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Theobald Harsch, 1900 Narberth contractor

Living History With Ted Goldsborough

Edward Davis Lewis is the grandson of Theobold Harsch, Narberth contractor c. 1900, and an owner of part of a quarry on Rock Hill Road in Bala Cynwyd. Harsch provided crushed stone for “paving” some Narberth streets. He built a stone house on Sabine Ave. in Narberth that is still standing in 2020. Recorded August 2013.


Ted Goldsborough Hello and welcome to another program of Living History with Ted Goldsborough and today’s guest Ed Lewis. Ed lives in Gladwyne but today we’re going to find out about his grandfather named Theobald Harsch and Mr. Lewis would you tell me about Mr. Harsch?

Ed Lewis Well, Ted, it’s Ed.

TG Oh, thank you, sir, thank you.

EL No, no, Theobald Harsch was my grandfather but I never knew him because he died in 1909 but I put it together over the years things that my mother told me about him and researching in history and um so I can tell you he was part of the history of Narberth and he was born in a little town called Nördlingen in South Germany in Württemberg in 1861. um Now Württemberg at that time was an independent province but after the Franco-Prussian wars it became part of the Prussian Germany and when the militaristic Prussians came in they instituted a universal conscription and my grandfather at that age 17 did not want to go into a Prussian army so on a bright sunny Sunday morning while his family were in church he skipped out and he walked all the way south into Italy, into the Tirol.

TG About how many miles would that be, ed, about? A hundred?

EL About a hundred miles I would guess, yeah, but over the mountains, over the Alps.

TG Where’s he sleeping, where’s he getting food?

EL Well, he must have slept by the roadside, er heh, I don’t know that part of the story but I mean what I do know is to have my mother always told me this story and how he must have told her but after a winter with an Italian family he walked then all the way to Vienna which could be an another two or three hundred miles and he walked barefoot to save his shoe leather so that when he got to the big imperial capital of Vienna he had shoes to wear. And um you know is it in the early 1880s Vienna was the cultural and economic capital of the big Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Emperor Franz-Joseph had the the old urg palace called Schönbrunn and my grandfather went there and got a job as a gardener.

Now the Emperor Franz-Joseph was very interested in horticulture and he had built great um greenhouses and had botanical collections of, you know, trees and plants from all over the planet and in that climate my father, my grandfather, learned the art of landscaping and horticulture.

TG Do we have a picture of that? Did you get that off of the internet?

EL Yes, we do. This is a picture of this great glass greenhouse and you get a sense of the kind of gardens that were were there. And the empress um, his wife I can’t um, her, CC! [Sophie] …was an equestrian, she loved horses and she rode so the stables of the palace were well stocked with the beautiful Lipizzani and so he also learned horsemanship.

But by the time he was 21 he saved up enough money so he could go to, his dream of coming to America and um he sent a letter to his mother to meet him at Bremerhaven where he boarded the ship and she came and bid him goodbye and he never saw her, they never saw each other again.

TG After he ran away from home, did he correspond with them again?

EL He probably did, but you know he couldn’t go back into Germany where he’d be arrested, yeah, done.

And so he came to Philadelphia in 1883. Now Philadelphia in 1883 was the big thriving port city, it was post-civil war, it was booming with banking, the railroad business and shipping, manufacturing . And also there were you know many many European immigrants coming in and there was a sizable German community here. But you know there had been a German community here ever since William Penn.

TG 1700s, too, the millers on Mill Creek but…

EL Theobald Harsch went to, up to Callowhill street where there was a family from Nördlingen, they called the Rumps and Charles Rump had started leather goods company and it later became the it was 06:19 famous for making wallets and purses and such. And he stayed with them, but probably only briefly because he soon moved out to Lower Merion to Libertyville.

TG Which is part of Narberth today on Montgomery Avenue.

EL Libertyville it was really a little village surrounding, close to the, um, General Wayne Inn which had been there since pre-revolutionary days. But it still functioned as a as a overnight, you know, mmm, like a motel right um and they served hot meals and tone and it also served as, like, the clearinghouse for local gossip and business news and such. And he probably went right there and stayed there and um met a man who lived across the street who had a blacksmith shop. Because, notice it’s 1880, cargos and things were being hauled along Lancaster Pike by, by wagons, by horses, and blacksmith shop was part of keeping the horses shoed and fixing the wheels of the wagons and so on.

And just up the hill from the, well, it was right next to the old Merion Meeting House, but in back of that was a horse racing, what do you call it, a track where they had harness racing, right, and they had a great big hotel building there and the the affluent people of the Main Line would go there to show off their horses and fine arrainment.

TG But but his German experience with horses was appropriate.

EL Exactly. And this is why he found himself at home in this community and at that time on the moneyed families of Philadelphia were buying up old Welsh Quaker farms and turning them into kind of estate houses. And so he found a lucrative business in doing landscaping and that’s how he got established in Lower Merion.

TG And then, well let me see, where are we? Did he know other people in Lower Merion at that time?

EL Well, one of the other persons he met right away was Luther Parsons and Luther Parsons was a fixture in Narberth for years he lived to and well into his 90s. And, but Luther Parsons at that time had a blacksmith shop and a carriage shop down in Bala Cynwyd and we have a picture of it.

TG At Montgomery and Parsons Avenue!

EL Yeah and you he’s in, one of these people lined up in front of the blacksmith shop

TG He even has a street named after him, Parsons Avenue.

EL Oh, really, I didn’t know that.

TG Yeah yeah, he was like your grandfather. He became an entrepreneur and he built houses, twin houses, up that street and he occupied one of those house, but he was into real estate.

EL Really? Yeah well maybe that’s how he got my father, my grandfather interested in that.

TG Well now tell me, you know, we got to keep on moving here, we got the Belmont racetrack which was over…

EL All right, about this, about 1890, he, my grandfather, was successful enough that he wrote to his sister and her husband and urged them to come over, which they did, and they brought along a young 21-year-old woman

TG Just by coincidence! Ha-ha-ha!

EL By coincidence, but she was she was a cousin, a distant cousin of this Harsch family.

TG And a beautiful girl!

EL And within a year um my grandfather and Joanna Maier were married and um they rented a house in Narberth which is, as it turns out, the oldest house in Narberth.

TG On Shady Lane.

EL On Shady Lane, right, I hope we’re going to have

TG It still exists.

EL mmm-hmm and they rented that on house from the owner.

TG Was that Hagy? Did you mention Hagy?

EL Yes, I think it was the Hagy family.

TG That’s interesting.

EL But you know, Ted, that the kitchen wing of that house is an original log cabin that goes back to the first settler in Lower Merion, was it Catherine Jones, one of the Quakers then came here.

TG Now they’re renting and they started a family.

EL And they started a family and within a very short time, a matter of eight years or so, they had four children. My mother was the oldest. She was born in 1893 and Helen and then William Frederick Harsch and then Frederick Harsch. The four of them and

TG And they’re still in this rental property.

EL They were in that rental property and about that time um Elm, the station stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad, was being, the area around that was being developed. The owner of it was Joseph Price, I think it was Joseph Price?

TG Joseph.

Ed, we’ve got to take a little break but we’ll be right back with Ed Lewis talking about the Harsch family.