Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: July 1998 Volume 36 Number 3, Pages 91–98

Henry Pleasants, and the Old Eagle School

Frank Fuller

Page 91

A local landmark with a long history, dating to origins one hundred or more years before today's place name Strafford was adopted in 1887, is the stone schoolhouse standing just north of the train station on the east side of Old Eagle School Road. Said to have been built in 1788, it is the oldest surviving schoolhouse in Tredyffrin Township, and was the place used for both schooling and public gatherings in the ancient village of Spread Eagle.

Preservation of the building is due, in no small part, to the dedication of a few men who, at a critical point in its history a hundred years ago, saved it for posterity. Foremost among them was Henry Pleasants, a lawyer, who was born in 1853, the year his father, Dr. Henry Pleasants, purchased a home in the west end of Radnor as a summer retreat. The house, Rockland, became a permanent home, and young Henry no doubt grew up there.

He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, practiced law in Philadel­phia, served 1874-1891 as a vestryman (as did his father) at St. David's Church - Radnor, and became engrossed in the study of local history. He authored a number of books on history themes, including some volumes of poetry. He married Agnes Spencer, and their only child, Dr. Henry Pleasants, practiced medicine in West Chester into the 1950s.

Pleasants was intrigued by the story of the German Lutheran settlers who purchased land as early as 1765 in this part of Tredyffrin lying immediately north of today's Strafford railroad station.

Page 92

The distinctly German settlement did not endure, perhaps because of contention with the Welsh and English for space to farm, or because the land was not as productive as places in the Valley or further north in Vincent. These settlers left behind a legacy, however, to remind us of their firm belief in the importance of church and school -- the building we know today as Old Eagle School.

In the early days, the school was under the supervision of trustees chosen from among responsible people living in the neighborhood. After 1836, when the state adopted the Common School Law, control of the schoolhouse gradually passed from the trustees to the Tredyffrin Township School Board, which assumed total control about the time the school was expanded in 1842 or 1843 for full time operation.

Sunday School services had been organized at the building perhaps as early as 1820, under an agreement between Great Valley Baptist and St. David's Churches. During the 1860s the building was used for Sunday afternoon services by St. David's Church, and there was some sentiment for establishing a chapel of St. David's at Spread Eagle. Land was deeded for the purpose, but a chapel was built further down the line in Rosemont, and the Spread Eagle land exchanged for land adjoining St. David's church.

In 1872, the School Board built a new modern school about one-quarter mile to the north at what was called "Pechin's Corner," the corner of Upper Gulph and West Valley Roads. With the opening of the new school, the district stopped using the old Eagle School. The Union Sunday School, which had been holding weekly services, became custodians of the property. Itinerant ministers from various denominations on occasion also used the building as a preaching point.

After a brief period of such use, squatters gained control of the building, and what followed was a period of great uncertainty as to its future. In the fall of 1888, historian Julius Sachse wrote a four-part historical sketch about the old Eagle School which appeared in West Chester's newspaper, the "Village Record". According to Henry Pleasants, who had become interested and deeply involved in the welfare of the old schoolhouse about this time, it awakened "some interest in the neglected spot."

There ensued an astonishing series of maneuvers and legal actions seeking to establish control over the property, including an ejectment suit aimed at removing the squatters, and equity proceedings seeking to re-establish the neighborhood trust. Pleasants was a key player in the litigation which ultimately was successful.

Page 93

The "Chester County Democrat" reported "the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County [on May 6, 1895] has entered a final decree in the matter of the old Eagle School property at Strafford to the effect that the premises should hereafter be held for the general use of the neighborhood for religious, educational and burial purposes. The Court has appointed:

Thomas R. Jaquett, of Radnor
Elijah H. Wilds, of Berwyn
Dr. John S. Angle, of Strafford
Daniel S. Newhall, of Strafford
Henry Pleasants, of Radnor

trustees of the property. More than twenty-one years have elapsed since legal proceedings were begun relative to the possession of the place, but the present decree will probably effect a final settlement."

Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary (1942 edition) defines trustee as, "A person appointed to hold property, to take care of and apply the same for the benefit of those entitled to it." The newly appointed trustees understood their duty precisely, and moved forward to carry out the public trust. They formally organized by selecting Elijah Wilds as president, and Henry Pleasants as secretary and treasurer.

