Articles on Labor and Business
by Jim Jones
|One of the paradoxes of West Chester's history is the conflict between pacifism, as promoted by the Society of Friends, and militarism, which derived from both patriotism and the desire to earn money. The best-known story is that of penicillin, which was mass-produced on N. Walnut Street during World War II, but other West Chester factories turned out bomb parts, searchlights, fire-fighting foam and even kitchen utensils used by the military. Until recently, however, no one talked about the role played by West Chester in developing the hydrogen bomb.||
Nuclear test at the Nevada Proving Grounds, Novembe 1951 -- US Govt'. photo
In July 1951, the owners of two West Cheser trucking companies,
Herbert Smith and Reed Knox made a cross-country trip to Las
Vegas by truck. The purpose of the trip was to deliver ten tons
of "equipment" manufactured by the Wind Turbine Company of West
Chester, and their task was important enough to justify a special
ICC permit for the two men. Their 13-day trip covered 5,378
miles (over 400 miles/day in pre-interstate America!) and passed
through the "flooded districts of Kansas and Missouri." They
even stopped off in Denver, Colorado to visit visit West Chester
native William Ingram and his family.
Wind Turbine started out making wind-driven water pumps -- the kind you once saw throughout the American Midwest. By 1948 the company occupied part of the Hoopes Brothers & Darlington wagon wheel plant on E. Market Street, where they made steel towers for a variety of uses, but especially to support radio antennas. Their brand name -- Trylon is still in production today in Canada, but for several decades, Wind Turbine of West Chester was a major player in the steel tower industry.
The article suggested a small mystery -- why did the two West Chester men make such a long trip? There was a market for wind- driven pumps in Nevada where surface water was scarce, while radio antennas supported communication across long, empty stretches, and towers marked airfields for cross-country air routes. None of these uses justified the expense of sending a truck from West Chester to Nevada and then back again empty. It would have made more sense to load the equipment on a train -- the tracks were right next to the Wind Turbine factory -- and ship it across country by railroad. Major rail lines reached stations in both northern and southern Nevada, from whence a local truck could have easily delivered a 10-ton load. It took a bit of detective work to determine the reason, but a 1956 profile of the T. E. Smith & Son trucking company described some of the firm's most unusual loads including "special equipment in connection with the government's atomic device tests" at the "U. S. Atomic Proving Grounds" at Frenchman's Flat, Nevada.
According to Wikipedia, in January 1951 the US government established the Nevada Proving Ground near Las Vegas and started a series of nuclear tests that lasted for the next forty years. A local man who knew both Knox and Smith recalled the load -- a steel tower that was tested by assembling it at the corner of Market and Worthington Streets, and then disassembled for shipment out West. It is not clear what happened next, but the tower may have been the one used to detonate an H-bomb at a specific altitude on October 22, 1951. Unfortunately, the bomb failed to explode, so for subsequent tests, the scientists relied on air drops and underground tests.
As a result, Wind Turbine got no more contracts for nuclear testing towers, although they got plenty of other government contracts for radio antennas, radar antennas and "Bomarc towers" (an early anti-missile system). Wind Turbine eventually moved out of the Borough in the late 1960s to a larger manufacturing site near Elverson. Meanwhile, the Nevada Proving Ground (later called the Nevada Testing Range) eventually hosted more than 900 atomic explosions, ending in September 1992.
Using the knowledge they gained from their trip out West, both Knox and Smith continued to operate their trucking companies and offered advice to anyone who wanted em make a trip out West. Eventually, small trucking firms like their's were overtaken by the same forces that did away with mom-n-pop groceries and independent movie theaters. Knox's company -- Knox & Marshman -- and Smith's company were both bought out by the Phoenixville trucking firm of Kulp & Gordon.
