Kimberton Village

East Pikeland Twp, Chester County, PA

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The Kimberton Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]

The Kimberton Historic District includes sixty-two buildings (including intrusions) and two structures along three eighteenth and nineteenth century roadways that helped to make the village a local education, market, and transportation center. The village is also locally significant for its namesake, Emmor Kimber, an enterprising educator who arrived here in 1817 and promptly established himself as the community's leading citizen and a prominent county figure. Kimberton's architecture reflects the village's two phases of growth. At the district's western end, around an early crossroads (now Kimberton and Hare's Hill roads), stand eighteenth and early nineteenth century stone buildings that are representative of the eighteenth century vernacular architecture of this part of Chester County. The opposite end of the district reflects the development of building lots around the post-Civil War railroad station. The regular plan and siting of houses in this section of the district are distinctive in comparison to other historic villages in northern Chester County.

Emmor Kimber's arrival in the unnamed village in 1817 proved significant. The Quaker entrepreneur acquired three of the crossroads properties, including the 1787 stone house with its later (before 1812) lateral addition. He added to it the next year, in 1818, a three-bay, thirty-foot-wide northern extension, and opened the twenty-room building as the French Creek Boarding School for Girls. Ever since the village's name has been associated with private school education. Although a Quaker by faith, Kimber opened his school to children of all denominations, and orphans or students from distant parts were admitted at any time without previous application. The curriculum evolved over the years to include reading, writing, English grammar, history, geography, arithmetic, astronomy, botany, chemistry, and sewing. He also offered, for an extra five-dollar fee, courses in drawing, oil and watercolor painting, French, Greek, and Latin. Unlike many schools of that era, Kimber's school had no petty rules of discipline or dress restrictions. Most schools at the time emphasized rote memory and strict discipline, often enforced with corporal punishment, but at Kimber's school, the Golden Rule governed behavior; hours were regular; methods were systematic, and within those limits personal freedom and curiosity were encouraged. Students were free to enjoy the gardens and groves surrounding the school, and botanical classes gathered rare plants near French Creek, some of which were catalogued by William Darlington in his 1826 Cestrica. Students swam in the nearby millrace, using the bath house that Kimber had built for them. As a model of progressive education for its time, the boarding school drew young scholars from a wide geographical area, as distant as the West Indies. The school closed in 1849 two years before Kimber's death. In 1852, Kimber's daughter, Abigail Kimber, sold the building, but it was later returned to academic use. Although the former boarding school is now a multiple-family residence, private education still flourishes at Kimberton Farm School, two-thirds of a mile to the north of the district.

Innovative educator though he may have been, Emmor Kimber was more than simply a Quaker schoolmaster. He was an energetic entrepreneur and the founding father of the village that would assume his name. In addition to the boarding school, Kimber initially owned the former Chrisman Mill, the inn, a shoemaker's shop, a tailor's shop, and a blacksmith shop. He rented the latter three operations to "men without families, and good workmen." (Village Record, 23 January 1824.) In addition he managed his own farm and limestone quarry and kiln and was a partner in a Philadelphia bookstore. He authored several books and dabbled in inventions obtaining a patent for an improvement of locomotive engines. Also, as a good Quaker, he worked for the abolition of slavery and served as an "agent" on the underground railroad. In a gesture of apparent religious conviction and civic responsibility, Kimber in December 1818 deeded land on a hillock southwest of the school for a Quaker meetinghouse. Built two years later, the simple gable-roof stone building became known as the Kimberton Friends Meeting. Kimber served as the meeting's clerk, a position most closely analogous to minister in other Protestant sects. (In 1876, the meetinghouse was acquired and altered by the Centennial Evangelical Lutheran Church, which it remains today.) By 1820, when the tenant house at the northeast corner of Kimber and Hare's Hill roads became the Boarding School Inn, Kimber converted the old Black Bear Tavern to a general merchandise store, which it remained into the mid-twentieth century. In the same year Kimber became the local postmaster, and since he owned virtually every important building at the crossroads, including the general store in which the post office was located, it is understandable why the village was officially named Kimberton.

Kimber's acquisition of the mill and tavern, and his subsequent conversion of the tavern to a store, illustrates the central role of commerce in the village. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, taverns played important roles as way stations for farmers traveling to and from market and as local centers for social and business intercourse. The Black Bear Tavern at the northwest corner of Kimberton and Hare's Hill roads was no exception. The fact that Emmor Kimber did not alter it to a general store until after the Boarding School Inn (built before 1812, later known as the Kimberton Hotel and now the Kimberton County House) had opened on the opposite side of Hare's Hill Road indicated the need for such an institution in an agrarian village. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the economy had moved beyond the bartering stage to a market economy capable of providing profits for storekeepers like Kimber. The clientele were local farmers, many of whom also patronized the old Chrisman Mill on the opposite corner of Kimberton and Hare's Hill roads.

