Turning again, home
● By Richard Gaw
Pownall Jones, in front of the home he grew up in on New Garden Road.
By Richard L. Gaw
From the passenger seat of
the car, Pownall Jones points to a group of houses on West New Garden
Road, informing the driver that there was once a three-acre field
there that his father rented to grow crops.
On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, just up the road from his family's home, the 18-year-old Jones was aboard a tractor and in the process of plowing the field, when his neighbor Margaret Thomas came running across the road to tell Jones that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just died.
Jones quickly finished plowing the field, and rushed back to his home up the road. The family radio was tuned to a station that kept playing "Home on the Range." It was the president's favorite song.
* * * *
In the front lobby of the New
Garden Township building on Starr Road, there is a display case
filled with archival photographs of the township's rich history,
carefully compiled and positioned by the township's Historical
Commission. They are positioned at such angles as to give the
illusion that they are joined together in a continuous line, side by
side, so that one can imagine walking from one to the other -- past a
church, past a home, and so on.
It is very easy for me to get lost in them; the black-and-white photographs depict a period when the township smelled of locomotive coal smoke and sawmill refineries. There is the Old
I am a victim of an appreciation for what came before us. It's simply where my attention leads. When I drive past a cookie-cutter development, I don't see the tawny modernism of stucco but the fields that conjure what came before all of this efficient ugliness. I see the sweat-embossed veins of property owners whose names appear on an 1883 map of the township, standing proud to the plow: Lamborn. Cooper. Miller. Wickersham. Hammer Trowel Hotel. Isaac Slack's stone sawmill, the Toughkenamon railroad station, and the Foulkleon mansion. Beside each photograph is a corresponding picture of what the exact location looks today. The comparisons are heartbreaking; the archival shots depict a period of rustic and simple beauty, while the modernity of the current photos demonstrate what happens when progress overtakes preservation and promptly turns the past into dust.
When I first approached Pownall Jones's wife Peg with the idea of having her husband show me around the lost parts of New Garden Township, she quickly responded, saying that her husband would be glad to accompany me. I have to confess early in this essay that for all of its intended uniqueness, the idea for this assignment was not even mine. It belonged to long-time township volunteer Chris Robinson who, during a hike a I took with Robinson and two other Friends of the Landenberg Trails for a story that appeared in the spring edition of this magazine, suggested I speak with Jones.
"You really want to know the history of what this place was like back then?" Robinson asked. "Take Pownall Jones around. He knows everything about this area."
As I sat waiting for Jones to meet me at the township building on Aug. 13, I realized that I wasn't needing a history lesson. What I really wanted was something hidden in those photographs that Jones could unlock for me and make them almost real. What I really wanted was to be invited - if only for brief moment -- into the sepia-toned world of the photographs in the display case.
* * * *
It is impossible to look into
the 88-year-old eyes of Pownall Jones and not see the last century of
America running through them. They have seen the Great Depression,
the second World War, D-Day, V-E Day, the Korean Conflict, the
Vietnam War, and every president from Calvin Coolidge to Barack
Obama. They have seen the sunrise of more than 30,000 mornings, and
the gentle sway of thousands of acres he has plowed and tilled and
harvested along New Garden Road. They have met the tender eyes of his
wife Peg through 65 years of marriage, four children and 11
The two hours I spent with Jones began in a back room of the township building, with the simple question, "Where were you born?"
Jones pointed to the edge of a gray barn that could be seen from the back window of the township building in the far distance. He said he grew up there, on a 60-acre farm known as Crestfield on New Garden Road, that is now the home his daughter, Ellen Marsden lives in with her husband and family. The move to New garden was merely another stop in the long line of family lineage that traces its roots in America to 1682.
"My father was a dairy farmer who shipped milk to Philadelphia," Jones recalled. "I remember a couple of workers on the farm, who would take the milk in a one-horse milk wagon out to New Garden. They backed up and unloaded ten cans of milk onto the milk truck every morning, for transport to Philadelphia. In order to expand the dairy, my father got his first tractor in 1941 and rented two small farms just up New Garden Road, so he could raise crops."
No one other than Jones and his father would ride the tractor.
