Okehocking Historic District

Willistown Twp, Chester County, PA

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The Okehocking Indian Land Grant Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]


The Okehocking Indian Land Grant Historic District presents a good collection of 18th and early 19th century farmhouses and their farm outbuildings in a rural setting including and surrounding an early 18th century Indian Land Grant. The District also contains a Society of Friends Meeting House and its burying ground, a one-room Victorian public school, a former inn, a vacated mill, and three mill sites. The majority of the 69 contributing buildings found in the District were built before 1845; 42 were built between 1725 and 1845, and 27 were built from 1846 to 1940. Examples from the following National Register architectural categories can be found: Other — Pennsylvania Colonial (48); Early Republican (1); Victorian (4); and Late 19th and 20th Century Revivals (5). The majority of the buildings are artisan-built and vernacular in character, with some dwellings enhanced by a minimum of Georgian or Federal details. The buildings are in good condition, and the District as a whole exhibits exceptional unity and integrity of design, scale, and setting. The respectful relationship of the buildings, mostly built of local stone, to the gently rolling topography of the Ridley Creek watershed provides a strong visual definition for the District.

The District is located in the southwest corner of Willistown Township in eastern Chester County near the Delaware County line, approximately six miles east of West Chester, the county seat, and seventeen miles west of Philadelphia. It is roughly bounded by Goshen Road on the north, Plumsock Road on the east, West Chester Pike and the Chester-Delaware County line on the south, and Paper Mill and Garrett Mill Roads on the west. The District is surrounded on the north, east, and south by open land, interspersed by only a few small suburban developments. On the west, the District is menaced by suburban sprawl. The original 500-acre Indian Land Grant lies on a diagonal between West Chester Pike and Goshen Road in the center of the District. Elevations range from 250 to 400 feet, and the most level area is a plateau in the center of the District on either side of Delchester Road.

Ridley Creek and its tributaries meander through the entire District and provided water-power for the mills which operated throughout most of the history of the District to accommodate the needs of the farmers. Hunter's Run rises to the west and flows east while Indian Run, a principal stream, follows Plumsock Road to join Ridley Creek at the southern boundary of the District. Once the settlers moved into the District, milling and farming grew together. The farms spread out along the gentler slopes and valleys in the District and the mills were located along the steeper stretches of Ridley Creek and Indian Run.

Overall, the District contains 77 contributing resources including 38 dwellings, 22 agricultural buildings, 7 secondary domestic buildings, 1 industrial building, 1 religious building, 1 agricultural structure, 1 industrial structure, 2 industrial sites, 1 domestic site, 1 funerary site, 1 "camp site" (the Okehocking Indian Land Grant), and 1 commemorative marker.

In the last fifty years, alterations to the contributing resources have been minimal and remarkably sensitive. Of the seven dwellings with additions, two have rear wings, two repeat the mass of the original, and three are by well known historic architects (respectively, John Milner, Fridtjof Tobiessen, and Charles Okie). Also, there have been two conversions in the District. The Shady Grove School was converted into a residence in the 1930s, when a small harmonious wing was added to its north side. And the Isaac Garrett Barn, which was built in 1860 next to the 1725 Mordecai Yarnall House, is now a residence which nevertheless preserves its original mass and rooflines. One of the tenant houses at Duckett Mill sits in the flood plain and so has not been modernized.

There are 29 non-contributing resources, all built post-1945, including 14 dwellings, 8 agricultural buildings, 2 secondary domestic buildings, 2 agricultural structures, 1 transportation structure, 1 defense site, and 1 bridge. The transportation structure on Delchester Road is a PennDoT "Salt Dome" where materials for road repair and maintenance are kept. It is nestled into the landscape in such a way as to be relatively unobtrusive. The defense site, known as the Nike Missile Radar site, is partially dismantled; only the pylons remain. This site is overgrown with weeds, vines and small woody plants. The missiles themselves were located beyond the District across West Chester Pike in Edgmont Township. For the most part, the other non-contributing resources don't detract from the integrity of the District as they represent the continuing agricultural use of the land.

In 1701, The Okehocking Indians petitioned William Penn for land of their own; he ordered a survey to be done which led to the 1703 grant of the diamond-shaped 500-acre Okehocking Land Grant. It was heavily wooded with a small stretch of Indian Run bisecting its southeast corner. A large stone outcrop known as Turtle Rock was located in its center. In 1924, a rectangular stone marker with a bronze tablet commemorating the Land Grant, designed by architect Paul Cret, was installed along the original road-bed of West Chester Pike, just east of the Aaron Garrett House. Today, the northern point of the Land Grant would extend to just below Goshen Road and its southern point would barely extend across West Chester Pike. Most of this important site remains undeveloped as woodlands, wetlands or open fields.