Mills were central to pre-industrial agriculture; they processed grains into a marketable commodity. The Chrisman Mill dates from 1796, but other nearby mills predated it by at least two decades. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, Royal Spring, a spring-fed stream that runs through Kimberton, served at least three eighteenth century mills in the area. One stood next to a pond on Kimberton Road outside of the district's western boundary; another (now known as Prizer's Mill) stood on Mill Road outside of the district's northern boundary; the third was the Chrisman Mill. Another mill stood on Pickering Creek about three miles from the Kimberton and Hare's Hill roads intersection and one was sited along French Creek about a mile-and-a-half east of the intersection. The types and capacity of the latter two mills are not known, but because these five mills were the only mills within less than a day's drive from surrounding farms, they drew farmers to Kimberton and helped to create a market for the enterprising Kimber. The Chrisman Mill was especially well located. By standing at the foot of the rise at the district's southern end, it enjoyed a good fall of water for its wheel, and by sharing the intersection after 1820 with the boarding school, inn, and general store, and by being only a few hundred feet west of the still-extant blacksmith shop on Kimberton Road, it enabled clients to take care of other errands and needs while their grain was being milled. This market pattern of mill, store, and tavern serving fundamentally local needs was well established by 1820 and seems not to have changed much for the next half-century.

In addition to the crossroads tavern and the three mills on Royal Spring, Kimberton by 1824 had a blacksmith shop, a saddler and harness-maker, a shoemaker's shop, and a tailor's establishment to serve the farmer's needs. Taking further advantage of his location and apparently growing number of customers, Kimber also by 1824 was operating for fee a clover machine for separating clover seed from chaff. (It was not his invention; he was using it under patent rights from Thomas Burrall of Geneva, New York.) This diverse collection of shops and activities is testimony to the village's commercial activity after Kimber's arrival and indicates that the village's economy had moved beyond a barter and exchange economy. By 1833, even light manufacturing was introduced in the village when two local men purchased the right to make and use a newly patented threshing machine.

As noted earlier, the arrival of the Pickering Valley Railroad in 1871 shifted economic activity to the district's eastern end and greatly expanded farmers' markets. The fertile farms surrounding Kimberton helped to make that village's station the busiest on the line. Kimberton was the only station staffed with an agent, and in 1882 business was so good that an assistant agent was assigned to it. By 1884, the Kimberton Station was handling nearly 9‑1/2 tons of freight a week, more than any other Pickering Valley station. Much of that freight was milk, which by the spring of 1895 rose to an average daily shipment of 2735 quarts, the largest quantity of any of the railroad's depots. The enterprises at the old crossroads seem not to have suffered, however. The general store continued in business as did the mill and hotel. The mill was put out of business in the twentieth century by larger, centralized, steam and electric-powered operations, not by a geographic shift in the village's economic activity. The old hotel continues today as a restaurant, one of its formerly major functions. Meanwhile commerce increased to provide business for the brick store at the railroad crossing as well as for the old general store at the crossroads. The very existence of other business concerns, in particular the milk receiving station and the coal chutes between the east side of Prizer Road and the railroad tracks, were tied directly to the railroad. Only remnants of the coal chutes remain, but the frame milk station, though vacant, still stands. Dairy farmers brought their milk to the milk receiving station, where it was tested for cream content, possibly pasteurized (by the end of the nineteenth century), and stored until the train arrived. The northern half of the building was an ice house which provided refrigeration for the milk. The ice was sent out from Phoenixville by train. Milk was the main commodity shipped from Kimberton and helped to make it the busiest station with the greatest volume of traffic on the line. The coal chutes were built shortly after the railroad's inauguration. There were two sets of chutes, one being on Prizer Road and operated in conjunction with the feed store (which is now the house beside the c.1960 grocery store) and the other set being behind the brick store. The first set was built by Dutton Madden, a speculator from central Pennsylvania, but which he sold in 1875. Twenty years later, A.E.Yeager, operator of the brick store, consolidated his chutes with those of Madden's successor, John Francis, and the combined set remained in use until shortly after World War II. Other businesses, such as the carriage works and window frame factory, simply exploited their locations near the new transportation center. Whereas farmers once went to the mill on occasion, after 1871, they went to the receiving station on a nearly daily basis, making the east end of the village a desirable business location.