|Lately we've seen a lot of interest in the possibility of building a hotel in the Borough, and not just because of the two- year-long conditional use hearing for the Zukin project. There are signs that the market for construction mortgages may be loosening up, and thus the hotel already approved for the Warner Theater site might get underway soon. December is also the time of year when parents come to the Borough for the WCU graduation, and other folks gather to celebrate the holidays. Other than the Microtel out on the bypass at Matlack Street, or assorted bed and breakfasts sprinkled around the edges of the Borough, would-be visitors are constrained to pass their nights in Exton or even (shudder) Lionville or King of Prussia, or else journey up Route 202 to the Borough from as far away as Delaware.|
|That was not always the case. In fact, the original seed from which our community sprouted was a drover's inn located on the top of the hill at the intersection of roads leading west from Philadelphia and north from Wilmington. The Turk's Head Tavern was licensed to Phineas Eachus by the state in 1762 and served wagon drivers and other travellers who plied the dirt roads of the region. Since it was located about a day's drive north of Wilmington or west of Philadelphia, it became common for people to spend the night there.|| |
The Turk's Head Hotel in its final days
For a generation, that was the only option for travellers without
friends among the local farmers, but once the Revolutionary War
came to an end, several people began to imitate Eachus. A local
farmer named Isaiah Matlack purchased more than 130 acres of land
in what became the northeast quadrant of West Chester, and built
the Greentree Tavern on the northeast corner of the
crossroads in 1786 (modern: Green Tree Building and Rite Aid).
That same year William Worthington opened the Cross Keys
at the southeast corner of Church & Gay Streets (modern: former
Mosteller department store) and Emmor Trego built the Horse
and Groom Hotel in 1786 south of the corner of Church &
Market Street (modern: not sure). A year later John Hannum
opened the Washington House just north of the courthouse
(modern: Courthouse Annex).
West Chester provided a market for hotels because in 1785, the state authorized the transfer of the courthouse from Chester to a more central point in the County, in response to petitions from residents of the western part of the County who complained that it took them too long to file papers, register deeds and the like. Although West Chester was more centrally located, it still required people from the edges of the county to stay overnight, since a day's wagon journey on the roads of the time was limited to about 20 miles. West Chester's central location also made it popular as a market town, and that attracted farmers whose heavily laden wagons moved even more slowly. In order to get set up at the market by morning, farmers travelled to West Chester one day in advance. Local proprietors were only too glad to offer them lodging and provide stables to house their horses, while a community of craftsmen developed to take care of the wagons, tack and other gear associated with horse-powered travel.
New hotels appeared with some regularity during the next fifty years. Samson Babb opened the Black Bear Inn at the southwestern corner of High & Market Streets (modern: F&M Building) in 1789, while Jonathan Matlack opened the "Spread Eagle" --later called simply The Eagle Hotel -- at the northwest corner of Gay & Walnut Streets (modern: former Rite Aid across Walnut Street from the Post Office) in 1803. Meanwhile the other hotels continued their business, although the Cross Keys when through several changes of name and ownership during this period ( General Wayne in 1797, the President Jefferson in 1804, Pearson's Tavern in 1815, the Cross Keys in 1818, and finally the White Hall in 1839).
The next stage in the hotel business was shaped by the invention
of the railroad. West Chester's first railroad reached the
corner of Matlack & Chestnut Streets in 1832, but in anticipation
of the people it would bring to the Borough, two new hotels were
built. The first was the West Chester Hotel which opened
in 1828 at the corner of Hannum Avenue & W. Gay Street (modern:
Borough parking lot #6 a.k.a. the "Spaz lot"). The other was
built by William S. Everhart, a shopkeeper who made a fortune
speculating in land that increased in value thanks to the
railroad. He built the Chester County Hotel in 1831 on
the southeast corner of Church & Market Streets (modern:
Sovereign Bank) and sold it in 1836 to the Hollman brothers of
Chester Springs, who renamed it the Mansion House Hotel.
Everhart's hotel was something of an anomaly because it was the first one built without a place to serve liquor. Everhart promoted it as a "temperance house" designed to cater to a population that included many Quakers, Amish and other religious sects that rejected the consumption of alcohol. Whether it was unsuccessful or Everhart simply became preoccupied with his other interests -- expanding his store, building a second railroad in the Borough, and serving a term on Borough Council -- is not clear, but his successors immediately applied for a license to sell spirits.