Goshen Road, which is the northern boundary of the District, was laid out in 1687 from Philadelphia to Newtown Square, was extended in 1719 to White Horse, and by 1764 was extended to the western Willistown Township boundary. In 1710, Francis Yarnall, who owned land east, south, and west of the Indian Land and "a Township of Indians" (Jane Levis Carter, Edgmont, p. 126) requested that a road be put through the Land Grant. The request was allowed and the first recorded road in Willistown Township was run north from Edgmont Great Road through the level center of the Indian land, following a well-worn Indian trail (Ibid.). This road is now known as Delchester Road.

By 1719, a network of roads ran to the east, west, north and through Okehocking Indian Town. Roads meant settlement, and by the mid-1720s, the Indians, always on the move, had drifted away from their Grant. The land reverted to the Proprietary and was opened for claim by 1735. In that year, Garrett Mill Road was established, but was not completed until 1844. Today, it is a designated Scenic Roadway by Willistown Township.

By the late 1700s, there was a need for a direct route between Philadelphia and the newly established county seat of West Chester. In the 1790s, West Chester State Road (now Pa. Route #3) was established. By the mid-1800s, the West Chester Road had become a turnpike. From the 1890s to the 1950s, the Red Arrow Trolley ran beside the Pike carrying mail and freight as well as passengers. After the trolley was shut down, the Pike was widened. A portion of the original road-bed is plainly visible at the entrance to the Aaron Garrett House, and a portion of the old trolley-bed can still be seen at the entrance to the Morris House.

As the District became settled and the population of the area expanded, two more roads were built: Paper Mill Road (1810 & 1840), now a farm lane; and Plumsock Road (1824 & 1834), still unpaved within the District. Except for Paper Mill Road, which was vacated in the 1950s, the 18th-century road links remain intact, with no additions. These roads provide scenic vistas and viewsheds of the District that remain much as they were 100 to 150 years ago. Especially noteworthy is the West Chester Pike viewshed which provides the most comprehensive vista of the District's rural landscape; this in spite of its high volume of traffic and the attendant industrialization and commercialization found along most of its length.

Agriculture has been the principal activity in the District since the first Quaker settlers. With settlement, the forests were cleared, the lowlands became watermeadows or small-crop fields and the hills became grain fields and pastures. The steeper valleys became cultivated wood lots. As the land was cleared and farms established, farmhouses were built. These farms were eventually subdivided for children and grandchildren, while the farmhouses were added to by successive generations.

The architecture of the District reflects this settlement pattern. Overall, the District is characterized by the exceptional architectural unity of its resources. Thirty-five out of fifty-two houses and sixteen out of twenty-one barns are of stone construction, either pointed or stuccoed. Forty of the houses are similar in size and massing, being either two or two and half stories and two to five bays. Most roofs are gable, with chimneys located on the gable ends; the fenestration is balanced, otherwise, architectural ornamentation is either modest or absent. Interestingly enough, an architectural detail that generally does not survive today can be found in two of the houses in the District. "Pay drawers" were usually found in houses associated with large working farms or mills. The Sarah Sill house and the vacant house on the Duckett Mill property each have a pay drawer.

The staple of the District's architecture is the cumulative farmhouse with imitative or complimentary additions expanding sequentially on an axis with the core. There are several good examples in the District. The dates after each house are for the core and then successive increments. The prime examples are the Mordecai Yarnall House, 1725, 1789; the Amos Yarnall House, 1727, 1813; and the Levi Garrett House, c. 1800, c. 1820.

Because of the District's rolling topography, some of the early houses were banked, exposing the basement on the south and/or west sides. These lower levels were well finished with fireplaces and moldings like those in the stories above. The cores of the Morris (c. 1750) and the Samuel Bell (c. 1780) Houses as well as the ruined George Matlack House (c. 1830) illustrate this bank house profile.

Most of the houses in the District exhibit floorplans characteristic of Pennsylvania farmhouses; four of them serve as good examples. The cores of the 1725 Mordecai Yarnall House and the 1770 Joseph Hibberd House are examples of the early Penn Plan, which was two rooms deep with back-to-back corner fireplaces. The 1727 core of the Amos Yarnall House exhibits the hall and parlor plan which featured an entrance room (hall) with an inner room (parlor) next to it. The 1800 Levi Garrett House core is an example of the three-room plan which featured one large room and two, usually inner, rooms back to back and next to the large room.

