Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: October 1996 Volume 34 Number 4, Pages 151–161

The Thomas Massey House in Marple Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania

Hilda Shadel Lucas

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The Marple Newtown Historical Society was formed in 1964. Very shortly thereafter, Clarissa Smith, who did a lot of research and wrote history articles for the various newspapers in Delaware County, called me and said that Mr. Ralph Bodeck had bought Thomas Massey's farm which stretched from Sproul Road to Darby Creek, and from what is now Lawrence Road to Reed Road on the south, the dividing line between the industrial park and what is now St. Peter's and St. Paul's Cemetery. [The Massey farmhouse was one of the oldest surviving English Quaker houses in Pennsylvania, and Mr. Bodeck was in the midst of building his 1200-home Lawrence Park development.] I said to Clarissa, "Where are you going to get the money to do anything about that? I can't help you."

At that time, I was also preoccupied with a growing family who were interested in history. Both my daughter and my son caught on and became interested. I couldn't tell you why, its just a process that comes with parents trying to raise children. When you see they are interested in something, don't drop it whatever it is. As a result, we used to talk about old houses, and we started watching for date stones. We passed an old house one day on a trip up state, and I said something about that one looked like an old house. Susan said to me, "How old is it? Do you think it is, mother?" I said, "Probably the lady that moved in there wore hoop skirts and wigs." Well, that was a mistake because after that any old house was where somebody wore hoop skirts and wigs.

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When Clarissa asked me about this I had already started photographing historic sites in Delaware County. I found that people were very interested in history, and I put together lectures where I would use my slides and talk about them. Coming from a family of carpenters, I was interested in architecture, and colonial architecture particularly fascinated me. I learned that as you drive along, if you look at a building and see a good-sized chimney, you better believe it's not modern. You just automatically scan the horizon and see what's there.

Well, I started talking about history, and it was interesting going into the old houses and trying to date them. What people have done with walk-in fireplaces and bee-hive ovens is almost criminal. I remember going into one place.The fireplace was huge so it was definitely a walk-in one, and one corner of it was scarred for the bee-hive oven. The woman said, "What happened to my bee-hive oven?" I said, "Well, don't ask me. You built your living room on the back of it." She was surprised.

Another place I went they had a big walk-in fireplace on the main floor. I said to the woman, "Oh, you've got a little fireplace in the room upstairs." Her reply, "No, there is no fireplace up there." I said, "Really, should we walk up?" So we walked up and above it she had a big chest of drawers. I told her the next time you clean and move that chest make a fist and go down the wall. When you get so far it's going to start to sound hollow. About a month later she told me, "Oh, Mrs. Lucas, what do you think?" She found the opening to the other fireplace upstairs.

As a result we started talking about the Massey House and how much ground it had with it, and how we couldn't afford to buy it from Mr. Bodeck who was going to develop the farm. Clarissa decided to get in touch with some of the family and started writing letters. Cheyney Smith, who was a descendant, was very upset because his ancestral home was where today the car wash is at Darby Creek and Old West Chester Pike. The little house on Old West Chester Pike that was there [the Saw Mill Inn] acquired the name of the "Three Generation House." When that was torn down, Haverford Township (because the house was on the east side of Darby Creek) rescued the log part of it and took it over to their park at Nitre Hall.

Clarissa had a problem, so she started sending letters to people . . . the Lawrence family, and various groups that might give money to acquire and restore this place. Mr. Lawrence M. C. Smith, who was the founder of radio station KYW, was the one that came through. He bought the Massey House in 1964 through a straw man, and then gave it to Marple Township for a dollar.think he paid over $6000 for it.

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It had taken some heroics to keep the house from being torn down. The girls from the church [Marple Christian Church] which was under construction right next door, came over and sat on the cellar door. Mr. Bodeck sent the bulldozer around to push it down, and they said, "Well, if you push it down we're going to be in the bottom of the cellar." So the machine operator went back and told Mr. Bodeck there were a couple of ornery women up there. Mr. Bodeck then said he'd sell the place to us, and Mr. Smith bought it and gave it to the township with the understanding that within ten years it would be restored.

