Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 1
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: January, 1938 Volume 1 Number 2, Pages 19–27
Chronicles of Old Cockletown in Tredyffrin and Easttown, in ye goodly province of Pennsylvania
Sometime during the late Colonial or pre-Revolutionary period a straggling hamlet of less than a score of humble homes extended for half a mile or more along the Provincial, later known as the Lancaster, Conestoga or Old Road; from a short distance in Easttown east of the Fox Tavern, to a little beyond Peggy's Corner in Tredyffrin; and flourished up to the Turnpike era. Although situated on the first and chief inland highway of the Province, it was somewhat isolated locally. The nearest crossroads, the Welsh Line or Baptist Road was a mile to the east, and the Bear Road a mile and a half to the west.
There then existed, however, a private wood road or right of way, through the Atkinson, later John Reese land, leading down to the Griffith John plantation in the valley and on out to the Swedesford Road near Wilson's Corner. Another bypath began at Peggy's Corner, which gave access to the Neilleys' and continued down the wooded ravine to the Black Swan distillery and beyond through the John and Reese plantations, with several gates, to the Swedes ford road opposite the present entrance to the Chesterbrook Farm.
A third ancient lane, a quarter of a mile west of Peggy's Corner, entered deeply in the hills and turned to a dead end in Prissy's bottom, giving access to the residents of some five or six log houses on the southern exposure of the hills; but this right of way extended no further, except by footpath to Howell's Tavern, now Howellville.
Scarcely more than a hundred yards north of the Old Road at any point and sometimes bordering it, was an almost unbroken forest of deciduous timber, with here and there a stand of pitch pine, and frequently a dense border of red cedar.
The hills and ravines of the Slate ridge or South Valley hills had also a dense under-growth of laurel and wild grape vine; the small bogs or swamps an almost impenetrable mass of spicewood and green-brier.
The dwellings of this early settlement at Cockletown, perhaps the earliest incipient town of either Easttown or Tredyffrin; were mostly of the log cabin type, built of oak or chestnut logs, with stone chimneys; occasionally one more pretentious had stout stone gable ends.
However, they were mostly small and homely, erected so close to the right of way that the habitants could stop from the doorsill directly into the road. On one side was the wood pile and the well with its windlass and oaken bucket; on the other the lye barrel, the lilac bush, the clump of hollyhocks, and more than likely the pig pen.
Few of these squatters, tenants or small land owners, kept a horse; "Shank's Mare" was the custom when going away; but few were without a cow, at least two hogs and a flock of poultry.
The cleared plots were not extensive, though large enough to grow enough corn, potatoes, cabbage, turnips and pumpkins to carry the stock and family over the winter.
They planted five grains of corn to the hill, according to the proverb: "One for the blackbird, one for the crow; One to rot, and two to grow."
However remote from town, Cockletown was by no means lonely. Until about 1730 the Old Road had been almost exclusively a packhorse trail, as it had been more anciently an Indian path. Later it became a thoroughfare fifty feet wide for traders, emigrants, drovers, freighters in Conestoga wagons, etc., deep in mire or dust, according to the season or state of the weather, and the small homesteader could no longer plant his corn in the middle of the road and require the occasional traveler to detour as best he could.
This hamlet, which I shall later describe in detail, was only locally known as Cockletown, but whether given in honor of the alleged ancient Cymeric national flower, the bulwg rhufain or corn cockle, as some affirm; or in derision, after the tare, by the more prosperous valley farmers, who certainly regarded the hill clearings as "fit only for growing timber and weeds"; is an open question.
Sachse, on the authority of Hannah Spright, whose ancestors had not left Saxony until immediately preceding the Revolution, gave the name as "Cockoldtown". There is also mention of a "Cockoldtown" in Washington's Valley Forge orderly book, in connection with the post of Col. Goose Van Schaik's New York regiment, which was probably in the rear of the camp, somewhere along Nutt Road.