During the remainder of the 19th century, several new hotels
opened, but even more closed. The most interesting was the
Magnolia House which opened at 300 E. Miner Street in 1866.
The owner, Moses G. Hepburn Jr., was the mulatto son of a former
slave who came to West Chester before the Civil War and went on
to become the first non-white member of Borough Council in 1882.
He operated a number of businesses in the Borough and was
successful at most. One was his hotel, which was for many years
the only place in the Borough where people of color could stay.
As a consequence, he played host to several prominent African
Americans, including Frederick Douglass, who visited the State
Normal School (modern: West Chester University) several times in
the late 19th century.
Another new hotel started out as a private school known as "Crowell's Academy" until E. O. Taylor converted it into the Sherman House (205 W. Market St., modern: County Justice Center) in 1878. In the early 1890s he changed the name to the Old Farmers Hotel, and by the beginning of World War I, it was called the Brandywine Inn. After the war, a local developer converted it into the Wawassan Apartments, and so it remained until 1956 when the Borough acquired it and knocked it down to make room for a parking lot. Nowadays, the site is under the eastern end of the County Justice Center.
A third attempt to open a hotel took place at 29 E. Gay Street, the site of Spence's Restauant. In 1906, James Spence added an addition to his restaurant and included hotel rooms upstairs, but despite a long legal battle, was unable to obtain a "hotel liquor license" which allowed the sale of "vinous, spirituous, malt and brewed liquors by retail" -- in other words, beer, wine and hard liquor. As a sort of consolation prize, the Court granted Spence an "eating house license" which permitted the sale of beer and wine, but not liquor. A few years later, Spence was convicted of selling alcohol to minors and sent to jail briefly, forcing him out of business. Several men attempted to revive his restaurant, and one even reopened it as the Imperial Hotel, but they were never able to get a hotel liquor license. The last one abandoned the effort in 1915 and converted the hotel into apartments.
The biggest hotel that never opened in the Borough was proposed by Nathan Hayes, a London Grove farmer who came to West Chester during the Civil War and bought the Mansion House Hotel. Later, he bought the Eagle Hotel, and at the end of 1892, the newspapers reported that he planned to build a five-story "$100,000 hotel" at the northeast corner of Gay and Walnut Streets. Although a basement was excavated, the work came to a halt after Hayes committed suicide in April 1893. Workmen tore out the unfinished basement, and the lot remained vacant until 1906 when the current post office was built there.
During the late 19th century, the local newspaper regularly published the "scale of prices" for West Chester hotels that included the price of full board (lodging plus three meals), partial board, a single meal and stabling a horse for the night. In 1854, full board cost a dollar, plus sixty-two cents to keep a horse overnight, while a single meal cost only thirty-seven and a half cents. By 1873, those prices had risen to $2.50 for full board, $1.25 for horse stabling, and seventy-five cents for a meal.
Despite the increase in prices, some hotels became unprofitable. In 1856, real estate investor David McConkey converted the Washington House into his own private home, and the White Hall Hotel was torn down in 1874 and replaced with stores. William Leslie converted the Eagle Hotel into apartments and retail space around 1900, while the Old Farmer's Hotel and the West Chester Hotel suffered the same fate during the next decade. By the beginning of World War I, there were only three hotels still in business: the Green Tree, the Mansion House and the Turk's Head.
The end came by 1970. First, the Green Tree closed in 1931, a victim of its age and the Depression. Then the Turk's Head was sold off in the mid-1960s. Finally, despite an attempt to save it by using it to house college students, the Mansion House was demolished in 1970.
For the next thirty years, visitors to West Chester had to stay somewhere else. Then in the early 1990s, with gasoline prices rising and the conversion of West Chester into an entertainment destination, the first "bed and breakfast" establishments opened. In 2001 restaurant owner Jack McFadden proposed to open a small hotel at 13-15 S. High street, and in 2003 Brian McFadden (no relation to Jack) proposed a larger hotel at 152-154 W. Gay Street. Neither of those proposals went forward, but a 2007 proposal by Brian McFadden for the Warner Theater site at 120 N. High Street was approved by Borough Council and awaits construction financing. Most recently, the 2008 proposal by Stan Zukin for a hotel on the site of the old Eagle Hotel has received the first of several stages of approval from the Borough.