It was a big undertaking. It's surprising how much of the original was here. The people who lived in the house had furred the walls. The walls are thick. They put strips of wood down on the inside, and then put plasterboard on top of it in order to make it warmer and to keep out moisture. They furred the walls, but they covered everything up. It must have been the men who did it, and I'll tell you why. They even closed up the closets. What woman keeping house can't use an extra closet -- and a dish closet, at that. When we started taking the plasterboard off, we found all of the fireplaces had been bricked in, with the exception of one in the west end of the house on the first loor. When we took the bricks off we found all the originals.

When Phebe Massey was keeping house here, cooking at the big fireplace in the kitchen, she used a lug pole. A lug pole is a thick greenwood pole that goes through the fireplace about three feet above the hearth, and over it are hung trammels. A trammel has a hook on the top and bottom, and is the kind of equipment that can be used to lower or raise your pot from the fire by adjusting the placement of the holes and pegs. The trammel pre-dated the crane used in cooking so this must be a pretty old house. As a result of that, we used the lug pole in our fireplace although everyone else uses the crane.

So you see, we just started picking things apart. We also checked out all the questions that came up. I can't think of many that you might ask that we didn't look up the answers to. For instance, at that point we were saying, "Why were we Marple Township . . . how did we get that name?" When Thomas Massey came [in 1683] with Mr. Stanfield [Francis Stanfield], who was the first person to come and build a house here in Marple Township.He came from Marpool, in Cheshire, England. Where did we get our name? It reminded him of home.

As a result, we found out what the name was, and we found out some things about Thomas. He was very young. He probably came with an uncle, and this uncle brought five or six what they called indentured servants. What they really were were nephews. If you look on the top of the upping block by the house, it tells you they came in the fall of the year. They must have gotten along with the Indians.

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How else would they have survived the winter unless they ate nothing but meat. There were lots of deer and other animals here, but little else to eat. You can picture them, even though they came in September, these boys got busy. It didn't take them long to cut up enough trees to make a shelter. They survived, and then eventually each one went out for themselves.

Now we're concerned with Thomas. The brick part of the house was built as an addition to an existing log house about 1696. That's shortly after Thomas Massey married Phebe Taylor Her father, Robert, was a very early settler, too. He came with two sons. At the Springfield Country Club, if you go all the way to the back of the parking lot past the big house there, the end of that big house is where the Taylors lived.

Down on Crum Creek Road is where Mr. Stanfield supposedly lived. There are different sites today that are trying to claim the Stanfield original house, but the one right here on Crum Creek Road is the most likely site. That's where he built, and then eventually his son bought this property. But then he had a girl friend over in New Jersey, and he wanted to go over there and get married. So he and Thomas got together, and this became Thomas' property.

As to the building itself, the south side was the front. The section on the west was the kitchen, and that was a one-room place. They didn't need a lot of room. First of all most of the people were not much bigger than I am, and I'm not five feet. The men were not really that much bigger either. Today, when we look at some of the fellows that are trying to go through our modern doorways, we have a little trouble with that. They're starting to get to the point that a lot of them are stooping because if they don't they get banged real hard. So the people didn't take up that much room, and they lived in a little area like that.

Today there is a stairway going downstairs from the outside of the building to the basement, but it wasn't there originally. The section on the west without the second floor had no basement underneath it. Today's kitchen was their original living quarters. That was frame. In the 1798 "glass tax" that was frame, and the next section to the east was frame, also. They are stone today. They have definitely been changed. It was after 1800 that the second floor was added. The stone work is eighteenth century in origin. The house has pent eaves. There are no rain gutters on houses that are very early. The rain hits the roof, then it hits the pent eaves and comes away from the house. They didn't need rain gutters with this type of construction.

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Sketch of House (by Fletcher MacNeill).

The center section of both the windows on the south side open outward in the brick end of the house. On the other side, the north side, nothing opens. The windows are stationary. There is no cross ventilation. The brick work is interesting. The bricks laid lengthwise are called stretchers; the ones with the small face are called headers. There is a pattern there.