Because it was located between Phoenixville on the Schuylkill River and the popular resort of Yellow Springs ( See; Chester Springs) and along a route to Lancaster, Kimberton became an important early 19th century stagecoach station. As early as 1818, a regularly scheduled stagecoach ran three days a week between Philadelphia and Kimber's boarding school. By the 1820's Kimberton served as a daily stop for three different lines running between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Potts town, and Yellow Springs. The hotel (earlier called the Boarding School Inn) at the northeast corner of Kimberton and Hare's Hill roads served as the way station. With the opening of the nearby Schuylkill Canal and the construction of the Philadelphia and Reading and the Pennsylvania Railroads, the stagecoach business declined during the 1840's. Feeder stages between Phoenixville and Yellow Springs, however, continued until the early 1870's. Caught in a backwater of sorts, not served directly by either a canal or a railroad during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Kimberton grew slowly until the Pickering Valley Railroad was built in 1871. A couple of single-pile farmhouses were built along Hare's Hill Road, a parsonage was put up for St. Peter's Lutheran Church, and a miller's house was erected near Prizer's Mill (outside of the district). All of them stand today as evidence of the village's mid-century gradual growth.

The Pickering Valley Railroad was organized in Chester Springs in early 1869, but because of disagreement over its route, construction was not begun until June, 1870. From its inception, the Pickering Valley line was a ward of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. The P and R subscribed three-fifths of the stock, guaranteed bonds for all borrowed money, equipped and ran the road, and once it opened in September, 1871, leased the line for ninety-nine years. The Pickering Valley Railroad was not a large line; it ran only about fourteen miles from Byers, near Eagle, to Phoenixville. Those fourteen miles of rail, however, ran through some of northern Chester County's most prolific agricultural land, and the connection in Phoenixville with the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad opened a vast new market for the area's produce. Completion of the railroad in the fall of 1871 stimulated a boomlet in little Kimberton. West Chester's Daily Local News noted it in 1885:

Probably no little town in the country has grown more in the last ten years than Kimberton. In addition to the store, tavern, mill, blacksmith shop and the few dwellings of former times, there are now a depot, warehouse and a dozen or more fine brick houses. This is what a railroad does for a place. (Daily local News, 27 August 1885.)

The newspaper actually understated the situation. It failed to mention the new store opposite the station, the coal chutes beside the station, the milk receiving station, the feed store, the window sash factory, the machine shop behind the present grange hall, or the village sidewalk. All of these elements were tied directly to the railroad, including the sidewalk, which extended from the hotel at the old crossroads to the railroad station. The economic depression following the Panic of 1893 forced the Pickering Valley Railroad to make cuts in salaries and personnel. This pattern of periodic cutbacks and threats of loss of service continued for the next half-century. The growing popularity of the automobile in the early twentieth century worsened conditions, until passenger service was discontinued in 1934. Freight service continued through World War II, but in 1948, it too was ended. The line between Kimberton and Phoenixville remained in sporadic use for some time thereafter, and in 1968, a group of railroad enthusiasts ran a steam excursion train between the two communities, but in the early 1970's, the project was abandoned and the rails were torn up.

An unreported aspect of the railroad story was the effect of the real estate speculation that the railroad's construction encouraged. Apparently anticipating land values to escalate with the railroad's arrival, Dutton Madden, of , Cumberland County, acquired sixty-three acres near the station and divided much of the tract along Kimberton and Prizer roads into building lots. After selling his coal chutes in 1875 and most of the undeveloped lots, he left the area a year later. Although houses were not started on Madden's former lots until the 1880's, Madden was responsible for the plan and subsequent siting of houses in the eastern end of Kimberton. His plan gives that part of the village an ordered, town-like appearance that sets it apart from other nearby villages that evolved more slowly with irregularly shaped lots and more randomly sited dwellings. Although the integrity of a minority of Kimberton's buildings suffers somewhat from a later application of stucco, nearly all of the original elements (porches, cornices, window surrounds, and fenestration) survive on all of the buildings. In addition, since no buildings in the district have been demolished over the past one hundred and fifty years, the village as a whole possesses excellent integrity. A few other local villages, such as Coventryville and Chester Springs, enjoy similarly excellent integrity, but none have more architectural integrity and most have less.

