An Essay by Mark Frazier Lloyd, in collaboration with Caleb C. Bradham
Chapter One: A Gentleman’s Farm, 1771 to 1835
It was a prosperous Quaker tailor (and radical social reformer) who consolidated the land. Beginning in October 1771, Thomas Harrison1 made three purchases2 in less than six months. By April 1772 he had assembled a ninety-acre estate on the south side of "the road leading from Philadelphia to Haverford." Harrison improved the place by building a house and barn and by planting orchards. In February 1776 he advertised his country farm for rent:3
Philadelphia, Strawberry-alley, Feb. 26, 1776.
To Be Rented, and entered on the twenty-fifth of March next, a Plantation in the township of Blockley, three miles and a half from the court-house, containing ninety acres, about seventy whereof are cleared, about twelve acres of meadow, and much more may be made, a Stone House two story high, an excellent spring house two story high, a large stone barn, with stalls for eighteen head of cattle, a garden containing about an acre of ground, all well paled in, and a young orchard of about five hundred trees of choice fruit. The subscriber will treat with any person that can produce a good character for industry, sobriety, and ability, and none other need apply.
It is not known if Harrison found an industrious, sober, and able German renter for his farm, but there is additional evidence that Harrison understood the value of the place. Three years later, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Harrison increased the size of his estate to 112 acres by making one more purchase of contiguous land.4 His property now extended from modern-day 42nd Street on the east to modern-day 49th Street on the west and from Haverford Avenue on the north to Marshall’s Road on the south (this irregularly-aligned road was located south of modern-day Market Street). In the decades immediately preceding and following the Revolutionary War, Thomas Harrison was among the elite Philadelphians who bought up land along the Schuylkill River and deep into modern-day West Philadelphia and created gentlemen’s farms, country showplaces of wealth and fashionable taste. His was perhaps somewhat more "plain" than some of the other estates, but Harrison’s successors would see to it that the place became every bit as "fancy" as any other gentleman’s farm.
In Harrison’s time the City of Philadelphia extended only from Vine Street on the north to South Street on the south, from the Delaware River on the east to the Schuylkill River on the west. In the City William Penn’s grid pattern of streets was the rule, but in the remainder of the County of Philadelphia, the roads were few and haphazard and did not serve the rural residents well. In the latter part of the year 1787 a number of local residents – "diverse Landholders and Inhabitants of the Township of Blockley" – petitioned the Court of Quarter Sessions for Philadelphia County to open a new and perfectly straight road from the west bank of the Schuylkill River to the county limits.5 The Court appointed six men to survey the land and to issue a recommendation. In February 1788 this group submitted a report saying6 that it was
absolutely necessary (on account of the Trade from the Western Country and likewise in all probability to render useless a great part of Marshall’s and Haverford Roads) that a road should be laid out from the City of Philadelphia to the Chester County line, beginning at the West end of High Street … thence [along] the exact course of Market or High Street … nine hundred and ninety-six perches to Cobb’s Creek, the Line separating Philadelphia and Chester Counties, to the road [already] laid out through Chester County … which road we conceive will be of great utility, as being a strait Road through the County …
In June 1788 the Court ordered "the Supervisors of the Highways" of Blockley Township to open the road,7 but two years later, in September 1790, two petitions originating in Chester County complained that the Blockley Township officials had failed to complete "about one mile and an half" of the road.8 The Court issued a second order and threatened a legal proceeding if the Blockley Township Supervisors did not comply. The road was promptly completed.9 Sometimes called the West Chester Road and sometimes called the Lancaster Road, this 1790 thoroughfare is the modern-day Market Street. It has – and continues – to serve Philadelphians very well. The new road did, however, run directly through the southern side of Harrison’s farm, effectively cutting off a little more than ten acres from the house, barn, orchards, and remainder of the property. This would eventually lead Harrison’s successors to sell off that portion of the estate.
