Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: July 1991 Volume 29 Number 3, Pages 87–97

Where is Our History Hidden?

Barbara Fry ; Elizabeth Goshorn ; Herb Fry ; Bob Goshorn

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"Where can I find historical information about our area?" "How do I go about starting to do research on a project?"

In this article are three "case histories", showing how club members obtained material in preparing for a club program or article, followed by a summary of some of the principal resources available.

It is hoped that this information may also encourage other club members to undertake research projects about aspects of our local history of interest to them, for presentation at a club meeting.


Finding the History of Trinity Presbyterian Church

About four years ago I set about updating the history of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Berwyn. Early issues of the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly had histories of the church, one written in 1938 on the 75th anniversary of the church's organization and another in 1963 on its 100th anniversary. My plan was to write about the next twenty-five years -- and I thought I knew how to go about it.

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I went down to the Chester County Historical Society Library in the basement of the Society's building at 225 North High Street in West Chester. I was looking for information on the recent ministers of the church. In the township clipping files, under Easttown, I found information arranged alphabetically for various categories; under "Churches, Presbyterian" I found a sizeable file on Trinity. The information on the ministers of Trinity since 1963 was exactly what I wanted and was looking for. I made my notes -- but I did not leave!

The file was too rich with other information about the life of the church: the Women's Association, building committees, annual dinners, a fire in the 1930s. The most riveting material was in the newspaper clippings of the 1870s, '80s, '90s, and early 1900s. Here were glimpses of the on going life of the church that were nowhere in our church records.

One spectacular clipping was from the West Chester Daily Local News in September of 1892. It told of the dedication of our present sanctuary at that time. The architect's full description of the church almost leaped off the page. Here was the first church of such strength and beauty to be built in all of our extended upper Main Line area. The celebrations were a week long.

I knew now that we really did not have a very complete history of our church. What had been done was excellent; the information we had was accurate and in order and made a good framework, but we really knew very little about the people of our 19th century church and what they did. In other categories of the township clipping file was an abundance of pre-1900 material about the village of Berwyn and its people.

In the meantime, back at the church we were reading the Minutes of the Session, which went all the way back to January 4, 1863. These were the most important primary source material that we could have, and had been carefully locked up and kept in an office cabinet. But at the same time, the story they told was brief and restrained.

The decision to build the church had come in July of 1861, about the time of the first, disastrous Battle of Bull Run. The church congregation was officially organized in January of 1863, in the very week Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Now questions began to come with a gathering speed. With the war, how were we able to carry these plans forward? How was the village touched by the war? Who went to war? How did our people feel about the war?

Who was John McLeod, our founding pastor? He seemed like an older gentleman, but in our church register we found that he had a young daughter, and that a son was born to the McLeods shortly after they moved to Reeseville [now Berwyn]. Furthermore, we found that the McLeods had given the land for the church. (I went to the Recorder of Deeds office in the county court house and found the record of the deed.)

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I also continued to read the early issues of the Quarterly at the Berwyn Library. In the very oldest issues. I browsed through a series of articles entitled "Early Land Titles of Easttown Township". Here was a record of how Rev. John McLeod had bought the remaining portion of the old Springhouse Tavern property, about 50 acres. In fact, the McLeods owned most of the land that is today the village of Berwyn, from Lakeside Avenue to Waterloo Avenue. They restored the old inn building on the north side of the Lancaster Turnpike and made it their home, a village showplace.

In the same series of articles I also found that the ten acres of land between Waterloo Avenue and Bridge Avenue had been the site of a tobacco farm and cigar factory in 1815. (Remnants of two early buildings there are still standing.) The property later was sold at a Sheriff's Sale and became a farm. Thomas Aiken Sr., a farmer and weaver (and also Clerk of the Session at Trinity), bought the property in 1870; his son Thomas Jr. was minister at Trinity church through most of its early years.

John McLeod was also the one who laid out the main streets of the village and gave them their names. He sold off his land parcel by parcel. Going back to the clipping files at the Historical Society again, we could read about land purchases and building in the village. Here you could see the village developing, house by house, after 1880.

