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Chester County Press

How it used to be

04/13/2018 09:11AM ● By J. Chambless

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

My wife has this thing that she does whenever we drive together in southern Chester County past residential developments where rolling hills and fields and history used to reside, or where in the pursuit of progress, one remaining nugget of the community's past is left forlornly, like an old stone house.

On these drives, she has the ability to erase the scramble of modernity, and imagine these rolling hills and fields and history as they originally were, the way they look in the old photographs of the mills and the railroads and the schools and the churches and the people. She owes this vision, in large part, to a sense of idealism that allows her to turn back time and live in the snapshots that capture Landenberg in the sepia tones of its past.

In contrast, I can't see past last week. Believe me, I've looked at the exact same sights she has, and all I see are houses and gas stations and all of the sped-up machinations of Right Now, and any attempt I make to get into the Jedi-focus Zen of time travel is interrupted by the ring of a cell phone.

I am a victim of time blindness. I am tethered to the familiar and the known. I have never looked into a historic photograph of Landenberg at the turn of the last century and imagined myself to be the third logger from the left.

One afternoon this past winter, however, I began to see southern Chester County's past, in a way I had never seen before.

* * * *

There was an aerial map of New Garden Township, circa 1937, that rested on a table in the den of the home shared by Ed and Ruth Lafferty in Landenberg, as well as a scattering of black-and-white photographs that depicted life in the township nearly 80 years ago.

I was there as a guest of the Laffertys and Chris Robinson, a New Garden Township historian who wanted to learn more about the history of the Kaolin area, where Ed Lafferty has lived since he was born on November 24, 1924.

Throughout the course of a 90-minute conversation, the map was pointed to and the photos were picked up and examined, but soon, it became apparent that Ed Lafferty really didn't need the map or the photographs as reference points, because the entire journey of his 93-year-old life was still fresh and in color in his memory.

As it began to carve out its identity, those who settled in New Garden Township at the turn of the 20th century were both humbled and invested in the natural resources that dominated the terrain. From granite found within its the northern ridge, clay deposits under its southern plain, and water power coursing through its pitched hills, the towns of Toughkenamon, Kaolin and Landenberg became industrial centers. Mills, mines and quarries were still fairly prominent, but were slowly surrendering to mushroom farming, which was boosted by modern innovation, access by railroad to metropolitan centers and the influx of immigration.

The Laffertys were part of that wave of immigrants, having come to the United States from Ireland in the late 1800s.

Ed Lafferty was born in a home built in 1770 that still stands on property that is known now as St. Anthony in the Hills, that was purchased by auction by his father, Frank Lafferty, in 1910. Robinson showed Lafferty photographs of the home, and immediately, Lafferty pointed to windows and doors that he remembered as a child. He told the story of tossing a cat out of one window, “and darned if that cat didn't always land on its feet,” he said.

“I lived in that house until I was five years old,” Lafferty said, but said no more. It was the start of a pattern of story bits he offered throughout the visit that were dropped like pieces of bread along a trail. although Ruth filled in facts from time to time, it was up to us to go digging, not him.

“Why were you only there for the first few years of your life?” Robinson asked.

“Because my mother died,” Lafferty said.

Anna Lafferty died in 1928, and two years later, her husband Frank died, leaving the eight Lafferty children orphaned: Ed; his brothers Phil, Frank and Joe; and sisters Mary, Hanna, Christine and Rita. For the next several years, the children lived on a nearby farm owned by their grandparents. Lafferty attended elementary school at St. Patrick's in Kennett Square and graduated from Kennett High School in June 1943.

“I was sixteen years old and heard the news on the radio that Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor,” Lafferty said. “There was no family discussion as to what to do, but I knew that I had to do something.”

While his brother Joe served as a Marine in Guam and Iwo Jima, and his brother Frank served in the Army's First Division in Germany, a childhood hand injury prevented Lafferty from seeing battle service. One month later after he graduated from high school, he found himself in Mississippi as a watchman for the Military Police, where he oversaw the supervision of prisoners of war.