"My father continued to have a team of mules, and kept them after he got the first tractor," he said. "They were trusted team of horses. We had just put fresh shoes on one of the mules when one day I was working and I saw the mule just lay down and die, right in front of me. I was so upset to have to see that. I found my father milking and told him. 'Well,' he said, 'go back and take the shoes off him, so I did."
Jones began opening up books that detail the history of the township, including a map that dates back to 1883. The maps show property lines and names of owners, a broad sweep of angles and property lines that he points to with his pencil. He recalls dates and acreage and deeds with an exactitude that belies most people of his age. For instance, he points his pencil to the farm his grandfather once owned on Route 41, and recalled that his grandfather died there on Christmas Day in 1932, and that after her husband's death, his grandmother kept the land, but sold the home to Mario Zunino.
His pencil stops at the intersection of Newark and New Garden roads.
"This is where I would pick up the school bus every morning," he said. "I never went to a traditional one-room schoolhouse."
Rather, Jones was a member of the first class to ever attend what is now Kennett High School, starting there in 1933 and going through all 12 grades at the same location. When he was a freshman in high school, Jones made his first major purchase -- a used bicycle he bought for five dollars -- "a lot of money back then," he said. He rode it everywhere he went.
To Jones' recollection, whatever impact the Great Depression or World War II were having on the nation and the world was a seismic shift that was not felt in his insular cocoon of growing up on a farm in New Garden Township in the 1930s and 1940s. For the most part, Jones' young life was divided according to farm, family, school and faith. The New Garden Meeting House was just a short walk up the road from the Jones farm, as was the general store and post office across the road. Access to the outside world was limited to what the family could get on the radio, and the arrival of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, which arrived in the mail wrapped in brown paper and marked “Gordon P. Jones, Avondale, PA" one day after it was originally published.
"It was yesterday's news, but it was the only news that we really had in those days, except for the radio," Jones said. "I grew up on the farm and never really knew anything else. The farm was everything."
In 1944, Jones met his future wife, Margaret Brosius, who was attending Unionville High School -- at a Quaker conference in Cape May. Six years later, they married and moved about one mile east of Crestfield, to a farm he purchased at an estate sale in 1949.
For the first ten years, JOnes raised hogs and cattle while growing corn and hay to feed his livestock. During the winter months, he worked for his father-in-law on his West Marlborough mushroom farm. During the 1960s, Jones eased out of the livestock business, transitioning to mushrooms. For the next 25 years, he grew mushrooms, while raising field crops to feed his father's cows. After retiring from active farming in 1978, Jones served on the Chester County Board of Assessment Appeals from 1986 to 2008, retiring when he turned 80.
With the chronology of life now told, Jones closed up the history books, and we entered my car, in the hopes of going back in time.
* * * *
In the days after Franklin
Delano Roosevelt's death, the entire nation mourned. The captain of
their ship was gone, and for many, Roosevelt was the only president
When 18-year-old Pownall Jones arrived at the Kennett Consolidated School soon after Roosevelt's death, he was asked by school officials if he would volunteer to recite Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" at an upcoming school assembly to honor the president. He was an easy pick; he had a booming voice, one that would certainly carry to the last student in the last seat of the gymnasium. He accepted the challenge, and immediately walked to the empty gymnasium, where he recited the poem over and over again.
In the moments just before he finally got his chance to speak, Pownall Jones looked out over a sea of his fellow students, wondering if he would be heard. When he began speaking, the poem poured out -- they were the perfect words -- and they reverberated around the gymnasium walls:
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
Andy may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I out out to sea.
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
* * * *
Jones and I went everywhere,
and at every turn of every bend, it was as if a giant history book
had opened up to reveal its facts. Barns, farms, fields, dates and
points of interest; he painted the landscape of the people who
created the township, such as James Starr, who was one of the early
immigrant farmers who farmed 300 acres.
We made a turn onto New Garden Road off of Route 41, to the actual home where Jones grew up. His daughter and her husband were on vacation in Australia, so Jones and I had the place to ourselves. It is a well-kept home with sprawling and well-manicured grounds, and the architecture of what Jones remembered as a boy is still there.