I believe this latter name to be erroneous in form and implication in regard to our town, though "Cockold" is an ancient corruption of the Celtic "Cockle". I have in manuscript form the statement of Elizabeth Burn, nee Jones, who was born in 1797, four miles east of this place and an actual resident here from 1832 to 1879. Her parents and grand parents were residents of Radnor and often traveled over this road. She asserted that this place was called Cockletown and that the name was derived from the cornflower, an imported European weed closely related to the ragged robin, which flourished and became very troublesome in the wheat fields.
She had a rich fund of reminiscence, but evidently had never heard of the form given later by Dr. Sachse, which conveyed an implication, doubtless originating in the vulgar wit of some scandal-monger of later days.
The settlement at first had no other means of lighting the cabin than that furnished by the open fireplace, but after awhile the settler became more affluent and tallow dips came in fashion and their use gave rise to a popular riddle amongst the young people:
"Little Nancy Etticoat, With a white petticoat, And a red nose; The longer she stands, The shorter she grows."
Another related to the building of the great chimney:
"Patch upon patch, hole in the middle; If you tell me this riddle I'll give you a gold fiddle."
Well dressed, notched and chinked log dwellings, though snug and warm, had one great fault. The American bug indigenous to the inner bark of the ancient hemlock, frequently transferred their domestic life to the log cabin and were difficult to eradicate. This condition of affairs gave expression to a none too polite or delicate valedictory:
"Good night! Sleep tight! Don't let the bugs bite!"
Proceeding westward on the Old Lancaster Road in Easttown, there were two small log houses on the north side, one in front of where Westley Jones, shoemaker, built his new frame house in 1862, and the other close to the entrance to the late Dr. Okie's place. On the south side there was at least one, possibly two log dwellings.
This land was a small part of the 2,000 acre tract patented by William Wood and William Sharlow, surveyed 8,21,1684, and in the sub-division of 1,000 acres (a resurvey showed 1,100 acres) of the latter, Nov. 28, 1704. The entire tract then came into the possession of Richard Harrison, and later, Sept. 11, 1746, Samuel Harrison, and 119 acres later to Standish Ford.
Then came the Fox Tavern, the only building entirely of stone. Its erection is of unknown date, Sachse informs us that it was kept by Fox from 1792 to 1797, and by David Llewellyn until 1804, when it ceased to be a place of public entertainment and became a country store.
Its site marked the extreme northeastern corner of the 1,000 acre tract "Travelywyn" of William Wood. The northern quarter section of 250 acres came into the possession of ten persons in succession, the last being Peter Elliot, Apr, 15, 1723, and this tract was sub-divided until the Fox Tavern lot of 15 acres was sold for 300 pounds by Henry and Barbara Zook to John Llewellyn on Apr. 10, 1795. John and Ann Llewellyn sold it for 445 pounds to Christian Houseman, Apr, 1, 1797, and the latter on March 29, 1802, sold it for 431 pounds to William Neil.
The original house was demolished about 1900 by the late Joseph Williams' family to make way for a more modern dwelling. Joseph Williams, Jr. has often found old English coins while digging in the vicinity, probably relics of the pitch-penny period of ye old times.
The next tract on the south side of the road is also mostly in Easttown and early belonged to Peter Elliot who came from Radnor and was a blacksmith. This was lately the James G. Francis tract.
There was an ancient roadway, beginning on the Old Road and running through the Elliot tract. Its exact location is now a matter of speculation though it was once known as the Elliot road to the Springhouse Tavern. The late Morris Lewis remembered as a boy that it was a Sunday afternoon resort for the penny-pitching idle; especially where it joined the Old Road.
The early Tredyffrin ownership of the land on which Cockletown was situated, appears less complicated than that of the Easttown end. William Standly patented 300 acres between the two Welsh lines, Baptist Road and the Welsh Line near Peggy's Corner. This was a strip immediately north of the Easttown line. Its entire acreage was acquired by John Day (will, 3,16,1692).
