Local historian eager to share West Grove collection
By Steven Hoffman
R. Scott Steele has been collecting pieces of West Grove's history for most of his adult life.
He owns a sign from the train station, which is long gone. He has the popcorn machine that was saved by a friend when the much-loved Roselyn Theatre was torn down. He has a framed borough ordinance from the 1890s, and a book that West Grove produced touting business opportunities in the town from that same time period. He has an envelope addressed to Mr. William T. Dantz, a prominent West Grove citizen, that was sent by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. He has binders filled with newspaper clippings, movie tickets from Roselyn Theater, postcards, and other memorabilia. Steele wants to share what he affectionately refers to as his “West Grove Collection” with the public. Late last year, construction was completed on a heated and air-conditioned 16-foot-by-18-foot building next to his home on Paschall Mill Road. Steele is working on moving his memorabilia into the building, and plans to open it to the public later this year, most likely in the spring.
“I'm going to make it so that people can come and look at the collection,” explained Steele, a retired accountant who has made local history a hobby for more than three decades. Each piece in his collection hints at a part of the story of West Grove, a town that flourished when the Philadelphia and Baltimore Central Railroad went through in the1860s.
“Collecting these items helps us understand the past at a local level,” Steele explained. “It's important to me because it reminds me of my youth. It also tells the story of people. My collection tells the story of people who came before us, the story of their way of life, their contributions, and key events. It’s important to preserve this past.”
Steele's roots run deep in Chester County. His family has resided in the county since the Revolutionary War. He grew up in West Grove and developed a love for his hometown early on. He said that many of the items in his collection offer fond reminders of his childhood.
“I grew up in town and went to Avon Grove schools,” he explained. “Growing up in West Grove was great. You knew everyone. You either lived near them or went to church with them. There were a lot of local community activities back then.”
Steele was a paperboy and worked at Blake's News Agency in town. In his free time, he would go with friends or family to the Roselyn Theatre.
“We had our own movie theater back then,” he explained. “We went to the movies every Friday night.”
While he was growing up, Steele learned about the value of community service from his parents. His mother served on the school board, and his father was a member of borough council member.
From an early age, he was interested in local history, and that interest was encouraged by Paul Rodebaugh, a history teacher at Avon Grove High School, who included local history in the curriculum. Rodebaugh also led history hikes through the area.
Steele went to college at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and later became an accountant at ICI, a British chemical company and later transferred to and retired from the Du Pont Company. For a brief time in the 1980s, Steele held elective office in his beloved hometown, filling a vacancy on borough council. In 1986, at the age of 29, he was elected as the mayor, but he did not serve the full four-year term because his employer sent him to England for an extended time on a work assignment.
When he returned to the area, one way that reconnected to his hometown was by indulging in his hobby of collecting historical memorabilia. Back then, John Ewing had a large private collection of West Grove memorabilia. Steele has fond memories of the late West Grove historian.
“He was a great guy and had real knowledge of the history of West Grove,” Steele explained. “He was a great collector.”
Steele worked with Ewing on a history of West Grove for its centennial celebration in 1993, a project that served to deepen Steele’s appreciation for the history of West Grove.
He learned about some of the town’s most prominent pioneers, including Joseph Pyle, who opened a general store in 1860 in the brick building that was the longtime home of a pharmacy. According to Steele, Pyle is the “father of West Grove” because he was responsible for building many of the buildings on Exchange Place in the center of the business district, including the Roselyn Theatre, which was torn down in 1980.
Steele slowly built up his own personal collection of memorabilia from West Grove’s history. He finds items by attending auctions and private sales, or by scouring online for items on sites like eBay.
Local residents also sometimes contact him to tell him about interesting items that they have in their possession.
“Some of the families in town knew that I was interested in history,” he said.
In addition to the railroad sign and the popcorn machine, some of his favorite items in his collection are National Bank of West Grove bank notes that have the name of the bank imprinted on the currency.
“My favorite is a 1922 large $5 bill signed by local bankers Robert Ewing and Milton Pyle,” Steele explained.
There are some items that he would like to be able to add to his collection. One is the sign from the Roselyn Theatre. Another is a wooden war memorial on the side of the building that was taken down at some point and never put back up for public display.
Steele has a realistic view of history. He understands that change is inevitable for any town. The Reoselyn Theatre is gone long enough now so that many of the younger residents of the area never knew that it even existed. But something good is in its place.
“It was sad to see it go, but there's a war memorial there now,” he explained.
Steele said that he is still very fond of his hometown and how it has evolved over the years.
“A lot of the neat, old houses are still there,” he said. “I think they have a good mayor and an effective borough council. I'd probably like to see more businesses there.”
While he’s looking forward to sharing his West Grove collection with the public, he would like to see an honest to goodness West Grove museum.
“I'm proud of being a keeper of the memorabilia,” he said. “And that's why I want to make sure that it's cared for properly.”