Kimberton's town-like appearance is enhanced by its great number of brick houses, more than are found in other Chester County villages of similar size. Brick probably was popular in Kimberton because by the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was a relatively cheap building material easily accessible from nearby Phoenixville via the new railroad. In any regard, the brick buildings 'at the eastern end of the district contrast with the local stone construction at the western end to clearly illustrate the village's two phases of growth, the pre-industrial era before the Civil War and the railroad age between 1871 and c. 1920. (The third phase, tied to the automobile, took place after c. 1920 outside of the historic district.)

The village's stone architecture, in particular the four buildings at the intersection of Kimberton and Hare's Hill roads, is characteristic of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Chester County architecture. Built in what could be called a colonial vernacular style, these buildings possess Georgian proportions and symmetry but virtually no Georgian architectural details. One of the few such details, Federal rather than Georgian, is the brick blind arch above the north gable window of the former Kimberton Boarding School at the intersection's southwest corner. More common is the use of local rubble and random ashlar and such folk elements as the 1796 datestone of the Chrisman Mill or the pent roof of the former Black Bear Tavern (1768 at the northwest corner) which illustrate the employment of traditional building practices little affected by high style tastes. By contrast, the brick architecture near the railroad station shows the influence of historical revival styles that came into vogue after the 1830's. Little different in scale or even proportions from the earlier vernacular buildings, these later buildings exhibit architectural details drawn primarily from three architectural styles: Gothic Revival, the Italianate, and the late nineteenth century Queen Anne. Yet in most cases, the handling of these details is unsophisticated or restrained. The brick double house on the north side of Kimberton Road west of Prizer Road, for example, uses segmental-arch window heads and a bracketed cornice, which are minimal details for constituting an Italianate facade. (The pent roof above the ground floor is a naive recent attempt to add a colonial revival touch to the front.) The brick house on Prizer Road at the north end of the district, on the other hand, is more eclectic. Its proportions are those of an earlier farmhouse, essentially Georgian; the window hoods are vaguely Italianate; the front porch and side bay window could be either Italianate or Gothic, while the pointed-arch gable windows are clearly Gothic Revival elements. Similar criticism could be directed at other nearby dwellings, such as the stuccoed house (1878) on the north side of Kimberton Road about a hundred feet east of Prizer Road. Its cross-gable with pointed-arch window is generally accepted as the fundamental characteristic of the Gothic Revival, but the window hood-moulds and boxy farmhouse proportions are anything but Gothic. Unlike those communities where the work of a particular builder proved popular, Kimberton residents after 1871 showed no preference for anyone style. Kimberton, however, does have a dominant architectural character, a plainness that is characteristic of southeastern Pennsylvania architecture and a provincial awkwardness that is not uncommon for villages with no great wealth and few urban ties. This provincial awkwardness is expressed in inappropriate proportions, out-of-fashion styles, and naive combinations of details, all of which suggest an affection for well accepted, if not traditional, architectural forms. In this respect the village's late nineteenth century architecture reflects a continuation of values and tastes that are seen in the earlier colonial vernacular buildings at the opposite end of the district. Neither vernacular nor sophisticated, this later architecture is an interesting collection of buildings that illustrate a consistent conservatism in the face of changed architectural assumptions and a proliferation of styles.

This pattern is less discernible in Kimberton's early twentieth century architecture. The Queen Anne style house on Hare's Hill Road north of Gotwals Pond, for example, is a modest example of that picturesque and eclectic style. Compared to Queen Anne houses in towns like West Chester and Strasburg, its design is restrained, but it adequately expresses the style in its juxtaposition of materials and clustering of details. Nevertheless, these features are restricted to only the street facade; the other sides are very plain. Similarly, the stuccoed double house on the south side of Kimberton Road west of Prizer Road is about a decade later than similar four-square houses in Phoenixville and Norristown, but it possesses most of the features of such Arts-and-Crafts-influenced dwellings. By the twentieth century, cultural lag and self-restraint became less an obvious characteristic than a tendency, showing, nevertheless, the persistence of tradition.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Kimberton had reached the approximate limits of the extended historic district. Just as the railroad brought an end to pre-industrial Kimberton and stimulated a second period of economic growth and housing construction, the automobile underpinned Kimberton's next growth spurt, its third, which has come in the past sixty-five years outside of the expanded historic district.

  1. Mary Lloyd, French and Pickering Creek Conservation Trust, Inc. , Kimberton Village Historic District, Nomination Document, 1974, Boundary Increase Nomination document, 1987, National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service, Washington D.C.
  2. B & White photos, Pennsylvania Historic & Museum Commission
  3. Color Slide, (Hares Hill Rd Bridge) Historic American Buildings Survey, Joseph E. B. Elliott, photographer, 1991

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Hares Hill Road • Kimberton Road

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