Unionville, Pennsylvania - History
THE VILLAGE OF UNIONVILLE
In 1979 Unionville Village Historic District was named to the National Register of Historic Places, as an example of a 19th-century rural village which has kept much of its early appearance and character.
Unionville’s beginnings go back to 1706, when an Englishman named Henry Hayes bought an 1100-acre tract of land from William Penn. For the site of his house he chose the source of the west branch of the Red Clay Creek, where he built a log cabin. This is thought to have been where Hood’s BBQ is now. Eventually there was a tannery on the site, and later a gristmill.
The next settlers were the Jacksons, for whom the village was first named Jacksonville, changed to Unionville in the early 1800s. John Jackson built a log house on the northeast corner of the main crossroads, the site of the present Catherine’s Restaurant. Jackson married Henry Hayes’s daughter Mary and built a big brick house on the southeast corner, which became the Cross Keys Tavern in 1808. Jacksons continued to populate the area and built some of the more substantial buildings.
The development and early success of the village were due in large part to the practice of overland hauling of goods and animals to the markets in Wilmington and Philadelphia. This location was a convenient resting place for travelers. The inns that sprang up along this route could accommodate the drovers and their flocks or herds, and they provided work and an outlet for local farmers’ goods.
Gradually new businesses started up to accommodate travelers and the growing local population. By the early 1800s there were a harness maker, a blacksmith, a library, and a one-room schoolhouse. By 1850 there were a private seminary, a town hall, and several houses of worship. And from early times there were general stores to serve the community.
Unionville Presbyterian Church on Wollaston Road is the only village church in continuous use. A congregation formed in 1829, and fifteen years later they built this church. Enlarged several times over the years, it retains its original structure.
In 1845 the Society of Friends (Quakers) built a meetinghouse on the hill east of the village. After about 100 years its congregation dwindled to one elderly woman and her dog, so the building was sold to East Lynn Grange, which met there for about fifty years, selling around 2005 to the new Grace Fellowship Church, which has incorporated the old building in its structure.
Unionville’s non-denominational community cemetery was established in 1855. Its handsome iron fence was a gift of Miss Annie Seal in 1860. Miss Seal’s father Thomas Seal was Unionville’s first doctor.
A Methodist church served the village from 1839 but lasted only about twenty-five years. Demolished in the late 1800s, it was located on Route 842 East.
By 1834 the town had outgrown its first little log school down near the tanyard. Residents decided to build a private school, the large two-story building at the fork at the west end of town, and called it the Unionville Academy.
Cheyney Hannum, principal from 1837-39, built the boarding house next door so students from farther away could attend. The student body consisted of 125 to 150 students, forty of whom were boarders, some of them from overseas, including one from Japan. In 1839 Jonathan Gause, one of the most widely respected teachers of his day, succeeded Hannum. He taught such notable students as well known novelist and poet Bayard Taylor; J. Smith Futhey, co-author of The History of Chester County; James P. Wickersham, ambassador to Germany; William Marshall Swayne, sculptor of a bust of Abraham Lincoln; and lawyers John J. Gheen and William M. Hayes.
The curriculum included the usual subjects, as well as maturation, surveying, navigation, mechanics, elocution, rhetoric, fluxions, optics, penmanship, botany, mineralogy, Latin, Greek, drawing, and painting. This excellent education could be had for $40 per quarter, including board, mending, and washing, but not washbasins or lights.
The building was also used as a venue for entertainment. The Lyceum, a joint effort of the village hall and Unionville Academy, provided many cultural activities, such as lectures, debates, dances, and musicals. Some lecture titles were “The Reading and Study of History,” “The Newspapers,” “Stratford on the Avon,” and “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” The building finally became the Unionville High School from 1893 until 1923, when the new consolidated school was built to accommodate students from twenty-one small schoolhouses. The old school building has been a residence ever since.
Around 1850 a one-room school was built back of the cemetery, near the Friends meetinghouse. It operated for about forty-five years. (See the photograph on this website’s Home Page.) Also in the mid-1800s, the brick house across from the Presbyterian Church served as a boarding school for girls.