In the late summer of 1793, Philadelphia was struck by a deadly epidemic of historic proportions.10 It was called "yellow fever" and physicians were powerless to treat it. Most of those infected with the disease soon died of it. The yellow fever did not extend, however, much beyond the city. As a direct result, Philadelphians who could afford to do so fled to the country in large numbers. Thomas Harrison was no exception. He left the city in mid or late September.11
Then, with the first hard frost, the yellow fever subsided. By November people began to return to Philadelphia. Work and the regular rhythms of life resumed, but the yellow fever epidemic had caused a huge increase in the value of real estate in the rural townships of Philadelphia County. Harrison’s estate was suddenly worth much more than he had paid for it, probably much more than his total investment in land and improvements.
In February 1794, Thomas Harrison sold his entire property, all 112 acres, to Matthew McConnell,12 a Philadelphia merchant and stockbroker.13 Now McConnell had his own country place should he need refuge from yellow fever in the future. It was a wise decision on his part, as yellow fever visited Philadelphia again in 1794 and then several more times in the late 1790s and the first decade of the 1800s.
Harrison and McConnell, however, acted in haste. Harrison’s wife, Sarah, was a part owner of the estate, but she was in England, where she stayed several years.14 She did not sign the deed and therefore did not convey her property rights to McConnell.15 McConnell, knowing that his deed was defective, did not record it in the Philadelphia deed books. He nevertheless occupied the estate; built a great brick mansion on it; and in January 1796 was successful in mortgaging the house and land to the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania.16 Legal title to the land was thereby compromised and more than a decade would pass before the problem was remedied.
McConnell, despite his flawed deed, invested in the estate like he enjoyed clear title to it. He built – apparently the same year he bought the place – the magnificent brick mansion which still stands today.17 In 1798, when the Federal government levied a direct tax on land and improvements, the following information was recorded:18
Matthew McConnell, owner, and occupant,
55’ x 33’ – two story, brick house
18’ x 16’ – two story, stone house ("The Tenant")
40’ x 24’ – stone barn
The 1798 Direct Tax also documented a second Blockley Township estate owned by Matthew McConnell:
Matthew McConnell, owner, and William McConnell, occupant,
36’ x 18’ – two story, log and frame house
40’ x 12’ – log barn and stables
McConnell had purchased this second property in March 1795.19 It was located about three miles farther west on the Haverford Road. It straddled Cobb’s Creek and extended across the boundary of Philadelphia County into Delaware County. McConnell did not improve this property, but apparently rented it to a relative, one William McConnell. Though both estates appear on the tax list as the property of Matthew McConnell, they should not be confused with one another.
McConnell seemed to have the pretensions of a gentleman farmer – he named his twin estates "Mill Creek Farm" and "Cobb’s Creek Farm" – but his enjoyment of elite status did not last long. In the summer of 1798 his creditors sued him for debt totaling $30,696.46 and won their case in court.20 A court order dated 29 December 1798 forced a sale of all his property21 and in March 1799 the following advertisement was printed in the Philadelphia newspapers:22
Philadelphia, March 12, 1799
By virtue of a writ of venditioni exponas to me directed, will be sold at the merchant’s coffee house, on Wednesday, the 27th of March inst. at 6 o’clock in the evening, all that messuage or tenement and two several tracts or parcels of land, both of them situate, lying and being in Blockley township, on the west side of the river Schuylkill, in the county of Philadelphia; one of them above three miles and a half from the city, called mill creek farm, bounded by lands by the Haverford road and lands of George Ogden, Richard Crean, Sarah Robinson and Joseph Cochran, the new Lancaster road23 running through part thereof; containing 112 acres, 25 perches be the same more or less – and the other of them, called Cobb’s creek farm, situate on the Haverford road aforesaid, about 424 miles from the said city; bounded by Mill creek and Indian creek and by lands of John Seller, John Thomas, James Jones, Conrad Hoover, Jonas Suple, Adam Roads and others; containing 109 acres and a half, be the same more or less.
Seized and taken in execution as the property of Matthew McConnell, and sold by Jonathan Penrose, Sheriff.
