Revolutionary War, Civil War and Merion Tribute House, WWI

The Revolution Touches Lower Merion

1876 Centennial engraving depicts one of the Revolutionary soldiers.

In 1776, the capital city of the colonies was Philadelphia. In 1777, George Washington moved his army south from the Hudson River tracking British General Howe who had embarked his army to sail south and enter Chesapeake Bay where they landed at Elkton (then known as Head of Elk) and headed into Pennsylvania.

Washington and Howe and their two armies clashed at Brandywine Creek on September 11, 1777, and Washington’s men lost to the redcoats. The Americans retreated toward Philadelphia, crossed the Schuylkill, avoided the town, moved north, camped near Falls of Schuylkill and Indian Queen Lane for a day’s rest, then on to Roxborough/Manayunk.

The Continentals in Lower Merion. On Sunday, September 14, Washington’s army waded the Schuylkill at Levering’s Ford (near today’s Belmont/Green Lane bridge). Before dark they climbed the hill, followed Meeting House Lane, entered the road to Lancaster just behind Merion Friends’ Meetinghouse, turned right and deployed into open fields for the night.

Officers probably slept at the Buck Tavern (on Lancaster Avenue where Haverford and Bryn Mawr merge) about three miles ahead. Next day, September 15, General Washington at the Buck wrote a letter to Congress pleading for supplies. Help was not likely; congressmen were packing to flee west to Lancaster then to York where the Continental Congress would reside September 30 to June 27, 1778. Washington continued his march west partly to deflect the British from a supply depot at Reading.

Two Minor Battles, Then Came Germantown! If reconstruction of events is correct, the British and Americans clashed in the first battle after Brandywine on September 16 outside of Lower Merion Township, near White Horse Tavern off Goshenville Road. It was the “Battle of the Clouds” when torrential rain wet ammunition and the patriots again bowed in defeat.

The next encounter in the same vicinity, known as the Paoli Massacre, occurred September 20. General Wayne and 1,500 men on a mission apart from the main army, met disaster, with many killed. Discouragement for Washington culminated on October 4 with the Battle of Germantown when autumn fog fouled plans, and the Americans lost again. Meanwhile, the British were happily ensconced in Philadelphia.

Troops rest along the way through Lower Merion.

Lower Merion: No-Man’s Land. In such fine country as the Welsh Tract, lying as it did between two enemy armies during the War for Independence, its farmers did not escape the forced requirements of both the British and the Americans, each side helping itself freely to food for men and hay for horses.

Lower Merion became a no-man’s land that neither side controlled and was repeatedly raided by foraging parties. Some said the British were more welcome to the goods because they paid in cash, whereas the colonials paid only in notes or orders which were usually quite worthless.

It is true that the American forces were more demanding of the Quakers as several severe orders came from Valley Forge aimed at the farmers who wouldn’t fight and were accused of being Tories. These Welshmen were not people who went out and publicly defended or fought for a cause. In their quiet and dignified manner they favored the patriots, but the Society of Friends preached non-violence and the elders, at least, opposed any active part in the war.

Younger Quakers, however, were not so strict in their views. Many served in the Philadelphia County Militia (their Seventh Battalion was recruited in Upper and Lower Merion) and many young men gave up membership in the Society of Friends so they could fight against British tyranny.

Cornwallis vs. The Militia in Lower Merion. It was the search for “necessaries of life” that created the only other Revolutionary War episode in Lower Merion. While Washington’s men camped at Whitemarsh in November-December 1777 recuperating from losses in the Battle of Germantown, forage parties prowled on both sides of the Schuylkill for both armies. Pennsylvania militiamen were posted in Lower Merion to keep the enemy at bay.

The morning of December 11, 1777 Washington ordered his army to leave Whitemarsh and march down to Matson’s Ford (Conshohocken) to cross the river on a makeshift bridge of wagons to regroup in the Gulph (“hollow between hills”) and move thence to Valley Forge. Apparently by coincidence that same day, early in the morning, General Cornwallis and 1,500 (numbers vary) dragoons left Philadelphia on a foraging expedition into Lower Merion.

