Farms were hobbies along the Mainline
by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
The nice thing about being rich is that you can afford expensive pursuits. Those who became wealthy before the advent of income tax could afford almost anything. More than that, they had the time to enjoy these hobbies. It’s almost impossible to understand the difference in lifestyle between a wealthy person a century ago and today. Today the only real difference between someone rich in business and one hoping to become rich is the price of the house they go home to late every night and the car in which they make the trip.
At the turn of the last century most wealthy businessmen spent weeks away from their work each year. For some even their businesses required only part-time involvement. They were owners; unless they ran the businesses themselves, they had plenty of time to count their money, and more importantly, spend it. If their father had made the family fortune, even better. If they chose, other than perhaps an occasional board meeting, the heirs were free to pursue whatever they pleased.
As the wealthy moved into the healthy countryside of the Main Line, they looked around and saw prosperous Quaker farms. Many of these new residents purchased large estates upon which to summer, and turned portions into farms. The farms were not expected them to make money. In those days the quality of foodstuffs depended a great deal on where you got it – there was no Acme on the corner. Vegetables and fruits came from somebody’s farm, and if you wanted it fresh, it was best to grow it yourself.
Milk was another consideration, as freshness wasn’t a taste issue: the lack of it could kill you. If the milk came from your own cows, you could insure the highest standard cleanliness. The process offered an interesting avocation, as did breeding cattle for particular qualities, like the butterfat volume of the milk or the amount they produced each day.
These weren’t men who did things foolishly. They knew they were amateurs, and that their farms would operate best when managed by a professional. So farm managers were hired to be the men who made sure the necessary things got done and the owner’s goals were met. One gentlemen farmer, Percival Roberts, Jr., went one step further. His farm manager was a veterinarian. Dr. Deubler managed the farm for years, and his daughter, Emily Deubler, now deceased, lived on the farm for 45 years. In October 1996. she discussed her life at Penshurst Farm as a part of the oral history program of the Lower Merion Historical Society. She’d been a teacher for decades inthe Lower Merion School District.
“We had lived at Penshurst Farm from 1912 to 1957, when my fatherdied,” she said. “My father was the superintendent and the farm veterinarian. He planned the farm work and the care of the animals. There were some sheep in a barnon State Road, a large chicken farm on Fairview, in addition to the cattle and pigs.” The Deublers weren’t what you would call a typical farm family: both of Emily’s brothers became veterinarians. “Jim graduated from Auburn, and Pearson added to a long list of Deublers from Penn,” she said. “I graduated from the Bouve School in Boston, I got my masters from Penn. Our Mother, Anna, was a graduate of the Penn School of Nursing. She and Dad met while they were in college.” She then returned later to teach girl’s gym at the Bala Cynwyd Junior High for 30 years.
“Mr. Roberts had bought several small farms to make up Penshurst. According to her description, the Roberts farm started at the northeast corner of the intersection of Righters Mill and Hagy’s Ford Roads and continued east down the road to Woodbine Avenue. “Just beyond the dairy entrance was an old house that was the boardinghouse for the men who worked in this part of the farm,” she said. There was a huge silo next to a large feed barn. “A paved walkway led from there to three large dairy barns each holding about 100 cows; calf barns and a maternity barn were next,” she said. In the center were a stone office building, the main farm office and Dr. Deubler’s office. Another walkway went from the milking barns down the meadow to the dairy. There was a water tower on the property, and Roberts had developed his own electrical system and water pumping machinery. “The house where we lived for about 45 years is on the right. It must have been the main house for one of the earlier farms,” she said. The original house was made of two-foot thick stone walls and held a cellar, then two rooms divided by a stairway rising three floors.
Roberts, whose fortune came from the original Pencoyd Iron Works and its evolution to a part of U.S. Steel is the stuff of legends, not for the farm, but for the huge 75-room mansion. As an old man he was angry with Lower Merion, for a number of reasons. One was their demand that milk be pasteurized, a concept Roberts thought was only for those who produced low-quality products. Also, the township built an incinerator and the smoke stack was visible from his mansion. He moved from the mansion to the Bellevue Strafford Hotel in Philadelphia and demolished the mansion. Even on the jaded Main Line, that demonstration of the freedom of immense wealth watered many rich men’s eyes.
