Preserving the past
Members of the New Garden Township Historical Commission....Dr. Peg Jones, Joan Bonnage Proscino, Elizabeth Norton, Charles Norton, Michael Leja, Brian Roberts, Ted Christie, and Pownall Jones. (Photo by Steven Hoffman)
On a Monday afternoon in January, a group of New Garden Township Historical Commission members gathered at the township building to take down the “Then and Now” showcase exhibit consisting of 22 pairs of photographs that illustrate how New Garden Township has changed in the past fifty years. The Historical Commission members spent part of the day planning for the 2017 exhibit, “New Garden’s Historic Houses of Worship.” This is just one of the many activities and initiatives that they will be working on in 2017. For the Historical Commission members, all volunteers, the work of protecting, preserving, and celebrating the township's history is a labor of love.
“My reason for doing this,” Dr. Peg Jones explained, “is that I care, from the center of my being, about being able to maintain the past. When an old house goes down, I weep.”
The New Garden Township Historical Commission originally formed in 1992, and while Jones wasn’t an original member of the commission, she came on just a few years later, and has been the driving force ever since. She served as the chair of the historical commission for 16 years before taking on the role of historian.
Today, the New Garden Township Historical Commission includes chairman Brian Roberts, secretary Charles Horton, treasurer Elizabeth Horton, members Ted Christie, David Hawk, Jones, Michael Leja, Lynn Sinclair, and associate members Marilyn Becker, Joan Bonnage Proscino, Pownall Jones, Chris Robinson, Carolyn Roland, and Mary Sproat. They all share a commitment to protecting New Garden Township's history.
The group has been described as a family by at least one official from Chester County.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie here,” Jones said of the Historical Commission members.
They are united by a purpose, fulfilling the mission of the Historical Commission as explained by the township’s adoption of the Historic Preservation Ordinance: to protect historic resources in New Garden Township; to identify all buildings and structures which are important to the culture, history, and tradition to the residents of the township; to establish a process by which proposed changes or demolition affecting historic resources are reviewed by both the Historical Commission and the Board of Supervisors; and to encourage the continued use and preservation of historic resources consistent with preserving the historic character of those resources and to facilitate their appropriate reuse. The projects, programs, and initiatives undertaken by the Historical Commission are varied.
“We have done so many things over the years,” Jones explained.
The project that Historical Commission members spent the most time on was protecting the future of the Landenberg Bridge. The bridge was originally built in 1899 and carried traffic across the east branch of the White Clay Creek for a century. Then, in the summer of 1999, PennDOT inspectors ordered the bridge closed after a routine inspection found structural deterioration.
The Historical Commission did not support a plan to replace the bridge with a modern, concrete bridge that would be built according to the one-size-fits-all guidelines of PennDOT. Historical Commission members and many local residents favored restoring the historic bridge over replacing it completely with a modern structure because of its historical characteristics. The Landenberg Bridge’s stone abutments were built in 1871 for the previous bridge at the site. The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. It earned the designation for its engineering significance—both for the cantilevered sidewalk and for being a Pratt pony truss bridge, an unusual style in this part of the state.
Jones explained that David Hawk, an Historical Commission member and an engineer, carefully documented the bridge and the Historical Commission formally petitioned PennDOT to restore the bridge, rather than replacing it.
Jones explained, “The task for the Historical Commission was to persuade the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors to accept responsibility for the maintenance of a restored bridge. Not only did we lobby, but we held a Landenberg Day attended by several thousand people.”
The Landenberg Day celebration focused a spotlight on the historic houses in the village of Landenberg, and promoted the importance of the textile milling industry. Shortly after the event, the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors agreed to maintain the bridge if it were restored.
The bridge underwent extensive renovations, including new concrete and steel underpinnings, but it looks very much like it did on the day that it was first put in place over the White Clay Creek. The width of the bridge increased by just six inches, and it will now serve the community’s needs for 100 years.
Once the bridge reopened to traffic, a Landenberg Bridge Day was staged to celebrate an important part of local history.
“It was great fun,” Jones explained.
Another project that the Historical Commission took on involved two cemeteries in the township that belong to the Friends Meeting. The New Garden Historical Commission compiled lists of people buried in both cemeteries. The Upper Cemetery—the larger of the two, with approximately 1,750 headstones, has been in use since the early eighteenth century when the original Friends Meeting was established. The Lower Cemetery, with approximately 200 headstones, was established in the mid-nineteenth century when the Friends in the Philadelphia area divided into two factions—Hicksite and Orthodox. In New Garden, most of the Quakers aligned with the Hicksites, and continued to occupy the original and larger Friends Meeting House. Although the older cemetery dates back to the early 1800s, members haven’t been able to find comprehensive records of burials prior to the 1830s, and only a half dozen burials prior to 1830 have been documented. The Historical Commission members were able to compile a list of burials in the Upper Cemetery that is alphabetized by surname. Software was used to help locate a particular burial location in the cemetery. Additionally, a list of burials alphabetized by surname and a list of burials in row order have been developed for the Lower Cemetery. The interactive map and the list of burials in row order may provide some clues for family relationships when burials are in the same vicinity. All the information was digitalized and is available on the Historical Commission's website.