If you have done any traveling over in New Jersey, you will recognize the fact that early buildings are often decorated with bricks. There is a diamond in the brickwork up in the top of the gable of the east end of the Massey House. Down in New Jersey they're very extensive, but here it's just one. Apparently this is something they did in the early days. It was a sign of a prosperous farmer.

People are surprised to find that they had bricks at such an early date. There is a debate about that. We do know that when Thomas died in 1707 (the calendar changed so there's a debate about that date, too) the brick end of the house was here at that time. We have different stories, but no confirmation, as to whether the bricks were made here or not. If you dig down deep enough you're going to find clay, and clay makes bricks.

Also, bricks were thought to be made next to Mr. duPont's property. I remember Mrs. Jean Austin duPont telling me years ago when I visited with her, that as a child she remembered a brick yard where the Square Tavern is up there. It was in the back of that. How long was it there? Were the bricks made there? We had brick makers very early, but whether they came here and made them on the site, or made them someplace else and brought them here, that's up for study.

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You have to think of their mode of transportation, of the condition of the roads. They didn't have roads like we have today. As a matter of fact, a contemporary told me that he remembered well when Lawrence Road was paved in the 1920s. Think about horseand wagons that could carry bricks.

The front of the house is what today we would think of as the back because it faces away from today's street. It faces the southeast. Thomas had 300 acres. He came out the door into the sunrise and could view his property. The barn was down below somewhere; so was the spring house. They had quite a way to bring their water up to the house.

I went to a meeting one night at the township, and I kept hearing something about the Massey House. I wondered what was going on. Finally, I got up and said to the commissioners, What's the matter with the Massey House?" Oh, we're having a problem. I said, "Really, what is it?" Well, such and such a place has a lot of water problems. I said, "Well, you fellows gave out the building permits and you allowed the builder to build on top of Thomas Massey's spring. What do you expect!" It doesn't take much to use the 'old noggin'.

Today the property is one acre in size. We have a Boy Scout project going on here, and a scout is redoing the herb garden. If you were to walk back there, right before you get into the herb garden, there is a tree that gives off thorns! You know what, the pioneers used them instead of pins. That's one bush we won't take down. It has history and usefulness.

The well was at the northeast corner of the house. We really don't know whether Thomas had a kitchen garden or not. These kinds of records don't come down through the history of a building. However, studies have been made and we have a group of three or four people who are very interested in studying the early gardens. We do know that some of them were elevated such as the ones here are. It's amazing. When Susie was over here as the curator, she planted peas very early in the spring of the year, and they matured much faster in the raised beds than they did at home in our back yard.

The girls are cooking today, and we're using the bee-hive oven. Now if you come here on Thanksgiving Day, nine chances out of ten there's a turkey or a chicken in there. The place smells like Thanksgiving. We have had some trouble with our bee-hive oven. It has clogged quite a few times. Remember, no one lives here, it's an historic house, and we just open it from time to time. I said to the girls today, there should have been a fire in there every day this past week because the oven should have been heated up before they put a big fire in there to do their baking.

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One thing I remember mentioning to you is that they furred the walls. These are solid walls, stone or brick. They bricked in the fireplaces. They closed up a closet and put plasterboard all the way across. They furred the walls and put plasterboard in front of it.

Don't be shocked by the color of the paint. We had John Milner, who is very famous today as an architect. He didn't have his licence when we got this place, but we contacted him. He was still in school at the time. He went over the house with a magnifying glass. He checked everything. That's the color. We should say thank you to him because he covered everything. We found what was here originally, and it's amazing how much we found.

The original floor had been taken up about 1910. The man who helped to take it up came to see us when we first got the house. He said "if you've ever taken a round barrel out of a square hole you know how much trouble I had". What happens where the boards come together? Naturally, they shrink and the dirt goes down there. The huge beams that go across have dirt marks where the original floors were. The floor boards in the house today are what John [Milner] got from an old barn that was being torn down, and he put them in the way they were originally. So you can imagine the original floors looking iike they are today.

Only the center section of the south-facing windows in the brick end of the house open. Everything else is closed. We had to put plastic over top of these. Why? BB-guns. We take a chance having nothing over the others. That's the reason these are so milky looking. If you study your history  and look at the New England properties that were restored about this period, they almost all have diamond shaped glass in the windows. The dividers are called canes. When they took the original floors up, these and pieces of glass were found in the fill, so we know that this house had the kind of glass windows you see and not the New England diamond shaped ones.