On Mill Creek Farms are two25 brick dwelling houses, 57 feet front by 37 feet deep; two stories of 12 feet high each, four rooms on a floor, fire places in each room, and four convenient chambers in the garret, a hall 10 feet wide, a remarkably dry and commodious cellar, divided into sundry apartments, pantry, kitchen 20 feet square, &c. with bake ovens and other conveniences, a stone farm house and barn, with good stabling and carriage house; a pump of excellent water at the kitchen door; a never failing spring over which there is a milk house, wash and smoke house; two large Gardens, in high order and containing a variety of the best fruit; two apple orchards in their prime, containing upwards of 700 trees. The soil is good, and produces remarkably well, and a large quantity now under clover. About 7 acres of meadow, adjoining a creek which runs through the place, and on which there is a site for water works. The situation High and remarkably healthy.
Cobb’s Creek Farm is well situated for being divided into two plantations, both with respect to a sufficient supply of timber and water. On the lower part, adjoining the creek, and towards the West-Chester road are convenient buildings for a farmer: an orchard, 7 acres of meadow, and an excellent spring. On the upper part, adjoining the Haverford road, is a fine situation for building, with a view of the city, and a good spring of water.
March 19 23-27
At the Sheriff’s Sale, Thomas McEuen, a Philadelphia stock broker,26 purchased both estates in a single transaction.27 McEuen was one of McConnell’s creditors, along with Thomas Hale and William Davidson. They had sued him and won judgment against him in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.28 This is what forced the Sheriff’s Sale. McEuen paid $14,604.93 for the two properties (less than half the outstanding debt!).29 He then sub-divided Mill Creek Farm – offering for sale 103 acres, 67 perches on the north side of the West Chester Road / Market Street thoroughfare and retaining 10 acres, 139 perches on the south side of the new road – and in July 1799 sold the land north of West Chester Road / Market Street to William Parkinson.30 Parkinson, described in the deed as a "Gent.," living in "the Township of Blockley," seems to be an obscure historical figure. In any case, he was dead by May 1804, when Mill Creek Farm was again being advertised for sale:31
THAT elegant commodious mansion house on Mill Creek Farm, late the residence of William Parkinson, Esq., deceased, together with out-houses and plantation containing One Hundred and Twelve Acres or thereabouts, situate between Haverford and West-Chester roads, within half a mile of the Turnpike, and one and a quarter mile of Schuylkill Bridge.
Despite the advertising, Mill Creek Farm did not sell. Perhaps this was due to an inability to "give an indisputable title." In any case, the 1796 mortgage was still not paid and this time it was the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania who sued and won judgment.32 A court order was issued on 8 March 1806 and in May the following advertisement was printed in the Philadelphia newspapers:33
Philadelphia, April 30, 1806
By virtue of a Writ of Levari Facias, to me
The 20th day of May next, at 7 o’clock in the
ALL that certain messuage and tenement, and six contiguous tracts or pieces of land and meadow ground, situate, lying and being in the township of Blockley, in the County of Philadelphia, one of them beginning … [here follows a metes and bounds description of the six parcels of land consolidated by Thomas Harrison in the 1770s] … Which said 6 tracts contain all together one hundred and twelve acres and twenty-five perches: -- (it being the same premises which Thomas Harrison and wife, by indenture, dated the 11th day of February, 1794, granted unto the said Matthew M’Connell, in fee) together with the hereditaments and appurtenances. Seized and taken in execution and sold by
JOHN BARKER, Sheriff
At the Sheriff’s Sale on 20 May 1806, Paul Busti34 purchased, for $14,500.00, the entire Mill Creek Farm property of 112 acres and 25 perches.35 The mortgage was finally paid36 and Busti took additional steps to secure his title to the land. Recognizing that the sale from Thomas Harrison to Matthew McConnell was defective and the deed never recorded, Busti obtained, in December 1806, a deed of release from Thomas and Sarah Harrison.37 Recognizing also that Thomas McEuen had withheld 10 acres and 139 perches from his sale to William Parkinson, Busti obtained, in February 1808, a deed of release from McEuen.38 It took nearly two years and a total of three transactions, but Paul Busti finally re-consolidated the title to the land that Thomas Harrison had originally assembled.
