Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: April 1996 Volume 34 Number 2, Pages 61–65

Looking Back to Our Roots: The Legacy of Franklin L. Burns

Herb Fry

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Franklin Lorenzo Burns, locally known as "Frank Burns," died fifty years ago on February 7, 1946. He was one of the charter members of the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club, an early editor of and frequent contributor to its Quarterly publication, and its second president [1940-1942], succeeding founder S. Paul Teamer. He was born on January 18, 1868, the fifth of eight children and youngest of four sons of Peter Burns, Jr. All information indicates that he was a life-long resident of this vicinity and a keen observer of the passing scene as the village of Reeseville grew, adopted a new name Berwyn, and developed into the twentieth century.

The Burn family ancestors of Frank Burns (the spelling was changed to Burns about 1850) established themselves in this area with the arrival of William Burn sometime around 1739. William was about nineteen years of age, having been born in 1720 in Ireland, and unmarried. According to Frank Burns, his ancestors were natives of the north of England who had moved to County Wicklow in east Ireland, a mountainous region south of Dublin, some time before 1690, and removed to America from there about the same time as the Hills, Hunters, Pearces, Penroses and Waynes, who also took that route to settlement here.

In this respect, Glenn Tucker, biographer of General Anthony Wayne, writes of the Wayne family, "Anthony Wayne's ancestry was English. Though the family tarried some time in Ireland, it had long lived in Yorkshire .... At about the time of the 'Bloodless Revolution' of 1688 [when William of Orange came to the throne], Anthony Wayne, grandfather of the American general, secured land and moved his family to Wicklow County in Ireland ....

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Later, he was a captain of a company of dragoons in King William Ill's campaign in Ireland against deposed King James II that culminated in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 .... Riding along side him was his neighbor, John Hunter, of Wicklow County, his companion through later life." The general's father lived in Ireland for 32 years after Boyne, received from William III a tract of not too attractive land in compensation, married, raised a family and then suddenly in 1722, left for America. His wife and Irish-born sons came with him, as did his friend Hunter.

There is no record of any connection between the Waynes and the Burns, but they certainly had common acquaintances, and their journey here followed a similar path. After settling in Upper Providence, William Burn married, in 1742, Jane Penrose, daughter of Christopher and Ann Penrose, of the Providence Friends' Meeting, and granddaughter of Peter and Jane Hunter of Middletown, from Ireland. Burn was a member of the Radnor Friends' Meeting 1758-1764, after which he joined St. David's Church (the church of the Waynes), where he and his eldest son Joseph each served thirteen years as vestrymen. (General Anthony Wayne also served as a vestryman at this time, and his wife was also a Penrose.) Burn was assessed in Upper Providence 1747-1754, probably living with or near his in-laws, and in Marple 1756-1764, and later. The 1764 assessment indicates that he had 139 acres of land. Frank Burns has written that the farm was 190 acres. In later years it was described as the Atwater Kent property on Darby Creek in Marple Township, Delaware County.

Henry Graham Ashmead, in his "History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania" comments on losses sustained by residents during the Revolutionary War. "Although Marple ... was removed in a great measure from the clash and din of war, nevertheless the British foraging parties and their Tory allies caused considerable injury to several residents of Marple." The accounts filed of the losses thus sustained show "from William Burn, Sr., September 19 56 pounds; from Joseph Burn, taken by the adherents of the King of Great Britain, September and December - 129 pounds, 5 shillings, 5 pence." Joseph Burn, William's son, was a carpenter who owned and operated a saw mill in 1779, was an ensign in the township company of the militia, and with his father lost heavily in the British raids.

How long the Marple farm remained in the family is not known, but a list of taxables in 1799 published by Ashmead shows Isaac Burn living on the farm. His father William had died in 1791, and his brother William (Jr.) had also passed away. (His eldest brother Joseph has been reported living as late as 1803.) Ashmead notes that in 1811 Isaac Burn of Marple petitioned the Court of Quarter Sessions, stating that "he had discovered on his farm about one mile north of the West Chester Road a mineral or chalybeate [impregnated with salts of iron; having a taste due to iron; medicinal] spring; that he had erected a bath house and other improvements ... and requested a license to keep a house of public entertainment."

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The court however refused. The petition was renewed six years later by Isaac's son William, but was again turned down by the court.

Isaac Burn married, just before the Revolutionary War, Margaret Green who was of English descent, related to the Williamson and Smedley families, for which he was disowned by Radnor Friends' Meeting for marriage before a justice of the peace. Isaac and Margaret had a large family. One of their youngest children, Peter (Sr.), was born in 1797 in Marple. He was a soldier in the War of 1812, and in 1818 married Elizabeth Jones, of Radnor, whose mother was a Livezey. Peter lived at Reeseville on a 70-acre farm north of the Old Lancaster (now Conestoga) Road purchased in 1830 from Caleb Y. Lewis. A date stone in the house showing 1767 makes it one of the oldest in our community. He was a cabinetmaker by trade, and during the Civil War he worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He was a Trustee of the newly organized Trinity Presbyterian Church in 1862, and later became a communicant member; his wife was an Orthodox Friend. The family lost a son and a son-in-law in the Civil War, Henry Clay Burns and John Eyre Webster, husband of daughter, Hannah. At his death in 1877, Peter Burns, Sr. was survived by one son, Peter (Jr.), who was Frank Burns' father.