Postscript: The "Warner Hotel" opened at 120 N. High Street in the summer of 2012. The proposal for a hotel on the former Rite-Aid site at 33-39 E. Gay Street was turned down by Borough Council in December 2013, and is in litigation as of November 2014. Meanwhile, a new proposal -- to convert the F&M Building at 2 W. Market Street into a "boutique hotel," is in the works as of November 2014.
|West Chester has its share of historical oddities and another one was revealed in 2009 by masonry contractors renovating an E. Gay Street building. Although it sits in plain view of the street, it took the sharp eyes of a young man named Andy Rodriguez to spot it, plus the recollections of a long-time Borough resident and an unidentified radio listener to get things moving. Finally, with the cooperation of the staff at the County Recorder of Deeds office and the Chester County Historical Society, the full story was revealed.|
|The discovery is a ceramic plaque that is set into the wall of the building at the northwest corner of E. Gay Street and Patton Alley, across the alley from Domino's Pizza. The plaque is about six feet square and contains a relief sculpture. A close look reveals that it portrays two figures dressed in classical Greek clothing, surrounded by objects that include a hammer, some chains, a wheel, and what appears to be a tire. The most remarkable feature is an object that the figure on the left offers to the figure on the right. It looks like a Model T Ford.|| |
Photo courtesy of Andy Rodriguez
The building at the corner of E. Gay Street and Patton Alley.
The plaque is above the door in the center of the picture.
Mr. Rodriguez, who writes a blog called Arod138 in beautiful West Chester, Pa" asked West Chester University history professor Jim Jones if knew anything about the plaque. A quick search of the files showed that the building was a car showroom in 1931, and was constructed some time after 1921. From 1956 to the early 1980s, it was the showroom for Turner Motors, a Mercedes-Benz dealer. More recently, it was Hannum's motorcycle shop, and after that, the Verlo mattress and futon store. At present, contractors are remodeling it into a shopping center that will be called "Gateway Plaza."
It took a few telephone calls to learn more about the auto dealership. The first, to a retired postal worker with a lifelong interest in automobiles yielded pay dirt. He remembered the J. L. Boals company at that location in the early 1930s, and identified Boals as am agent for the Ford Motor Company. He also thought that they ran into trouble during the Depression and that the remnants reorganized into Wiley Motors, which operated at 110 N. Walnut Street (across from the Post Office) for many years.
A second phone call went to the Robert Henson, the former host of WCOJ's "The Big Show." Although he is on the young side of forty, Henson grew up in West Chester and also has a strong interest in vehicles and history. He said he'd once read that Henry Ford made it a point to visit every one of his dealerships in the United States, and wondered if he'd ever been in West Chester. A few moments later, another caller identified himself as an "old-timer," confirmed that the building once housed the Boals Ford dealership, and added that back when he was young, another old-timer had told him about Henry Ford's visit to West Chester.
Documents in the Office of the Recorder of Deeds provided the names of the people who owned the property since 1894. That year, the West Chester Railroad sold it to a real esate firm which eventually sold it to the Pennsylvania Railroad. This was not surprising, since West Chester's first station was located a short distance away at the corner of Matlack and Chestnut Streets, and the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired control of the WCRR in 1879.
Near the end of World War I, the PRR subdivided the property and sold the eastern part to a real estate development company. They do not appear to have done anything with it, and in August 1928, they sold it to Horace Temple, owner of a printing business which operated in the middle of the block on E. Gay Street until only a few years ago. Two weeks later, Temple sold the eastern half of the property -- the section at Patton Alley and Gay Street -- to J. L. Boals, Inc.