Trinity's ministers following John McLeod, after 1864 and through another decade, were listed as N. P. Jones, A. M. Stewart, T. J. Aiken, and Willard Rice. All were strangers to us except Thomas J. Aiken. Then trips to the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia began to bear fruit. I learned that Rev. McLeod had gone to Yale. While I never found out much about Rev. Jones, I did find out that Rev. Rice was the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Philadelphia for most of the time of his ministry at Trinity. When he came to Trinity we were in deep trouble: could this be the reason the Presbytery that nurtured the new church sent help?

Records at the Presbyterian Historical Society also told us that A. M. Stewart had been a hospital chaplain in the Civil War and that he had written a book. Would we ever know more? We would.

We learned more about Alexander Morrison Stewart (he now had a name, not just initials) in a fortuitous way. At home, my husband was reading a book about the Pennsylvania Germans by Dr. Parsons, of Ursinus. Parsons quoted, in his book, a passage from Bruce Catton's trilogy on the Army of the Potomac (The Glory Road) in which Catton, in turn, had quoted from the book by Stewart. We ran for our copy of The Glory Road, and found that the first two paragraghs of the first chapter were a quotation from Camp, March and Battlefield, Three Years and a Half with the Army of the Potomac, Stewart's book about his experiences with the 102nd Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteer Army. Eventually we were to find the book in more locations than can be mentioned. I read it in its original printing at the Library Company in Philadelphia. In the recent PBS series on the Civil War, incidentally, Alexander Morrison Stewart was quoted twice, once while with the Union Army in the Peninsula and again in the Wilderness campaign. We also learned that Stewart was chaplain of the field hospital at Cold Harbor.

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Now that I was immersed in the Civil War, the service records of other local men were not difficult to find. In the Historical Society I found manuscript listings of the draft records of men of Tredyffrin and Easttown townships. Here, for the first time, we had some information about John Henthorne, who was one of the first two elected elders of the church. He was 25 years old in 1862, and was a wheelwright living in Paoli.

In addition to the township clipping file, the CCHS Library also has family files of newspaper clippings. Clippings reporting births, deaths, obituaries, weddings, property transfers, family reunions -- all can be found in the family files. I was looking for information about Dr. James Aiken under "Aiken, J." in the file when I came across another Civil War item about a young Dr. John Aiken, the surgeon of the 71st Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers.

With all this Civil War material, and more, sort of a by-product of my research about the church, I put together an article for the Quarterly.

Back at the church we found some important records in the attic, unprotected from the elements. This, again, was primary source material; the first trustees' minute book, a history of the Sabbath School that had preceded the church, and the original charters!

The trustees' minutes book had the kind of records of church life that told more about what was really happening. Here were hints of conflict within the church after 1872; the beginnings of the cemetery in 1863; the death, in 1870, of young Henry Fritz, who had undertaken the building of the church parsonage. Back to the family clipping files in West Chester, where we found that Henry Fritz had been killed by a horse that "spooked" as a train came in at the old Eagle station. Now we knew why the stained glass window in the church was dedicated to Henry Fritz; he had gone to the aid of a woman who was having difficulty with the horse.

We always felt that someone in Berwyn must have cared enough to save early pictures. Eventually we found that person in Dorothy Burns Pusey. Although she is now a Methodist, she is descended from both the Aiken and Burns families, spiritual leaders and builders of Trinity. She generously helped us with copies of her pictures. Peggy Egertson, who began preserving and cataloging our now substantial picture file, also interviewed Dorothy Burns, which also led to an article in the Quarterly on the Burns family.

From the very beginning we wondered why our list of organizing trustees was so very different from our list of founding communicants. As we learned about our early ministers, so we also came to know our early lay people and their friends in the village. The early trustees, we found out, were men of prominence of many religious persuasions, who came together to build the village church. The founding communicants, on the other hand, were all staunch Presbyterians.

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As we gathered more and more information from the CCHS clipping file we began to see the people of the growing village, building the Berwyn Halland Library in 1877 and later founding the Berwyn Savings & Loan Society, the Berwyn Bank, and the Fire Company. They built schools, and the Odd Fellows' Hall. Business men brought gas lights, and later electricity, to the village. Only snatches of their stories have been written. (Isaac Cleaver, a Baptist, and Frank Stauffer, a Presbyterian, both had long and colorful lives that I would like to write about, even though we do have some good material about them in issues of the Quarterly.)

The stories of the people of the village are real stories. These people defended their country, built their schools and churches, their meeting places and their institutions. They set a high standard of values for their community. They began as a society of farmers and artisans and became a society of business men and professionals. They went from travel by horse and buggy to travel by automobile.