After 33 months of service, Lafferty attended Goldey Beacom College while working part-time as a grocery clerk and delivery boy in Kennett Square. He moved on to work on the paint line at the General Motors Plant, where he stayed for a year, before launching his own mushroom growing and compositing business, joining his brothers Phil and Frank, who had done the same. In fact, 72 years later, PA Lafferty and Sons, the business Phil began in 1946, is now run by Phil's sons Ed, Steve and Phil, Jr., and their mother Marjory still lives on the property.

“A lot of people used to ask me why I chose to grow mushrooms for a living. I used to tell them, 'It was because mushroom growers seemed to have the most money.' I used to shoot craps with a guy on Sundays, a mushroom farmer. Man, he would peel those twenty dollar bills out like nobody's business.”

Lafferty met his wife Ruth at a firehouse carnival in Hockessin, and they married in 1952. Together they had five children, four whom are still living: Edward, Jr., in North Carolina; Karen, in Newark; Colleen, in Kennett Square; and Lynn, who lives near Baltimore.

There is a running joke in New Garden Township that says if you toss a rock in any direction, you are liable to hit a Lafferty. The tendrils of the family tree are vast and thick, and they generously overlap with the history of the area.

Robinson pointed to the map. A family of Laffertys settled there, he said. They owned property there. The farm was located here. The Lafferty history is the history of the Kaolin community, Robinson said, and the conversation had given him a further appreciation of 20th-Century development in Kaolin, Landenberg, Toughkenamon and Avondale.

Ruth then opened up several photo albums, and it seemed as if the entirety of the Lafferty family's history tumbled out, dating back to Ed's childhood: nephews and cousins and children and grandchildren, weddings and military pictures and senior proms and Christmas mornings. Each photograph, many of them delicate to the touch and faded around the edges, told the story of how a family carved its legacy into the landscape of southern Chester County. As the photographs flipped before Ed Lafferty, something purely magical began to happen. It was as if he had managed to remove his 93-year-old body from his wheelchair, flex his tired arms and legs and leap headlong into the recorded document of his entire life.

He remembered swimming in the clay pits in the vicinity of Somerset Lake.

He remembered walking across the Broad Run trussle that made up part of the Landenberg Railroad. He remembered attending a sale barn on Thursday nights that served as the big social activity of the community.

He remembered converting discarded orange crates into little forts.

The photographs had done their job. They had invited Ed Lafferty to be young again, and he vanished sweetly into them.

* * * *

So back to this thing that my wife does.

I asked her how she is completely able to separate the present from the past, whether it be in a landscape or an archival photograph.

“It's because I feel like I've lived at the time some of those photographs were taken, so it's easy for me to imagine all of it,” she said. “You just need to see beyond what's there now and think of how it used to be.”

For several days after my conversation with Laffertys, the power of the photographs that I saw that helped take Ed Lafferty back to his past had not left me, and combined with my wife's encouraging words, every developed notch of New Garden Township I drove past became a test for me. For weeks, I came up short at every turn I took. Again, all I saw was what was there.

On Sunny Dell Road, across from the St. Rocco Parish, there is a boarded up and neglected stone house that still stands as a testament to the history of Landenberg. I am unaware of its origins, who may have lived there at one time and how it generally figures in the township's goals to help preserve it, in the same way that the efforts of the Historical Commission have helped to save several structures just like it.

On a particular morning this past February, I drove through a persistent snow on Sunny Dell Road that gave my view a snow globe effect. To my left, I saw that the cross at the very top of St. Rocco had disappeared from sight, but to my right, much to my surprise, a billow of fireplace smoke began to rise through a chimney at the abandoned stone house, and outside, a carriage and horses stood near a freshly-sawed cord of wood.

I pulled off to the side of the road, not understanding what I was seeing. The stone house suddenly turned into the warm sepia brown tones of an old photograph. A family lived inside of it. There were no more boards on its windows, and it was free to escape into for those who have the vision to do so.

The author wishes to thank Ed and Ruth Lafferty for the invitation to speak with them, Tom Lafferty of PA Lafferty and Sons for clarification of dates and facts, and Chris Robinson for the invitation to join him.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].