As time went on, a Georgian or Federal facade was applied to a vernacular floorplan causing the farmhouse to look more symmetrical. This merging of an academic detail with a traditional layout created what is now referred to as the "Pennsylvania Farmhouse." A good example is the symmetrical five-bay facade applied to the Rising Sun Tavern after it was damaged by a fire around 1805. The persistence of traditional construction techniques, with or without Georgian or Federal detailing, can be seen in the major wing of the Morris House which was built as late as 1842.

The majority of the District's farmhouse cores were built by 1845. Two exceptions provide the District with examples of two different academic architectural styles. The first is the WSA Yarnall House, which was built of random-coursed hornblend stone in 1862 utilizing Federal fenestration and proportions. In contrast to the more irregular two-story farmhouses in the District, the main block is square, three stories high, with 6/6 windows, a truncated hip roof and a heavy but unarticulated cornice. Attached to the main block is a two-story, random-coursed hornblend stone, gable-roofed wing. The 1887 Harvey Garrett House is a frame example of the Folk Victorian architectural style (McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses, pp. 314-15) cross gabled roof, fish-scale shingles, tall and narrow Gothic proportions, and on the porch, decorative brackets, all strongly suggestive of pattern book influence.

After the mid-1800s, a contraction of agricultural profitability, and the growth of industrial jobs off the farm led either to widows selling the family farms or to Sheriff's sales. The growth of industrial fortunes paralleled the decline of the family farms until early 20th century "gentlemen farmers" were drawn to the area. These wealthy Philadelphia businessmen wanted country estates that spoke of the place they felt they had earned in society. In the manner of the great country manors and estates of the English nobility, they began to assemble the fragmented farms into large country estates to which they gave manorial names.

In 1913, Dr. Thomas Ashton, a psychiatrist who had married the heiress to the Baldwin Locomotive fortune, assembled most of his 1400-acre Delchester Farm. This estate included the 350-acre Mordecai Yarnall 1737 Farm, which became the nucleus of the complex. Delchester Farm also encompassed the Morris Farm which included the Matlack Mill Property, the Samuel Bell Farm, the Harvey Garrett House, the Garrett Mill Property, the Mordecai Yarnall 1725 Farm which included the Isaac Garrett 1860 Barn, the Aaron Garrett Farm which included the Thomas Willing Barn, and the Amos Yarnall Farm, all bought in 1913; the Anne Scott Barn, south of Goshen Road and formerly part of the Rising Sun Tavern Property, was added in 1920.

Ashton was followed in the 1920s by Atwater Kent, President of Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company which made radios, who bought the John Hibberd Farm, the WSA Yarnall Farm, and the Joseph Roberts Farm for family members. These properties are located in the northeast quadrant of the District. The remaining farms were bought by various fox-hunting families as a consequence of Radnor Hunt moving to Willistown Township in 1929.

Most of the gentleman farmers renovated the existing buildings, with Colonial Revival additions made to the houses and new outbuildings supplementing the existing barns, stables and carriage houses. The additions and new buildings were often designed by such architects as R. Brognard Okie, 1875-1945 and Charles Rabenold, 1883-1968.

The tenant house at Delchester Farm was built around 1737 by Mordecai Yarnall on the old Indian land. By 1796, the main house had been built, possibly by then owner Charles Willing, and was described in the 1796 Chester County Tax Rate for Willistown as being of "elegant stone." At Delchester, R. Brognard Okie worked on the main house and may have been the architect for the garage with servants' quarters and for rebuilding the barn after a fire in 1932. Okie is also supposed to have designed the 1930s addition to the Thomas Lindsey House. Atwater Kent's "Rushton" was designed by architect Charles Rabenold and built between 1931 and 1933 in the grand Georgian Revival style for Kent's daughter, Elizabeth. Rabenold is probably the architect who made extensive additions to the John Hibberd House also for Kent.

Along with the District's handsome farmhouses there are numerous barns of varying sizes and forms. Fourteen barns date from 1800 to 1865 and seven can be classified as Pennsylvania bank barns. The larger barns feature earthen ramps with bridges to projecting entrance bays on the upper level, known as the "barn floor" or threshing floor; the ground levels are reserved for stabling and frequently feature intact walled stockyards. In many cases, framed forebays of vertical board construction, supported by either rectangular or conical piers, project over a portion of the stockyards. Noteworthy large barns in the District include the Thomas Willing Barn and the Anne Scott Barn, as well as those on the Jesse Smedley Farm, Amos Yarnall Farm, Garrett Mill Property, and the Aaron Garrett Farm. The District also contains small barns which served farms of 20 to 30 acres. On the Samuel Bell and Sarah Sill Farms there are delightful small barns with many of the same features as their larger cousins.