Following is a report by patriot General James Potter of what happened:

“Last Thursday, the enemy march out of the City with a desire to Furridge; but it was necessary to drive me out of the way; my advanced picquet fired on them at the Bridge; another party of one Hundred attacked them at the Black Hors [Black Horse Inn, Old Lancaster Road and City Avenue]. I was encamped at Charles Thomsons’ place [Harriton House] where I stacconed the Regiments who attacked with Viger. On the next hill I stacconed three Regiments, letting the first line know that when they were overpowered the(y) must retreat and form behind the second line, and in that manner we formed and Retreated for four miles; and on every Hill we disputed the matter with them. My people Behaved wel….”

But the day was conclusively lost when patriot General Sullivan, engaged in moving divisions across the makeshift bridge toward the Gulph, looked up at the hills (where his scouts had spotted redcoats chasing Potter’s men) and, uncertain of enemy numbers, decided to withdraw.

The infuriated Potter wrote:

“Had the valant Solovan covered my retreat with the two Devissions of the army he had in my rear, my men could have rallied, but he gave orders for them to retreat and join the army who were on the other side of the Schuylkill…about a mile and a half from me…[this left the enemy to] plunder the Country, which they have done without parsiality or favour to any, leave none of Nesscereys of life Behind them that they conveniantly could carry or destroy.”

Recent painting by local artist Robert Knight shows the troops’ retreat through Gulph Mills toward Valley Forge.

Of the episode, Washington wrote “…we…intended to pass the Schuylkill at Madisons (Matson’s) Ford where a bridge has been laid across the river.” But based on “best accounts we have…4,000 men under Lord Cornwallis, possessing themselves of the heights of the road leading from the River and the defile called the Gulph…” it was deemed too great a risk to proceed.

Instead, Washington directed his army, 11,000 men, to cross the river farther upstream at Swedes Ford (Norristown), and march back to Gulph Mills. By the time they arrived, the British marauders had vanished back to the balls and dinners of Philadelphia.

Tradition says that Cornwallis returned along Gulph Road as far as Harriton, then found his way to Haverford Road and spent the night at Pont Reading, house of the Humphrey family. Meanwhile, Washington and his men bivouacked in the hollow of the Gulph from December 13 to 19, 1777, and from there marched to Valley Forge.

1900 photo shows Hanging Rock with Griffith’s Mill in the background.
The hard winter at Valley Forge.

George Washington (1732-1799). Commander in Chief; led the American army. In 1777, the Pennsylvania Journal reported: “Washington retreats like a general and acts like a hero. Had he lived in the days of idolatry, he {would} have been worshipped as a god.”

Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805).

Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805). British general. Helped capture New York in 1776; occupied Philadelphia with General Howe in 1777; ultimately surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, October 1781, effectively ending the War for Independence.

Anthony Wayne (1745-1796).

Anthony Wayne (1745-1796). Born near Paoli at Waynesborough, the family farm. Fought at Brandywine, Paoli and Germantown; successfully stormed a British fort at Stony Point, NY in 1779, his most famous achievement during the Revolution.

The Rebels Are At Your Doors!!!

Men of Pennsylvania, your homes are in actual danger. Your harvests are to feed rebel invaders unless you arouse to save them by driving back the ruthless invader. Already they have made desolate one of the fairest valleys of our good commonwealth. Up then! Drive the invaders back! Companies of sharp shooters are wanted from our mountains, and mounted infantry from our farmers to find their own horses for the use of which they will receive 40 cents per day and paid for if killed, injured or lost. Arouse! Arouse!

A.G. Curtin Governor and Commander-In-Chief

Volunteers Recruited. The Main Line was alarmed by the approaching Confederates and Philadelphia threw up earth fortifications (especially at the site of the 30th Street Station) and dug trenches.

In April 1861, President Lincoln issued orders for a militia to defend the capitol at Washington and 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Pennsylvania’s Gov. Curtin relayed the call to the cities, the towns, and the villages in his state. Lower Merion men were eager to respond. Most of the enlistees were farmers’ sons.

