Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 34
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: April 1996 Volume 34 Number 2, Pages 47–52
Alexander Murdoch: The Shepherd of Chesterbrook
Scotsman Alexander Murdoch, born and bred a shepherd, was brought to America in 1892 by A. J. Cassatt to tend the sheep on Chesterbrook Farm in Berwyn. Murdoch would spend the next twenty-five years as shepherd on the farm. When he retired his son would succeed him.
The birth of Alexander Murdoch is recorded in the Straiton Parish records in Scotland as July 24, 1847 at Craigmulloch in Loch Doon, a locality south of Glasgow. His father was also Alexander Murdoch, a shepherd, and his mother was Sarah Clark Murdoch.
The future shepherd of Chesterbrook married Jane Campbell at Corby Craigs, Dalmellington, in Scotland. Alexander's occupation was recorded as shepherd, Jane's as domestic. Jane's name was also listed as Janet. In America she was most often called Jeanne.
A. J. Cassatt failed in his first two attempts to find a shepherd in Scotland. On his third try he was able to persuade Alexander Murdoch to leave Clancaid Moor House where he was employed, and bring his family to America.
Alexander and Jeanne Murdoch arrived in the United States on March 15, 1892 with four children: Alexander (1882), Margaret (1885), John (1887) and Peter (1890). Four more children would be born in America: Adam (1893), twins Jeanne and James (1895) and Theodore (1898).
A. J. Cassatt had owned the farm for over a decade before Alexander Murdoch came on the scene. Cassatt had retired from his position as First Vice President of the Pennsylvania Railroad with the intention of breeding and racing thorough-bred race horses, but his racing activities had brought him losses and disappointments; by 1889 the racing colors of Chesterbrook Farm were retired, and he turned his attention to stock breeding. For the next three decades Chesterbrook Farm was to be one of the finest stock breeding farms in the world. Horses, cows, steers, sheep and poultry bred at Chesterbrook Farm would be world famous. Sheep were in residence at Chesterbrook Farm as early as 1883 when the West Chester Daily Local News reported 360 sheep of the finest breeds there. In 1887 the same paper told of a visit of Mr. Harry Sloyer to the farm. Sloyer observed a large barn for sheep and a number of sheep of "a very novel appearance with their black faces, black legs and fine fleeces of wool." These were Shropshire sheep, the breed for which Chesterbrook would be recognized.
Cassatt had spent eleven years in building, planting and acquiring. A little town filled with people, animals and buildings was the center of life near the eastern end of the acreage. The manor house was near Mill Road on the west. Most of the 600 or more acres were planted in grass. Kentucky bluegrass thrived in the rich limestone soil of the Great Valley in Tredyffrin Township.
The workers' houses and farm outbuildings were centered around the Bradford Road area where today can be found the swimming pool and Rocking Horse Nursery School in the Chesterbrook development. Cassatt built single homes for the families of his herdsmen, trainers and mechanics. Group residences were provided for stable boys and other unmarried workers.
Ten working barns were in use by 1892. One was so large that horses could be exercised within it during the winter. Stables, paddocks, corn cribs, a tobacco shed, henneries, a wagon shop, a tool house and blacksmith shops made up this working area of the farm. All were neatly kept and painted the same red as Pennsylvania Railroad cars, giving the sharpest possible contrast to the lush green fields. One large stone house was available in the workers' living area. The great barn burned down in 1898. In keeping with his tradition of wanting only the best for Chesterbrook, A. J. Cassatt comissioned Frank Furness to design its replacement. (Today this barn is the only Frank Furness barn still standing. It was rescued from destruction and converted into the Rocking Horse Nursery School.)
A. J. Cassatt used the old stone pre-Revolutionary manor house near Mill Road for his living quarters. The farm extended south to Swedesford Road. Route 202, relocated in 1965, cuts through the southern portion of the old farm.
The children of the herdsmen, trainers, farm manager and mechanics were the ones fortunate enough to grow up on the farm. Cassatt participated regularly in farm operations, coming out from the city several times a week. His wife Lois Buchanan Cassatt preferred her homes at Cheswold in Bryn Mawr and on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. The family used the farm to entertain. Often this entertainment was of a gentlemen only, sportsman style. The farm property featured a full race track.
The Murdoch children, with the children of the other farm workers, romped the grounds, rode horseback over the fields and attended the one-room school house together. Their young lives were rich in companionship and activity.
A. J. Cassatt enjoyed seventeen years of retirement and gracious living at Chesterbrook when in 1899 a delegation approached him at the farm and asked him to take on the presidency of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He accepted the responsibility, but with some sadness. "Gentlemen," he told them, "there is nothing 1 want to do but stay at Chesterbrook and watch my horses run." e returned to the railroad and the challenge of building a tunnel under the Hudson River through which the Pennsylvania Railroad would run into Manhattan and the fine new Pennsylvania Station.