Peter Burns, Jr., was born in 1827 in Philadelphia but moved with his family to Reeseville as a child. He was a skilled stone mason and builder of bridges and other structures. He also served as a trustee of the village church, Trinity Presbyterian. He married, in 1856, Ellen Jane Dyson of Millerstown, Perry County, Pennsylvania, whose acquaintance most likely was made during a bridge building assignment there for the Pennsylvania Railroad. A history of the railroad by Edwin P. Alexander includes a brief 1855 description of of the "station ... at the end of the bridge." Peter purchased five acres off the southeast corner of his father's farm on the north side of the Old Lancaster (now Conestoga) Road in 1876, and built a house for his family. His neighbor on the east was Abel Reese. Frank Burns was about eight years old at the time, and none of the brothers and sisters had yet married.

The family had lived in nearby Easttown before the move. When he registered for the Civil War draft, Peter Burns, Jr., was living on the Joseph Smith farm east of Reeseville, on the Lancaster Turnpike. Later, the family lived at Sharp's Corner south of Reeseville, near the intersection of Leopard and Sugartown roads, for Frank Burns has said he was born there. His brother, three and one-half years older, was named Joseph Sharp Burns. The connection between the Burns and Sharp families is an interesting question and bears some study. John Sharp, grandfather of Joseph W. Sharp, married Hannah Webster in Yorkshire, England, in 1788. Hannah Ann Burns, daughter of Peter Burns, Sr., married John Eyre Webster, an emigrant who was born in Yorkshire in 1823.

After the death of Peter Burns, Sr., in 1877 all of the farm but the five acres deeded earlier to Peter, Jr., passed out of the family. In a later day, the old stone farm house (today located on Orchard Way) was renovated and became the home of George P. Orr.

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Peter Burns, Jr., died in 1907, and his wife a year later. The children had all moved or died except Estelle and Frank, who did not marry. They lived out their years in the house on Conestoga Road, which still stands, although it has lost its porch in recent years.

When his eldest brother William H. Burns, a contractor and builder of homes, estate mansions and large public buildings, died in 1910, Frank Burns acted as executor of his estate. An important asset was the Berwyn Millwork business which his brother had operated from a plant opposite the railroad freight depot. An effort was made to form a new entity named Berwyn Millwork and Lumber Company to continue this operation, headed by A. B. Weaver, president; Frank Burns, vice president; and Robert H. Armstrong, secretary and treasurer. How long it continued in operation is not known, but the 1914 Farm and Business Directory of Chester County carried its advertisement.

There is no record that Frank Burns enjoyed any special educational opportunities. He attended the local Tredyffrin township school at Mount Airy about a mile west of is home, and perhaps other local schools. He must have possessed more than a normal amount of intellectual curiousity. His vocation was that of house painter and paperhanger, but he took an early interest in nature and local history. His father and his family heritage, I think, aroused in him this interest in the pursuit of knowledge. His father took long walks in the countryside with him, pointing out things of interest. A provision of his great, great grandfather's will which reads,"...and respecting my library of books, my will and desire is that they may not be sold, but remain for the perusal of my children and grandchildren and their offspring, forever" also shows an awareness of the gifts of reason.

Frank Burns' interest in natural history centered on birds. He became one of the best known amateur ornithologists in the region, and an authority on the birds of Chester County. His observations of birds began at age 16 in the summer of 1884, and he started keeping records the following spring. In 1919 he was able to write that his was the only continuous record for this period in Eastern Pennsylvania, and in later years he often remarked that he had the longest record of bird migration reports being made to the Smithsonian Institution; this report record extended over sixty years.

He was also a taxidermist, and his home housed a large collection of bird specimens. His passion for birds may have been kindled during his days on the Sharp farm. He wrote of Joseph W. Sharp's sportsman's collection of mounted birds acquired between 1858 and 1880, and of his "earliest recollection ... of this exhibit at Hawthorn Farm [Sharp's home]." He belonged to innumerable ornithological organizations and wrote many articles for their publications. "The Ornithology of Chester County, Pennsylvania," a 122 page hard cover book published in 1919, is his most enduring writing.

In later years he also became well known as an authority on local history. "He kept written accounts of historical facts," a writer reported in the Berwyn Post of March 1946, and was frequently visited by persons seeking historical information."

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We may never know how many articles on local history he wrote. There are 38 entries for him in the index to the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club "Quarterly", and he is credited with at least ten additional articles in the "Picket Post" of the Valley Forge Historical Society.

Frank Burns also served his community as a director of the Berwyn Building and Loan Association, described in a 1937 brochure as "an institution in which to save, and in aiding in the financing of the purchase of homes." The Building and Loan was organized and incorporated in 1877, and helped to finance the growth of Berwyn for over 100 years.

I never met Franklin Lorenzo Bums. I know him only through his writings preserved between the covers of our quarterlies. To read his written words is to perceive a man of intellect, inspiration and dedication to his great love of local history. He bequeathed us a rich legacy, indeed.

Advertisement in 1914 Farm and Business Directory of Chester County


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