The first general store in Unionville was in a building no longer standing, on the northwest corner of the crossroads. It was owned by Robert Buffington, then by Charles Buffington, who advertised in 1839 “goods of all kinds free from the evil of slavery.” The store burned down and the existing building was built on its foundations. It has been used as a butcher shop, gas station, storage room for the later general store across the street, and is now a real estate office.
John Jackson’s old log cabin, dating from the 1700s, is incorporated in the store on the northeast corner, which was built in 1851. It has been in use as a general store or grocery store–and vital community center–almost continuously ever since. For the past seven years, however, it has been a restaurant, now called Catherine’s.
Over the years there have been other shops in the village: Webb Crosson’s, in the old Cross Keys; Coxes’ at the west end of town; Homer Wheatman’s, across from the Hall; and Eastburns’ in the lower level of the hall.
Another retail establishment–and a local institution–was the Unionville Sale Barn, just south of the old bank. The building, an old drovers’ barn, has been converted into apartments. Going to the sale was a big event every Wednesday and Saturday night for about ten years, beginning in the early 1940s. Folks came from all over the area to buy at the auction and to socialize.
The Cross Keys Tavern was built in 1751 by John Jackson, one of the first families to settle here. It served as a family home for Jackson and then for his son George until 1805, when George sold it to his son Garnet. Both George and Garnet tried in vain to obtain a hotel license. In 1808, after three unsuccessful attempts, Garnet sold the property to Samuel Entriken, who immediately applied for and received a hotel license. There is no explanation for this, but one can imagine that politics may have played a part. The Cross Keys served the community and travelers until 1834, when it was closed because owner Isaac Smith opened the Union Hotel across the street. Since that time it has been used as a residence and for several enterprises, including an ice cream parlor, gas station, and most recently an antique shop.
The Union Hotel had a large barn and a stockyard and became a lively meeting place and a center for news and entertainment. In the mid-1800s, as the temperance movement–no alcohol–gained momentum, the Union Hotel managed to serve liquor for all but one year. Meanwhile, down the hill a Temperance Inn opened on the south side of the intersection with Rt. 842 West, but only for a short while.
An 1876 advertisement for the Union Hotel promises that “B. F. Martin, the host of the Unionville Hotel, is as large as life and twice as natural, and if any wayfaring man wants a good square meal, they will be accommodated, and will be served in a No. 1 style. A word to the wise is sufficient.”
A few years later, as the railway system replaced the stagecoach, the inns not along the line became obsolete. The Union Hotel closed its doors in 1879. After that it was a residence and then housed the People’s Bank of Unionville from 1919 to 1942. It is now divided into apartments.
The Odd Fellows’ Hall
An example of the movement for community education, the hall was built in 1849-50 and refurbished by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows at some later date. It saw vigorous use as the venue for all sorts of lectures and programs, uplifting and entertaining. Parties and receptions were held here, and East Lynn Grange met here before buying the old Friends Meeting about 1950. In the ground floor were various shops, especially Eastburns’ grocery store in the mid-1900s.
Originally a wide stairway led from ground level up to the big front door. Now the hall serves as a dwelling with a cabinetmaker’s shop on the main floor.
The Unionville Quilt
The Unionville Quilt was made in 1982 in conjunction with the Chester County Tricentennial. That winter, a group of neighbors met to brainstorm ideas for making a quilt to raffle at the anticipated community celebration in June. They decided on an album quilt: twenty illustrative squares around a large, central square. To establish unity throughout the design, two artists from the community created the designs of chosen locations and events, the technique for making the squares as appliqué with embroidered embellishment, and all the fabric used came from a common pool of colors and patterns purchased exclusively for the quilt. Some members of the group were experienced seamstresses and others were novices, but everyone became adept.