At the urging of Pleasants, they immediately set about raising funds to restore the building. In addition, negotiations with the School Board led to receipt of a deed to the property. Restoration work was completed by 1900 and a "permanent fund" created, the income from which would be used for maintenance of the building. Pleasants documented the entire story in a book, "The History of the Old Eagle School - Tredyffrin, in Chester County, Pennsylvania", published in 1909 by The John C. Winston Co., Philadelphia.

With the death of Wilds and resignation of Dr. Angle in 1900, replacement trustees were appointed by the court. In addition, the number of trustees was increased from five to seven with the appointment of L L. Smith and Frank Beale in 1913. Such procedure was followed through the years, and a list of the trustees can be gleaned from the Miscellaneous Docket Book of the Court of Common Pleas filed in the Office of the Prothonotary at the county courthouse. Over the succeeding 25 years the following persons served as replacement trustees:

Page 94

Tryon Lewis, of Radnor
Dr. Thomas G. Morton, of Philadelphia Robert Emott Hare, of Tredyffrin
Thomas Newhall, of Radnor
Lewis Lawrence Smith, of Tredyffrin
Edward F. Beale, of Tredyffrin
Dr. Joseph Packard Laird, of Easttown
Stevens Heckscher, of Tredyffrin
Murdock Kendrick, of Tredyffrin
Eleanor N[ewhall] Selfridge, wife of Duncan I. Selfridge, of Tredyffrin
R. Brognard Okie, of Easttown

When Mrs. Selfridge took the "Newhall seat" in 1923, she became the first lady trustee. R. B. Okie, an architect, was a wise choice for the Board as the building was beginning again to show the need for repair.

In 1927, at age 74, Henry Pleasants mounted another campaign to keep the old school building in repair. The following is a copy of the letter he com­posed to solicit the funds which would be needed to perform the work:



The Old Eagle School - at Strafford Station, Pennsylvania Railroad - is a unique relic of Pioneer philanthropy.

Founded one hundred and sixty years ago by German Pioneers for "Religious and Educational uses, and for the Repose of the Dead", it was maintained and preserved during the first century of that time almost wholly by the efforts of the humble rustics of the neighborhood - successors of those early pioneers.

Its rescue from abandonment and oblivion, during the last forty years was due largely to the efforts of the same rustic successors, generously aided by others interested through their efforts.

This year, 1927, finds it much in disrepair; but a majority of the hosts of its old defenders, have died or been scattered in the complete transformation of the neighborhood,

"As wealth accumulates, and Men decay".

Page 95

It is under these circumstances that the Secretary of the present Board of Trustees of the property has felt warranted, solely on his individual responsibility, in making this personal appeal to the present residents of the Neighborhood, and to others interested in the preservation of such colonial landmarks for a promise of aid in the work of repair and improvement needed.

After a careful examination by expert authorities, the cost of necessary repairs, and such hygienic and architectural improvements, as may, without detraction from its antique appearance, enable it better to meet modern needs has been estimated at about Thirty-six hundred dollars ($3600.).

After an opportunity for response to this personal appeal, the Secretary feels that he can better inform the Board of Trustees for such action as they may deem wise.

He accompanies this letter with an historical account of the place, and also with a very brief statement of what has been accomplished by the organization since the appointment by the Court of Chester County, Pennsylvania, of the Board of Trustees in 1895.

He further ventures to suggest for the information of those generous friends who may be willing to aid in the work so needed, that whereas the average individual contribution for the original restoration was about six dollars and seventy-one cents ($6.71) - (ranging from five cents (.05) to twenty-five dollars ($25.)), yet the number of persons to whom this appeal can now properly be made must necessarily be comparatively small (few of those having a personal interest and association with the place being now alive.)

The facts regarding the original contributions are detailed on pages 102-104 and 179-180 of the historical account accompanying this appeal.

An expression of willingness to aid, and to what extent, is all that is now asked by the Secretary, and only on his individual responsibility; but upon the responses to this appeal the further action of the Trustees will probably be based, hence he earnestly begs for an early reply.

Henry Pleasants 277 So. 4th Street, Philadelphia, Pa.

Page 96

A very brief Summary of valuable results accomplished by the Trustees of The Old Eagle School since re-establishment of the original Trust, under decree of the Court of Chester County, Pennsylvania, made May 6th, 1895.

I. Restoration of the building and graveyard; vacation of the bi­secting roadway; sale of outlying lot; and enclosure of present property walls and hedges. Distribution of prizes in Public Schools.

