Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 37
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: January 1999 Volume 37 Number 1, Pages 3–8
Some Thoughts on Limestone and Lime Kilns in Chester Valley
A rich belt of limestone can be found stretching in an east-west direction through the great valley of Montgomery, Chester and Lancaster counties. Historian Theodore W. Bean calculates the length of this limestone formation as fifty-eight miles. In Chester county its average width is less than a mile. Its depth may be hundreds of feet. Ample evidence that it is the bedrock of the great Chester Valley may be seen in places such as the old Warner Company quarry off Yellow Springs road at Cedar Hollow or the two large quarries on either side of Quarry road east of Downingtown.
Limestone is the legacy of the myriad of ancient sea creatures - corals, shells and skeletons ~ that populated a great shallow sea which covered most of North America some 375 million years ago, give or take a few million years! Geologists have named this the Carboniferous Period, a division of geologic time in the Paleozoic Era. During this period, eroded sediment formed rocks, which include limestones and marbles.
Little used today, limestone was the preferred material for many local builders in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries because of its durability and local accessibility. The Baptist Church in the Great Valley, erected in the first decade of the 19th century on Valley Forge road in Tredyffrin township, is a familiar surviving example of limestone construction. Early settlers in Tredyffrin's valley, such as the Bartholomew, Evans, and Davis families, built their homes of limestone. Unfortunately, many of these old stone farmhouses have vanished in the recent wave of development.
But were it not for the by-product of limestone, none of these buildings would have been possible, for lime was and is a necessary ingredient of plaster and cement mortar that holds the stone together. Lime was used in the mortar when the pyramids of Egypt were built. It is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Spanish burned sea shells to produce lime. Its uses were known in antiquity.
Limestone is composed of sixty to more than ninety per cent calcium carbonate and when heated to a sufficiently high temperature, carbon dioxide is driven off and the product that remains is calcium oxide or lime. Further processing with water produces slaked or hydrated lime.
In the late 18th century and throughout most of the 19th century lime was of greater importance to the farmer for the control of soil acidity than for building purposes. Initially, individual farmers produced their own lime by burning limestone in lime kilns, a practice which had been introduced from Europe. An early traveler in the area described a typical farm as consisting of a house, a barn, and a lime kiln.
The results of a survey of "plantations" (farms) for sale in the American Republican and Village Record newspapers in West Chester between 1816 and 1836, published in the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly for July 1991 [Vol. 29, No. 3], showed the almost universal existence of kilns on the farms of Tredyffrin township. Of nine sale advertisements identified in the Quarterly, all of them included words such as "limestone land" or "lime kiln" or "limestone quarry" in the property description. Breou's farm maps [in 1883] show that there were more than sixty lime kilns in Chester county, most over or near by that belt of limestone in the Valley, and J. Gilmore Wilson has written in his history of East Whiteland township [in 1965] that he counted between Bridgeport and Downingtown 250 such kilns.
By the end of the 19th century, most of these privately operated kilns were dormant as commercially produced lime became available with a selling price of 12-1/2 cents a bushel. Having had no maintenance or restoration for over a hundred years, it is surprising that any lime kilns are still standing, but there are a few. One of the best examples can be seen on the west side of Quarry road just north of Boot road outside of Downingtown. Adjacent to this kiln is a second one in poorer condition facing Quarry road but which can be seen only in the winter when the leaves have disappeared.
A description of lime kiln construction on the property of Thomas S. Downing in West Whiteland township was published in 1861. This kiln, located south of Route 30 and west of the Oaklands Corporate Center, is difficult to find today in a heavily wooded area:
"The typical kiln at that time was stone, oval in shape, 18 feet high and tapered, being 16 feet in diameter at the bottom and 12 feet at the top. It was banked into a hill on three sides. The flue at the bottom measured approximately two feet (wide) by one foot (high). For lime burning, the kiln was stocked with kindling wood and upon that were heaped alternate layers of coal and limestone. Burning took four days. At its completion, this process rewarded the limebumer with 1400 bushels of lime at the cost of a mere 4 cents a bushel."
The limestone quarries at Cedar Hollow, on the south side of Yellow Springs road in Tredyffrin (and East Whiteland) township, were commercially operated for almost 140 years. With the opening of the Chester Valley Railroad between Bridgeport and Downingtown in 1853, several Philadelphia capitalists purchased the land where the quarries are located and in 1856 formed the Cedar Hollow Lime Company. In the same year they built a two-and-a-half mile spur rail line to connect the quarries and plant with the Cedar Hollow station of the Chester Valley railroad. In 1900 operation of the quarries was taken over by the Warner Company, which since July 1990 has been a division of Waste Management.