Another working farm showed the evolution of a farm with improvements in the availability and quality of foods. Initially it was part of the huge Welsh Robert’s family holdings, which were subdivided into manageable farms in 1852. Forty years later, in 1892, a Philadelphia industrialist and paper merchant, Irwin Megargee, developed the 43-acre site as an elaborate gentleman’s dairy and horse farm called Folly Farm. It featured a caretaker’s cottage, a large stone barn, stables, macadam drives and a swimming basin. His manager was a fellow named John Roberts Doran. His now 92-year-old granddaughter lived on the farm until 1938, when they moved into the house she now occupies in Gladwyne.
Her connection to the farm spanned three owners – and even three names – as after her grandfather, her father managed the farms and she grew up in the caretaker’s cottage. She eventually became a teacher in Lower Merion, and friends with another caretaker’s daughter and schoolteacher, Emily Deubler. “Mr. Megargee lived there in the summer with his wife and four children,” she said. “He loved horses and loved to ride to the hunt,” she said. “But unlike a lot of men then, he took care of his hunters after they were too old to hunt rather than sending them off to the dog-food factory. He also kept foxes for the hunt in hutches there, and recently when I was at Rolling Hills, I actually saw a fox – there are still some around there,” she said.
“The farm produced much of the food they ate,” she recalled. “Everybody had apple orchards and other trees scattered around the property. There were apple, pear and nut trees, or whatever people found useful. We also had a smokehouse and slaughtered our pigs and butchered them, then smoked the meat.” Megargee had one hunter that Doran said was a beautiful horse that he used to pull a cart to the Reading Railroad’s Merion Square station, now called Gladwyne. “He would then take the train to Manayunk, which was a prosperous city in its own right, or Philadelphia,” she said.
This part of the Welsh Barony wasn’t the Main Line, and residents considered Conshohocken and Manayunk their towns. In spite of its current affluence and gentility, in the 19&#supth; century Merion Station was home for a rough and ready crowd of mill and farm workers, a place smart people avoided on a Saturday night.
When Megargee came down with TB, his wife asked Doran to move with his family on the property, which they did. “She needed someone on hand – there weren’t telephones and if you needed the doctor you had to send someone to get them and bring them backto the farm,” she said. “When my grandparents moved into the cottage, it was furnished, with items given by Mrs. Megargee, some of which I still have,” she said. Two years later Megargee died and his widow sold the estate in 1909 to investment banker C. Paul Hagenlocher.
Hagenlocher was extremely wealthy. He thought Folly Farm was too flippant a name and changed the it to Penn-y-Bryn and continued the gentleman’s farming tradition. “He didn’t like the Megargee’s house, so he tore it down and built another even fancier house on the property and built it with music in mind,” she said. “Their family was very musical, and the grand room included a huge organ, with the pipes located at the top of the open stairway. They would hold Sunday recitals and have a buffet afterwards,” she said. “We used to love it because they’d send the leftover food down to us on Monday.”
The stock market crash brought it all to an end in 1929 as Hagenlocher lost his fortune and sold the farm to Walter C. Pew. “My mother met Mrs. Hagenlocher on the street in Philadelphia several years later. She was living in a rented room and her daughter was working, she said, as a housekeeper for a Jewish family,” Doran said. “I don’t know why she emphasized they were Jewish, but my mother always commented on that. Mr. Hagenlocher was found dead in a hotel room in New York shortly after he sold the farm,” she said. “I think it was all so pathetic.”
Walter Pew was grandson of the founder of Sun Oil, and renamed the property Roiling Hill Farm. In the 1930s producing your own food and milk was no longer an issue, as electric refrigeration solved both the health and freshness issues. Pew really didn’t see the property as a farm, but he expanded his land holdings to create a significant suburban estate. He added tennis courts and a swimming pool west of the house. By 1938 Pew had added sections of the Bicking and Nipper mill parcels along Mill Creek, land with at least four stone residences for mill workers built prior to 1850.
The Pews were followed by their two children as residents of Rolling Hill Farm until the 1950s. By 1958 family members had left the mansion unoccupied. The remains were demolished and the Pews never used the site again. When the estate went up for sale, the Lower Merion Township was able to buy the land and turn it into Rolling Hill Park, one of the few open spaces left on what used to be nothing but open space.