Some of these stories are close to the surface, some are deeply hidden. But all of them are worth the search.


Keeping Your Antennae Up!

Sometimes a piece of local history will come out of hiding and find you! It's a matter, as one of my Girl Scout Training Instructors advised me, of "keeping your antennae up at all times".

In 1988 the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania decided to mount a special exhibit of some of its pre-Columbian treasures. The gold artifacts had been excavated in Panama by a University-directed archaeological expedition in 1940, and had been stored at the Museum at 33d and Spruce streets in Philadelphia since that time.

To interpret the objects and explain them to the public, an invitation was extended to those of us who were Volunteer Guides at the Museum to become tour guides for this exhibit when it opened. Anyone interested could sign up to receive more information about the expedition and the various items that were to be displayed, and then serve as a guide to answer visitors questions. As my interests include the Caribbean and pre-Columbian civilizations in America, naturally I volunteered to train for the exhibit.

It was then that I discovered that the artifacts had been excavated at Sitio Conte in Panama in an archaeological expedition under the direction of the late Dr. J. Alden Mason. I knew he had lived in Berwyn and was a member (and at one time president) of the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club. Thus a piece of local history all of a sudden had found me! With

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some additional research it became a program for a club meeting, and later an article, "A Legacy of John Alden Mason", in the Quarterly.

Descriptions of the various items in the exhibit --large gold inscribed discs or "breastplate" plaques depicting fantastic creatures, ear spools and ear rods., bells, beads, pendants, cuffs, anklets, tiny gold chisels -- and information about the expedition, of course, were included in the notes furnished by the Museum, some of which were also later included in the pamphlet prepared for the exhibit. In addition, Pamela Hearne, of the Museum staff, provided me with a copy of an article about the exhibit which she and Robert J. Sherer, also of the staff, had prepared for publication in the magazine Archaeology. (I also had the added advantage of an article about the expedition that Dr. Mason had written, and which had appeared in two installments in the Quarterly back in 1940.)

The Museum was also able to provide, from its archives, information concerning Dr. Mason's professional background and career. However, I felt that there were other facets of Dr. Mason's life which would round out the story of his legacy.

Again, information from earlier issues of the Quarterly was most helpful, particularly the articles which Dr. Mason himself wrote about the Men's Garden Club of Berwyn and the Main Line Unitarian Church, both of which he helped to organize. Additional facts were obtained from the memorial to him in the Quarterly after he passed away, and from his obituary and other newspaper clippings in the clipping file in the library of the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester.

A brief biography of Dr. Mason was also found in the 1959 edition of Who's Who in Pennsylvania, available at the Easttown Library, while an article by two of his colleagues at the Museum, published in Expedition, the journal of the University Museum, provided additional information on his work at the Museum and his relations with other staff members.

Finally, just by happenstance, at a meeting at the Radnor Historical Society I met Virginia Beggs, who for many years had been associated with Dr. Mason at the University Museum and knew him well. Somehow the subject of the "River of Gold" exhibit came up in our conversation, and she very generously not only shared with me some of her recollections of working with Dr. Mason, but also wrote to Conrad Wilson to obtain additional information for me. It was, again, a case of information finding me rather than my looking for and finding it!

All of this, as I mentioned earlier, provided the data to put together a club program, and later an article in the Quarterly -- simply because I remembered the admonition to "keep your antennae up at all times"!

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Working With Land Records

When researching history, a source of information which should not be overlooked is the office of the Recorder of Deeds in the county courthouse. Transfers of ownership of land, as well as liens placed against land, such as mortgages, are on record in the deeds office, and often supply useful insights into life in a different time.

Two indexes to deeds are maintained -- a grantee index and a grantor index. In them the deeds are indexed alphabetically by the name of the buyer (in the grantee index) and by the name of the seller (in the grantor index). The indexes show the deed book and page on which the record of the transfer is recorded.

For example, the record of a purchase of land by Abel Baker would be indexed in the grantee index under "B", for Baker. The "B" index is further subdivided by the initial letter of the grantee's first name, in this instance "A", for Abel. On the line with Abel Baker's name will be found the date of the deed, the date it was recorded, the deed book number and age on which the deed can be found, and (after about 1900) the township in which the property is located.