The state legislature passed an act for the organization of the Reserve Volunteer Corps to consist of 15 regiments: 13 of infantry, one of cavalry, one of artillery. The men were to be enlisted for three years.

Complying with the act, prominent Lower Merion citizen Owen Jones (1819-1878) began raising a company of cavalry, the first unit the county sent to the army.

Active scene at a recruiting station.
The above call-to-arms was issued by Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin just before the battle of Gettysburg.

Lower Merion was a good field for cavalry recruiting, since a large part of the population was accustomed to dealing with horses. Recruits were mustered into service in August 1861 at Athensville (the former name of Ardmore).

Owen Jones became a Major, then Colonel, and the regiment saw vigorous service with the Army of the Potomac and in the Shenandoah Valley.

Discharge Center. While the war was at its height, and the terms of many of the first enlistments were expiring, the U.S. government established the state’s mustering-out camp in Lower Merion in October 1864. The site selected was a summit on the west bank of the Schuylkill. The post bordered the locale of today’s Riverbend Environmental Education Center off Spring Mill Road in Gladwyne.

A large sentry box served as the camp’s Schuylkill entrance.

The area was at the crown of the hill above the houses on Kritner’s Farm. The outlook commandeered a view down the Schuylkill River to Flat Rock, the Whitemarsh valley, and, in the other direction, a ridge with a view of Bryn Mawr beyond.

A large group of men levelled the rough, uneven surface. They then constructed a quadrangle of buildings with a parade ground facing the river. Water was piped from an old spring near Hanna’s Farm and transportation was over the Reading Railroad on the east bank of the river.

One month later (November 1864) the camp was ready for the reception of soldiers. It was christened Camp Spring Mill, but later known as Camp Discharge.

Many of the men being mustered out came from Andersonville and other southern prisons and hospitals and were in sick and miserable condition. Their records were put in order and pay was prepared as they recovered their health prior to discharge. No man was released until he was well, properly clothed, and provided for.

In July 1865, with the end of the war, the War Department disbanded the post.

You may not remember the Victrola, once a synonym for “phonograph,” but you may recognize Nipper, the dog, listening to “His Master’s Voice,” trademark then and now of RCA-Victor.

Eldridge Johnson of Dover, Delaware, was once considered too stupid for college and was apprenticed to a machine repair shop in Philadelphia. There he devised for the Berliner Gramophone, rival of Edison’s invention, a spring-driven motor to play a flat disc instead of a cylinder, with a governor to control the speed of revolution, and improved sound reproduction. Many patents later, in 1901, age 34, Johnson became president of the Victor Talking Machine Company and his factory in Camden began selling world-wide a huge selection of styles of his record player.

“The Chimneys,” razed to build Merion Tribute House.

In 1903 he, Elsie his wife, and Fenimore their only child, moved to Merion on part of the Baird estate. By 1919 he was one of the most heavily taxed (read: richest) men in the nation, owner of yachts, benefactor of the University Museum in Philadelphia where he served as board chairman. To that museum he gave Chinese treasures and helped fund archaeological excavations. Later he established the Johnson Foundation for Research in Medical Physics at the University of Pennsylvania, gave to the Free Library and Deaconess Home in Camden, the Community church in Dover, the Moorestown, N.J. Community House, and the Merion War Tribute House in Merion.

The Merion Tribute House

One week after the Armistice ended World War I in 1918, a committee in Merion voted to consider a “Peace Memorial Community House.” By the following April subscriptions were coming in slowly. Civic Association board members were urged to underwrite the fund, and five dances at the Overbrook Golf Club were planned to raise money. Suddenly two “angels” materialized in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge Reeves Johnson, residents of Merion, made rich by his very popular Victrola and wax records to play on it, products of the Victor Talking Machine Company (later sold to RCA). America and the world danced to Victrola’s music. The Johnsons offered to give their house, carriage house, and $250,000 to cover design and construction of a new building and to double the $70,000 already collected as an endowment. It was estimated that maintenance of the Tribute House would cost $7,089 per year, and income from the fund would be $7,150. The Johnsons’ gifts were accepted with gratitude, and the deed of trust was handed to the newly organized Merion Community Association as trustees, in May 1922. The Johnsons thereafter moved to New Jersey to be nearer his Victrola plant.