As the District settled into an agricultural life, the farmers found a need for various kinds of mills. George Smedley had a fulling mill at the confluence of Ridley Creek with one of its tributaries by the 1760s. By 1783, the fulling mill had been joined by a grist and sawmill and a tanyard. The Garrett Mill, located on Ridley Creek at the intersection of Paper Mill and Garrett Mill Roads, was first used as a tilt mill and blacksmith shop in 1823. Between 1838 and 1842, Joseph Duckett built a paper mill and two dwelling houses along Ridley Creek on Paper Mill Road between the Smedley and Garrett Mills. This mill began operation circa 1840 at the same time that the Garrett Mill became a paper mill, and George Matlack established a sawmill on his property along Indian Run, just north of West Chester Pike. The sawmill operated for about 30 years. The original Garrett Mill burned in 1898, was rebuilt, and then sold in 1913. By the mid-1920s, the mill had burned again and was replaced by a blacksmith shop erected in the southeast corner of the mill ruins. Duckett Mill survived several fires and Sheriff's sales, before closing down in 1927. In the early 20th century, an electric plant was installed in the Smedley Mill. By the late 1930s, the smithy at Garrett Mill had also burned down. In the mid-20th century, the old Matlack mill-pond was utilized as an ice pond.

Today, some of the electric plant's machinery is still left in the vacated Smedley Mill. The ruins of the Garrett Mill are utilized as garden walls for a small house, which resembles an old blacksmith shop, built around 1940 out of the ruins of the 1930s smithy. The ruins of Duckett Mill act as a dramatic backdrop to the three houses and barn still to be found on the property; while a 20th-century garage utilizes the back wall of the old mill. All that is left of George Matlack's sawmill is the mill-dam and pond, and the remains of the mill-race.

The District also includes buildings used for education, religion, and commerce. In 1853, the Scott family donated a plot of ground on Garrett Mill Road for a small public school called Shady Grove. By the 1800s, a bigger schoolhouse was needed, so in 1881, the original 1853 school was replaced by a larger version with "Willistown School No. 6" inscribed in its gable end. This school is typical of the one-room public schools built in rural areas in the second half of the 19th century. Today, it is a private residence.

By 1753, there were enough Quakers in Willistown to need a school, which was built on an acre of land at the intersection of Goshen and Plumsock Roads. By the 1780s, the Friends' membership was large enough to warrant their own meeting house and cemetery. In 1793, Ann Smedley donated 3/4 of an acre of land next to the school for that purpose. The cemetery was laid out circa 1793. In 1809, a subscription was started to raise funds to build a stone wall around the cemetery; this wall was completed in 1810. In 1873, the old Quaker schoolhouse was torn down, but traces of its foundation are still evident in the northwest corner of the cemetery. Today, the cemetery covers approximately three acres. It is enclosed by stone walls and iron fencing. The graves are arranged in rows, with the plain, low headstones of the District's early Quaker settlers located at the west end.

The Willistown Friends Meeting House was completed in 1798. It is a large, stone, two-story, six-bay building erected at a time when the typical one-room, one-story meeting house was being replaced by a type featuring separate entrances and meeting rooms for men and women and second floor balconies. Over the years, three sympathetic additions have been made to the meeting house, the last of which occurred in 1956 and was designed by Fridtjof Tobiessen.

In 1764, Francis Smedley bought a 209-acre tract of land with a house from the estate of Lawrence Cox. The house was located on Goshen Road opposite the entrance to Delchester Road. In 1766, Francis was granted his first tavern license to keep an inn at his house, which he called the Rising Sun Inn. Around 1805, the tavern suffered a fire and, although quickly refurbished, was shut down by 1820. It has remained a private residence ever since.

The Okehocking Indian Land Grant Historic District is not one in which it can be claimed that time has stood still. Always an area of working farms and general prosperity, its historic buildings have been regularly maintained, modified to meet changing living habits and farming practices, and expanded over the years. For the most part, these changes were made with sensitivity to the District's architectural traditions and its scenic vistas. The District principally preserves a rural landscape where members of the Society of Friends settled, built farmsteads and mills, worshipped, were educated, and travelled its narrow roads through wooded valleys. Most importantly, the District preserves Okehocking Indian Town, probably the only Indian Land Grant devised by William Penn.


