A few weeks ago, I received a lovely invitation from Elizabeth MacGuire, president of the Collingdale Historical Society (CHS), inviting me to the society’s winter tea, held at Aldan American Legion Post 1000. When I checked my calendar, I had the afternoon free, and the event instantly tempted me. Except for the Delaware County Historical Society’s exhibits and events that I attended many times, I had never really attended a smaller, local historical society event, so I thought it may be something different to do.
I asked my mom, a history-lover who actually earned a degree in history at Rosemont College, to come as my guest because I thought she might enjoy hearing about some local history. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew a tea event steeped in history would most definitely be her cup of tea!
What I found when I went this past Saturday was a group of people from all over Delaware County who are super passionate about local history and saving historic properties and landmarks in the area. I imagine whatever goes on in fulfilling the mission of the Collingdale Historical Society is repeated with some variations, but with a similar mission, in the Haverford, Newtown Square, Middletown Township, Norwood, Concord Township, Aston, Chichester, Springfield, Rose Valley, Chadds Ford, Swarthmore, Ridley Park, Media, Thornbury, Upper Darby, Nether Providence, Tinicum Township and Marple historical societies.
Each unique society in our county has its own agenda and reason for existence, but most, I’m surmising, are similar in purpose and in flavor. The societies distinguish themselves from each other by the events that they hold and the landmarks that they seek to save, preserve and share with the public. Some, like Newtown Square, host annual tours through its historic sites. Rose Valley and Springfield historic societies have their own museums. Ridley Park and Swarthmore historical societies give periodic house tours of historic homes in the borough. Others, like Media, hold holiday tours through decorated historic sites and homes. Haverford Township Historical Society holds an annual Haverford Heritage Festival, and Upper Darby Historical Society hosts the annual Fall Festival at Collen Brook Farm. Chadds Ford Historical Society is very active and has a series of Tavern Talks and at least a half dozen other “fun and learning” events planned. Some historical societies channel their efforts into saving and preserving an important landmark in their town. Norwood has been working on giving a new life to the Morton House, and Tinicum Township Historical Society is working toward restoring the Philadelphia Lazaretto, the very first quarantine hospital in the United States, built in 1799.
Delaware County, as we all know, is steeped in history. The county was created on Sept. 26, 1789, from part of Chester County and named for the Delaware River. Each Delco borough and township takes pride in the part it played in local and even national history, the former residents who lived there, the historic landmarks located within its borders and historic events that took place there. Without the passion and efforts of the people in these historical societies, much of this very important part of our county’s heritage would be lost and forgotten.
Some members of our small local historical societies have written pictorial books to help us learn and understand the history of our individual communities. Readers can visit arcadiapublishing.com to order books about Newtown Square, Chester, Swarthmore, Nether Providence, Sharon Hill, Darby, Springfield Township and more. Other county history lovers, like Delaware County historian Keith Lockhart, travel around the county to libraries, senior groups and other organizations to lecture on local history. Keith also has a website, delawarecountyhistory.com, which draws from his 45-year accumulation of Delaware County historical memorabilia that he amassed.
Founded in 1895, the Delaware County Historical Society (DCHS) is an umbrella over all of the smaller societies. Its mission is to acquire, preserve and make available documentation of Delaware County history; to provide and support educational programs on the history of Delaware County; and to publish materials relevant to this history. DCHS has a beautiful museum and research library housed in the 1907 Delaware County National Bank building in Chester. The society’s archival holdings consist of over 47 collections that span over 1,200 linear feet of materials dating from 1716 to the present, although most of the collections date from the 19th and 20th centuries.
While many areas of Delaware Country are represented, the City of Chester is especially well-documented at the DCHS Museum. Original manuscripts, which include ledgers, scrapbooks, correspondence, photographs, deeds, ephemera, maps and other documents, relate to various people, families, organizations, particularly community associations, businesses and local government. If you’ve never been to the DCHS Museum, I am highly recommending it. Even those not all that interested in our county’s history will be fascinated by the evolving exhibits and other unique artifacts at the museum.
Saturday’s CHS tea was informal. Everyone seemed to know one another from “history circles.” One of the main topics of conversation was a petition that CHS members are circulating to make public and official their united opposition to a proposed super Wawa in town. The petition asks Collingdale Borough Council to rescind the variances recently granted for the proposed new Super Wawa at Upland Terrace and MacDade Boulevard because the new Wawa project will demolish two local historic buildings that are almost 100 years old and play significant roles in local history. The petition lists other reasons as well, such as encroachment on an existing residential neighborhood. The group also discussed plans to help save a mansion in Darby set for destruction, ways to get publicity for their projects and how to grow in membership. The discussions were all over the map, but history and preservation were the reigning themes that ran through it all.
It wasn’t only Collingdale history that was discussed. Rich and Pat Paul, of Broomall, talked about the 1696 Thomas Massey House in which they’re involved. Pat Gallagher spoke about the Rose Valley Historical Society, to which he belongs, in addition to the Collingdale and Springfield historical societies. Judy Reese talked about the Chichester Meetinghouse, where she lives, and elaborated on its history. I even heard some interesting history trivia and found out some items in our history books just aren’t true.
In my job, people often ask me if I know of any worthwhile volunteer opportunities. My mind automatically thinks of people in need when the question gets asked, so I begin spouting off worthwhile charities that always need volunteers: Catholic Social Services, City Team Chester, Domestic Abuse Project, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), the Life Center of Eastern Delaware County, Anna’s Place, Boy and Girl Scouts, Loaves and Fishes, Family Promise, St. Vincent DePaul, Mothers’ Home, Thresholds,Women Against Rape, Delaware County Literacy Center and the list goes on and on. Usually, I’ll quiz the person on their interests and try to match them up with a volunteer opportunity that I think they’ll really like and, therefore, stick to it. I want them to reap joy out of helping others and feel excited about their chosen volunteerism.
From now on, in addition to human service volunteer opportunities, I am also going to suggest their local historical society. If I think they’re someone who cares about the community and values the importance and the preservation of local historic landmarks, properties and artifacts, this may be a volunteer op that’s a perfect fit for them. Small historical societies, like the Collingdale Historical Society, provide a wealth of information to local residents about those who have come before them to help them understand how and why the borough has progressed into the community that it is today. Without the ability to know its past and information about those who helped shape the borough, current residents would not have the total picture of their town in order to go forward.
Small all-volunteer-run historical societies often operate museums, local archives and historic houses. They play an important role in protecting and preserving the historical record, and they also interpret the past to the public. No one knows for sure how many local historical societies and small museums exist in the United States today, but rough estimates in one article that I read place the number at over 10,000.
My eyes were opened Saturday afternoon. I always knew a lot about the Delaware County Historical Society and have a great respect for its members, its mission and what it does and has done to educate the public. However, this was the very first time that I actually sat down with one of our county’s small historical societies and listened to their thoughts and heard about their activities. I felt the members’ passion and determination in preserving local history.
I’ve always known Sir Winston Churchill’s famous saying “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” was wise and true, but I never got a chance to express gratitude to those who make the effort to help us know and understand our history. Thank you, Elizabeth MacGuire, for inviting me to your winter tea and letting me watch your passionate and energetic history-preserving team in action … and a big shoutout to all of the dedicated and generous volunteers in all of the historical societies of Delaware County who educate and enlighten the rest of us!
Readers can reach Peg DeGrassa at firstname.lastname@example.org.