A period of tragedy was descending on the families of both the owner and the shepherd of Chesterbrook Farm. In 1895 Jeanne Campbell Murdoch gave birth to twins, Jeanne and James. Baby Jeanne died at two months from "cholera fantha." Twin James was two years old when he was fatally burned in a Chester Valley Railroad fire. In 1902 Jeanne Campbell Murdoch herself died at age 39 from a fall. She was pregnant at this time and home alone. She hemmoraged and the boys came in too late to save her. The Murdoch's only surviving daughter died in childbirth in 1904. The mother and her three children were interred in the Trinity Presbyterian Church cemetery in Berwyn. (They are now in Trinity's plot in Great Valley Presbyterian cemetery.)
A. J. Cassatt died suddenly in 1906 at age 67 after a lingering bout of whooping cough from which he never recovered. His son Edward inherited the farm. He was dedicated, effective and 38 years old. He gave orders to the farm manager to maintain il in the same condition his father had kept it in his days.
In 1908 Edward married his second wife, Eleanor Blackwood Smith, known to all as "Bunny." She was a lovely and popular twenty-year old. Edward and Bunny Cassatt lived in the manor house on the farm and entertained frequently. Their only child, a son, was born in 1910. He took sick on shipboard at eighteen months while the family was crossing to attend the coronation of George V. The child died in Europe. There would be no other children at Chesterbrook Farm. Edward continued to manage the farm with skill. He turned his attention to horse racing, and the Chesterbrook colors were seen again at leading tracks such as Saratoga, Belmont and Pimlico. Farm workers understood that Edward's son was never to be mentioned.
The older Murdoch sons were now of an age to marry. Two of them wed Lehman sisters whose parents lived and worked on the farm. Alexander married Lily Lehman and John married Margaret. Peter married Helen Frances Golder, who lived on an adjoining farm.
Alexander would follow his father as shepherd at the farm. John was trained as a minister by the Methodist Church. For a time he was a missionary in New York State and New Hampshire. He returned to the farm to work as a mechanic. Elizabeth Weaver, a relative in the line of Peter Murdoch and Helen Golder, remembers that they thought of John as a part-time minister.
In an interview with John's daughter Betty Murdoch Heimbach in 1992 much was learned about life on the farm in her earliest years. She remembers how happy the workers were together. Her family lived in one of the "red" houses, and her grandmother lived close by in the stone house.
The senior Alexander Murdoch had married widow Eliza Smedley Lehman, the mother of two of his daughter-in-laws. Young Alexander and Lily lived next to John and Marga ret. Betty's mother made donuts at midnight for the next day when the farm hands would come in. The shepherd's grandchildren now had the run of the farm as their parents before them, riding horses over the fields, playing in the creeks, crossing Swedesford Road to the quarry on Mr. Rennyson's property where they ice skated in winter and picked blackberries in summer. They all went through the woods to the one room school.
The senior Alexander Murdoch retired from the farm in 1917, after his second wife died, and his son Alexander became the shepherd. Betty was only eight years old at that time, but she remembered her grandfather as the shepherd on the farm. His beard was long and heavy. He looked very much the shepherd in his heavy coat with his sheep dog. He would call for his special drink "sassy," a brew of tea and milk which he poured in a saucer. He called Betty "the wee one" and taught her to eat cheese.
Theodore Murdoch, the youngest son of the shepherd, went to work at Chesterbrook in 1913 tending chickens. Among the farm papers is a letter written to Edward Cassatt by the farm manager R. A. Colgan while the Cassatts were wintering in Georgia. The manager reported hiring Theodore Murdoch at $25.00 a month, to be increased to $30.00 if he proved satisfactory. "So far I am pleased with him," he wrote. "In fact, I think the chicken house is cleaner than last year." Theodore was fifteen years old at the time.
Descendents of Alexander Murdoch and his sons remember them as quiet men. They had little to say. Their associates at the farm who spoke at a program of the DuPortail History Group in 1991 remembered them as men of character. A. J. Cassatt knew men as well as finance. Alexander Murdock, Senior died November 6, 1923. He was seventy-six years old. His son, Alexander, had died August 10 of the same year.
The deaths of both shepherds came at the end of an era at Chesterbrook Farm. Edward Cassatt had died the year before. Bunny Cassatt loved gardening and painting, but she did not have Edward's drive or A. J.'s business sense. She married a local doctor, J. Packard Laird, in 1924. Dr. Laird died aboard ship on the way to Germany in 1927. Until Bunny's death in 1962 the farm was kept alive as a dairy farm, but the years of superior breeding of cows, horses, steers and sheep at Chesterbrook were at an end.Top
Chesterbrook Farm. Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly, Vol 19, No. 4; Vol. 23, No. I; Vol 26, No. 4; Vol. 29, No. I
Growing up on Chesterbrook [Helen Boland interview], by Judy Bogan in Suburban and Wayne Times, June 13, 1985.
Interviews with members of Murdoch family: Betty Murdoch Heimbach, granddaughter of Alexander Murdoch, Sr., 1992; Elizabeth Kirkncr Weaver, related to Peter Murdoch, Helen Golder line, 1996; Joseph Bachkai, son of Betty Heimbach, great grandson of Alexander Murdoch, Sr., 1996.
Memories of Chesterbrook Farm, transcript of program presented by DuPortail History Group, September 23, 1991.
Murdoch Genealogy 1799-1978, unpublished manuscript compiled by Esther M. Murdoch, 1978.
Page last updated: 2009-05-12 at 10:09 EST