Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 21
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: July 1983 Volume 21 Number 3, Pages 91–96
Dating the Van Leer Cabin
The log cabin left standing on Irish Road is almost the last of a group of rough dwellings that once sprinkled the South Valley Hills and down into the valley of Tredyffrin itself. It was a common incidental structure on a large farm, leased to tenants or occupied by the son of the family before he inherited the family homestead.
For several reasons, the cabin cannot be called a homestead house.
First, if it had been a homestead house, and the home of a settler preserved for future generations of occupancy, it would have been expanded with a stone addition. In fact, the wing added for space and comfort, built of the year's garnered fieldstone, was apt to endure long after the first winter's log house had disintegrated. Often only the stone chimney to the east remained. Had this particular log cabin been the first home of an early colonist, it would probably have been kept only as a log kitchen or a shed for a grander house. Yet structurally it is an entity in itself.
So we can conclude that it was a rough log house, crudely finished and quite unrefined, both in construction and concept. The cellar walls show stone meticulously placed, but once again, crudely; almost as dry walls were set for pastured fields. Its floor plan is simple. And while fireplaces set horizontally and at right angles in the two rooms are found in early Chester County houses of the eighteenth century, in this cabin the device was in remembrance of a former architectural tradition that had come to be the simple and economical design by 1800.
Originally the standard colonist's plan, it had reverted to use for the secondary farm tenement one hundred years later. Elegance had moved into the great house, and utility dominated the smaller rented 'dwelling.
This is, of course, social reasoning regarding the cabin.
The log setting brings up an interesting point of contingent history, for log cabins in Pennsylvania follow two traditions. In the Swedish type, notched logs were set to overlap at the corners; for the Germans, logs were set tightly together and even at the corners. This cabin follows the latter style.
It was built and occupied by a German family. The Van Leer family came from Prussia to Marple, in Delaware County, early in the history of the Province of Pennsylvania. (Their first homestead later became the estate of Atwater Kent.)
Dr. Bernhard Van Leer was a well known practitioner. In 1759 he bought from Conrad Young of Philadelphia one hundred and nine acres in Tredyffrin Township. Dr. Van Leer was considered noteworthy for traveling, even in his advanced years, from Marple to his country place in Tredyffrin and back in one day on horseback. He died in 1790 at the age of ninety four. His first wife had been Mary Branson, daughter of the ironmaster at Warwick, Her children all inherited shares in the iron industry. Two of the sons, Captain Samuel Van Leer and Dr. Benjamin Van Leer, are buried at St. Mary's in Nantmeal; they lived as adults in the north of the county. At the time of his purchase of the land in Tredyffrin, Dr. Van Leer had been married for nine years to his second wife, Christiana Fuls. His Tredyffrin and Easttown holdings were left to the children of this second marriage.
The land on which the cabin stands belonged to Dr. Bernhard Van Leer, except for a strip which his son Isaac bought in 1797. Adjacent to the cabin tract was the lot willed by him to his daughter Mary, wife of Moses Moore, landlord of the Blue Ball Tavern from 1788 to 1792. The daughter of Mary and Moses Moore was Priscilla Robinson, known as Prissy Robinson, the mistress of the Blue Ball in its lowly and ill-reputed days. She was a granddaughter of the eminent doctor.
This contigent history casts light on the owners and builders of the cabin. Another local reference is the marriage of Captain Samuel Van Leer, mentioned above, to Hannah Wayne, sister of General Anthony Wayne, and daughter of Captain Isaac and Elizabeth Iddings Wayne.
In 1786 Isaac Van Leer received the land from his father. He lived on this Tredyffrin tract for only thirteen years, however, dying at the age of forty five in 1799. He is buried at Great Valley Presbyterian Church. He had been a private during the Revolutionary War in the company of Captain Rowland, of Tredyffrin mill fame, and also in Captain David Wilson's company. He added to the land his father bought, particularly the northern strip referred to above.
This five acres he bought from John Christie in 1797, and in that year it held no dwelling house. (Out of this piece, and a three-quarter of an acre section from other holdings, emerged the cabin tract of today.)
The estate of Isaac Van Leer, who died in 1799, was not probated until 1809, presumably when his sons were of age. Out of the 160 acre estate, three farms were carved by order of the Court. Each son, Benjamin, Isaac, and William, received a farm.
The tax records for Tredyffrin Township again prove that the log cabin was not standing before 1800. In the Federal census of 1798, wherein are given measurements of taxable buildings, Isaac Van Leer was assessed for the following:
"on the old Lancaster Road, adjacent to Abel Reese's Lot ...
1 log house, 21 ' x 21', valued at $100 with 2 windows with 12 lights,
1 leg barn, 20' x 15'
A drawing of the tract shows quite clearly that the cabin in question was well removed from (and not "on") the Old Lancaster Road. Its measurements are also 21' x 15', not "21' x 21").
That the cabin was not in existence before 1800 is also established by the presence of machine-made nails in the construction, James Sorber, of the Chester County Historical Society, has stated that all the nails in the entire building prove that it could not date before 1800, He has also stated that originally the walls were log inside and out, and that the daub plaster was added later,
Out of the farms of Isaac Van Leer, the 58 acres and 12 perches awarded to William Van Leer was cut into the smaller cabin farm a quarter of a century later. In 1837 William Van Leer deeded to his son George all except three-quarters of an acre of this farm, while George, in that same year, deeded to his father a small farm of about three acres, plus a small additional piece of land.
