Lady Mouse

By Joe Hickory
It is Chesapeake country, where beside still waters James P. Michener lived, researched, and wrote his 865-page epic. Here, history cleaves to the shoreline like a tick to a spaniel's ear.

Silhouetted against the expanse of sun-dappled Leadenham Creek, the tiny figure sweetening the hummingbird feeder casts a long shadow. Beckoned inside, and straightening as best arthritis would allow, she extended a hand. "Welcome. Welcome to Tench Tilghman's house."

I know well the story of Col. Tench Tilghman, Colonial patriot who, along with Paul Revere and Delaware signer Caesar Rodney, put up one of three notable endurance rides of the Revolutionary War. As aide-de-camp to George Washington, he rode hard from Yorktown, Va., to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia with joyous news of British General Lord Cornwallis' war-ending surrender.

Tilghman House--sited near the sleepy Talbot County tidewater hamlet of Bozman--might also properly be termed "Mouse's House."

"As a newborn," explained Jean Ellen du Pont Shehan, eldest of William du Pont Jr.'s five children, "Daddy said I reminded him of a little mouse--pink, hairless, and wrinkled. So I became known among family as Mouse. It's remained throughout my lifetime, even extending to my racing silks.

"Daddy's Foxcatcher Farm colors--now retired--are sapphire blue, gold fox front and back, blue cap. My Crooked Billet Stable silks are green, white mouse front and back, green cap."

The du Ponts, whose fortune originally stemmed from the early 1800s manufacture of black (gun)powder, include more than 5,700 descendants of Eleuthera Irenee du Pont de Nemours, a number of whom have enriched the Turf with flat and steeplechase champions or Hall of Fame members Battleship, Benguala, Berlo, Devil's Bag, Fairy Chant, Go for Wand, Kelso, Mongo, Open Fire, Parlo, Royal Governor, Shipboard, Soothsayer, Tempted, and The Mast.

Since the 1920s the du Pont dynasty has spawned such prominent racing stables as Foxcatcher, Montpelier, Bohemia, Christiana, Mooring, Hickory Tree, Brandywine, Roslyn, and Hextonia, as well as family members racing in their own names, such as Bayard Sharp, James A. Bayard, and Essie du Pont Weir.

William du Pont Jr., born in England in 1897, was raised at his parents' Montpelier, the 5,000-acre Virginia estate of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison. The Foxcatcher Farm founder's children were raised at Liseter Hall, near Philadelphia, where, from her lead line classes "Missy Mouse" was schooled in equestrian arts by her mother, Jean Austin Liseter du Pont.

Riding both English and sidesaddle, young Jean Ellen progressed to carriage shows and inevitably to the hunting field, where she rode out with her father as joint master of the Foxcatcher Hounds at Fair Hill.

Jean Ellen's second husband is World War II Navy flier William Mason Shehan, a Pearl Harbor survivor. They winter in Coral Gables, Fla., where the climate tempers her arthritis as she busies herself with charity work.

Though harnessed with macular degeneration and joint pain, the 82-year-old sportswoman is a gamer. "A lady of great spirit and high energy," says Mason Shehan of his wife.

Tench Tilghman House is an 18th century Eastern Shore frame farmhouse, as Spartan as the great du Pont homes--Nemours, Longwood, Bellevue, and Montpelier--are exquisite. Its owner would have it no other way, for it sits at water's edge amidst the 950-acre Jean Ellen du Pont Shehan Audubon Sanctuary, whose eight-mile peninsula shoreline is as pristine and grand in its own way as Denali. Like most du Pont gifted properties, the Audubon center is open to the public for nature and environmental activities.

All creatures great and small--from nesting Bald eagles to buck and doe, to the hummingbirds jockeying at the feeder--are welcome.

Here, the songbird is sovereign, and the lion lies down with the lamb.