Conestoga Wagons, part 2 – Teamsters, King’s Highway, “There will be bells”

“I’ll be there with bells!” How many among the readers of this column know that this expression originated 200 years or more ago among the drivers of Conestoga wagons along our old Lancaster highway?

How long the narrow trail had sufficed the Indians for their travels from their inland homes to the sea before increasing traffic made better roads necessary is a matter of conjecture. It was not until 1733 that the Governor and the Provincial Council recognized a petition by the Conestoga framers for a “King’s Highway”.

Acting on the petition, the Province ordered that a dirt road thirty feet wide be laid from the courthouse in Center Square, Lancaster, “until it fell in with the high-road in the County of Chester”, and so through to the High Street Ferry on the Schuylkill.

Thus was the narrow Indian trail transformed into the dirt road that was the early predecessor of our present 61 mile highway between Philadelphia and Lancaster.

As a matter of fact, this first dirt road was little different from the Indian trail except that it was wider. As late as 1773 tree stumps remained in the road, and for a long time there were no bridges across the streams. During much of the year the road was almost impassable in places. At best, Conestoga Wagons covered only 15 or 20 miles a day.

Often when two teamsters going in opposite directions met, one had to yield the high crown of the road to the other. Sometimes it required a fist fight to settle the matter of who should do the yielding. Eventually one driver often found himself in the ditch. No one ever offered to help him unless he asked for such help. On the other hand, none ever refused to give assistance when asked for it.

Once the request for help was given, the distressed teamster withdrew his own stalled horses to have them replaced by those of the rescuer. If the later was successful, he was rewarded by the gift of the bells from the other team. The unfortunate driver lost the right to use bells until he, in turn, had rescued another team in trouble. If a teamster arrived at this journey’s end with his bells intact, it was assumed that he had had no trouble along the way. And so the saying that is still a common one today, “I’ll be there with bells on.”

Of these early bells Howard Frey, writing in “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends”, says, “Much might be said about the attractive and musical brass bells that were suspended form the iron arch over the horses’ shoulders. The bell arches were ornamented. They were covered with bearskin or some other fur, or with black and red cloth tied with dangling, fancy ribbons. Six sets of bells were usual for a six-horse team, although many teamsters used only five sets because bells on the saddle horse interfered somewhat with driving. There frequently were five bells on the lead horses, four somewhat larger bells on the middle horses, and three still larger ones on the pole horses.

“It is not known just how these bells originated. We do know, however, that the lead horse in a train of pack horses carried a bell, probably to warn approaching persons to move to the side and make way for passing on the narrow dirt paths that led through the wilderness. There is no manufacturer’s name on these bells, and it s not known whether they were American-made or imported; nor does anyone know the significance of the customary 5-4-3 arrangement. The bells of different sizes produce not only noise, but music as well, and were among the proudest possessions of the wagoners.”

Other accoutrements in which the drivers of the old Conestoga wagons took pride were the bridle rosettes, pompons, ribbons and tassels. The rosettes were usually plain brass buttons which were made of horse hair or wood dyed red or blue, and were fastened to the bridle under the rosettes. Sometimes the hair of the horses’ forelocks was plaited with red, white and blue ribbons.

A blacksnake whip was an indispensible part of every wagoner’s equipment, thick and hard at the butt and tapering tot he end, to which was attached a plaited lash. these were the work of highly skilled saddlers. The harness was always the best that could be gotten, with particularly heavy sets for the larger teams.

As they travelled through the villages and Pike towns these caravans of wagons were a never failing source of interest to the inhabitants. At the sound of the Conestoga bells they came to their doorways to watch these wagoners as they drove from their “lazy board” or walked beside their teams. one large wagon alone with its six horses, stretched to a length of 60 feet. There were days in the 1700’s and 1800’s when the sparsely settled inhabitants of what is now Wayne and its neighboring suburbs could probably see several hundreds of these wagons pass in the course of a day, along what then was King’s Highway.

Another expression in addition to “be there with bells on” that stems back from the present to those early Pennsylvania days is, “Watch your p’s and q’s”. It originated when tavern keepers made a record of charges against their customers by wiring on a slate that was kept behind the tavern bar in full view of everyone who frequented the tavern.

“When a pint of whiskey was purchased on credit”, according to Mr. Frey, “the letter P was written on the slate, and when a quart was purchased, the letter Q was recorded. Some of the heavy drinkers would sometimes have too many P’s and Q’s entered back of their names, and the proprietor reminded them that their bills were getting too high by saying “Watch your P’s and Q’s.”

Still another expression that one hears occasionally in these days, though not as frequently as the other two to which we have alluded, is “Old Stuck in the Mud.” If it did not originate with these early teamsters, at least it was an epithet with which they often jeered one another when mishaps occurred along the 30 foot wide dirt highway.

A tale is told of one Abraham Witmer who in 1788 built a wooden toll bridge at Deering’s Ford, across the Conestoga River. When some of the wagon drivers tried to evade payment of toll by fording their heavy vehicles below the span they often found themselves in trouble. Not only did they have to forfeit their bells to the passing team that happened along in time to pull them out of the river mud, but they had to listen to Witmer’s ridicule and his shouts, ‘Old Stuck in the Mud’, don’t you wish now that you had paid toll?”