An undated notice from the West Chester Lions Club newsletter contained a brief biogaphy of James L. Boals Jr. He was born in 1893 in Philadelphia where he was raised and educated. After serving ten years as the chief clerk of a Ford dealership at Broad and Lehigh Streets in Philadelphia, he moved to West Chester and took over the local Ford agency located at 110 N. Walnut Street. Some time later, according to the notice, Boals built a "fine showroom" at the corner of Gay Street and Patton Alley.
|Left: 1926 invoice from J. L. Boals, Inc. Right: 1935 letterhead showing the car dealership. Note the plaque located just above the J. in the company name. Both images courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society.|
The first Borough Directory in the collection of the Historical Society
to list Boals in West Chester was published in
1927, although an invoice dated May 5, 1926 showed he was already
in business at 110 N. Walnut Street before then. Borough
directories continued to show him on N. Walnut Street until the
1930-1931 directory, which gave his business address as 225 E.
Gay Street. Boals' company letterhead shows the front of the
building with the plaque clearly visible over the doorway. Other
documents in the Historical Society files show Boals was still on
E. Gay Street as late as September 1936, but by 1938 the Borough
directory placed him back at 110 N. Walnut Street. A few years
later, the E. Gay Street property was put up for sheriff's sale.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions about Boals and his building. Why did he sell it to someone named Charles Kahn only a week after he bought it in 1928, for the same price that he paid for it? Was Kahn a representative of the Ford Motor Company? If so, then why did Kahn sell the property to Melrose Realty in 1938, and what happened that led to the sheriff taking possession by 1943? Perhaps most intriguing -- did Henry Ford ever visit the West Chester dealership, either on E. Gay Street or N. Matlack Street? And most of all, who designed the plaque and decided to put it on a wall facing E. Gay Street?
When local officials talk about propsoals for buidling, a concept
often comes up called "adaptive reuse." That's what occurs when
a developer takes an old building and, instead of tearing it
down, converts it into something new while retaining the basic
structure of the old. It has been a common practice in European
cities for decades and is becoming more common in the United
States, or at least it is in the East where there are buildings
old enough to attract public support for their preservation. For
example, the expansion of the West Chester Public Library in 2006
preserved the entire building by enlarging the basement, instead
of knocking it down to start over.
Although the motivation may have been different, it appears that the concept of adaptive reuse existed already in West Chester in the 19th century. Although the existence of West Chester's first factory was no secret, its location was something of a mystery and everyone with an interest in local history had assumed that it was demolished in the 19th century. As it turns out, the factory was preserved and remodeled into a row of houses that still stand today.
The historic factory was Enos Smedley's pottery. Smedley moved his pottery-making business to the Borough from Downingtown in 1831, and created a successful business that used clay imported from Philadelphia by wagon and railroad to produce dishes, pots and other utensils that he sold locally. Over the years, several writers have referred to Smedley's pottery as the first manufacturing site in the Borough (other than clothing and blacksmith shops), but no one ever tracked down its precise location. In his book West Chester to 1865: That Elegant & Notorious Place, Doug Harper wrote that it was on the south side of Gay Street west of New Street. That placed it in the 300-block of W. Gay Street in the area called "Pottery Row," but that was all that anyone knew about its location until now.
Part of the research involved looking at deeds for all of the properties on the block -- over 600 deeds dating from 1809 to the present. There was such a large number because the lots are so small an they face Gay Street, one of the two oldest streets in the Borough. Although each deed contained a description of the property being sold, as well as the names of the owners of the properties on each side, for the first eighty years, it was rare for a deed to include a house number that could be used to locate it. Instead, they provided descriptions like the following:
A number of deeds contained references to Smedley's pottery. By plotting their location with respect to Gay Street, New Street, Wayne Street, Harmony Alley and Potters Alley. Gradually, it became possible to identify the location of the buildings that currently sit on the pottery property. Instead of the bottom of the street near Wayne Street, where an old stream might have served as a source of clay, the pottery was located farther up the hill towards New Street. Eventually, a proeprty description from an 1861 sheriff's sale that helped to locate it precisely, and provided a physical description of the pottery factory itself:
The development of E. Gay St. between 1847 and 1873. Shaded rectangles are buildings
A comparison of the dimensions of the pottery and the dimensions placed it at the corner of Potter's Alley and W. Gay Street, in the vicinity of the house currently numbered 314. Confirmation was provided by a newspaper clipping that described how, in 1869, builder Lewis Shields had his workers convert the pottery into three houses. On-site emasurements revealed that the oldest parts of the three houses at 314-318 were exactly 22 1/2 feet deep and 60 1/2 feet wide, and after inspecting the brickwork and talking to the owners, it became clear that the three houses were in fact Smedley's pottery.