The Okehocking Indian Land Grant Historic District is locally significant for the way in which its architecture and farmland reveal the history of its settlement and growth over 240 years, 1700-1940. In the early 1700's, the Okehockings were granted a 500-acre tract by the Proprietary which forms the core of the proposed District. This tract was quickly surrounded by second and third generation Quaker settlers, who eventually took over the Indian land after it was vacated. These settlers established a tradition of maintaining prosperous farms with their attendant vernacular stone houses, farm buildings, and agriculturally oriented mills. It is typical of the District that no more than five farms, established gradually over several generations, stood within the boundaries of the Indian Land Grant for over 250 years. By circa 1845, descendants of the first settlers had subdivided the land outside the Indian Grant into 22 farms. Whether the owners considered themselves farmers or millers, the countryside remained open and the buildings continued in use, albeit renovated or added to as the need arose. This inclination to keep the farmland open and to reuse existing buildings set the stage for two "gentleman farmers" who appeared in the early 20th century to rescue the declining farms from commercial/industrial subdivision. Their desire to retain the existing landscape led to the preservation of the open spaces and the historic resources. Today, the District is an important example of a well-preserved collection of Pennsylvania farmhouses and their agricultural outbuildings in their traditional rural setting, much of it under conservation easement.

In the 17th century, a band of Lenape Indians known as the Okehocking roamed the streams and valleys southwest of Philadelphia. By 1700, they had petitioned William Penn and his commissioners for a particular place to be confirmed as theirs so that "they might no more be like dogs" (Futhey and Cope, History of Chester County, p. 421). In 1702, Penn's Commissioners issued a warrant, and 10 months later, in 1703, a 500-acre tract was surveyed near Ridley Creek and granted to Pokias, Sepopawny, Mutagoopa, and their families. The tract was unusual in that it was a north-south diamond-shape in an area of east-west rectilinear parcels. It has been speculated that a large rock outcropping on the tract which resembled a turtle's head coming out of the earth was a factor in the tract's selection because of its mystic associations for the Okehocking, this being known as "Turtle Rock."

Okehocking Indian Town, as it was known, may have been the only Indian Land Grant devised by William Penn, and was probably the first in the country and the only one in Pennsylvania. Because three seasons of survey work and test pitting conducted by Dr. Marshall Becker have revealed no evidence of an historic Indian village, it is speculated that the Okehocking used the tract as a summer station for fishing, establishing transitory hamlets scattered throughout the forested Land Grant.

Before the creation of the Okehocking Land Grant, the Proprietary had established the 40,000 acre Welsh Tract around 1684 for the sole use of the Welsh members of the Society of Friends, but many of the Welsh landholders never migrated to Pennsylvania and those Welsh who did settle in the tract tended to stay close to the Schuylkill River. This led to encroachments on to the Welsh Tract by non-Welsh settlers. English Quakers moving north from Chester as early as 1684 had begun to settle in the southern part of the Welsh Tract, the south central part of which became Willistown Township in 1704.

The subsequent settlement history of the District centers on three families who were members of the Society of Friends — the Yarnalls, Smedleys and Garretts. The first generation of each of these families settled outside the District: the Yarnalls to the south in Springfield Township; the Smedleys to the south in Upper Providence and Middletown Townships; and the Garretts to the east in Darby Township. Over the years, the Yarnalls, the Smedleys and the Garretts intermarried to form a tangled web of relationships and inheritances. The written record shows them to have focussed their energies on two endeavors, milling and farming, which grew up together in the District.

In 1684, a tract of 1500 acres of land was laid out in the southeast corner of Willistown Township adjacent to the proposed District for Thomas Brassey from Wilaston, Cheshire, England. This tract was subdivided into three 500-acre parcels by 1697, when Francis Yarnall, of Springfield, acquired the lower 500-acre parcel. In 1703, Yarnall also acquired the 400 acres adjoining his first purchase to the west. This tract was U-shaped because it surrounded the newly formed Indian Land Grant on the east, south and southwest. In 1713, Yarnall acquired his third and last tract, a parcel of 150 acres, which extended the previous tract up the west side of the Indian land.

In 1684, William Garrett, of Darby, was granted 492 acres in the center of what became Willistown Township. In 1713, William Garrett's son, William, II, was granted a patent for 100 acres immediately south of his father's 492-acre tract. The 100-acre grant lay along most of the northern boundary of the Indian tract.

In 1705, George Smedley was granted a patent for 400 acres in the southwest corner of Willistown Township. In 1713, George and Thomas Smedley (father and son) were granted a patent for the 200-acre tract directly east of George's 400-acre tract. And in 1735, Thomas Smedley acquired the 75 acres contiguous with the northeast corner of the Smedley 200-acre tract and adjoining the Garrett tract along the northern boundary of the Indian land.

