Saturday, March 26, 2011

Benjamin Pennypacker House

There is a newly opened little park nearby where I live - they created paths through farmland. I took a walk back there when we had some late spring temperatures a couple weeks ago and it was very lovely.

Something cool I happened to notice way back on a path was this:

For all you young whippersnappers out there, it's an old-school aluminum can where you didn't just pull the tab to open it and safely push down the piece that breaks for the opening, all rounded corners and safe...This was the old days of sharp metal and danger lurking around every corner! We'd pull that tab completely off and toss it with reckless abandon so that later when we were in our bare feet, we'd be running and stomp on the razor sharp metal edges of the pulled off tab! Yay for Summers Past!!!

Also, there's the question of just how it got there - I like to imagine the farmer would bring a six-pack or two with him when he went out on his tractor or combine or whatever and would toss a few back and then just hurl the empties in the creek. All so I could notice them 30 years later.

Anyway, what I actually for real wanted to show all of you was the uninhabited house that is on the grounds of this former farm/new park. I've driven past it for years and always liked it, it looks like a lot of the old houses in Southeastern PA, we're lucky in this area that a lot of colonial houses have survived.

Here is the front of the house (that faces the road), it faces North/NorthEast:

Here is the front of the house and the western side:

This is the back of the house, facing South/SouthEast. I love the extra windows built in to give more light into the cellar. You don't know how hard it was for me not to totally break into the place, but I held myself back:

The East facing side:

And finally, the west facing side.

All outbuildings are gone, there's no barn or stable or anything like that, but there is a hand-built stone barbecue in the backyard, with the initials "L.H." and the year "1956". As you can see, it's a pretty big house, so it must have belonged to someone prosperous.

It was the barbecue that got me going. I wondered who "L.H." was and what kind of fun backyard parties the "H" family had in the 1950s and 60s.

First thing I had to figure out was the address! There's no number on the house, I just knew it was on Swedesford Road. It just so happens that Swedesford Road is one of the oldest roads in the state of Pennsylvania. It's named for a ford over the Schuylkill River named "Swede's Ford" that used to exist over in Norristown (a small city/town in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia). The road started there, and meandered west until it met up with Lancaster Pike (another old road). Some of Swedesford is completely missing today due to highway expansions and such, but a lot of it is right where it always has been. This is one of those pieces.

I went over to google map and found it there (see my red circle on the screenshot below) - Google told me it was 899 E. Swedesford Road. I poked around on the internet and found that really, it's 800 E. Swedesford Road and I even found mention of it in the township meeting minutes - they noted that it was not structurally safe to have the general public in there, AND, I found it was on the National Register and is called the Benjamin Pennypaker House.

So now that I had a good idea of what the place looked like from above, I went on over to ancestry to see if they had a map of the area that listed landowners.

And, Voila! (If only research for my own family went this easy!) :-)

Ancestry has the 1873 Chester County landowners maps available and I found my house, and so also found the name of the owner in 1873. It's the big red circle below. The little red circles are houses from this map that I know for sure still exist because I see them all the time (just thought that was interesting).

So now I know my Benjamin Pennypacker/L.H. house belonged to a "Jn W Stone" in 1873.

I also checked the 1883 version of Chester County landowners maps that Ancestry had and he was there too, and this map showed just how much land he owned!

Also, the little triangles next to the red circled black dot (our house) mean a "framed" building according to this map, so I would guess that was the barn and another outbuilding. The filled in black dot means a stone building. And they listed the owner as "John W. Stone".

Now of course, we can look at the 1870 census to find a John W. Stone and yep, he's there, along with an absolute boatload of people living in his house. It appears to be John and his wife, 4 of their kids (aged 16 - 4), John's Mom, 2 other Stone relatives (nieces maybe?), some random 15 yr old girl, a guy who works on the farm, and a domestic servant (and her daughter). That's 13 people folks. You thought it was a big house, but I bet it wasn't that big when you have 5 adults and 8 kids running around in it! Yikes!!

Oh, and John is a "Farmer and Merchant".

I found John and Hannah 10 years later in the 1880 census in the same house, down to having only 10 people living in the house (kids, boarders and servants). John's occupation is now "Government Store Keeper". Hmm. I'll have to look into that.

After that? Nothing. Can't find the Stone's. I found who I might think is their son, but he's living up in Reading, PA in 1900 and I can't confirm yet that it's him. And I don't know who they would have sold the house to so I'm still not sure who "L.H." is.

I also tried going backwards a bit to see if I could find the Pennypacker family. In the 1860 Federal Census, John and Hannah are in that house again, so I know the Stone family was at 800 E. Swedesford Road from at least 1860 - 1880. The house is echoing and empty with only 7 people living in it - John and Hannah, 3 of their kids, and 2 other children from Ireland (?) - don't know if they were relatives, servants, boarders, or what.

And before that? too many Pennypackers for me to nail down my specific house, and the census information gets less detailed.

So this is what I could find with just searching on the internet. This will have to be something I save up and make a trip to the Chester County Historical Society for.

It's nice though, when I drive by the house now I know where the barn was, and I know there were a whole lot of people running in and out of that house (and probably a lot of laundry hanging out back) for a good 20 years. I know that several kids would have spent a lot of time out in the land owned by their father, probably walking right where I've been walking on the trails. Hopefully they weren't drinking their father's beer and tossing the bottles into the creeks though.


  1. Leah:

    Fantastic story you were able to construct! I imagine the house will have even more meaning for you now. Love it!

  2. Excellent analysis! Look at the tools we have nowadays! Before genealogy proved to me that having an unusual name was valuable, I often wished for a simpler, easier-to-pronounce name. You know what I came up with? John Stone.

    When you were going through your photos of the house, I couldn't help but be reminded of Monty Python. "Here's Uncle Ted on the side of the house, but you can see the back of the house..."