While they are not the oldest building still standing in the Borough, they are probably the earliest example of the adaptive reuse of a building that was originally constructed for a different purpose. And although Washington never slept there, the old pottery is a significant part of the Borough's history, just like the Yearsley property. Local historian Jane Dorchester said it best when she reminded Council that history is not architecture, it's what people do, but that buildings (like many other things) are the evidence of what people did. Council heard her, as well as the issues raised by the McCools, and voted accordingly.
When Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson ran up W. Gay Street during
the filming of "Marley & Me," they ran right past a
piece of West Chester history. Thanks to an email from a reader,
plus a bit of additional research, here's a story about Benson's
Department Store, which used to occupy five storefronts along the
north side of W. Gay Street between Church and Darlington Street.
Currently part of the space is called the "Benson Building" and
houses Chester County Domestic Relations, while the rest contains
the Mad Platter music store, Wright's jewelry store and one
There are still plenty of people in West Chester who remember when Benson's was the second-largest department store in the Borough, surpassed only by Mosteller's on the corner of Church Street, a half block to the east. Benson's was founded by Samuel T. Benson, who emigrated from Kiev before World War I, possibly to escape the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution. He and his wife Nettie ended up in Philadelphia and moved to West Chester by 1914, the year that they opened a dress shop at 109 W. Gay Street. Samuel was assisted by his brother Albert until he went on to become a schoolteacher in Philadelphia for thirty years.
After World War I, Samuel began expanding his store. In 1920 he
bought the store next door (now occupied by the Mad Platter) and
combined the two buildings into one. During the good years of
the 1920s and the lean years of the Depression, Samuel and Nettie
raised a daughter and two sons, built a house on N. Penn Street,
and owned what became one of the best-known stores for women's
and children's clothing in the area.
One of their boys was Bernard, a 1939 graduate of West Chester High School. In 1941 he married his childhood sweetheart, Anna Dallen of 125 W. Chestnut Street, and two years later he enlisted in the US Army. He was wounded but survived while advancing with Patton's Third Army into Germany, and returned home to join the family business. He and his wife moved into the front apartment just above the store, and were living there on the night on March 25-26, 1949, when thieves broke into the store and stole over $20,000 worth of clothing.
Samuel T. Benson
Anne Dallen Benson
|Bernard and his brother Robert helped his parents manage the store through the 1950s, and in 1955 the founder and his wife moved to Atlantic City. In 1956, the sons embarked on an aggressive expansion program that started with a new facade for the front of the building designed by local architect Richard H. Peterman. He added new and larger display windows (24 and 17 feet wide respectively) featuring both indirect lighting and bullet spotlights, and surrounded by Zourite sheathing -- a "new alloy of aluminum in dovetailing panels."|
|Expansion of the store continued into the 1960s. During the summer of 1960, they bought the former Montgomery Ward Store at 113-115 W. Gay Street -- more than doubling its size -- and covered it with scaffolding so workers could integrate it into the Benson store. That same year, the Benson's added a men's clothing department, and the following year they added a shoe department. In 1966 they provided space in their store for a "Carpet Exposition branch outlet" but the days of downtown department stores were already numbered thanks to the rise of the suburban shopping mall. Bernard sold the store in the early 1970s and became a realtor, while his wife Ann found work at the Prothonotary's office. Their daughter Elaine worked at the Norcross Greeting Card Company, and her daughter Allison provided some of the information used in this article.||
Scaffolding covers the store in 1960
Advertising the 1960 reopening
|Copyright 2010 by Dr. James A. Jones|