In Chester County, the deed books after the first World War have been put on microfilm for easy reference. Assuming the Able Baker deed was indexed as "S18, 199", you then proceed to the microfilm storage carousel and select the reel of film for Deed Book S-18. Proceeding to the viewing machine, you then insert the film (instructions on how to do this are in place at each machine) and locate page 199. There you will find a copy of the deed by which the property was conveyed to Abel Baker. The viewing machines also have printing capability which can be used to copy the deed for a charge of 50 cents a page.

A deed will identify the date of the land transfer, give the names of the the buyer and seller, describe the property's boundaries, and give the names of adjacent property holders. It will also identify the name of the previous owner (the party from whom the seller purchased the property)the date of the previous transfer, and the Deed Book and page on which that previous transaction is recorded. A deed may also contain information about family members of the seller, and possibly of the buyer too. In addition, some deeds refer to "lands and a messuage", an indication that there are buildings on the property.

For earlier deeds (those from the 18th and 19th century) which have not been put on microfilm, you must use the original deed books. They are filed in the basement of the Recorder of Deeds office in the court house.

County atlases with maps of each township have been published from time to time, and are also a valuable source of information about land ownership.

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Breou's Farm Maps of Chester County, published in 1883, are especially useful because they are the first maps that show the owner's name and the boundaries of his property within each township. (Earlier maps of Chester County, such as the T. J. Kennedy map of 1860 and the A. R. Witmer atlas of 1874 show the names of landowners, but not the boundaries of their properties.)

A number of atlases have also been published showing late 19th and early 20th century land holdings in the upper Main Line area. The A. R. Mueller atlases of properties on the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, published in 1908 and 1912, for example, are a good source, while later information may be obtained from property atlases compiled by the Franklin Survey Company in 1933 and 1950. Recently I became aware of yet another atlas, put out by Bromley & Co. in 1926. These resources are available at the library of the Chester County Historical Society or at the Tredyffrin Library in Strafford, among other places.

Although newspapers are not generally thought of as history texts, they do represent a recording of land transfers, as well as other aspects of history, as they occur. If the approximate date of the event being researched is known, back issue newspaper files will supply a rich source of information waiting to be tapped. The Radnor Library maintains a file of bound copies of the Wayne Suburban beginning with the period just after World War II. The Chester County Historical Society similarly maintains a complete file of the West Chester Daily Local News and other county newspapers on microfilm. Microfilm copies of the Local since 1946 are also available at the Exton Library, and at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Logan Circle at the Parkway all the Philadelphia newspapers back to the 18th century can be found on microfilm.


A Dozen Places to Look

In these "case histories" are found references to a number of different places you can go to find information about various aspects of our local history. They also show how one resource frequently leads to another in tracking down information.

Here, briefly, is a summary of some of the resources available to anyone engaging in historical research about our area.

A good place to begin, as noted, is with back issues of the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly. More than 110 issues have been published since Volume I, Number 1 appeared back in October 1937. Over the years their contents have included articles on land titles, the histories of old roads, inns, schools, various churches, early mills and industry, the railroads and other means of transportation, the Indians, events of the Revolutionary War, early post offices, polling places and elections, entertainment, local families and how they lived. They contain a wealth of information, and are obviously a good place to start.

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Several references were also made to the library of the Chester County Historical Society, located at 225 North High Street in West Chester. Its collections include books on a variety of historical and allied subjects, including census data, old city and county business directories and telephone books, and atlases and printed maps, as well as books on genealogy and the county's history. There are also tens of thousands of manuscript items, among them personal papers and letters, school records, post office and tavern history, and genealogical material. Its collection of Chester County newspapers goes back to 1808, most of it now on microfilm to insure its preservation and make it easier to use.

But perhaps even more useful is its newspaper clipping file. From duplicate copies of newspapers, again going back to the early 19th century, items have been cut out, mounted, and filed for easy reference; as Barbara Fry noted, there are separate sections in the file for each of the municipalities in Chester County, with the material for each municipality subdivided into twelve categories or topics: business houses, cemeteries, churches, general history, institutions, lands, organizations, politics, public offices, public and private schools, roads, and transportation. In addition, clipping files are also maintained on selected subjects, including a genealogical file. Using this clipping file, contemporaneous accounts from newspapers can be read without going through the whole newspaper collection to find an item of interest and relevance. (And be sure to "keep your antennae up" as you read them: they can suggest other topics to you, besides the project you are working on.)