Busti gave his farm a new name – Blockley Retreat – and under his direction the place became known as one of the finest country estates in the entire Philadelphia region. His success, however, did not lead him to expand his holdings. In fact, he sold the land south of the West Chester Road / Market Street in January 1811 for just $1,000.00.39 Busti concentrated his work on that part of the estate east of Mill Creek, that is, between modern-day 42nd Street on the east and modern-day 46th Street on the west.
Paul Busti died in 1824 and in May 1825 the executor of his estate sold Blockley Retreat – that is, the remaining 103 acres and 67 perches – for $20,000 to John Buckman,40 "of the City of Philadelphia, Gentleman."41 Buckman seems to have had two Philadelphia businesses, both apparently quite successful. He is found first in Philadelphia newspapers as a flour merchant, transporting large quantities of his commodity from the Appoquinimink Creek region of New Castle County, Delaware.42 In November 1813 he advertised his business in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser as follows:43
The subscriber has on hand and intends keeping a constant supply of Flour from WHITE WHEAT, and made particularly nice. Private families, Bakers, Confectioners, and Muffin bakers, will find it to their advantage to make a trial of it, as it is said to be equal if not superior to the noted Morrisville flour.
Then, in January 1819, he entered into the "stock and exchange business," in partnership with Alexander Benson:44
John Buckman & Alexander Benson, having entered into partnership in the
Stock & Exchange Business,
Offer their services to the public under the firm of
Buckman & Benson
The Philadelphia city directories described John Buckman as a merchant and banker until the year 1825, when he was first listed as "gentleman." This suggests that he sold his share in the twin businesses about 1824 and turned his attention to the retired life. The Busti estate beckoned and he bought it, but his interest in making money was not at an end. Instead of tending to the gardens and orchards, it seems clear that he took an entrepreneurial interest in the industrial opportunities offered by Mill Creek.
Mill Creek was a major tributary of the Schuylkill River. Its headwaters were out near the Philadelphia county line and it wound its way through Blockley Township to the Schuylkill at the modern-day Woodlands Cemetery. It cut directly through the Buckman estate, flowing south from a point at the modern-day intersection of Haverford Avenue and 46th Street to the modern-day intersection of the West Chester Road / Market Street and 46th Street. Buckman no doubt studied the volume of water passing through his property and determined that it was sufficient to power a major new mill. With ample capital at his disposal, he wasted no time in putting his idea into action. In March 1826, just ten months after he acquired the Busti estate, Buckman purchased half an acre of unimproved land on the south side of the West Chester Road at the intersection of Mill Creek.45 There he built a new mill or "factory." He powered his mill by building a ninety-foot dam across Mill Creek and diverting its water into a twelve-foot-wide mill race, which ran parallel to the Creek for approximately 1,100 feet and into a "forebay," thirty feet wide by sixty feet long.46 The water then passed under the West Chester Road / Market Street and through the waterwheels in the mill building. In March 1834, Buckman purchased an additional fifty-one perches (approximately one-third an acre) on Mill Creek "to have full privileges of opening said Mill Creek for the purpose of a tail race from the said John Buckman’s Mill."47 Immediately after purchasing the land for a "tail race," Buckman leased "all that woolen factory called ‘Good Intent’ and the land thereunto belonging" to Edward Wrigley, a Philadelphia merchant.48 Two years later, in June 1836, Buckman sold the mill property to Wrigley for $6,500.49
After ten years in Blockley Township, John Buckman decided to move elsewhere. His reasons are not known, but he left Philadelphia altogether. In April 1835 he paid for a survey of his estate, which determined that it measured "one hundred and one acres, more or less" and a month later he sold the property for $23,000 to Matthew Arrison,50 "of the City of Philadelphia, Gentleman."51 As described above, Buckman retained ownership of his woolen mill, "Good Intent," for another year before selling it also. By that time, June 1836, he was a resident of Burlington, New Jersey. It seems that John Buckman remained in Burlington for the rest of his life.52