The reason for retaining this piece is obvious; by that time the cabin was standing and served as a home for his later years for William Van Leer, at that time fifty five years old.
George Van Leer had obtained most of this small farm in 1834 from Alexander Torbert, son of William Torbert, one time landlord of the Blue Ball. Alexander Torbert was taxed as early as in 1820 on three acres and buildings. Up to 1833 the bulldings were valued at $50, which was the usual assessment on cabins in the first third of the nineteenth century.Top
ESTATE OF ISAAC VAN LEER showing location of cabin tract
The cabin tract is therefore approximately 1080 feet from the turnpike.
A public sale notice on the American Republican of February 11, 1834 contains a contemporary evaluation of the property:
"WILL BE EXPOSED TO PUBLIC SALE ON THURSDAY, THE SIXTH OF MARCH, AT 1 PM, ON THE PREMISES SITUATED IN TREDYFFRIN TOWNSHIP, CHESTER COUNTY, 16 1/2 MILES FROM PHILADELPHIA, ABOUT 1/4 OF A MILE FROM THE LANCASTER TURNPIKE AND THE PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD, BOUNDED BY THE LAND OF WILLIAM VAN LEER, DAVID WILSON, AND A PUBLIC ROAD TO HOWELL'S TAVERN, WITHIN 200 YARDS OF THE STATE ROAD LEADING TO NEW YORK, A LOT CONTAINING THREE ACRES OF WELL-IMPROVED LAND WITH A GOOD LOG DWELLING HOUSE TWO STORIES HIGH WITH KITCHEN AND ONE ROOM DOWN AND TWO UPSTAIRS, A GOOD CELLAR UNDERNEATH, STAB-LING AND HAY LOFT, A THRIVING ORCHARD AND VARIETY OF OTHER FRUIT TREES, ENCLOSED WITH A GOOD FENCE AND IN GOOD REPAIR.
"SAMUEL TORBERT AGENT FOR ALEXANDER TORBERT."
Likewise, in 1857 the following advertisement appeared:
"PUBLIC SALE .... FARM ON WHICH THE SUBSCRIBER NOW RESIDES INTREDYFFRIN TOWNSHIP, 51 acres and 40 perches, about 8 acres to first rate woodland, 3 acres of well set young chestnut timber, the rest arable land, divided into convenient fields with chestnut rail fences ... a dwelling house, part stone, part log, about 25' x 3O', 3 rooms on a floor, cellar, well, stone springhouse, log barn, frame stable, apple orchard, near the 16 milestone.
"ALSO ... A LOT OF 3 ACRES ADJACENT WITH A LOG DWELLING HOUSE."
The property was not sold until 1884., however. In that year David Hause, trustee for the estate, sold it to James Lawless. The Curwen family, in turn, acquired the tract from him. The Daily Local News in 1884 reported, "The William Van Leer (dec.) farm in Tredyffrin Township containing something over 4 acres has been sold to James Lawless of Tredyffrin, price $1260."
Records of Irish Road also touch upon the Van Leer cabin. In 1823 Joseph Hampton, a neighbor to the north, petitioned for a road from the turnpike to his house, 39 perches south "through woodland and clear land... over a private road, one perch (16 1/2 feet) wide on the land of William Van Leer. ..." This would, indicate that the Van Leers had access to the turnpike before 1823.
A draft of a road, in the Original Court Papers, Book 103, page 65, shows Irish Road as follows:
"Beginning at a point in the line of George W. Mehaffy, where a public road intersects the turnpike, along a public road ...through Mehaffy and the line of Mehaffy and Samuel Van Leer N 19 1/2 W 12.8 perches to a corner of the garden of said Van Leer... along a wood. ..."
(The Samuel Van Leer referred to in this draft is shown "in the 1850 Federal Census as being forty years old, his wife Margaretta as twenty-four, and his daughter Rebecca 1/12 of a year old. He was a Labourer, with property valued at $600. No other Van Leers lived in the township at that time except for a black man, David Van Leer, and his family.)
Thus this cabin, with its garden and farm, was the last holding in Tredyffrin of the Van leer family who had come there in 1759. They had owned several homes, among them this cabin, built between 1800 and about 1820.
The cabin is also the last of the dwellings on this specific tract, and perhaps the least of them all. But it is still a memory of a part of the life experienced there.
The place of the cabin in the history of Tredyffrin Township is just the part it played in the settlement of the area. It was a factor in the local development, a crude tenant house later reduced to a small farm. It is an example of simple construction, using methods of the early eighteenth century although built in the early nineteenth century with machine-made nails of that period. There is plaster over the first open log walls, and unpointed stone in the cellar.
Life therein was simple. No historic decisions were made across its dinner tables. But still it is a symbol and part of farm life in the township a century and a half ago. As that symbol, it is also a lesson on the social life of the area.
Page last updated: 2009-07-29 at 14:31 EST