Francis Yarnall, William Garrett and George Smedley had expanded their holdings for the benefit of their sons. Eventually, the large tracts of land they acquired were subdivided among their sons, many of whom were the first actual settlers in the District; their fathers had merely held the land for them until they were old enough to build their own houses and barns and to cultivate the land.

By 1719, a network of roads surrounded the Indian Land Grant and Delchester Road bisected it. In the 1720s, possibly due to the increase in settlers in the area, the Okehocking vacated their tract. Under the terms of the grant, the Indian land, once vacated, reverted to the Proprietary. In 1737, the land was reallocated to Amos and Mordecai Yarnall, sons of Francis Yarnall.

Mordecai Yarnall had already inherited 100 acres to the west of the Indian land from his father and built the core circa 1725. His brother, Amos Yarnall, had settled on 250 acres of his father's land to the south and east of the Land Grant; in 1727, he built the core of that property. After Mordecai and Amos acquired the Indian land, Mordecai built a new stone house on his 276-acre portion. Mordecai then sold the property with 140 acres to Isaac Garrett who was first cousin to William Garrett, II. Isaac's grandson, William, acquired 24 acres of the property and by 1823, had established a blacksmith shop and a tilt mill to make metal farm tools. This complex was successful enough to appear in the tax list of 1827 as an edged tool factory. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, iron and metal products became cheaper in price as mass production techniques were refined. By 1836, William realized he would soon be forced out of business by the growing iron industry, so in 1840, he converted the tilt mill into a paper mill which operated until about 1913, when the property was sold (Arthur James, "The Garrett Mill on Ridley Creek," TMs). After the mill burned down in the 1920s, another blacksmith shop which serviced the needs of the local horse owners and breeders was built in its ruins. In the late 1930s, this smithy also succumbed to fire; it was replaced by a residence in 1940.

In 1727, Lawrence Cox bought the 100-acre tract just north of the Indian land from George Garrett (a descendent of William Garrett, I). In 1764, Cox's executors sold a house and a 209-acre tract, which included the 100 acres, to Francis Smedley, a son of Thomas Smedley. In 1766, Francis was granted a tavern license to keep an inn at his house, called the Rising Sun Inn. Around 1805, the inn was badly damaged by fire. John Scott, a Smedley nephew-in-law and the contemporary tavern keeper, was forced to build a new house while the tavern was undergoing an extensive renovation. It remained in business until circa 1820, when the inn was closed and became a private residence once more.

Thomas Smedley died in 1758 and bequeathed 255 acres, which included the 75-acre tract northwest of the old Indian land to his son, George Smedley. This tract included a fulling mill. In 1766, George built a stone house on the property. By 1783, a grist and sawmill, which continued until at least the Civil War, also had been established. This property stayed in the Smedley family for several generations with new buildings and more land being added periodically as the need arose. Members of the Smedley family also settled and built new houses along Goshen Road between the mill property and the Rising Sun Tavern (c. 1800, c. 1810, and c. 1820).

In 1749, Amos Yarnall's son, Daniel, inherited his uncle Mordecai's property. In 1786, Daniel bequeathed it to his grandson, Thomas Willing. Thomas's son, Charles, lived on the property in the 1790s and may have built the main house there. Charles's son, Thomas, II, built himself a house and barn around 1810 (the house-is no longer extant). In 1789, Amos Yarnall died, bequeathing his plantation to his stepson, Aaron Garrett. In 1802, Aaron built his house on the north side of West Chester Pike, across from his stepfather's house.

As the years went by, the large farms were subdivided. Most of the farms were owned and occupied by descendents of Francis Yarnall, George Smedley and William Garrett; although, occasionally, farms were sold out of these families. Those families and individuals that acquired property in such a manner include: the Hibberds (c. 1764, and c. 1770), the Morris's (c. 1765), and the Ducketts (c. 1840).

By 1840, George Matlack had acquired the Morris Property and had erected a sawmill and house on the north side of West Chester Pike; the mill operated for about 30 years. All traces of it have disappeared in the last 40 years, leaving behind the mill-dam and pond and the ruins of the mill-race. About ten years ago, the house decayed into ruin.

