hound or taking the pack out for training. With her whippers-in, James Regan and Gordon Roberts, who double as kennelmen, she can be seen any day, a white-coated figure with whip in hand, walking her hounds through the fields of Brooklawn Farms. They trot and cluster about her while she whistles trilling commands to them: "C'mon Dasher boy, Roguish—here, Artful—Stranger—-Rosebud; c'mon girl."
The preparation for the hunt is always going on. Barbed wire is taken down from fences; dangerous, leg-breaking washes are filled in; and the fixture cards, 400 of them, are sent out to the riders who are invited to hunt with this private pack. Gamekeepers, grooms, kennelmen—all work the year round with Mrs. Hannum, welding scientific and sporting knowledge into the finest chase in the field today. It's a year-round business costing $30,000.
GOOD HOUNDS MAKE GOOD HUNTS
"Fox hunting is like a heady wine and anybody can drink it. It's the most exciting sport in the world," says Mrs. Hannum, who has broken her collarbone five times while hunting, but who is still not deterred.
Part of the preparation for the hunt is a study of the habits and whereabouts of the fox. Mrs. Hannum's gamekeeper, Ray Hayes, is the hunt's fox watcher and earth stopper. A squint-eyed, leathery-skinned woodsman, Ray is a legend around Chester County, and such is his knowledge of the comings and goings of the fox in this area that half the local inhabitants are convinced he is part fox himself.
Ray doesn't deny this. He'll smile and get down to business. "There's a fox round here; a thing of beauty. I see him often in the field, layin' flat as your hand, tail movin', like a cat does"—and then Ray will tell Mrs. Hannum what foxes are in which coverts, where the cubs are and which ones should be drawn. Ray Hayes has been fox-watching since he was 10 years old and this is his 21st year with the Cheshire. Driving about the Brandywine, studying tracks, stopping earths, killing off mangy foxes and protecting the others for the hunt, Ray Hayes leaves a trail of stories about his prowess which defies corroboration. He is another reason why the Cheshire is a great hunt.
But good hunts are made by their hounds, without which the best huntsmen could provide nothing but poor sport. The real reason the Cheshire gives the best sport in the land is the Cheshire foxhounds. These are Mrs. Hannum's pride, and her greatest responsibility rests in the breeding and continuation of this pack. She was brought up to know that "the fox is killed in the kennel," and that is where she spends most of her time.
ENGLISH HOUNDS FOR STRENGTH
When W. Plunket Stewart started the pack in 1912, he chose the finest English hound bitches he could acquire. Mr. Stewart chose English hounds because they are more massive, stronger and gayer than their lighter-boned American cousins, and this open grasslands country demanded the strongest hounds he could get. Their cry was not as loud as that of the American hounds and their nose was not as keen, so Mr. Stewart went to work on these faults, and today the best traits of both types of hound are bred into the Cheshire pack. His skill in breeding established the pack as one of America's best, and when he died in 1949 he left his step-daughter the legacy of carrying on the pack and hunt which still bear his name. Mrs. Hannum was already the Joint Master with Mr. Stewart, and she eagerly took over the breeding and management of the pack.
For 200 years the hounds' ancestors had been selectively bred for their finest points. Their blood line stretched back deep into English tradition. This was the responsibility Mrs. Hannum inherited. One season of poor breeding or mishandling in the field could ruin generations of effort.
In or out of season, the kennels are always the nerve center of the hunt. Drawing the hounds, choosing the breeders, training the new entries, housing and working the entire kennel is a business which absorbs Mrs. Hannum's full time.
LIFE OF LUXURY
Few animals could have it any better than do the Cheshire hounds. Their kennel is a stone-walled palace set in its own tree-lined grounds. The kennel is split up into warm, yellow-tiled lodging rooms in which the hounds sleep on raised wooden benches on one and a half feet of straw. For the hounds to exercise in, each lodging room has its outside yard which gets hosed down and cleaned daily by the kennel staff. Leading off the lodging rooms are the feeding room, hospital room and kitchen, the latter a steamy, sweet-smelling place where the hounds' diet is prepared. It costs $10,000 a year to feed the 135 hounds in the kennel, who eat an average of two horses a week. The hounds eat deboned, minced, boiled horseflesh and an oatmeal pudding. Each day the kennel uses about 100 pounds of horsemeat, 100 pounds of prepared meal, 10 buckets of cooked oatmeal and eight gallons of milk.
Once a day the hounds, in manageable groups, are brought into the feeding room, where they eat from a long trough running down the center of the room. As the door from the draw yard opens, in rush the hounds, nudging and hustling their way into position at the trough. Excitable and hungry, the hounds are calmed by Mrs. Hannum, who murmurs a droning "Sace, sace, sace" as they eat.