There are two dressing rooms at the far end of the first floor in the brick end of the house. There's one privilege we've taken.We've opened the doors into the dressing rooms instead of out into the large room. They probably opened out originally, but we've put them the other way because it's more convenient. We're told they were dressing rooms. Some history has been researched about this. They're in the southeast corner of the house, the warmest part of the house. They're next to the fireplace. If there had been a fire going in there, the wall would have gotten warm and that also would have warmed them. They may have taken their straw ticking in there and slept in there. It would have been warmer, and the door would have closed the opposite of the way it does today.

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By the way, the fireback is brick in this fireplace. It's laid up in a peculiar fashion which tells us it was a very early fireplace. The little closet in this room is interesting. It was dry. Mrs. Massey probably would have kept her sugar, maybe some of her spices, in there because, with the fireplace in the room and being warm, the humidity would have been down. The mantel was gone, but John Milner took the scar and made a replica of what was there. The scar from the original mantel was there.

You might ask, where did we get the furnishings that are here. Well, to be truthful, we have tried very hard to keep the furnishings similar to those used by the first three residents, Thomas, his son Mordecai and Mr. Lawrence, who married Mordecai's daughter. It was furnished very sparsely. What we have are old or repros, and you will find there is very little. Upstairs we have beds that came from Mrs. Gustan(?) up in New England. She was a descendant, and she gave them to us when we first opened. They're rope beds. They have straw ticks on them. And Thomas had on his inventory several chests. I think he had two big ones and three small ones, or something like that. Remember, when they came from England they had to bring virtually everything with them that they needed to build a house; to keep them through the first winter, blankets and things like that.

The piece of equipment that they didn't have we have in the carriage-wood shed. There is a forge out there. Someone may say to you if you are coming through with visitors sometimes, "How come they have a forge at the Thomas Massey house?" Well, Thomas had that kind of equipment on his inventory when he died. They all did something besides farming. They made their own clothes - that's sheep. They would have sheared the sheep, carded the wool. We have a wool wheel and a flax wheel.

As you go up the steps to the second floor you will see splash boards on the sides of the steps. In those days when they cleaned they swept, and then they wiped up with a damp cloth. Think of what a damp cloth with dust on it from the steps would do to your side walls. The splash boards were very functional. The floors upstairs on the second floor are the original floors.

The brick end of the house had been built by 1707 when Thomas died. It was an addition to the first two sections of the house, which were originally built of log. Upstairs on the left hand side of the door to the room in the brick end there is a scar on the wall. I interpret that, personally, that Thomas had a window there for that section of the house. When he built the brick end he took the window out and opened up a door. Eventually they decided that the room was lop-sided and so they moved the door to the middle of the wall and closed up the original door, leaving the scar on the left hand side. A lot of things you think about as you're working around here and interpreting. You try to understand their reasoning.

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How many people couid comfortably live in a house like this? Well, I read a book one time about the oldest house in Germantown, and the book tells about four boys sleeping in one rope bed. If you could figure out how four boys could sleep in one of these beds, it's a little more than I can. Thomas and Phebe had seven, and then she married Bartholomew Coppock who lived over where the nunnery is for St. Pius School. That was Mr. Coppock's house, and that's after Thomas died. Coppock lived there, and he had a couple of small children of his own as his wife had died, and so he and Phebe got together. The big question is, "Where did they live?" Did they live here? Who knows? One of those Coppocks married a Pancoast. As anyone who comes from Marple Township knows, we still have quite a few Pancoasts around here.

Upstairs is our paneled room. This was covered, believe it or not, with plasterboard when we got the house. In the eighteenth century the sections of the house on the west were changed from logs or frame to stone. That's when the paneling was put in. Mordecai was getting married, and he wanted to do something special with the house and so he put the paneling in with paper. [Mordecai remained on the mansion tract, but younger brothers Thomas and James settled in Willistown.]

