The Downingtown Log House: More than 300 years and counting
By J. Chambless
An earlier photo of the Log House, circa 1910. (Photo from the Downingtown Area Historical Society)
By NATALIE SMITH
Ginny Pierce has very fond Christmas
memories of the Downingtown Log House.
Pierce, who has lived all but six months of her life in the borough, recalled the Yuletide tradition of Santa Claus sitting on an overstuffed chair in front of the historic building. Children – including Ginny herself – would clamber onto his lap and confide to him what they wanted for Christmas. In case you missed his appearance, Pierce said, “There was a mailbox out front where you could put your letters to Santa.”
But that holiday turn in the 1940s is just one of the ways area residents’ lives have been interlaced with the Log House. After all, it’s been a part of the Downingtown landscape for more than 300 years.
A source of pride for many in the borough, the Log House on Lancaster Avenue has a history that can be traced to circa the early 1700s, although no one is sure of its builder. The Log House has passed through several different owners over the years, most notably Thomas Moore, who purchased the property in 1713, and later Thomas Downing. Moore brought the first industry to town. He built a two-story water corn mill across from the Log House in 1716.
“It was huge,” said Carol Grigson, archivist for the Downingtown Area Historical Society. “There were only three [grist mills] in all of Chester County, and this was the fourth.
“It has always amazed me that Moore had enough knowledge to look at the Brandywine Creek, realize the slight elevation, and realize that it floods in the spring in just the right way, so that you could just get enough force to turn water wheels,” she said. Business was booming in the early 18th century, so the Log House started to play a larger role.
The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike was developing, and the Log House – not “cabin” because it has more than one floor – was the last stop on the road before “the wilderness,” according to Grigson. The location made it a logical stopping point for weary, westward-bound travelers -- a situation of which Moore was clever enough to take advantage.
As proof of Moore’s business acumen, the Downingtown Borough Historic Commission, which is responsible for overseeing the care and promotion of the Log House, has a copy of a Moore’s tavern license. It is believed the structure also served as a trading post, and perhaps a place where a few guests might spend the night.
In 1739, Thomas Downing purchased the land where the Log House stood, Grigson said. Downing was a man of means and vision. “Downing came and he had money and the business knowledge” to develop many dealings in the area. His influence was apparent; after being known for many years as Milltown, people started referring to it as “Downing’s Town.”
“Members of the Downing family lived in the Log House for some of the 1700s, but pretty much for the 1800s [and early 1900s] it became a rental property,” Grigson said. “The last Downing who was born there was William Worrall Downing, who ended up building a very big stone house next to the Log House that’s no longer there.”
As the Log House passed from tenant to tenant, the Boggs family was among the last to have lived there in the early 1900s. In 1937, the Log House and an adjacent property were left to Downingtown Borough in the will of Thomas W. Downing. Following his death in 1940, the borough took possession.
“After the borough got it, [officials] said, ‘OK, what do we do with it?’ They had it during World War II and it needed work,” said Grigson, referencing information she found in newspaper clippings of the day. “The borough wasn't going to put anything into it, because they had the war effort. There were editorials [posing the question], ‘What should we do with this thing? Maybe we should just give it back or tear it down.' There wasn't a lot of feeling for history at that point.”
Funds were eventually obtained to complete the restoration in 1947, and three years later, the historic structure became headquarters for the Downingtown Chamber of Commerce. That lasted until 1988.
But it was time and location that eventually got the best of the Log House in the 1980s. Its closeness to a car wash and to Lancaster Avenue made for a destructive combination of moisture and road issues. The Log House was deteriorating quickly, and it was determined that it needed to be moved and restored.
Funding spearheaded by the Downingtown Area Historical Society and concerned residents was joined by money from the borough to pay for the renovation and relocation, 70 feet away. Historical building contractors 18th Century Restorations, of Coventryville, South Coventry, were tapped to take the Log House back three centuries. The work was completed in 1989 and the Log House was rededicated in 1990.
Ginny Pierce, whose childhood experiences with the Log House also include attending her Girl Scout meetings there (“We learned how to sew buttons on fabric. And darn socks!”), is a member of the borough's Historic Commission and has been involved in some capacity with the group for nearly 20 years.
As part of the commission, Pierce is joined by three others and a member of Borough Council. They are entrusted with managing the upkeep and care of the Log House, often coordinating with the Public Works and Parks and Rec departments. The commission also does fundraisers to go toward Log House expenses, most notably the Rubber Duck Race every summer during Good Neighbor Day, a day-long borough celebration.
Money in the borough operating budget is dedicated to outdoor building maintenance, said Downingtown Director of Public Works Jack Law.
“Every three to five years, we do the whitewash on the outside the way they would, to preserve the building back on the day,” Law said. The whitewash is made primarily of limestone, which protects the wood from insects and decay. The cedar-shingled roof has also been replaced. But Law said every repair made must be done with care, ensuring it’s keeping in character with the 18th-century building.
“We built the [outside] steps, and although we used pressure-treated lumber, we didn’t stain them, we didn’t paint them,” he said. A few concessions to modern life were made: the Log House is wired for electricity; it has running water for a bathroom in the basement, heaters and a fire alarm.
Law’s favorite part of the Log House is the trading window. It’s believed that traders would come to the back of the house and the occupants would trade for furs or other goods through an approximately yard-wide horizontal window. “Sort of like an early McDonald’s,” Law said with a laugh.
In maintaining the house, the adjacent Brandywine Creek is always a concern, Pierce said, because it’s not uncommon for it to flood its banks. A wall next to the stairs in the Log House basement bears witness to that; marked are the heights the invading water reached, along with the dates. Hurricane Floyd broke all records on Sept. 16, 1999, with the water reaching 7 feet, 2 ¼ inches. But lessons were learned. As far as basement storage goes, “we’ve thrown everything out that could possibly float,” she said. One of the casualties? A very waterlogged, overstuffed chair that Pierce recognized as the special seat that Santa used to occupy.
Pierce, who with her husband, Robert, raised a family of four in Downingtown, believes it’s important for the area’s children to learn about the piece of history in their own back yards. For many years, the fifth grade of East Ward Elementary School has been welcomed each May for a Field Day and their Colonial Days, she said.
Pierce said she’s very grateful that nearly 30 years ago, the decision was ultimately made to move and repair the Log House.
“I give much credit to the longtime and past members of the Downingtown Area Historical Society for raising the funds to have the house restored and moved and put on a basement raising it above the street level,” Pierce said, “as well the borough and all the private donors who saw fit to donate toward the restoration. Without that project, I do not think the house would be standing today. It would have been less costly to tear it down. Thankfully, it was restored.”
The Log House is a source of fascination for many. One recent afternoon, the open door was enough to draw in curious passers-by. They go by all the time, they told Ginny Pierce, and always wondered what it was like inside. Pierce was happy they stopped by, but told them visiting hours were the first Sunday of the month. “Please come back,” she told them.
The Log House is open to visitors the first Sunday of the month, from April through November. Santa Claus makes an appearance from 1 to 4 p.m. the first Saturday of December. More information is available at www.downingtown.org.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com.