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Historic Newtown Square Articles

We are in the process of cleaning up and reformatting our old content, articles, and presentations which will be re-released here over time.

  • Monday, October 12, 2020 2:43 PM | Doug Humes (Administrator)

    At this crossroads, William Penn planned his first inland town west of his capital city of Philadelphia.

    At this crossroads, Frances Elliott built an inn that became the center of activity for this early farm community.

    At this crossroads, during the American Revolution, the war was brought home on a daily basis. The British soldiers occupied Philadelphia. They needed food and feed for their animals. The abundant Pennsylvania countryside could provide it, but the American forces sought to cut off any supplies from passing from the Tory farmers in Chester County along the main road leading east to the city, the Goshen Road. General Anthony Wayne had been born and raised in the area, a mile or two up the road at Waynesborough, and knew the roads and the people. As a result, troops and an American spy were stationed at the Lewis farm down the Goshen road from the local inn and tavern, to keep watch on the traffic headed east, report back to General Washington at Valley Forge, and stop any supplies intended for the British in Philadelphia. The British in turn would send out raiding parties, to take from local farmers what they would not sell, including their horses, their crops, and in the more abusive cases, their household goods. The ebb and flow of American and British troops continued throughout that fall, each passing by the local crossroads tavern that furnished liquid refreshment to both sides. 

    At this crossroads, a young boy with artistic talent began to sketch, and was taught by local Indians how to use items found in nature to make colors with which to paint. The boy, son of the tavern keeper, went on to become court painter to King George III, a painter of international renown with his work sought by every great museum in the world. He is remembered in the art world as Benjamin West, father of American Painting.

    At this crossroads, a local highwayman, Captain Fitz, taking advantage of the lawlessness in an occupied country, frequented the tavern where he and his confederate plotted attacks on travelers through the countryside. They reportedly hid their stolen goods at a local cave near Castle Rock.

    Today, while you are idling at the red light at the intersection of Goshen Road and Rt. 252, you are sitting at a 21st century suburban traffic light, but with a little imagination, you can see these ghosts of local history swirling all around you at the Square Tavern, a true crossroad of American history.

    Doug Humes is a board member of the Newtown Square Historical Society. For more stories on local history, and membership information, please visit our website at www.nshistory.org

  • Sunday, October 11, 2020 3:25 PM | Doug Humes (Administrator)

    In 1995 I attended my first board meeting of the Newtown Square Historical Society, the youngest person in the room, surrounded by the people who made the community run.  Today as I write this, I am one of the oldest in the room.

    Board members at that time included Stan Short, Dick & Edie Carpenter, Sid & Jan Elston, Madaleen Ellis, Joe & Barbara Bullen, Jack Grant, Sam Coco, Dorothy Elicker, Ray & Fran Giuliani, Marianne Burt, Sharon Haslett and many others.  Whenever something wonderful was happening here, a 4th of July parade, the Freight Station museum, school scholarships, library programs, Colonial Day, historic markers, the Bartram Bridge, the Paper Mill House and Museum, these people were involved.  They gave back to the community, and made it a wonderful place to live.   

    Since then, I have learned much about what makes a community work.  It is not the complainers, nor the simply inattentive or complacent.  Not the people who don’t have time.  A community works when there are people who have enough interest to get involved.  They don’t have more time than the rest of us.  But they make time.

    After World War II, the suburbs were built and the people who filled those new houses, the Greatest Generation, also gave structure to the new communities that resulted.  Most of those people are gone now.   Jan and Sid Elston are alive and well, but now living in retirement in the South.  The loss to the Historical Society and community has been huge.  Jan grew up in the community, kept the high school alumni records and history, and is a treasure of oral history.  Sid had taken care of our Paper Mill House since it was rescued from ruin in the 80’s.  Jan and Sid were two of the original founders of the Society, and had at some point in the past 40 years taken on every job that needed to be done.  They are missed. 

    There has been a decline in civic engagement in the generations since the Greatest Generation.  The more residents we have, the fewer seem to participate in the events that make the Township an attractive place to live.  More burden falls on fewer shoulders.  And eventually, we wear out the few volunteers, and the organization falls by the wayside. 

    Imagine a community with no library, no PTA, no Little League champions, no parades, no theater group, no covered bridge, no historic preservation, just row after row of McMansions, filled with people who are strangers to each other.  Is that the community you want to live in?

    Your community will be what you make it.  But it involves effort.  Your effort.  So find the time.  Get involved.  Pick a community organization that means something to you, and reach out to them and volunteer your time and talents to help them to continue to do what they do in the community.  Your reward?  A more livable community, and the joy in seeing a program or event  that you helped bring to life because you cared enough to get involved.  It’s a good feeling.

    Doug Humes is a board member and former president of the Newtown Square Historical Society.  He can be contacted at humeslaw@verizon.net.  Visit our website at www.nshistory.org

  • Monday, September 21, 2020 10:23 AM | Anonymous

    Newtown's history begins with William Penn. He was many things: son of a wealthy and prominent English admiral, a Quaker leader, a political theorist and writer, a visionary, and founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania. In that last capacity, William Penn was what we would today call a real estate developer.

    In 1681, he was granted a large parcel of undeveloped largely wooded real estate, about 45,000 square miles, which King Charles II insisted be named after Penn’s father, hence, Penn’s Sylvania. A real estate developer wants to improve his property, add infrastructure improvements, such as roads and water and power facilities, and then carve it up into smaller pieces to be offered for sale to the general public.