Mordecai's daughter [Hannah] married Henry Lawrence, and in later years, such as the beginning of this century when some of the Lawrence girls lived here, this room was where they had their elegant parties. When we first opened, we heard about that from some of the descendants. Not necessarily descendants, but some of the people that had come to some of those tea parties could tell us about it.

One of the things we get very careful about is accepting things that can't be traced to his house. [I noticed somebody checking the cradle that was given to us before we made the rule that we wouldn't take anything that wasn't in the inventories.] We're stuck with a cradle that is not in any of the inventories. Where they kept their babies, we don't know.

The extension on the house in back of the bee-hive oven - when was that built and why? Did somebody buy the house and put that on? No, some of the modern people that got in here decided they had to have a modern kitchen. So this was for the people who can't live without it.

Was Thomas Massey a Quaker? Oh, yes. The early people here, almost all of them, were Quakers. As a matter of fact, I'll tell you something funny. I've lived in Marple Township almost 50 years.

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If I were to go to the Presbyterian Church up here, I can tell you who were Quakers originally. Why did they go to the Presbyterian Church? The Quakers have no leadership. They have the Clerk of the Meeting. The Clerk designates those who sit on the facing benches. [I assume you have all been to Quaker meeting.] So you base it on the front benches, the facing benches they call them. When they sit down and are quiet, then everyone else sits down and is quiet. After they've sat and done their thinking for the day and decide it's time for the meeting to break up, they get up and shake hands with the person on the other side of the aisle, and the meeting's over. There became a desire for leadership, and this was death to the Quaker meetings. Now you'll find that if you go out to Ohio there are Quaker meetings that have leadership, and as you go further west they have more leadership. They call them Quaker meetings, but they have a minister of some kind, and, of course, they support him. In our local Quaker meetings there was no leadership.

Upstairs in the attic there are two things of note. The rafters supporting the roof are pegged together. This house has been fortunate. There has never been a fire. The roof has been redone, but the supports for it are original. They're dovetailed with a peg through them. The cross beams are above and have been scratched with a number. They were put together on the ground and then raised up. They're numbered so they could tell where to join them. At one time when Mordecai changed the center section of the house from logs to stone, he lowered the roof so it went the same way all the way across. When John Milner came in and started to check the construction, he found this to be true. He suggested we raise the roof as it was originally. We did that. You will find that bricks were taken out and replaced. You'll find the scars of his discovery and the improvement thereon. It's an interesting old house.

There is no basement under the kitchen, but there is space under the other parts of the house. The walls are damp, you can see the moisture. There are vaults under the brick end of the house, but they do not support it which is interesting. They were definitely vaults that were used to store food in the winter time. The one on the north side has a big stone floor in it. That would be where they would have put apples and potatos and things like that. On the south side there is a dirt floor where they would have dug in and put certain root crops in there. If you visited grandparents when you were younger you may have noticed what they did. There is a little closet between the two arches -- that was a good place to keep butter and eggs and things like that.

Root cellars away from the house? I've seen some in Chester County where they're close to a springhouse or part of it. I had an uncle who had a farm up at Coventryviile, and they had a separate piace not far from the house called the cave.

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You went down a long flight of stone steps. It was so cool, cold in summer, and that's where they kept eggs and milk and butter.

I remember my mother.When the chickens were laying real good, she used to put eggs in water-glass. [Webster defines water-glass as a substance consisting usually of sodium silicate, but sometimes of potassium silicate, or of both.] It was like a syrup, whatever the water-glass mixture was. But she did mix it to a point where, I remember her saying, that the egg had to float. Then she would fill the container with eggs and put a wooden cover or something on top. it was something we had in those days, It had a quality that adhered to the egg. You remember these things, but as kids growing up we didn't pay that much attention,

When you buy eggs in stores today you have to use them in a hurry because they've all been washed . We get our eggs from our friends the Burkhoders who are Mennonite people. Mrs. Burkholder gets them and puts them in boxes and chills them. She makes sure that the ones that she packs have not been washed. That little bit of moisture on your egg shell if its been washed destroys the covering on the egg that makes a seal, and that is what makes your store eggs go bad if you don't use them within a certain period of time. Things have changed!


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