Besides establishing farms, the residents of the District had need for places to worship and to learn. The earliest settlers were members of the Society of Friends and attended meetings in other townships, particularly the Goshen and Middletown Monthly Meetings. By 1753, when there were enough Friends in Willistown to need a school, Francis and Ann Smedley deeded an acre of land on Goshen Road at Plumsock Road for this purpose. Eventually, the Friends' membership grew large enough to warrant their own meeting house and cemetery. Ann Smedley, Francis' widow, donated a plot of land next to the school and the Willistown Friends Meeting House and cemetery were completed by 1798. In 1873, the old school building was torn down. This may have been due to the fact that a public school, Shady Grove School, had been built in 1853 on land donated by the Scott family and located on Garrett Mill Road. This school was replaced in 1881 by a larger version which was converted in the 1930s into a residence.

Agriculture has been the principal industry in the District since the time of settlement, and the farm buildings reflect the changes in agricultural methods that have occurred. In the 18th century, family farms of varying sizes produced mostly wheat and other grains, with small numbers of livestock for family use and occasional sale. Some farms had small orchards. Crops standing in the fields or stored in the barns, together with livestock, provided the major financial resource in 18th-century estate inventories, and the tax lists reveal that farmers supplemented their incomes with secondary winter occupations such as wheelwright, cordwainer, mason, carpenter, tailor, and cooper.

Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, farming became more profitable. There was a greater variety of produce: wheat, Indian corn, oats, potatoes and hops. Herds were larger and hay became an important crop for the growing dairy industry. The housewife's butter sold for as much as $1.00 a pound in Baltimore and Philadelphia. New and bigger barns were built and old ones were repaired and added to with forebays, granaries, straw sheds, corn cribs and other outbuildings.

After the Civil War, agricultural profits declined as Philadelphia's industrial fortunes rose. Children moved off family farms to take advantage of the opportunities in the cities or the West, forcing their parents to try to sell their farms. No more farms were subdivided and by the late 1800s many of the farms had been sold out of the original settlers' families. Fortunately, the practice of keeping the land in agriculture was continued by the "gentleman farmers" who began to appear in southeastern Pennsylvania towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Locally, gentleman farmers were men who had made their fortunes as a result of the industrialization of Philadelphia and who felt entitled to take their place in proper Philadelphia society. To achieve this end, they began to buy up fragmented family farms in order to create country estates similar to those of the English gentry and name them in the same manner that English country seats were named.

Dr. Thomas Ashton, a psychiatrist who married the heiress to the Baldwin Locomotive fortune, assembled almost all of his 1400-acre estate in 1913. He called the aggregate estate "Delchester Farm." Ashton chose as his home the Mordecai Yarnall 1737 Farm, expanded its already large array of farm buildings and improved and enlarged the main house. This property became the centerpiece of his estate. Ashton also stabilized and improved the buildings on all his other properties.

After Ashton established his country estate, the tax laws changed in such a way as to encourage gentleman farmers by giving them tax credits if they actively farmed their properties. Ashton began farming his estate by raising purebred Percheron horses, champion pigs and dairy cattle. The cattle soon became the principal focus as they were the most lucrative. In the 1920s, Delchester Farm distributed its own milk as well as that which it bought from neighboring farmers, and in the 1940s, the farm joined other local dairy farms in selling direct to Abbott's Dairies in Philadelphia.

The process of gentrification continued with another millionaire, Atwater Kent, President of the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company, who began buying property in Willistown in the 1920s; his purchases covered much of the northeast quadrant of the District from Delchester to Plumsock Roads. Various members of Kent's family moved onto the farms and renovated and added to the existing buildings.

In the late 1920s, the gentleman farmers, most of whom were fox-hunters, began to encourage the Radnor Hunt Club to move to Willistown. After the Hunt Club had settled into its new home on the northeast corner of Warren Avenue and Goshen Road in 1929, several fox-hunting families bought farms within the District to be near the Hunt.

When first Dr. Ashton, and then Atwater Kent, established their estates, they were following a pattern set locally by Andrew Cassatt of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1881 at his 700-acre+ "Chesterbrook" in Tredyffrin Township, Chester County. Cassatt was followed by other equally ambitious industrialists. Charles E. Mather accumulated his 1000-acre+ "Brandywine Meadow Farm" in Birmingham Township, Chester County, between about 1896 and 1906. Thomas deWitt Cuyler settled in Willistown Township and began establishing his "Whitehorse Farm" of 600+ acres around 1900. Charlton Yarnall also began acquiring his 485-acre "Crum Creek Farm" around the turn of the century. His estate was located in Willistown, Easttown and Newtown Townships (in both Chester and Delaware Counties) on both sides of Crum Creek. In the early 20th century, Walter and Sarah Jeffords began adding to the Samuel Riddle estate called Hunting Hill Farm in Middletown Township. When they were done, they had assembled 25 farms in Edgmont, Middletown and Upper Providence Townships, Delaware County, into a 2000-acre+ estate.