Actually, limestone has been quarried from the site since the early 18th century, and the region has been described as "the cradle of lime manufacturing in the United States." George Valentine Massey II in his history of the Warner Company, Of Gold, Ships and Sand, observed, "In the early 18th century limestone was quarried by Welsh farmers who had colonized the Great Valley. They used the bank-type kilns developed in their native country. These were six or eight feet in diameter and 10 to 15 feet high. The remains of some 400 of these early kilns can still [in 1957] be found in the region. The colonial farms generally produced only enough lime for their own use."
The number of these kilns is due, in part, to the practice of the early farmers to burn the limestone on their own property rather than at the place where it was dug. The limestone and wood were hauled back to their farms, frequently some distance from the quarry site, and burned there. Later neighbors joined in hauling the limestone and wood, and in tending the fire. The "lime frolics" or "lime bees" became a common social activity, with the lime produced being shared by the participants.
By the latter part of the 18th century, the value of "the regular and judicious use of lime" as a "fertilizer" was becoming more and more recognized. In his Annals of Phoenixville and its Vicinity, historian (and later Governor) Samuel W. Pennypacker wrote that in 1798 a farmer named Christian Maris "persuaded a number of his neighbors to go with him to Cedar Hollow and load their teams with the lime, which, as an experiment, upon returning, he scattered over some of the poorest of his fields with a very satisfactory result."
In the early 1800s the use of gypsum and lime was particularly advocated by Richard Peters, a founder and later president of the prestigious Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture for twenty-three years, from 1805 to 1828. (Actually, as discovered later, it was not a fertilizer and its principal benefit was as a "soil stimulant" to neutralize over-acid soils.)
An old deed, observed at the Chester County archives, demonstrates clearly the early adoption of the use of lime among the farmers of German origins in this area. The deed dated May 26, 1824 transferred approximately half an acre (14 perches by 6 perches) of "limestone land" situate in the townships of East Whiteland and Tredyffrin (at Cedar Hollow) from George and Peter Deery, of Vincent township, to six neighbors, Abraham Benner, Frederick Sheeder, George Chrisman, John Brownback, Peter Fry and John Swinehart, for a consideration of $125. The Deerys had earlier bought the land in 1818. The deed also granted the "full privilege of the ... road, of one perch wide, to use the same to draw limestone along the same at anytime they deem it necessary." The distance from Vincent township to Cedar Hollow is about seven miles.
"As the reputation of lime from this section [the eastern Chester Valley] spread," Massey further observed, "the demand for it increased. In time more than a score of producers either purchased or leased parts of the several properties now  owned by the Cedar Hollow Company, where they erected kilns and dug quarries. Their product was carted to every section of eastern Pennsylvania and to Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware."
The rock in the Cedar Hollow region was of very high quality, good for farmers' fields and for use in building construction. Much of the limestone was shipped to Philadelphia for building materials; about one-third of that came from Cedar Hollow Company. The vein of stone, running in a northeast- southwest direction was originally some 90 feet deep, about a mile long, and ranged from 1100 feet to 1250 feet wide.
Breou's farm maps identify Howellville as a second area in Tredyffrin township where lime kilns were operated commercially. "It is impossible," Frank Burns has written, "to state at this time [about 1945] just when the oldest quarry was opened at Howellville. Doubtless it was not on a commercial basis ...." The map shows [in 1883] three kilns located on the south side of the Chester Valley rail line just east of Mill road, and Burns also observed, "Later operators abandoned the kilns and installed the crusher." (W. E. Johnson operated there in the early 1940s.)
Captain William Rennyson came to Howellville in 1869 and opened the quarries east of the village and south of Swedesford road. He was the first to pulverize and bag lime for shipment. The plant included "eight large kilns," says Burns, and a "siding connected with the Chester Valley Railroad at Rennyson's (later called Chesterbrook) station." The plant continued to be worked until about 1885.
Few persons recognize or remember lime kilns today, yet their importance in the latter 18th and throughout the 19th century cannot be overstated. The heyday of the privately owned lime kiln was in the era 1800-1880. Lime was a godsend for the farmer. No longer did he have to relocate after several years because of reduced crop yield due to depleted soils. Moreover, cement and plaster would not have been possible without it. The iron furnaces of Hopewell, Warwick, Johanna and others depended on lime as a flux to remove impurities from the iron. And it gave the farmer and others a cheap do-it- yourself "paint" in the form of whitewash.
Fortunately lime is white. What if it were pink?
Page last updated: 2009-03-11 at 12:30 EST