By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
It took three years, but The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion is a tour de force of what we now call the Main Line. This project was the historical society’s gift for the Centennial of the Lower Merion Township, which will be celebrated later this month.
But it isn’t about the township, it’s about the area and people that make up the Main Line, although its focus is clearly on what is traditionally considered Lower Merion, including both the township and Narberth. In fact, it starts far before political divisions and boundaries were even considered, and the 20th century make up only a small portion of the book.
This is a work which should be on the coffee table of every red or blue blooded resident of the Main Line. It tells a story which begins 12,000 years ago with the Lenape Indians. It shows what life was like through all the eras of our history. More importantly, it creates a document that solidifies the past and makes it real. This is done through a focus of what was happening and who was doing it, rather than being a guided tour of historic structures.
Gladwyne resident Dick Jones is editor-in-chief and designer of the 284-page book. A professional communicator, Jones came to the area from New York City. He’s a founder and creative director of Dorland Sweeny Jones advertising agency and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. He dedicates much time to volunteer work for his adopted home.
As the book’s editor he brings an understanding of what appeals to people and how to design to make a subject enjoyable and readable. Perhaps his most daunting task was to take the work of more than 80 volunteer writers and contributors with varying perspectives, priorities and methods and make a book out of it.
In reading this book, perhaps the highest compliment is that it is so professionally done that it is difficult to tell that this is a project of love by a group of dedicated people. It looks and reads well. A very large collection of artwork and historical photographs makes this more than just a good read, it shows, as well as tells, its story.
While the book is 284 pages long, the first drafts fill a very large box. It’s a tribute to Jones’ ability that he could edit these into a cohesive narrative. More importantly, it does more than tell the story. Throughout the book are sidebars filled with remembrances, quirky stories and interesting tidbits that remind the reader that this is a history of people. It would be too easy in a book such as this with the stunning collection of historic locations to make this a book about bricks and mortar. While that would be a fine book, it wouldn’t be as complete and important.
Anyone reading this book will look differently as they drive through the area. Street names will have new meanings, winding roads will remind readers of Washington’s troops tromping through the Welsh Tract countryside.
The book will also correct some “truths,” as well. For instance, while most feel that this is the Main Line because of the barons of the Pennsylvania Railroad, that term far predates them. The relationship between the first inhabitants and the native Americans which was so different than in other colonies — is explained by the Quaker beliefs of those settlers.
That is where the book begins, with the Lenape, who many misname the Delaware Indians. It is perhaps the defining relationship that shaped the Welsh Quakers who first settled here their peaceable nature fit well with the Lenape.
Although this wasn’t a hot bed of the revolutionaries who ripped this nation out of Britain’s grip, there were major parts played by people from here. There were others who weren’t so excited about independence. They are a part of the story, too.
The tale then follows the Conestoga wagons heading west, documenting the taverns and inns which were the centers of pioneer society. It tells the stories, good and bad, of the early residents who shaped the Main Line. It explains the way the land was granted, farms build and businesses started and then passed down through families, as well as sold to new immigrants.
From them came towns and villages, many named something other than they are now. But they began the wealth that has marked the Main Line. Originally a richness of land and farms and religion, it became an area rich in manufacturing, with mills lining the creeks and rivers.
Eventually this wealth led to society’s interest in good schools and churches. Some of them are centuries old, some from this century. All are respected and have trained the minds and souls of thousands of the Main Line’s citizens. But all of our history wasn’t serious work, horse racing, cricket, golf, cycling, music and socializing are a part of our history and of this book.
Finally there are the residents. Some of them have passed into history unknown, except as a the workers who built America. They are African Americans, Irish, Germans, and Middle Europeans who joined the Welsh in what had been the Welsh Tract.
But the rich and famous made more of a mark, thanks to the uncountable wealth created by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the finance and law communities of Philadelphia. They came and turned their wealth into mansions who’s architecture and gardens are every bit as memorable as any in America. And it’s not just beauty, they represent a documentation of the success of the American Experiment.
Whether it is Pew of Sun Oil Company or Charles E. Hires of root beer fame, hundreds of mansions defined the modern Main Line. Now many are clumped behind new, small houses, or turned into retirement homes, but their glory, and the glory of our entire heritage, is ever alive in this book.
The First 300 is dedicated to W. Robert Swartz, a former president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, and retired owner of a photography business in Ardmore. His collection of thousands of pictures forms the basis of the book’s photographs.
Celebrate the book and meet the authors Sunday
The Lower Merion Historical Society celebrates the publication of The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion at the General Wayne Inn, Sunday at 2 p.m.
More than 85 historians, educators, archivists, writers, architects, artists and local residents did the research and wrote the text. Many of them will be at the affair, ready to sign copies of the book.
The Book Launch celebration at the General Wayne Inn includes a luncheon buffet, cost $20 Reservations may be made by calling (610) 664-3216. Books will be available for purchase at a cost of $39.95.
Theses are the people who’s dedication, as well as knowledge, made this book a reality.
Gloria O. Becker, Ph.D.
Marshal Joseph Becker, Ph.D.
General Julius W. Becton, Jr.
Dr. James H. Billington
Patrick J. Broderick
John R. Clark
Jeffrey A. Cohen
Selma & Edgar Davis
Jo Anne Debes
Debbi Della Porta
Mrs. M. J. Divine
Richard J. Donagher
Timothy & Mary Eldridge
Gerald A. Francis
James B. Garrison
John M. Groff
Hugh Lloyd Hamilton, III
John H. Hepp, IV
William L. Hires
Smith Hamill Horne
Mary L Krim
Edward Davis Lewis
Alice B. Lonsdorf
William L. McLean, III
Rev. Dr. Paree Metjian
Ross Lance Mitchell
J. M. Ada Match
Karen R. Nagel
Alison J. Reed
Joan C. Roberts
Rev. Arthur H. Rodgers
W. Robert Swartz
Maria M. Thompson
Steven A. Tolbert, Jr.
Elizabeth Coles Umstattd
Dr. Frederick Wagner
Robert D Weiss
Joan K. Wolf
Mary M. Wood