Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Red Rose Rent Day blooms again in Penn

09/28/2021 11:53AM ● By Steven Hoffman

The Red Rose Inn, dressed up beautifully after years of meticulous renovations both inside and outside, welcomed visitors for the first time in more than a decade on September 25 as Penn Township officially unveiled to the public the historically important building at 804 West Baltimore Pike. The township also revived Red Rose Rent Day—on the 290th anniversary of the day that this interesting petal of local lore began.

At 11 a.m. last Saturday morning, Penn Township Board of Supervisors chairperson Victor Mantegna stepped inside a tent that was set up next to the Red Rose Inn to welcome the dozens of attendees who had gathered to celebrate this unique piece of local history. The tent was filled to capacity and beyond, and Penn Township officials were elated that so many people turned out to see the results of a years-long effort to preserve the Red Rose Inn and transform it into a showcase of local history.

The speakers at the event—Penn Township Historical Commission vice chairperson Scott Steele, State Sen. Carolyn Comitta, and State Rep. John Lawrence—took turns outlining the fascinating history of the property and the importance of historical preservation.

Two themes quickly emerged. First, there is a long and storied history attached to the Red Rose Inn site; and second, the Penn Township officials involved in the preservation effort should be commended for their roles in preserving and restoring an important piece of township history. The Penn Township Board of Supervisors includes Mantegna, Laura Sperratore, Curtis Mason, Jay Ennis, and William Radar O’ Connell, while the Penn Township Historical Commission includes the chairperson Kathy Wandersee, vice chair Scott Steele, Larry Waltman, Raymond Mackey, Patty Moidel, Bob Davis, Peg Emerson, and Pat Horrocks. While other township officials played a part, too, these individuals volunteered untold hours preparing for this day by overseeing the effort to renovate the Red Rose Inn and restore it to its glory.

Ennis, in particular, was singled out for praise because he was the supervisor who spent the most time overseeing the renovations and restorations.

Comitta, who represents the 19th district in the State Senate, commended everyone who helped save the Red Rose Inn from a very uncertain future.

“Our region is home to a rich history,” she said. “That history is tied to the land, the buildings, and the structures that we pass every day. I commend Penn Township for being proactive in preserving history and returning to glory a landmark.”

State Rep. John Lawrence, a lifelong resident of southern Chester County who has his District Office in Penn Township, congratulated the township staff and officials for their hard work. Lawrence worked in collaboration with Andy Dinniman, who was then the State Senator in the 19th District, to secure about $800,000 in state funding for the extensive improvements to the busy intersection next to the inn.

In his speech, Mantegna explained that there were two purposes when the township purchased the Red Rose Inn in 2011. First, it allowed the township to make those much-needed improvements to the intersection at Route 796 and Baltimore Pike by redesigning the road. And then it also ensured that a treasured part of the township’s history would be preserved.

Even though the inn has been shuttered for more than a decade, many people in the community have special memories of the place—there have been many special dinners, anniversaries, and more celebrated there. One woman at the September 25 event shared that she’d been married at the Red Rose Inn. 

The inn did not have its floral name for most of its existence. In his presentation, Steele, a local historian, explained the origins of Red Rose Rent Day, and how the tradition was reborn in the 20th century, thanks to a local flower grower.

Steele said, “We are here to honor a covenant in a deed to this land on which we stand, a deed which dates to colonial times, and was first executed by the family of William Penn, the founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania. We are here to restart the annual tradition of paying the red rose rent first established in 1937 by the Conard-Pyle Company, the growers of the famous Star Rose brand roses, and the first owner to name this historic tavern and hotel, the Red Rose Inn.”

Steele explained that the Federal-style building was constructed in about 1808, and the Red Rose Rent Day tradition goes back even further—to 1731. That’s when John, Thomas, and Richard Penn, all sons of William Penn, granted 5,000 acres of the southern portion of Fagg’s Manor to William Penn IV, the grandson of the founder of Pennsylvania. 

“The terms of this early eighteenth-century land transfer included a unique requirement that future owners pay one red rose on the 24th day of June, yearly, if the same be demanded,” Steele explained.

William Penn IV then sold 5,000 acres in 1742 to William Allen, the son of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. Interestingly, Steele noted, William Allen sold land in the city of Philadelphia to the Founding Fathers on which they constructed Independence Hall.

Eventually, William Allen began to divide his Chester County land holding into smaller parcels, and in 1748 he sold 53 acres of the land to Samuel Cross, again stipulating the requirement to pay an annual rent of one red rose. Samuel Cross built a log cabin on the property and was the first to operate an inn on this corner of the intersection. 

Steele noted that Samuel Cross would go on to buy an additional 100 acres, giving him a total of about 150 acres of land bordering all four sides of what is today the crossroads in Jennersville.