Once the individual squares were completed and the top had been sewn together, the group did the quilting. They used a unique oyster shell motif for quilting the sashing because of the abundance of shells still found in the village, historic detritus of several oyster houses that operated in the village long ago. Originally conceived as a raffle item, as work progressed, it became clear that this was not just a quilt but an aesthetically remarkable object that documented historical aspects of Unionville, and also an amazing record of a creative process in which friends and neighbors had shared. At its completion, all agreed that the quilt should remain in the community.
In 1832 spinster Mary Gordon purchased a little over an acre and built her two-and-a-half story Greek Revival brick house, two doors from Route 162 on the north side of Route 82.
Mary Gordon was a remarkable and independent woman in many ways. She operated a sucessful millinery business from the front parlor of the house. Feeling the need of a place of worship, she ran a Sabbath-Day school in her home until a local church was built. When she died at eighty-one, it was noted that “The attendance at her funeral was very large, more than 40 carriages being in the procession...It is very rarely that a lady of 81 has such a large attendance at her burial, but the large concourse of those who delighted to honor her illustrated the scriptural truth, “The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”
The frame house with the eyebrow windows on the south side of Route 82 west of Wollaston Road was built around 1820 and belonged to James Chalfant. From 1825 to 1858 he ran a cabinetmaking business and built tables, chests, chairs, beds, locks, mirrors, and coffins. As was common at the time, the coffinmaker was also the undertaker and did embalming in his shop. A bill from an 1898 successor in the house shows a charge of $38 for a walnut coffin with six bronze handles and $5 for embalming.
“Granny Lu” Walls
In the mid-20th century, Mrs. Lulu Walls lived in the house with the eyebrow windows. For many years, she was a loving foster mother to an impressive total of sixty children, black and white, and she also welcomed neighborhood kids. All of them called her Granny Lu, and although she died more than forty years ago, many residents still remember her warmly.
Webb Crosson’s convenience store and gas station in the old Cross Keys was the spot where local characters met to trade gossip and sort out problems of the day in the mid-20th century. He was also a landlord, owning several Unionville houses. A staunch Republican, he was a long-time township supervisor and then served as Chester County Sheriff from 1947-51. Besides all this, he was an avid foxhunter with a group called the Felt Boot Club; some who didn't have horses hunted on foot in felt boots.
Dr. Thomas Seal
Dr. Seal, Unionville’s first doctor, lived in the white brick house on the northwest corner of Rts. 842 and 82. In his obituary he was described as “a man of strict integrity,” and “devoid of ostentation–the poor as well as the rich shared his professional attention.”
Postscript: A Victorian Enthusiasm
Much information in this short history is taken from the village history written by Joanna Bucknell in 1947. Joanna included colorful anecdotes like this one about the rage for croquet: “Outside of the organized groups there were various amusements for the after supper hours. During the middle 1870s the favorite sport of the whole village was croquet and they played it incessantly and perpetually, even to the extent that George Love, on whose green they played, laid in a barrel of coal oil in 1875 so that the games could continue all night. It was said at the time that nearly every occupation in the neighborhood was represented - pill, coffins, wax, paregoric, cows, tin, bricks, iron, and hides. The players formed a team and were so successful in their matches with other teams that they talked of going to the Centennial Exposition to play the European teams.”
Anthony Crosson with his steam traction engine, circa 1900.
Photo courtesy of Pat Montague, Anthony Crosson’s great-granddaughter, and her husband John
A traction engine is a self-propelled steam engine used to move heavy loads on roads, plough ground, or provide power at a chosen location. Traction engines were cumbersome and ill-suited to crossing soft or heavy ground, so their agricultural use was often "in the belt" – powering farm machinery by means of a continuous leather belt driven by the flywheel as seen in this photo.
Traction engines tend to be large, robust and powerful, but heavy, slow, and hard to maneuver. Nevertheless, they revolutionized agriculture and road haulage at a time when the only alternative was the draft horse. They became popular in industrialized countries from around 1850, when the first self-propelled portable steam engines for agricultural use were developed. Production continued well into the early part of the 20th century, when competition from internal combustion engine-powered tractors saw them fall out of favor.