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Preserving a link to colonial history

02/20/2017 08:44AM ● Published by J. Chambless

The current home of James Matsen has a section on the left which likely dates to the 1720s.

Gallery: McKean property [6 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

In a township that's rich with colonial history, there is no surviving house with a more direct link to Thomas McKean, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, than the stone home at 1903 New London Road.

Sitting on 10 acres, a few hundred feet north of the historical marker for McKean, the home is certainly one of the township's oldest structures. Its present owner, James Matsen, is beginning to explore ways to preserve the home and land for future generations.

The Franklin Township Board of Supervisors heard from Matsen and his son, Steven, at their February meeting, and offered their preliminary support for early plans to convert the property into a distillery, winery or brewery that would allow the public to visit.

There are many hurdles to cross – one of of which is the dry status of Franklin Township – but for the Matsen family, the property's value goes beyond the price they could get for it.

Last week, James Matsen offered a look inside a home that, at its core, was certainly well known to the young Thomas McKean, who became a lawyer and statesman who was present at many of the crucial moments of the birth of America.

The house today is a hodgepodge of add-ons from its many owners, but one small section with the remains of a large fireplace is certainly original to the circa 1726 home. The central stairway, parlor and upstairs rooms, thought to have been built in 1836, have all the architectural hallmarks of early 1800s architecture. The interior doors have a distinctive color scheme that Matsen believes is original, particularly since it appears on an inside door to the cellar that has not been repainted. The pocket cupboards flanking the fireplace in the parlor are original. In an upstairs bedroom, revealed beneath the wallpaper that Matsen removed years ago, is the pencil signature of Amos Kimble, and his note that he “papered this room July 4, 1837.” Amos Kimble was one of the lead signers of the petition for the separation of Franklin Township from New London Township.

Matsen said his father bought the property in 1951 after it had housed a dairy farm for many years, using the large nearby barn. The farm was 86 acres in the 1950s, and has since been reduced to the 10 acres with a sweep of open land to the west, and a southern view that reaches Delaware.

Franklin Township historian Paul Lagasse has researched the property, and has reported on the most likely origin of the home at 1903 New London Road. Using what records have survived, his report dovetails with what is known of McKean, who kept no diary and stands today as one of the lesser-known, but still vital, figures of Colonial history.

According to Lagasse, the house sits on land that is known to have been acquired by Susannah McKean in the 1720s tax lists for New London Township, of which Franklin was then a part. Her land, which spanned what is now Route 896, was inherited by her sons, William and Thomas. William was the father of Thomas McKean.

Both 1903 and 1881 New London Road have been proposed as the site of McKean's birth, but the exact location has not been authenticated. The oldest portion of the Matsen farmhouse dates to the time at which Susannah McKean acquired her lands. It was standing at the time Thomas McKean was born in 1734.

He was not born into particularly exceptional circumstances. His mother died when he was 8, and he was sent to study and live at a boys' academy run by a Dr. Francis Alison in New London. McKean's father, William, was a tavern owner who spent most of his life running afoul of the law. Thomas dutifully assisted him after becoming a well-regarded lawyer.

Thomas was tall, something over six feet, and comments from his contemporaries indicated he was a forceful figure in person and in the courtroom. He studied law in the office of David Finney in New Castle, Del., in 1750, and was elected to the Delaware House of Assembly in 1762, where he served for the next 17 years. He and Caesar Rodney were among the delegates from nine colonies who met in New York City in 1765 to formally oppose the Stamp Act imposed by Britain on the colonies.

McKean was part of the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, and the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775. In July of 1776, he voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence, and later signed the document.

In 1777, he became the first chief Justice of Pennsylvania and served for 22 years. He served as president of Congress in 1781. In 1799, McKean was elected the second Governor of Pennsylvania under the new Constitution, and re-elected in 1802 and 1806. He died in 1817 at his home in Philadelphia.

The land along what is today Route 896 is clearly tied to McKean – a history that should be preserved and celebrated, according to both James Matsen and his son, Steven.

In Steven's recent letter to the Franklin Township Supervisors, he noted that, “If the property becomes a private residence, then one of Franklin Township's gems remains hidden from the public. If other uses are considered, and with the easy access and visibility from Route 896, I feel that this property could become a landmark, a source of local pride, and potentially known by people all across the tri-state area.”

Matsen indicates that he has some interest from a whiskey distillery “that would like to use the adjacent land to grow the wheat, rye and corn needed to produce the alcohol, similar to the way local cideries and vineyards are doing in neighboring townships.”

The home, Matsen suggested, could be used as a tasting room, or for catered events. The barn and nearby land could be used as a venue for larger groups and events.

With the sale of the property in its earliest stages, James Matsen said he and his family are open to ideas from the public, or from those interested in buying the land for some sort of re-use. But for now, he lives in the midst of a history stretching back to a time before the states were united, and he feels that legacy is richly deserving of preservation.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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