Back on the road, Jones pointed to where the now defunct Penn Green Schoolhouse once stood, where his mother once served as a substitute teacher. At the New Garden Crossroads, he said that the new Garden Friends Meeting House will be holding its 300th anniversary in September. "They had a 200th anniversary in 1915, and over a thousand people attended, and there's a booklet that includes all of the speeches given at that celebration," he said. "this was the center of town, and in many ways, it still is. My grandmother was a member of the Sadsbury Meeting in Christiana, and my mother was a Mthodist from Glenmmore. When my parents married in 1921, my grandmother moved her membership, and they all joined New Garden Meeting."
The car wove around the soft bends of Penn Green Road through Landenberg, which Jones remembered as a mill town, and although he lived less than three miles from the town's epicenter, Jones saw Landenberg as a hardscrabble outpost in comparison to the docile farm fields he and his family farmed, just to the north.
The Jones home on East New Garden Road is bordered by the New Garden Elementary School to the south, by Hartefeld on the East, and Newark Road to the west. The home, a white farmhouse, faces to the south and immediately behind it, fields of corn tilt back and forth beneath a perfect blue sky. Although Pownall and Peg have moved to a nearby retirement village, they still help maintain the home and its immediate surroundings. Peg still uses an upstairs room for her quilting and still attempts to hold back the weeds from her gardens that border the yard. Pownall still mows the lawn and takes care of minor repairs.
Jones took me to a nearby barn and showed me the tractor his father had purchased in 1941. The tractor -- as well as its twin beside it -- looked brand new, the preserved beneficiary of a farmer who, for more than five decades, has placed a value on the care and proper running of his machines.
Something was wrong with the picture. It was no longer sepia in tone. Cornfields plush with ripening produce swallowed up the entirety of the landscape, but as I looked out over them, I saw that there were no farmers. I looked again at Jones, and this time, I saw another story.
When the young Jones was old enough to begin helping his father on the farm in 1935, there were 6.8 million family farms in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that number has fallen to two million. A little more than a century ago, nearly 40 percent of the nation's population lived and worked on farms. Now, about two percent do and, most alarmingly, more than 300 farmers leave their land every week, for good. The reasons are as simple as they are painful: food processing conglomerates and huge seed companies are dominating the farming industry, while at the same time, too many young people are less inclined to follow their family name into a career that demands seven-day work weeks for the uncertain promise that at the end of harvest time, there will be enough to sell in order to make a living; not to mention the necessity of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in farming technology.
The four Jones children -- three of whom live in the vicinity of where they grew up -- are the first generation who have not been farmers since the Pownalls first came from England in 1682.
I thanked Jones and Peg for their hospitality, and as I left the farm, a single thought stayed with me as I drove home: Who will take care of these tractors when Pownall Jones is no longer here?
* * * *
Part and parcel of our
continued self-assessment, we often measure our lives by the places
we have visited -- some of us, by the countries we have stepped foot
in -- and not by what we have done in the tiny space of our daily
life, believing that the broader the footprint, the better the life.
This assignment, ironically, arrived during a period of
self-reflection in my own life that has met at an intersection,
demanding answers. What is a full life, and have I truly lived one?
Is happiness better achieved in the act of leaping from continent to
continent like a person of the world, like a restless searcher, or is
it better attained through what I have learned in the small spaces I
have chosen to live my life in?
In between farming, helping to raise four children, Pownall and Peg Jones have managed to do their share of traveling, and this Fall, they will embark with their family on a trip to France. And yet, for the vast majority of his life, the world Pownall Jones has known has been a journey in the distance between the house he grew up in and the one in which he reared his family -- a little more than one mile apart.
Before a recent Board of Supervisors meeting at the township building, I looked at the sepia photographs of the township's history again. Beginning at the top photo, I imagined that a young boy on top of a bicycle rides past the church in the photo. He has just purchased the bike for five dollars -- a lot of money in those days -- but it is enough. This is the world he was born into and it is large enough and he by the end of his life, he will know every inch of it. He then rides through the next photograph, and then the next, in a journey through the small part of southern Chester County that he will know his entire life.
In the very last photograph, the young boy on the bike -- a boy named Pownall -- suddenly disappears off the photo's edge. I imagine him peddling furiously, turning again home.
To contact Staff
Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org