James Atkinson was the next owner (May 24, 1703); a resurvey, 3,14,1703, found 330 acres, nevertheless it passed into the possession of the following owners as 300 acres.
Oct. 5, 1713, Edward and Grace Peachwell
The latter or his son disposed of the aforesaid tract in smaller parcels and all of the western part is included in the ancient hamlet of Cockletown, which I shall proceed to describe. On the north side of the Old Road there was a stone and log dwelling about where Dr. Wharton's house now stands, but closer to the road. This may have been built by Abel Thomas, carpenter, who owned about 70 acres in the vicinity, mostly in the woods, in 1783. This house was later occupied by Widow Jane Dane after she had retired from the Springhouse Tavern.
A short distance west and on the opposite side there was a blacksmith shop. The site was probably immediately in front of the cottage built recently by Levering Latch, where scrap iron and a cannon ball was recently unearthed.
The late Mrs. Benjamin Longaker, nee Lewis, informed the writer that she remembered this building from her early girlhood when it was in a tumbledown condition. It had the appearance even then of being very ancient and was reputed haunted--lights appearing in the windows as if the ghost of the blacksmith had returned and was busied relighting the forge. Peter Elliot may have followed his calling in this building.
The John Reese house, now the residence of Rev. Dr. Sagebeer, doubtless dates from the Reese ownership. This, of logs, now weather-boarded. The low, long barn dated from 1830 and was removed about 1880.
The farm and woods tract of 63 acres came into the possession of John Thomas and wife, who disposed of it, 11,25,1785, for 1800 pounds to John Steinmitz. It lay on either side of the Great Road to Lancaster. The title was cleared 6,1,1793, by conveyance through Sheriff McClelen. On 10,5,1796, Steinmitz and wife disposed of the same in three contiguous tracts and including messuage, to Abel Reese of the Valley. Mention is made here of Peter Elliot's Road, as one of the boundaries of the estate.
Abel Reese in his will, 1,8,1797, bequeathed unto his son John, his plantation of 63 acres, he to pay his sisters Judith and Elizabeth, 100 pounds.
The first house on this farm, was a small one of logs close to the public road, on the extreme southwest corner of that position of land north of the Old Road and close to the entrance of the wood road to Griffith John's plantation in the valley. It was probably built by John Thomas or earlier, in Atkinson's time.
This building has been described to me as of one and a half stories, with door and two small windows in the front. It was removed about 1876, and the site is marked by the well curb.
The original Drove Tavern (or taverns, since the late Reese Moore asserted that there were two connected by an underground passage) was on the site of the Fritz house, and was reached from the Old Lancaster Road by a lane. I have little information of the date or dates of its construction or of the original owner, but have heard many stories of its unsavory reputation.
James Neilley's grandfather was accustomed to visit its barroom, until one night he saw one man stab another; after which he ceased his visits and failed to learn whether the assault was fatal or otherwise.
I think that in 1779 it was kept by Thomas Search; certainly, either this or the last Drove on the Turnpike was kept by John and his son, Abel Reese.
Later the more ancient Drove became the Mount Vernon Boarding School kept by the Rev. William Henry Rees, sometime rector of the St. David's, St. Peter's, and later St. James' Episcopal Churches. He later removed his school to West Chester.
The old building was then remodeled to accommodate Noble Heath's boarding school for boys, and demolished in 1869 by Henry Fritz, Sr.
On the North side of the Old Road and west of the John Reese farm, was the Burns' farm, as it became known. Thomas Godfrey parceled out the Standly grant in smaller lots as before mentioned. Forty acres to Thomas McKean and thirty acres to John Shaw in 1750.
John Shaw sold to Enoch James the 30 acre tract in 1750; Enoch and Rachel James transferred the same, 5,14,1763, to Christian Brannaman, usually listed as "Brandy man" and the executors of the latter to Sebastian Rink, 4,1,1765, Also Thomas McKean to Sebastian Rink the 40 acres, 7,17,1769.