II. Erection of a Boulder Monument on the South West slope of the old graveyard, appropriately inscribed, in memory of Soldiers of the American Revolution interred in the graveyard attached.

III. Placing of a bronze Memorial Tablet on S.W. wall of the old School room, consisting of the XV Psalm in raised letters, with the initials of the name, and year of birth and death of one of the most active and useful supporters of the Charity.

IV. Creation of a "Permanent Fund" - now amounting to over $2000. towards meeting current expenses for care of the building and property.

V. The establishment as an historic fact of the connection be­tween Old St. David's Church Radnor and The Old Eagle School in Tredyffrin, as one of its outposts since 1845, probably much earlier.

VI. Creation of "The Old Eagle School Legacy Fund" at Old St. David's Church Radnor, whereby sundry small legacies (aggregating about $1500.) left to the Church since its establishment in 1700 and dissipated in general church expenses, were funded for permanent use of income in the adornment and improvement of Church property ~ outside of the graveyard.

VII. Preparation of the "Bicentennial History of Old St. David's Church Radnor," and incidentally therewith, establishment and endowment of "The Old St. David's Church Free Bed" at the Chester County Hospital at West Chester, Penna.

VIII. Arrangements made, now in process of completion, for copying and preserving in most permanent and satisfactory form the old Church minutes and records from about 1702 to 1820.

Page 97

N.B. There is also now under careful consideration, plans not yet finally formulated or submitted to the Board of Trustees -

(A) For the preparation and publication of a complete list from the records of St. David's Church, of the names of all Church officers, and also of all interments in the graveyard since 1700, with many biographical sketches and with copious genealogical notes thereon.

(B) For the periodic issue and for distribution of an "Old Eagle School Folder", attractively presenting some literary gem on inside pages, in connection with the briefest reference on the outside pages to the Charity and its objects, with list of officers;

Or, the periodic publication and distribution of some useful and educational pamphlet.

Henry Pleasants died on February 16, 1929 shortly after the appeal for funds was issued. The work to renovate the building was completed that year, so we can infer that the letter served its purpose. Mrs. Anne (Skerrett) Kirkpatrick, later a president of the trustees, has written that, "The design of the building's cornice 'in accordance with the detail of Mr. Okie', was completed in 1929."

In the years following the passing of Henry Pleasants the following additional persons were appointed as trustees as vacancies occurred:

Norman R. McLure, of Radnor
Daniel A. Newhall
J. Brooks B. Parker, of Strafford
Dr. Thomas Shallow, of Philadelphia
Leonard T. Beale
Lawrence M. C. Smith
Albert T. Colgan, of Strafford
Gen. Milton G. Baker

Following World War II, the patterns of life in the community changed, as they did in most suburban areas outside large cities. Housing and other developments encroached on what had been fields and farms.

Page 98

The population rose, and traffic on roadways increased. Long held views about philanthropy shifted, posing new issues for the trustees of Old Eagle School. By mid-century the income from the "permanent fund", created at the beginning of the century to provide funds for repairs and care of the property when the schoolhouse was refurbished, was no longer adequate.

In 1953 the Strafford Garden Club offered to help in maintaining the graveyard. They also recruited the three neighboring civic associations to share in the project. As community interest grew, local people were appointed trustees. Mary Reed from the Garden Club was appointed a trustee in 1956, increasing the size of the board to eight. Anne Kirkpatrick followed her in 1974. Local philanthropy triumphed in the next year when, for the first time, trustees were elected for set terms, no longer appointed by the court for life.

According to Mrs. Kirkpatrick, "In 1975 a decree of the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County allowed limited terms for trustee instead of the permanent appointments. This [permitted] many local men and women to serve on the board, and it proved a great strength." For a time the trustees conducted Memorial Day services, but as Wayne's big parade grew, it became a greater attraction. Fortunately, Garden Clubs and Scouts still help out.

Today the trustees open the schoolhouse for visitors from local schools. An open house is held annually, and local associations use the grounds for Easter egg hunts and for a visit with Santa Claus, which includes carol singing. In addition, starting just last year, the schoolhouse has been open on Sunday afternoons for visitors during the summer months.

The modern era of grassroots community involvement at Old Eagle School is in full swing. Henry Pleasants, and his fellow trustees of years gone by, did their work well. A century after they rescued the old schoolhouse from oblivion, it still stands as a community asset on its hillside above the street.


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