Steele continued, “Contrary to previous versions of history, we can find no proof of a tavern or brick structure on the Red Rose Inn site in 1740. The first legal tavern at the crossroads was across Jennersville Road on the northeast side of the intersection, and was operated by Robert Sloan, who obtained a tavern license in 1761, serving food and drink to weary travelers in his log home.”

By 1797, the property was sold at auction to George Clymer, a major figure in the American Revolution. He was one of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

“In 1806,” Steele said, “George Clymer had the property surveyed and in 1807 began construction of the 11-room brick mansion we now call the Red Rose Inn. The new inn was purchased in 1808 by tavern owner and storekeeper John Dorat, who moved his store from the northeast side of the intersection to the northwest side of the crossroads. The first tavern license for what is today the Red Rose Inn was issued to John Dorat in 1825, almost 200 years ago. Over the next century, the beautiful brick inn and tavern would be called the Penn Cross Inn, the Jennersville Inn, and finally the Jennersville Hotel.”

Through the years, the building was under the management of at least 12 different innkeepers, Steele said. And then, in 1927, Conard-Pyle Star Rose nursery, which was based in neighboring London Grove Township, began to search for land in southern Chester County on which to expand their nursery business.

“Robert Pyle, president of Conard-Pyle, chose Penn Township because of the access to Baltimore Pike and an abundance of farm land and, in 1928, Conard-Pyle purchased the land on which we stand, including the Jennersville Hotel and 61 surrounding acres,” Steele said.

At a grand opening of the inn in June 1928, Robert Pyle was photographed presenting a red rose to J. Carroll Hayes, esquire, the chair of the Chester County Historical Society. The first formal Red Rose Rent Day celebration took place in 1937, when the rent was paid to Phillip Penn-Gaskell, a direct descendant of William Penn.

Over the next five decades, Star Roses would own or lease over 400 acres in Penn Township, with the millions of colorful roses growing in the fields described as “the biggest flower show from Maine to Florida.”

Steele explained how the Conard-Pyle Company made Red Rose Rent Day into a fun tradition from the 1930s to the 1990s.

“Red Rose Day was always a grand affair at the Inn,” he said. “Guests at the celebration included many local dignitaries. Conard-Pyle would use the event to annually introduce the new rose varieties.”

The Conard-Pyle Company eventually sold the Red Rose Inn to Ray and Janice Clanton in 1961, and they would make extensive renovations and then sell it to John and Mary Bussey in 1978. Lee and Richard Covatta purchased it in 1985. It had been vacant for a number of years when Penn Township purchased the building in 2011. Since then, the Board and Historical Commission have worked diligently to restore the historical character of the property. The reinstatement of Red Rose Rent Day and opening of the Inn for tours are the culmination of that effort. 

The organizers of this year’s Red Rose Rent Day did a wonderful job of bringing all the elements of the property’s history together.

One of the stars of the event was William Penn himself, as portrayed by Bob Gleason of the American Historical Theater in Philadelphia. Penn offered his own unique historical perspective, explaining how Pennsylvania came to be founded as a colony of England. Attendees were captivated by this presentation.

A highlight of the event was the revival of the payment of the red roses for the rent on the land. Cuyler Walker, a descendant of William Penn. accepted the payment on behalf of the Penn family.

Steve Hutton, a retired former president of Conard-Pyle Star Roses Nursery, handed Walker 26 roses, one for each year between 1985 and 2010 when the Red Rose Rent Day was not honored. Then, on behalf of Penn Township, Ennis presented Walker with 11 roses, one for each year between 2011 and 2021 when the payment was not made.

Referencing the late payment on the ‘rent,” Walker joked, “On behalf of the Penn family, I am gladly waiving the interest.”

Walker, who served as a township supervisor in East Marlborough for 18 years, commended the Penn Township officials for having the vision and commitment to save an important part of the township’s history.

“They don’t get enough credit, ever,” Walker said of the supervisors.

Once this year’s rose ceremony was complete, the public had a chance to tour the renovated Red Rose Inn from noon to 4 p.m. Members of the Penn Township Historical Commission offered guided tours to explain some of the artifacts on display.

One room was decorated with many different pieces of memorabilia from Sunset Park. Waltman, a member of the Historical Commission, shared many of these items from his family’s personal collection. Some of the biggest names in music performed at Sunset Park before it closed more than two decades ago.

Ennis was the township supervisor who worked closely with the township’s Historical Commission during the long period of renovations. He said that his favorite display in the building is the mural that occupies one wall of one of the rooms. The mural depicts the yearly payment of one red rose that was demanded as a token rental to the members of the Penn family. The artist was John Moll, who was born in Reading, Pa. in 1909 and died in 1999. He is known to have been at the Red Rose Inn at some point in 1968. The mural is an impressive display for the township to have.

Anyone who is interested in seeing the interior of the renovated and restored Red Rose Inn won’t have to wait for the next Red Rose Rent Day celebration. Steele said that the Penn Township Historical Commission will be planning open houses of the Red Rose Inn regularly. Information about when these open houses will take place will be posted on the township’s website.