Mrs. Hannum hunts her 135 entered hounds in two packs and in rotation. One pack is nothing but bitches; they are better, faster and more malleable. The other is a mixed pack of larger-sized bitches and the regular dog-hounds. It is to either one of these packs that the new entry must graduate. It isn't enough to be born a Cheshire foxhound. Becoming an "entered" member of the pack is like winning the crown in a babbling court of power-crazy blood brothers.
Of the 24 couples of hounds which are born to this purple life each year, only two-thirds will ever get into the pack. The rest are sold to ignominy. Two or three are killed at birth for obviously bad conformation. In the first draft, when the puppies are a few months old, the slightest imperfection, like a short neck or a stern set on too low, can eliminate the hound on the spot.
Only the perfectly formed hounds are left. These are then slowly winnowed until only the best working hounds are left. When they are one year old, the new entries are brought to the main kennel from their grass yards, and their training really begins. Mrs. Hannum teaches them their names first and then teaches them to come when called. They move about the kennels to orders, entering the draw yard, after their daily walks, to the command of "Eloo-in, eloo-in" which they will later hear at covert-side.
COUPLING TEACHES DISCIPLINE
As soon as they are ready, the apprentice hounds join the main packs on their daily exercise walks. Out into the field they go, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Hannum. Each young hound is "coupled" to an older one by a leather collar and chain, and in this way pack discipline is taught to the inexperienced hound. This goes on day after day, and slowly the young hound learns to move about as a member of the team. At first he riots after any old rabbit or bird, but, coupled to the older hound, he soon learns to curb his natural instincts and act upon command only. All the time Mrs. Hannum watches them and notes their progress, studying each hound's personality.
Later, the coupling collars are removed and the young hounds go out with the pack unguided. They are walked in the meadow and along a roadside and are taught to watch and listen, to obey and to heed the sharp crack of the whip. After being "walked out" from April until July, their mounted road work starts. Then hounds are walked and jogged along the roads, with the hunt staff mounted on horses. By the time cubbing starts, hounds are used to being out for about three hours and their feet are tough and hard, as are their whole bodies.
"But anywhere along the line they can misbehave themselves right out of the kennels and hunt. Too much individuality, a quarrelsome or timid nature, a streak of disobedience—any one of these inbred qualities can finish a hound," says Mrs. Hannum. But when she thinks they are ready she draws the new entries for size, levelness of conformation and sex, and divides them into packs to be taken out cub hunting.
This is the last phase of their training, their graduation exercise. Though part of the regular hunting pack, they are still rookies until they have had a full season's hunting. If they come through this final examination successfully, they are considered "entered hounds."
GRADUATION DAY AT LAST
They take their place in the pack, excitedly bounding their way at the feet of Mrs. Hannum's horse. The whippers-in are there too, watching their charges carefully, ready to chastise a riotous hound with their trailing whips and stern commands. There's a snap in the air and the Brandywine is veiled in mist as they go to the meet. They are a blood-stirring sight, swishing rhythmically over field and stream, snuffing the scented earth.
Mrs. Hannum, her horn tucked between buttons of her hunting coat, leads them on, a low, trilling whistle on her lips.
The whip cracks and a recalcitrant bounds back to his proper place in the pack. Up the slope they come, jogging at a trot-pace, etched softly against the backdrop of the Brandywine. "Here they come," goes up the cry of the field, as the star performers join the meet.
The hunting horn sounds its twanging note, and another day's hunt has begun.
GLOSSARY OF HUNTING TERMS
CUBBING: Hunting young fox cubs before the formal season. This is the training period for young hounds about to enter the pack.
STERNS FEATHERING: Tails moving from side to side with liveliness, indicating that the hound has picked up a scent but not a strong enough one to speak to.
WHIPPERS-IN: Hunt servants who control pack and assist huntsman.
COVERT: A wood or anyplace else where a fox may be concealed.
HIT THE LINE: Find the scent of a fox—said of hounds.
HITTING IT OFF: Recovering the line after once losing it.
BLOODED: When hounds kill their first quarry, they are said to have been blooded: novice hunter is blooded by smearing him with fox blood at his first kill.
GONE TO GROUND: Gone into an earth or den or any refuge—said of the fox.
GONE AWAY: Hounds have started chase after fox has broken from covert.
RAT-CATCHER: Name given to informal riding clothes.
"ELOO-IN": The cry used by huntsman to urge hounds "to go in" (covert
DRAFT: Selection of the hounds to be eliminated from the pack.
COUPLING: Harnessing of young inexperienced hound to an old hound, by means of a leather collar, for training purposes.