Saving 'the nucleus' of our local history
By J. Chambless
Members of the White Clay Creek Preserve are partnering with other local groups in the formation of a commission to preserve and protect the historic John Evans House in Landenberg. Pictured from left to right are Scotty Crowder, David Hawk, Jim Martin, Susan Moon, Martin Wells and John Starzmann.
By Richard L. Gaw
“The people have a right to clean air, pure water and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all of the people.”
The Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, Section 27
In the fashion of the many who now surround it with empathy, care and vision for its survival, the story of the John Evans House in the White Cay Creek Preserve deserves an introduction, a proper embrace, so this article begins in the early 1700s, when a Welsh Baptist named John Evans sought a new life in the New World that would soon be called America, in order to escape religious persecution.
With his brother beside him, Welsh sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, ventured to the Colony of Pennsylvania, and bought 400 acres of land owned by William Penn, who had originally purchased the land from Lenni Lenapes in 1683.
After a brief return to Wales, the Evans brothers returned to America on a ship filled with their families and essential supplies, and in 1715, they arrived at the point of their purchase: a quiet valley met by the confluence of the east and Middle branches of the White Clay Creek. It was there that Evans constructed a simple, two-story home in the style of Georgian architecture, and slowly, both his home and the beginnings of a young republic grew up around him.
Later in the 18th century, the house added a center section dining room and fireplace made of granite fieldstone, three additional bedrooms upstairs, and a story-and-a-half kitchen that had its own fireplace.
The Evans' family mark on the history of Landenberg was apparent from the time the family first settled there. John Evans was instrumental in the construction of the nearby London Tract Meeting House (c. 1729) and he also owned and operated a mill in the area. Evans' grandson, also named John, served on the Pa. State Supreme Court during the Revolutionary War. When the younger Evans died, he left the property to his brother Evan, who served as a county militia commander during the 1777 Battle of the Brandywine.
Over the course of the next two centuries, the Evans House served as the home to a succession of owners, and survived not only harsh winters but efforts then made by the DuPont Company to dam the White Clay and flood the entire valley – including historical structures like the Evans House – in order to service water from a massive reservoir to a textile plant the chemical giant wanted to build nearby. Vehement opposition to the proposed dam was led by a cavalry of environmentalists and historians, and in 1982, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and then Delaware Senator Joe Biden sponsored legislation that led to the formation of the White Clay Creek Preserve, legislation that protected 1,255 acres in Pennsylvania and another 3,300 acres in Delaware.
While the Evans House survived the proposed onslaught of a corporate giant, it could not survive the slow decay of neglect, nor the act of arson. Purchased by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the home was severely damaged by a fire on Sept. 20, 2017 that gutted its interior and burned most of its exterior fully to the ground.
For the past two years, a structure that is reportedly the oldest house in the area now sits forlornly on Sharpless Road along the White Clay Creek Preserve trail route, a red brick-and-mortar shell of its former self. The remnants of the fire form piles of ashen neglect at its foundation, and fertile and green growth sprout from its foundation.
In May of this year, the DCNR sent word that it was in the beginning stages of plans that would eventually demolish the structure, and permanently wipe it off the face of local history. As fortune would have it, however, these plans have run head-long into the efforts of several guardians of local history, who are engaging in an all-in campaign to preserve this crumbling edifice and add new chapters to its 300-year-old life.
“The house figures prominently in the migration patterns of the area, specifically the Welsh Baptist community that migrated here prior to 1700,” said Susan Moon of LTHC. “John Evans was one of the first people to acquire land in this area -- an important piece of the London Tract, which is at the confluence of both branches of the White Clay Creek, at a bend in the creek which was advantageous for mill development.
“We believe that there is a position of strength here that the Evans family helped create. They helped build a lot of lasting structures that we still see today. As more experts come in, we will be able to add to the story.”
The origins that initiated efforts to save the historic home date back to 2009, when DCNR first announced that they had placed the John Evans House on its demolition list. Soon after the start of the Friends of the White Clay Creek in 2012, several of its members conducted a tour of the house with DCNR representatives, appealing to the DCNR to support the group’s initiative to save it.
The DCNR did not budge. It’s a matter of financial priorities on behalf of the Commonwealth, said LTHC member Jim Martin.
“The standard response in the letters we have received from the DCNR was that they have thousands of buildings across the tens of thousands of acres that they have in our parks, and that they can’t take the time to maintain them,” he said. “Dinniman’s office has informed us that in the past ten years, there has been severe realignment in the Pennsylvania budget, and a lot of what has been dedicated to pay for that realignment came out of DCNR’s funds, and has yet to be replaced.”