The library is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and from 1:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

The Chester County Historical Society and County of Chester also jointly administer the Chester County Archives, "a research center in which the historic [official] government documents of Chester County are preserved and made available for research". Among the records available in the Archives are early court records from 1681 to 1710; records of the Court of Common Pleas, the Orphans' Court, and the Court of Quarter Sessions, going back to 1714; Commissioner's minutes; birth, death, and marriage records; coroners' reports; tax assessment records; constables' returns; wills and administrative records; road and bridge papers; election returns and election districts; and tavern petitions. Over the years the county has been very fortunate in that there never was a disastrous courthouse fire or flood, so that many of these official government records go back, as noted, to the early 19th century and continue to the mid-20thcentury or later.

The Archives is located at 117 West Gay Street in West Chester, and is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays, except on legal holidays.

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More current county records, and all records of deeds and mortgages, are kept in the County Court House, located at the northwest corner of Market and High streets in West Chester. The records of deeds and mortgages, as Herb Fry pointed out, are kept in the office of the Recorder of Deeds in the Court House.

Another county office that might be helpful, especially in doing research on old houses or historic districts, is the office of Historic Preservation, located in the same building as the Archives.

In addition to the Chester County Historical Society there are other historical societies. Perhaps the most notable is the Historical Society of Pennsylvania at 1300 Locust Street in Philadelphia. Its genealogical resources are particularly outstanding.

There are also active county historical societies in each of our neighboring counties -- Delaware, Montgomery, Lancaster, Berks, Bucks -- in which helpful information may be available, depending on the project you are working on. For Revolutionary War history, the Valley Forge National Park Service also has a library in Maxwell's Quarters off Yellow Springs Road near the Knox covered bridge.

Another resource are the public libraries, in which you can find standard reference works, general and specific histories, and other published works. A too-frequently overlooked resource are the bibliographies at the end of an article in an encyclopedia or at the back of a book; in them you may find a number of leads for further investigation and reading. Through the inter-library loan program, these additional sources, including articles in periodicals as well as books, usually can be borrowed for you by the library, without your having to chase them down yourself. Nor should the libraries of local colleges and universities be overlooked, especially when looking for a particular reference.

In each of our local public libraries -- Paoli, Easttown, and Strafford -- there is a special reserve section for its material on local history, including in each one, incidentally, a complete file of the Quarterly.

There are also a number of organizations, such as the Newcomen Society or the Hagley Museum, that have specialized libraries with material and information on specific or specialized aspects of our history and development. (What a treasure trove, for example, the library at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York was in providing material for the program and article on the five baseball players who played for Berwyn in the Main Line League before going on to the major leagues.)

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The minute books of an organization are also an outstanding resource for information about the organization -- and perhaps may provide even more information than is really wanted or needed! The minutes of a public body, such as a school board, the township supervisors, or county comissioners, are, of course, a matter of public record and available to anyone who wishes to look at them.

Similarly, if you can get access to them, the minutes of other organizations, such as a church or fire company or club, can be invaluable in reconstructing the history of that organization. (The manner and style in which the proceedings were recorded occasionally also reflect the personality of the person keeping the record and the time in which he or she lived.)

By the same token, business records, if accessible, can provide a great deal of information for a project about a business. (Old farm records retrieved from the trash in the old farm manager's office at Chesterbrook Farm before the office was demolished, for example, provided material for several articles in the Quarterly.)

The public relations director of a company or business may also be able to provide "inside" information about the history of a company. Our business or commercial history, incidentally, is a part of our local history that has not been explored to a great extent.

Another resource sometimes available is personal correspondence or old diaries. Such ephemera are tremendously helpful to reflect the way in which people live, the things they did, and the things that were important to them. Several articles based on old family letters or diaries that somehow were saved and handed down to succeeding generations have apeared in the Quarterly over the years.

To round out our dozen places to look are the recollections of old-timers in the community or, more personally, of older members of your own family. Using a tape recorder to record an "oral history" interview can uncover tales and experiences which, while "memories" for the person being interviewed, are already "history" for many people today.

So there are a dozen places to go to find where our history is hidden. The fact is that frequently one resource will lead to another, and perhaps even to other sources not included in this summary. And not infrequently the answer to one question will simply raise several others. But it can be a lot of fun too!

Good luck!


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