A stroll through Oxford's history
By Steven Hoffman
A town's past and present merged during a stop on the Chester County Town Tours and Village Walks Program on Aug. 14 as a large group of people enjoyed a stroll through Oxford's history—as well as a taste of some of the local cuisine that is available today at restaurants in town.
The “taste and tour” event was centered in Oxford's history-rich commercial district, and at each of the stops on the tour members of the Oxford Area Historical Association (OAHA) entertained attendees with stories about the town's history and the Victorian-era buildings that link the present to the past.
At Flickerwood Wine Cellars, Vernon Ringler, president of OAHA, talked about the building on Third Street that was once known as the Samuel Ross Building. It's a building he knows well—it was a home to one of his businesses for many years—but the building's story dates back to Oxford's early days.
Ringler said that Oxford was slow to grow in the early 1800s, but that all changed with the arrival of the passenger railroad.
“One of the things that made Oxford a success was that, in 1860, the railroad came through,” Ringler explained. “When that happened, the town grew by leaps and bounds.”
Indeed, Oxford developed as a hub of commercial activity for the area, and people came from a ten-mile radius to utilize the goods and services that were available in town.
A part of the story for any town is how businesses change over time to meet new needs. The Samuel Ross Building, for example, was a restaurant for a long time before a local man named Melvin Berkowitz purchased the building and transformed it into a Rexall drug store. It would remain a drug store from 1947 until 1972.
“In 1972, my brother and I purchased the building,” Ringler said. The Ringers opened a successful news shop that sold everything from greeting cards to Russell Stover candy to jewelry. At one time, the news stand was selling 1,000 copies of the paper each Sunday.
Just a short distance from Flickerwood are two buildings that served as the cornerstone of Oxford's downtown from the beginning: the Oxford Hall building and the Oxford Hotel.
OAHA member Iris Dowling explained that the Oxford Hotel was originally built by a man named John Hayes sometime around 1754. Later, the hotel was sold to Walter Hood and was called Hood's Tavern. For a brief time, the area that became Oxford was known as Hood's Crossing. Dowling said that the Oxford Hotel was always a gathering place for travelers, especially those moving between Philadelphia and Baltimore. Oxford is located almost equidistant from those two important cities. It is also located in between Lancaster, Pa. and Wilmington, Del., which was another popular route for travelers and the transportation of goods.
“There were quite a number of roads that came together right here so it was a good meeting place,” Dowling explained.
Such a good meeting place, in fact, that many famous people stayed in Oxford through the years. President Ulysses S. Grant, one of the heroes of the Civil War, once stayed at the Oxford Hotel with his traveling party. So did New York Yankees great Mickey Mantle. And, yes, George Washington is said to have slept here, too.
When travelers stopped coming through town as often, the hotel's owners at the time started renting out rooms for longer durations. The Oxford Hotel building was placed on the Historic Register in 1993. Today, it is utilized for senior living apartments.
The Oxford Hall building at the corner of Third and Market has long been one of the foundations of the business district, housing numerous businesses and hosting many activities through the years. Bill Ringler explained that the Dickey family, so prominent in Oxford's early history, was instrumental in getting the Oxford Hall built for a variety of activities for the townspeople. It was a natural place to have lectures and professional shows that would come through town.
Later, the building became a general store and a Newberry's 5 and 10 store. Bill Ringler recalled that his first job, as a teenager in the 1940s, was working at Newberry's for 30 cents an hour.
The building that today houses the Octoraro Hotel & Tavern dates back to the 1820s when it was constructed by Jeremiah Knight. It was sold to Timothy Kirk in 1830, but a decade later it was sold to the Dickey Family. They founded the Oxford Female Seminary and it was used for that purpose until the start of the Civil War.
The business changed hands numerous times in the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. In 1912, Walter Ferguson enlarged the facility and added a third floor and two-story porch to the front. He renamed it “The New Octoraro Hotel.” Eventually, as business fell off during the Prohibition era, the Octoraro was closed and went through another period of transition. Today, it is owned by John McGlothlin and Brannon Seaman, and they undertook extensive renovations to modernize and improve the building.
The history of Oxford has also been inexorably tied to the history of the Oxford Presbyterian Church.
The church's pastor, Kerry Slinkard, explained that the Oxford Presbyterian Church was chartered in 1754, which is about the same time that there were enough settlers in this area to support a church. Initially, the congregation worshiped on the “green” across the street from the church. As the congregation grew through the years, the church building was updated and expanded.
Slinkard, may have had the best show-and-tell moment on the tour when he pulled a rope to ring the bell of the church. Slinkard then read a story from the Oxford Press that announced the arrival of the new church bell in 1871. It was reported at that time that the bell weighed more than 2,000 pounds and cost $900. It could be heard for five or six miles so the “slumbering sinners” in the area would be awakened in time to attend church. However, that bell that was purchased in 1871 is not the bell used by the church today. For reasons that have been lost to history, the church purchased another bell in 1875. The manufacturer of the bell is still in business and is currently working on digging up old records to see if there is any explanation as to why the church ordered another bell so soon after the first one.
In addition to the concise lessons on history, attendees of the taste and tour enjoyed Hors d'oeuvres and drinks at Flickerwood Wine Cellars, Downtown Pasta, and the Octoraro Hotel & Tavern throughout the event.