This May, local resident John Starzmann invited Karen Marshall, the Heritage Preservation Coordinator of the Chester County Planning Commission, to meet with the group to discuss ways to keep the John Evans House from meeting the wrecker’s ball, and potentially combine forces with other environmental and historical agencies.
“Karen suggested that we form a committee, and Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve London Tract Historical Committee [LTHC] was formed right then and there,” Moon said. “Since then, she has been providing technical assistance, and it’s been amazing to have her with us. She has been very positive and keeps us on track.”
Soon, a local Who’s Who of environmental and historical agencies joined with the LTHC: the New Garden Township Historical Commission, the White Clay Watershed Association, the White Clay Creek Wild and Scenic River Program, London Britain Township and Chester County Planning Commission.
On May 29, Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve sent a letter to State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, encouraging his office to “use its powers to halt DCNR's demolition plan,” and allow committee additional time to study the site and secure funding in order to preserve it.
“The Historical Committee envisions the future of the John Evans House as a fully documented and stabilized ruin, with interpretive panels that will allow current and future generations to continue to enjoy and to interpret the significance of this structure and its place in migration patterns and industry of the time,” the letter read. “It is the Historical Committee's aim to secure the site with fencing and security cameras as soon as possible, and begin the process of serious study of the history, architecture and archaeology” of the house.
On June 10, Sen. Dinniman wrote a letter to The Hon. Cindy Adams Dunn at the DCNR, expressing his concern about the agency's demolition plans, and requesting a site visit meeting with DCNR officials and members of the LTHC and elected officials.
“Since it has become known that the Department has plans to demolish this structure, a significant number of my constituents have contacted me with strong opposition to the proposed removal of this historic resource,” Dinniman's letter read. “Simply put, many in my district are concerned that the demolition of this historic property will forever remove the potential opportunity for future generations to witness a direct link to our nation's founding.”
Soon after it received Dinniman’s letter, the DCNR made it known that it had removed the John Evans House from its demolition list, until after it conducts a site visit of the property and working session with Dinniman, members of the LTHC and other concerned groups. The site visit will occur this fall.
“I’m of the opinion that if you have a historic structure and it shows that some people really care about it and are doing all they can to conserve it, then not too many people will bother it,” said Scotty Crowder, chairman of Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve. “But if you have structure that is being neglected, it’s an invitation to throw a rock at it, or steal a piece of wood off of it. We all agreed that we had to do something.”
“We want to ask the DCNR whether or not we can move forward in a new spirit of preservation,” Moon said. “The legislation that created the White Clay Creek Preserve includes statements about historic resources. The official letter from DuPont selling this land mentions historic resources. It is part of the directive of the Preserve’s managers to preserve historic resources.”
While the LTHC prepares for the site visit, it has gathered additional community support. On August 5, local residents joined with members of the LTHC, London Britain elected officials and the New Garden Township Historic Commission at the site of the house, as part of the “This Place Matters Program,” an initiative developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that encourages people to celebrate the places that are meaningful to them and to their communities.
From the time it began seven years ago, the Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve have looked at the John Evans House as a key component of the London Tract historical district, which also includes the nearby meeting house, an adjacent cemetery and the remaining remnants of a historic mill.
“The John Evans House, the London Tract Meeting House, the cemetery and the mill form the entire nucleus of the history of this preserve and this whole community,” said LTHC’s Martin Wells, who is also a member of the London Britain Township Historic Commission. “We all feel that it’s essential to save every component of that history.”
In order to assure absolute and final protection of the John Evans House and the entire historic district, every one of these structures needs to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. For the LTHC, achieving that distinction will involve a four-step action plan, involving the completion of surveys and grant applications and receiving approvals from state commissions.
If the LTHC is able to hurdle all of these steps and eventually obtain funding, Moon said that the group’s vision for the John Evans House will be to stabilize the structure, protect it from potential human damage with fencing and windows, and include interpretive signage, so that visitors will get an opportunity to see the real “bones” of the house when it was originally built.
“I believe there is a place for ruins in our landscape, even ones that are degrading in front of our eyes,” she said. “I am a student of architecture, and when I look at that building, I see so much more than I do with a finished structure. It reveals the building’s technology, and it helps people place themselves in time. An old building need not be perfectly painted to be a valuable historic resource."
A volunteer service organization, Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve sponsors educational programs, organizes clean-ups, coordinates volunteer park maintenance events and seeks funding that help pay for improvements in the London Tract historical village. To learn more, visit www.FriendsofPaWCCP.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.
The author wishes to thank Shaun Mullen for his article “This Old House: It’s Having a 300th Birthday, But There Won’t Be a Celebration,” which helped in providing additional historical facts that contributed to this article.