McKean was landlord at the Blueball Tavern, a leading member of the Great Valley Presbyterian Church, uncle of Gov. McKean, and was taxed in Easttown for 400 acres of land. Heretofore we have had Welsh, Scotch-Irish and English owners, but Branaman and Rink were Germans. Recently a mark was erected by the D.A.R, over the grave at St. Peter's, of Ensign George King, who is said to have been a younger son of a German baron. He married in 1756, Catherine, daughter of Christian Brannman.
Rink or Rinke was a shoemaker, vestryman at St. Davids, 1763-1769. The records show that he did not come in absolute possession of the eastern tract of 30 acres until 1765 and the western tract of 40 acres until 1769, though he was probably in residence earlier. His first assessment was erroneously from Easttown. His residence on the western tract not far from the only available spring would seem to indicate an agreement for its purchase, and it was he who replaced the original log cabin with a mansion (in those days) of thick stone gable walls and dressed log front and rear, and caused to be traced deeply in the wet mortar of a countersunk square high up in the west gable "B.R. 1767".
Grandfather used to say that the initials stood for "Balsom Ringer", and it is so recorded by Dr. Quimby in his historical novel, "Valley Forge". The name was corrupted in handing it down. The early tax lists gave his first name either as "Bastin" or "Boston".
Sebastian Rink to Christopher Rue, 4,12,1775.
In 1775, after the conveyance to Rue, Rink disappears. Shortly after this a not uncommon subterfuge incident to the Revolution to prevent confiscation should the Crown prevail, was practiced. Rue, who was a lieutenant of the Easttown militia, conveyed the property to Andrew Steel of the Leopard Tavern, in 1779, two years after Steel have conveyed it to Joseph Griffith, an officer in the Tredyffrin Militia. Steel was a non-combatant. Both officers filed lists of damages inflicted by the British army, aggregating 67 pounds, 2 shillings and 3 pence.
The house is now the residence of George P. Orr, who greatly enlarged and remodeled it. The next habitation was immediately in front of the Robert Doyle residence, long known as Peggy's Corner, an ancient log cote which Dr. Quimby immortalized as "Peggy Hambleton's Cake and Beer Shop".
Old English coins have been excavated here. I remember the site only as a heap of stones at the foot of an ancient cedar. It was replaced by the present small house on the S.E. corner of the Howellville and State roads, in 1846.
The last house on the main highway in Cockletown was near the present MacNamee house occupied by S. Paul Teamer, principal of the High School. It was a long, low structure of logs and of two periods: the easternmost section very old and uninhabitable fifty years ago; the western end built about eighty years age, where a tenant at one time kept a night school.
This tract was mainly west of the old Welsh line which ran from the Newtown Street road through Easttown and Tredyffrin to the Swedesford Road. The following is a brief of title prepared by Howard S. Okie, Esq.
Proprietor's Commissioners to Hugh Roberts, 200 acres, 100 acres of which is to be for the use of Catherine Thomas, Feb. 23, 1702. Warrant of Commissioners for 100 acres as laid out to Thomas and Cadwalader Jones in right of their mother, said Catherine Jones in the Welsh Tract.
It is well to observe that the Iddings before mentioned as owners, were Seventh Day Baptists living on a farm near Darby Creek Road. The daughter Elizabeth was the mother of General Anthony Wayne.
William K. Rees, who resided in this log house with his parents, became rector of the St. David's Church, and later master of the "Mt. Vernon Boarding School" for boys, and his brother, Dr. John W. Rees, had his office across the pike from the Drove Tavern.
Not all of the houses of Cockletown lay close to the main public road; several were hidden in the folds of the wooded ravines leading down to the valley. In "Lewis' Hollow", then reached by a wood road through the Reese land, there was a tract of ten acres which Nathan Hoover, April 3, 1798, sold to William Fullerton, painter. The original log house was embedded in the southern slope of the hill near the upper spring. The foundation and garden walls have long since disappeared and the site is now marked only by a large lilac bush.
