John Roberts of the Mill

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

When the good ship Morning Star touched shore on Nov. 20, 1683 there were threemen named John Roberts on board. It was not an uncommon name then for the Welsh, and isn’t an unheard of name on the Main Line today.

In fact, Roberts is one of the best know of the Welsh in this area, because of the estates one of the families held in Bala Cynwyd. But there were other Roberts, as that one small boatload of Welsh immigrants proves. One of them gave Mill Creek its name. He was known as John Roberts “of the Mill” or “of the Wain” (wagon) — a “yeoman and millwright” from Denbighshire, Wales.

In 1682 he’d purchased the rights to 500 acres of the land granted by William Penn to the Welsh immigrants – many of them Quakers – seeking religious freedom in the Colonies. He set out for the Colonies on the Morning Star and landed “upstream” of the Penn’s original landing place (which is in what is now New Castle, Del.) That upstream landing was at what became Philadelphia.

In fact, Roberts evidently never purchased all 500 acres. Records show that he only bought 250. Selling some of the land, he received a “warrant” on 250 acres in 1702; the “patent” on the property was granted to his grandson in 1743.

As a part of the land purchase, he also received 10 acres of what was called “Liberty Land.” According to Christine Jones, who is the vice president of the Lower Merion Historical Society and also lives in the house built by the Roberts family, the 10 acres was located in what is now North Philadelphia. “That’s the origin of the name of the “Northern Liberties” neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Somebody at that time must have figured out not everyone was going to head for the wilderness and live on their tracts of land. So for an immigrant craftsman or yeoman from Wales or England the 10 acres was a nice piece of land, and the plots were more than likely used as a truck farm for vegetables or milk cattle for a town-based worker.

But Roberts wasn’t of that ilk: he headed up the Schuylkill River seeking out his share of that era’s “land of milk and honey.” Twenty miles west in the wilderness awild tumbling stream cut through his tract of land. At a natural waterfall Roberts would have seen the perfect site for a mill, the power source of the Colonial Era.

Mills ground flour, powered saws to cut lumber and were absolutely essential to the creation of a thriving community in the wilderness. “There isn’t any documentation of when Roberts actually first got to his land, what his first buildings were or where they were located. But he built a mill, and eventually, a house,” Jones says. There is still some dispute on where his original dwelling was. “There is a house which was originally a log cabin that was downstream from the mill site,” she says. “By local tradition it is called the “1690 House” because of a plaque under its peak which is of questionable accuracy,” she says.

But Jones doubts if it is the first house of Roberts. According to her, a recently discovered article from a 1905 Chronicle states that plaque “dated 1699” appeared when a log cabin on Mill Creek was “transformed” in 1905 into a “modern dwelling house” with “weather-boarding front and back, plastered ends, a new shingle roof and dormers upstream.

But she thinks a miller wouldn’t have built his dwelling on the Mill Creek floodplain, especially when a short hike up the hills on each side of the stream would eliminate most danger of flooding. Also, the house they purchased in 1984 is known to be the Roberts residence later in the 18th Century and is just up the valley wall from the mill site. “The house was originally a very typical Welsh peasant farmhouse, with one room, a loft, and several outbuildings,” she says.

But that house wasn’t built until later, when Roberts married Elizabeth Owen. Records in 1690 at Haverford Meeting show John Roberts, “bachelor of Wain,” believed to be 60 years of age, married Elizabeth Owen, said to be 18 (though possibly somewhat older). The age difference was not uncommon in those days when Quakers were required to marry within their faith. Welsh settlers traditionally built more substantial homes when they married.

They eventually had four children: Rebecca (1691), John (1695), Matthew (1698) and Joseph (1699). Elizabeth probably died in childbirth. “There are records at Merion Meeting which note the death on August 31, 1699 of an Elizabeth Roberts,” Jones says. “It appears that Roberts’ wife died in childbirth, the reason that no mention of her was made in his will of 1704, the year John Roberts died.”

John and Elizabeth’s eldest son, John, took title to his inheritance in 1716 and he married Hannah Lloyd in 1720. But he was in poor health and died four months before the birth of their son, also named John.

This was John Roberts III, most known for being one of two men executed for treason during the Revolutionary War. He had inherited the land in 1742 and a year later, he married Jane Dowling. He fathered twelve children, of whom ten survived past infancy. Roberts III eventually possessed more than 700 acres and was a prosperous man, with property in both Lower and Upper Merion and even several mills in Maryland.

The year he replaced the earlier mill of his grandfather, Roberts is said to have had a virtual monopoly on milling in Lower Merion. His mills ground flour and other commodities and he was a large employer in the growing area of Lower Merion. “He employed many workers. Additionally, he had fields of grains, an apple orchard, woodland, abundant livestock, fine horses, beehives and servants,” Jones says.

In 1746, Roberts III replaced his grandfather’s original 1684 mill with a stone structure, of which only the far wall remains. The mill was located at what is now the intersection of Old Gulph and Mill Creek Roads where there is still a small group of pre-Revolutionary buildings. The wall stands almost directly on Mill Creek Road, and has been is serious disrepair for decades.

Jones and her husband are very active in the local historical society and were very happy when they moved here from in the early 1980s that this house was in a historical district, even if at the time they bought it, the house was derelict and needed a great deal of work.

After beginning the renovation of their house Christine Jones began agitating for stabilization of the wall in 1983. It isn’t an easy or speedy process, and reams of paperwork are necessary to convince state officials to part with money for historic buildings. But finally in 1991-1992, the Township Board of Commissioners approved a $13,380 Community Development Block Grant to reinforce the wall. Now the Mill Creek Historic District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Finally, repairs to the wall began this summer. The work is being done by a specialist in historical stonework by Joseph Forrest (of Ghyll Beck Construction in Downingtown). A native Englishman, Forrest apprenticed with a building contractor in Yorkshire when he was 15. For those who haven’t been to Yorkshire, it is a great place to learn about rocks: fields are so rocky that sheep are raised because plowing fields simply turns up more rocks.

A 1983 visit to the States with one of his daughters convinced Forrest to settle here. Since 1990 he has specialized in historical renovation: first at Valley Forge National Park, then an ambitious nine month stabilization of Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River. He’s also worked of the renovation of historic private homes in Germantown, Sugartown and West Chester (Greystone Hall).