    Penn was by then a dedicated Quaker, a new religion whose adherents were routinely jailed and persecuted for their beliefs. Penn had the supply of land, and saw the natural demand for it in the thousands of persecuted English and Welsh Quakers who might want to start a new life in a country that would welcome them and tolerate their religious beliefs. Penn the visionary wrote on the day after being granted the charter, “It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation.”

    Penn drafted the first constitution for the new land, a Frame of Government, in which religious tolerance was the first of several protected rights of the citizens, which also included trial by jury, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and free elections and representative government. Then he set about selling his idea of utopia to the Quakers and others who would be interested in escaping the rather rigid social and feudal structures of England for a new life in this new nation that Penn envisioned.

    A developer starts with a set of plans, showing the outline of the parcel, and then showing the improvements to be made to the parcel, and the subdivisions of the main parcel. Penn hired a surveyor, his cousin Captain William Crispin, to come to Pennsylvania to begin to survey the first portions to be developed, but emblematic of the risks entailed in ocean travel in that era, Crispin died on the journey over. Penn then wrote to another surveyor of his acquaintance, a Quaker from Ireland, Thomas Holmes. Holmes came to Pennsylvania in 1682, and Penn appointed him Surveyor General for the colony. Penn and Holmes sat together and worked out the basics of the initial development plan.

    Holme's 1687 Map of PennsylvaniaThe capital city, Philadelphia, was laid out, and Holmes mapped out the parcels that would be sold in his first Philadelphia map of 1683, which was called “A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America“. Their plan is still evident today in the crisp straight lines of the streets of Philadelphia, which form an easy to navigate grid.  Open spaces were planned in Penn’s city, and largely survive today in Rittenhouse Square, Logan Square, Washington Square, and Franklin Square. A fifth square was plotted right in the middle of the city, Centre Square, and remained open space until 1871, when construction began on the enormous city hall building that occupies Centre Square today.

    Having planned the city, Penn and Holmes then turned to the outlying areas. The results of the collaboration of Penn and Holmes in those early years are shown in that first subdivision plan, the “Mapp of Ye Improved Part of Pennsylvania in America, Divided into Countyes, Townships and Lotts” that was published in 1687.

    To lure buyers to the countryside, they developed a plan so that if you bought a minimum number of acres in the country, you also received more valuable plots in the new city.

    In the countryside, the townships were laid out with natural boundaries where possible, with rivers and creeks forming the boundaries. The creeks, besides being defining lines on a map, also provided the means to power mills, and were sources of transportation. Having different owners on both sides granted those rights to twice as many parties as well.

    Prior to that time, cities simply grew up from small settlements generally situated near transportation hubs such as crossroads, natural harbors and the confluence of rivers. Penn and Holmes were doing something completely different – they were planning their city, and then planning how the surrounding area would develop as well.

    The 1687 map shows them experimenting with different ideas. One development idea was to have a township that was bisected by straight north-south roads. The lots would border on those straight roads, providing access to transportation, with the opposite boundary extending east and west to the township borders.

    This plan of development is reflected in the 1687 map for Concord, Newtown, Radnor and Nether Providence, each bisected by a “straight road”. This north-south road was actually built in Newtown (Delco), and is called Newtown Street (i.e. straight) Road today.


    Penn's New Town in BUCKS County

    Another new development idea was incorporated into the first two new Towns that were planned in the west and to the north of the city. In the new town to the north of the city in Bucks County, the development was planned like a wagon wheel, with the actual town in the middle, where would be located a market, a meeting house and perhaps an inn.


    The private lots would each border the town, running like spokes from the central hub of the town. Each lot would thus have direct access to the town.

    Penn's New Town in CHESTER County

    In the new Town planned for the west, in what was then Chester County, the marketing plan for Philadelphia was followed – if you bought a larger parcel outside of the planned townstead, you also were entitled to a smaller lot in the town.

    The town was located at the main crossroads intersection along the straight road that bisected the township. Like developers and planners to this day, Penn and Holmes simply assigned a place holder to these new towns they had planned in Bucks and Chester County.  The towns are identified on the 1687 Holmes Map simply as “New Town” at each location. Presumably once the marketing effort started in earnest, they would be given new names with a little more flare – Chester Mews, Darby Creek Estates, Indian Manor Homes, something with some marketing appeal.

    And yet today, more than 300 years later, those first inland new towns still bear the name of the place holder given on the 1687 map. Newtown in Bucks County is a beautiful borough of about 2500 people surrounded by a township of the same name.  It was the county seat of Bucks County in the early years, from 1726 to 1813, and it has preserved its colonial buildings and protected them by designating its entire commercial area for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

    To the west, the new Town in Chester County subsequently ended up in Delaware County when the former was split into more manageable sections in 1789. The new Town planned along the crossroads of Newtown Straight Road and Goshen Road actually grew up at that location, with an inn located right at the crossroads, with its identifying sign being a carpenter’s square.


    The Sign of the Square eventually lent its name to the first post office for the town, Newtown Square. However in the 19th century a better road, the West Chester Turnpike to the new Chester County seat, was located a mile to the south of the original town, and the better road surface and convenience of travel took the traffic and business away from the old Square intersection.

    Newtown Square thereafter grew up along the Turnpike, and the old Square Tavern ceased being a tavern, and was used for years as a home. The tavern building still graces that crossroads, preserved by several recent owners with the involvement of the community. Newtown Square is still the post office and settlement for the township of Newtown, in Delaware County.

    So the next time a local visitor wonders why there would be two towns with the curiously nondescript name “Newtown” in suburban Philadelphia, you can tell them to blame the developer, William Penn, and his surveyor, Thomas Holmes. They get an A in planning, but someone from Marketing apparently never got the memo!

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