"Neilley's Hollow" also contained inhabitants. There was a small log cabin on the crest of the hill above the springs (in the midst of Doyle's nursery). This, I believe, belonged to the Reese family at one time, later to John Monton Davis. The site was long marked by a pile of small stone and a Bell pear tree. Tradition states its early tenants operated a small distillery at the source of Trout Run immediately below, probably the Black Swan.
Tradition also refers to a linen weaver's shop near the late William H. Doyle's residence, but of what date I am unable to learn.
Of the two or three original Cockletown houses now standing, the Neilley house is the oldest. The homestead of one or more acres is said to have been part of an original grant of 100 acres to Thomas and Cadwalader Jones by right of their mother. James Neilley, according to family history written by Hannah Epright, was born in the County Antrim, Ireland; came to America in 1768, and set up a handloom for linen weaving in 1775. In 1781 he received a deed for the house and four acres, though living in the house several years prior to this date.
There is also said to have been a deed bearing the date of 1766, therefore it is possible that he arrived at an earlier date than here recorded, since it appears that he borrowed money from one of the Rees family in 1752, not satisfied of record, so William Doyle informed me.
This house was built of stone on the living rock, the rear buried in the side of the hill; the superstructure of logs and the original bowed roof was thatched with rye straw. One room in the basement, two on the first floor and an unceiled garret. The shop for weaving was an abandoned stable one and a half stories high, with earthen floor and no provision for heating. It stood immediately in front of the house and was demolished about 1880, and a small out-story annex added to the west side of the cottage, which served for a carpet weaving loom for the last Neilley, also a James.
In the recent renovation of this old house, William Doyle was careful to retain all the outward features, so that while the interior was made comfortable, the exterior presents much of the characteristics of by gone days.
Thus did Cockletown, without plan or forethought, come into existence. Just a typical community of its time, composed mainly of mechanics and small farmers combined, but an essential part of the rural economy of a growing colony, for during the long and tedious harvest, the carpenter, mason, weaver, shoemaker, and blacksmith dropped the tools of their several trades, to take up the sickle or the scythe to aid the hard-pressed farmer harvest his crops. This was the custom even when the cradle replaced the cruder tools and many of the workmen were very expert, priding themselves on their ability to keep a clean swath or bind the most sheaves.
The inhabitants of Cockletown doubtless absorbed material for years of gossip in the series of important military events beginning in the early autumn of 1777 with the marching past their doors of the Continental Army with Washington at the head, to again oppose the enemy after the defeat at the Brandywine; a few days later, the British piquets and patrols on the Old
Lancaster Road, the sound of drums and bugles at the alien camp just over the hill; the midnight alarms, pillage and slaughter at Paoli. Then the starving winter camp of the patriot army at Valley Forge, when the poor but charitable house wives, like Granny Neilley, gave mush and potatoes or whatever they could spare, to the hungry soldiers going to or from outposts or stationed in the signal trees; and ended in the August days of 1781 with the batteries of artillery lumbering past to the final triumph at Yorktown.
With the advent of the Turnpike, Cockletown became just another backwoods settlement, but not nameless for many years, when the red clay road bed became the scene of Sunday afternoon racing by the fast set of sportsmen. The half-mile straight-away course extended in front of the Burns farm to well below the Reese place and eager spectators lined the fences.
The religion of Cockletown was distinctly Presbyterian and Episcopalian, and politics largely Jeffersonian Republican.
A beloved elder friend and a delightful companion on local hikes, the late Rev. Dr. Quimby; modestly advised that it would be as well not to preserve the early popular and at the same time vulgar, name of this community. In this we differ, the writer can see no impropriety in a name derived from a not unattractive wild flower even though it is classed as a weed. However, Cockletown had passed into innocuous desuetude long before the Reeses had erected their sign "Reeseville" opposite the Drove Tavern. Later, Reeseville became Berwyn, which is another story.
Frank L. Burns in collaboration with Mrs. John P. Croasdale and Howard S. Okie, Esq.
Page last updated: 2012-05-26 at 16:20 EDT