Local architects Livingston Smith and Walter Karcher, who lost a son in the war, went to work and developed a set of plans. Edward Bok, president of the Civic Association, with only a tinge of jealousy perhaps, declared the drawings “so ornate, so palatial…I cannot endorse or recommend them,” which delayed matters. But Johnson’s son, Fenimore, insisted on this “most beautiful structure of its kind” and ended the argument.

The old Johnson house, The Chimneys, was demolished. The driveway of the original house was partially preserved, a massive granite front step became the lintel over the door from the porte-cochere in the new building, and the limestone balustrade of the Johnson home was transferred to the new flagstone terrace. Stone for the building was shaped on site, unusual in modern times and mullions and jambs were cut by hand. The tower is embellished by three lifesize figures in high relief: a soldier, a sailor and a marine in battle dress. Below, in the main hall, memorial plaques list men of Merion who served in both wars.

On May 12, 1924, the Tribute House was dedicated. The building was conceived as a gathering place for the residential community around it, with a tearoom and a small kitchen, meeting rooms, ballroom/movie theater/concert hall with organ, and outside, a playground. A director originally lived in the bungalow built behind the parking area, now rented, and Scouts still use the old carriage house.

Today the tearoom, organ and movie projectors are gone, while weddings, corporate gatherings, bar mitzvahs, and occasions of all sorts are celebrated by renters from miles around and community service meetings are frequent. Air conditioning makes for pleasant summer use and two fireplaces lend atmosphere in winter. The Merion Tribute House hosts more than two hundred events each year.

Memorial plaques and military symbols in the main hall.
The Tribute House from the front.
The Lounge, c. 1927, a comfortable gathering place for teas, socials and meetings.
The Legion Room, c. 1932, a sanctuary for American Legion Post 545 members, (Merion World War I veterans for whom the building was dedicated).
Community Red Cross Ladies roll bandages in the Tribute House Legion Room during World War II.
A horse drawn snow plow clears a path on a Merion Street in 1923 to assist homeowners with snow removal. The Merion Civic Association began this service in 1913 and continued it for 30 years.

Edward Bok (1863-1930) came as a boy from the Netherlands to Brooklyn, New York and steadily advanced without much more than a primary education, to become smart, rich, generous, bossy, famous and most importantly for our purpose, a resident of Lower Merion.

  • Selected by Cyrus Curtis to edit his popular Ladies’ Home Journal in Philadelphia, Edward wooed, and later won, 15-year old Mary Louise Curtis, built her a house in Merion and fathered two worthy sons, Curtis (later a judge) and Cary. Mary Louise, when domestic life became less demanding, founded the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924.; For thirty years editor of America’s most significant women’s magazine, Edward Bok recruited famous authors for articles, including Theodore Roosevelt, who in the course of time wrote a pamphlet, Model Merion to boost his friend’s Merion Civic Association originally organized in Bok’s living room. Mary Louise’s devotion to music prompted Edward’s first philanthropic efforts, following his many World War charities, namely his fifteen year campaign to place the Philadelphia Orchestra on firm financial footing. He was the quintessential man of influence for improving things.
  • The Americanization of Edward Bok, a glowing autobiography, won the author a Pulitzer Prize in 1921. That done, Bok established the Philadelphia Award of $10,000 given annually to a contributor to the community (examples: Leopold Stokowski, conductor; Russell H. Conwell, founder of Temple University; Samuel Yellin, artisan; and finally the American Peace Award (a.k.a. the “Bok Peace Prize”) for a practicable plan to achieve and preserve world peace.
  • His final resting place is now a National Historic Landmark: Bok Tower Gardens, 157 acres in central Florida, a sanctuary of music, flowers, birdsong and beauty to this very day.