The Historical Commission and New Garden Township worked collaboratively with the University of Delaware’s Center for Architectural Design on a two-year grant fellowship that allowed the architecture of 30 historically important houses to be studied and documented. New Garden Township has a long history, and Jones pointed out that the oldest house in the township was constructed around 1730, and two other homes were built around 1750. There were a number of houses built between 1750 and 1800. Jeroen van den Hurk, Ph.D., brought in students to document the architectural history of 30 old houses.
“We chose houses that were significant in some way,” Jones explained. “I researched all 30 families that owned the houses so that we would know something about them, too.”
Roberts said that the Historical Commission is well aware of the need to help protect and preserve the history of some of the historic houses in New Garden Township.
“I feel that there a lot of houses in the township that matter,” he explained.
The township has seen both residential and commercial growth during the last twenty or so years, and some of the older houses have certainly been lost during that time as a result. But the Historical Commission’s members have worked tirelessly to protect and preserve as much of the township’s history as possible. The Historical Commission surveyed the houses in the township which were built prior to 1950. From this group of houses, one hundred were identified as important historic resources, and the list was attached to a Preservation Ordinance that was adopted by the Board of Supervisors. One function of the ordinance is to prevent any house from being demolished by neglect, while also giving the Historical Commission the responsibility of counseling any homeowner about proposed changes to one of these houses.
Another project that the Historical Commission worked on was the preservation of the Lamborn House, a farmhouse located in the township park, which was originally built in 1816. The house sat vacant for more than two decades as local officials tried to decide a good use for it.
“We thought that it should not suffer demolition by neglect,” Jones said.
The township provided about $50,000 in funding to start the renovation process to make the Lamborn house livable. A new kitchen roof, new windows, and exterior stucco made the house secure from the weather. Then the Historical Commission members volunteered their own services to clean, scrape, and paint the house.
“We volunteered to renovate that house so that it could be rented,” Jones said, explaining that it took about 300 hours of the volunteers' time collectively to get the job done. Since the house is now able to be rented out, the township is now able to recoup some of the $50,000 investment.
The New Garden Historical Commission also initiated History Nights that celebrate various aspects of the township’s history—the stations of the Underground Railroad that were located in the township, for example, or the history of the Lamborn family who owned the property where the township park is situated. The Historical Commission also gives out Preservation Awards to people who make improvements to historic houses that are true to the home’s history.
“We appreciate their care for our historical resources,” Roberts said.
The Commission also planned and executed the 300th anniversary of the township in 2014. Historical Commission member Chris Robinson did the research necessary to establish the date when New Garden Township was first officially established—1714. The celebration to mark the township's 300th anniversary included a festival in the park, speeches by elected officials and local dignitaries, a recital of the township's history, tree planting, food and music.
Jones also wrote author Keith Craig’s book about the history of New Garden Township, “New Garden Township,” which was part of the Images of America series. Many of the photos used in the book came from the Historical Commission’s files. Jones helped write some of the information in the book, and Bonnage Proscino served as a copy editor. The book is sold at various township events, and is always available for purchase in the township building.
The Historical Commission also oversaw an effort to make the out-of-print book, “Once Upon a Time in New Garden Township” by Ann Hagerty available digitally. A digitalized version of the book is available on the Historical Commission's website.
The Historical Commission also had a New Garden Township map from 1863 restored and framed so that it can be displayed in the township building.
“It’s a typical map that would have been displayed in a one-room school,” Jones explained.
Joan Bonnage Proscino has taken the lead in maintaining the Historical Commission’s Facebook page. “The goal is to make anyone who saw it aware of our group and what we do in the township,” she explained. “We have a lot of new residents and one of the goals is to inform them about the history of the township.”
The Historical Commission members have no interest in resting on the group's past accomplishments.
“Our main concern for this year,” explained Roberts, “is the Lyceum Hall and its preservation.”
Lyceum Hall dates back to some time around 1850, and served as a community center, a school, and a station on the Underground Railroad during its history. The building was stabilized and refurbished and moved from its location along Route 41 to the park in 2012. It was sited on a grade that will allow for a strong foundation. This created space for a multipurpose room for park activities. The Historical Commission is awaiting an historical analysis before beginning to restore the building so that it can once again be a community center, Jones said.
“We plan to renovate it as a meeting room and small museum,” Jones explained.
The Historical Commission is always looking for people to join the effort, people who are interested in learning about and preserving the history of the township. The Historical Commission meets regularly on the first Wednesday of every month.
For more information about the New Garden Township Historical Commission, visit its Facebook page or www.newgarden.org/historical-commission.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.