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, Pa. farm. Initially settled by a German immigrant in 1790, by the 19th century the grounds were mined for iron ore that helped supply the greater Philadelphia region.
When McNeil purchased the farm six years ago he converted the 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.
On a nearby hill Sir Galahad, a purebred Irish draft horse and the current star of the barn, and a few companions graze contentedly. Not so for 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 we sit in an expansive living room decorated in a splendid foxhunting theme. A dozen exquisite prints cover the center walls, while large oil paintings of Sir Galahad and Flying Dutchman adorn the far walls. Propped up on a corner mahogany table sits a collection of 20 copper hunting horns in all sizes and shapes. Nearby there is a jumble of old fashion pill-boxes, thimbles and snuff boxes. A pair of stuffed foxes peer contentedly out the room’s windows bathed in the light of the morning sun.
McNeil has been a devoted member of the Radnor Hunt for the past decade that followed a 24- year stint with the Pickering Hunt in Chester Springs, Pa. He is the son of Robert. L. McNeil who began his career as 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 decade, McNeil’s love of history served him well as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Founded in 1824 in Philadelphia, 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 their vast holdings.
McNeil’s passion for history sparked the idea for the writing of Bright Hunting Morn. Wonderfully crafted, Bright Hunting Morn (published by Derrydale Press) celebrates the Radnor Hunt’s 125th anniversary. The oversized book (a husky 10 by 13.5 inches) is skillfully composed, Sometimes it becomes so intimate that one feels like an eavesdropper on a privileged conversation. Written with great attention to detail, it is illustrated with superb vintage photographs and brilliant artwork that keeps the pages turning.
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 who 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,” explains 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 stretching over one hundred twenty six years. A backward glance will be a long one for 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.
“The hunt has flourished through a painstakingly forged bond between land and hunters,” explains McNeil. “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 the 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 iconic 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.”
Bright Hunting Moon 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.
The book’s visuals are stunning and Charles Morris Young’s impressionist and post-impressionist landscapes are especially alluring. In 1920s Young was commissioned to paint many scenes while standing in the hunting fields. The resulting collection underscores Radnor’s long history and is clearly unique in the context of sporting art in America.
For Radnor Hunt, there have been countless “Bright Hunting Morns.” As McNeil wrote: “each one is given freely to the fox, the hounds, the riders, and all who avidly follow the chase.”