All but one of these large country estates have been broken up with only a small portion of their former sizes still maintained as open space. Cassatt's magnificent Chesterbrook is now paved over with a residential/commercial development whose 300 acres of open space is scattered among more than 400 acres of townhouses, condominiums, shopping malls and office buildings. The heart of Mather's Brandywine Meadow Farm forms the grounds for the Radley Run Country Club. The rest of the estate has been developed with high income single family homes on one to two-acre lots. Most of Cuyler's estate has been turned into a development called "White Horse Farms;" the southern portion, closest to the village of Whitehorse, is still relatively open. And Yarnall's Crum Creek Farm" now houses several developments, with only the periphery along Goshen Road still open. Only the Jeffords' Hunting Hill Farms managed to escape commercial development. In 1966, the Jeffords' estate, plus a few neighboring smaller tracts, were acquired by the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters to preserve one of the last open spaces left in Delaware County. Hunting Hill Farms now forms the core of Ridley Creek State Park.

Most of the residential buildings in the District may be characterized as vernacular Pennsylvania farmhouses which were typical of Willistown Township in the 18th and early 19th centuries. This type of farmhouse generally started with a modest stone core to which additions were made as family size demanded and economic prosperity permitted. Materials were locally obtained, and floor plans were chosen for practical purposes. In some cases, as succeeding generations grew more prosperous and cultured, the farmhouse was upgraded in one of two ways. First, Georgian or Federal details might be applied to the existing facade; merging academic detailing with a traditional layout to create what is now referred to as the "Pennsylvania Farmhouse." Or second, a Georgian or Federal style addition might be made to the core of the farmhouse. Two examples of these options exist in the Okehocking District. The c. 1750 Rising Sun Tavern exhibits a symmetrical Federal style facade while retaining evidence of its vernacular origins. And the c. 1750 Morris House has a large addition which exhibits Federal detailing and was erected no later than 1842.

The gentleman farmers introduced the Colonial Revival style to the District as they renovated the existing houses and farm buildings, and added new farm buildings as their farming and fox-hunting interests grew. Just as the gentleman farmers desired to fit into society, they wanted their buildings to fit into the existing landscape; consequently, they chose architects whose designs were in the Colonial Revival style. In the District, the Colonial Revival is an academic interpretation of the traditional Pennsylvania farmhouse.

An interesting variation of the Colonial Revival can be found at "Rushton," designed by Charles Rabenold, built between 1931 and 1933, and executed in the grand manner of the pavilioned Georgian Revival style, reminiscent of the fine examples built along the Main Line where Rabenold's practice was concentrated. Even though Rushton was built on a larger scale than most of the other houses in the District, it, nevertheless, nestles comfortably into the landscape and reflects the use of stucco as a construction material in the District.

Many of the architects who are considered practitioners of the Colonial Revival today, believed themselves to be either restoration architects or Colonial architects. Either way, their designs and plans, while not necessarily preserving all the original materials in a building, tended to compliment the architecture of the existing buildings. R. Brognard Okie, in particular, made a study of Pennsylvania vernacular architecture emphasizing the individuality of Pennsylvania farmhouses. He specialized in the renovation of sturdy but dilapidated farmhouses, additions to well-kept but tiny tenant houses, and designing new "Pennsylvania Farmhouses." A significant example of Okie's work in the District can be found at Delchester Farm.

Today, the District houses the last remaining contiguous enclave of 18th and early 19th century rural vernacular architecture to be found in Willistown Township. The northern section of Willistown has been so developed that either the farmhouses have been destroyed or they have lost their historic context with the destruction of their attendant farm buildings and/or the subdivision of the farmland. The only historic district in the township today, Sugartown Historic Village District which is north of the Okehocking Indian Land Grant Historic District, encompasses mostly 19th-century architecture; and Whitehorse Village, just to the east of the Okehocking District at the intersection of Goshen and Providence Roads, has been dramatically changed through renovation executed by several noted Colonial Revival architects. This does not mean that the Okehocking District has not been touched by the Colonial Revival; only that the Colonial Revival has not drastically changed the appearance of most of the buildings dated to the 18th and early 19th centuries in the District.


Publish Sources

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  1. Dorchester, Jane E., Willistown Township, Okehocking Indian Land Grant Historic District, nomination document, 1993, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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Street Names
Garrett Mill Road • Goshen Road • Plumsock Road • West Chester Pike

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