Andre the Giant strides through the open barn doors, his footfalls almost silent on the peat floor. One of Collin McNeil’s hunters, the Belgian-Clydesdale cross stands 18-hands tall. As Andre is brushed and groomed, McNeil recounts the history of his 90-acre Chester Springs farm.
When McNeil purchased the farm six years ago, he converted the old machine shed into a cozy barn and built a larger, brighter one that is home to McNeil’s and his wife Nia’s classy horses and two ponies. In October of 2007 Nia and her mount Flying Dutchman took home the top prize in the $10,000 WIHS Adult Amateur Jumper Championship at the Washington International.
Up on a nearby hill, Sir Galahad, a purebred Irish draft horse and the current star of the barn, grazes contentedly with a few companions. Not so Binks, the family’s relentless Jack Russell. He amuses himself by taking running leaps to snatch the dangling rope of a venerable farm dinner bell. Rope firmly clenched in his teeth, Binks swings back and forth, clanging the bell until something new strikes his fancy.
Inside the comfortable fieldstone home an expansive living room is decorated in a vibrant foxhunting theme. A dozen prints cover the center walls, while large oil paintings of Sir Galahad and Flying Dutchman adorn the far side of the room. A collection of 20 copper hunting horns in all sizes and shapes are massed on a corner mahogany table. Nearby sits a jumble of antique pillboxes, thimbles, and snuffboxes. A pair of stuffed foxes peers contentedly out of the room’s sunlit windows.
McNeil has been a devoted member of the Radnor Hunt for the past decade, following 24 years with the Pickering Hunt in Chester Springs, Pa. He is the son of Robert. L. McNeil, who began his career as a research chemist in 1936, ultimately serving as chairman of the board of McNeil Laboratories.
Collin worked a six-year stint as a reporter/anchor at Philadelphia’s WPVI-TV6, followed by a position financing and developing film and television projects that included the 1989 film Cousins, starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini. For most of the last 10 years, though, his love of history served him well in his position as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Founded in Philadelphia in 1824, the Historical Society is home to some 600,000 printed items and more than 19 million manuscript and graphic items. McNeil spearheaded a recent decision to digitize the society’s vast holdings.
McNeil’s passion for history sparked the idea for the writing of Bright Hunting Morn. Wonderfully crafted, the book, published by Derrydale Press, celebrates the Radnor Hunt’s 125th anniversary.
Scanning a notable bookseller’s website in 2005, McNeil discovered 22 original photographs of Radnor members hunting at Androssan, the legendary home of the Montgomery Scott family in the old Radnor territory. The candid photos bring to life many of the true characters that laid the foundation for Radnor Hunt. McNeil purchased the photographs and the journey began.
“They were action shots taken by a professional photographer that date back to 1919,” says McNeil. “In one of the shots you can see a movie camera documenting a day of hunting. They were all annotated and everyone in them was identified. It was a terrific find.”
The Radnor Hunt stands alone as the only uninterrupted hunting club in America—going back more than 126 years. A backward glance is a long one; it will take you right through two world wars, the great depression, encroaching suburbia, the automobile, disease, political squabbles, and financial crises. The Radnor Hunt survived and persevered through it all.
“The hunt has flourished through a painstakingly forged bond between land and hunters,” McNeil says. “The sport is enjoyed, the crops are spared, and the land is revered.”
The book tells the story of sportsmen James Rawle and the Montgomery brothers who liked Quaker-born farmer Thomas Mather, and liked his pack of hounds even more. They took up foxhunting around 1880, purchasing a modest farm that housed the original kennels and clubhouse. Hunting was carried on for several years on a very informal basis—any member being at liberty to take out the hounds whenever the spirit moved him.
By the early 20th century, Radnor— its superb hounds, well-connected members, and glorious grounds and clubhouse—had become the place to be for Philadelphia society. Steeplechase races, a prestigious three-day event, and the world-class Bryn Mawr hound show all took root on the hunt’s grounds.
The author’s short literary vignettes pay tribute to a number of the gentlemen who made the hunt what it is today. At the top of the charts was Roy Jackson, Sr., whose son Roy, Jr. bred and raced the famed Barbaro.
“He was a larger-than-life figure who met his future wife, Almira Rockefeller—she was 33 years younger—on the hunting fields in Connecticut,” McNeil relates. “Jackson became Master of Radnor in 1929 and was the founder of the Penn-Marydel foxhound breed. He built world-class kennels and paid all the expenses for the hounds. His influence was profound.”
[amazon-product]1586671111[/amazon-product]Sometimes the book becomes so intimate one feels like an eavesdropper on a privileged conversation. Written with great attention to detail, the oversized, 10″ x 12.5″ tome is illustrated with superb vintage photographs and sumptuous artwork that keeps the reader turning pages. Charles Morris Young’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist landscapes are especially alluring. In the 1920s, Young was commissioned to paint many scenes of the hunting fields. The resulting collection underscores Radnor’s long history and is clearly unique in the context of sporting art in America.
Bright Hunting Morn was researched and written over three years. Digging through various archives and libraries to uncover source material, McNeil was aided especially by local historians Pat Keller and Karen Kauffman.
For Radnor Hunt, there have been countless “bright hunting morns.” As McNeil writes: “Each one is given freely to the fox, the hounds, the riders, and all who avidly follow the chase.”