Conestoga Wagons, part 1 – how built & used, wagoneers, horses

In connection with the series of articles on the old Spread Eagle Inn, which appeared in this column in the Spring of 1950, the writer told of the picturesque scene along the old Lancaster Turnpike in the 1700’s and 1800’s, when the Conestoga wagon, with its broad wheels, rolled its leisurely way along. There was also “the Troy coach, swinging upon its leather springs and drawn by four prancing horses; the stage-wagon, or ‘Dearborn’, with the farmer going to and from the city market.”

And “interspersed with these vehicles of a bygone day were the large droves of cattle being driven from the green pastures of Chester county and of Lancaster county to the seaboard. This was the traffic that once made its way through the countryside that was later to become Radnor, Wayne, Strafford and their neighboring suburbs, both to the East and to the West.”

Of all this picturesque procession of vehicles travelling along the old Lancaster Turnpike, none was as purely of Pennsylvania origin as the Conestoga wagon, originating as it did among the Dutch farmers of the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster county, where lived the last of the Conestoga Indians.

Quite as remarkable as the wagons were the horses bred to draw them. According to L. E. V. Mitchell, author of “It’s a Pennsylvania Custom”, America has developed only three or four distinct breeds of horses, among them being the Conestoga. Now extinct, its ancestry, like that of the Morgan strain, is unknown. But it was “one of the first draft horses ever bred, solid, chunky, and possessing extraordinary endurance.”

Mitchell states that it is difficult to see how a better wagon than the Conestoga could have been devised for the general purpose it was intended to serve, and did serve from about 1750 to 1850. Its great, wide-tired wheels were made to stay up on soft ground, while the entire vehicle was designed to carry loads of from four to six tons over bad roads and through steeply banked streams.

Although these wagons were not all built exactly alike, there were certain features common to all Conestoga wagons that identified them as different from other covered wagons of the period. “The white top of the typical Conestoga wagon,” according to one historian, “dipped the center and flared out over the ends like an old fashioned lady’s bonnet, stretched over a dozen hickory bows fixed in sockets. The hempen cover measured 24 feet from end to end, and at the front and rear peaks it was eleven feet from the ground. Lashed down at the sides and drawn together at the ends, it protected the contents of the wagon, which was generally loaded to the hoops, from dust and rain.”

The wagon bottom was cleverly built to dip toward the middle “in boat fashion” to prevent the load from shifting against the ends when steep grades were negotiated. “Indeed”, writes Mr. Mitchell, “a Conestoga wagon without its top rather resembled a dory on wheels.” On the left-hand side of the wagon was the “slant-lidded tool box with ornamented iron hinges.” Above this was the “lazy board”, which pulled out like a shelf from the side. On this board the driver could ride either sitting or standing. The feed box which hung across the rear end could be detached and placed on the pole for the horses to eat from when they were unhitched. And every wagon carried a water bucket and a tar bucket.

Picturesque indeed must have been these wagons as they rolled along the old highway. For those of us who must pause at any intersection for a break in the present steady stream of motor traffic along Lancaster avenue, it is interesting to envision the scene of only a little more than a hundred years ago. These slow moving Conestoga wagons, often travelling in long trains, with their big red wheels and their white tops, were often overtaken by the more speedy four horse stages. Although drawn by six strong draft horses, the loads on the wagons were usually so heavy that they necessarily travelled at a slower clip.

The nautical names, such as “inland ship”, “frigate” and eventually “prairie schooner”, had their origin in the appearance of “vast fleets of these white-tops rolling across the land”. There was indeed “something oceanic” in the spectacle. it has been estimated that some three thousand of them travelled the highway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s. And “as many as a thousand were to be seen at one time with their boat-shaped bodies backed up along Market Street, discharging and loading cargo”.

As the Conestoga wagons passed westward through what are now our pleasant suburbs of Radnor, wayne and Strafford and our neighboring communities, they usually carried textiles, hardware and other manufactured goods for settlers as far west as Pittsburgh. For the return trip they were loaded with furs, skins and farm products for the east. The men who drove the wagons “through the valleys and over the mountains” of our state were, according to Howard Frey, writing in “Pennsylvania, Songs and Legends”, a “dashing, roistering group of young fellows who enjoyed a glamour not unlike that which in a later era surrounded cowboys in the west.”

There were two classes of these wagoners – the “regulars”, whose only occupation was hauling freight, and the “militia”, who were farmers devoting part of their time to this work. By far the majority were Pennsylvania Dutch, though there were some of English and irish descent, and even a few Negroes among them.

Proud of their teams, their wagons and their work “these hard-bitten men, travel stained and bronzed by exposure, were toughened to the point of despising comforts”, according to Mr. Frey. And although for the most part they drank hard and steadily, this seldom interfered with their duties.

Their manner of obtaining their liquor is amusingly told by Mr. Frey when he writes, “They carried gimlet bits and little brown jugs, and stole their supply of whiskey from the barrels that made up part of the cargoes. Yet, paradoxically, some of them were so religious as to refuse to move their wagons on Sunday”.

(To be continued)

Wayne’s First Baptist Church, part 8 – demolition on Conestoga Road site, re-build on Lancaster Pike west of the Trust Company as Central Baptist Church, Davis’ sons killed in Civil War named & Stilwell of WWI

The five-year-old boy standing in the doorway of his father’s hardware store on Conestoga road watched the tall bell tower of the Old Radnor Baptist Church as it came crashing down several weeks ago as part of the work of demolition of the 60-year-old edifice.

“God must be crying”, he said solemnly.

“Why?”, a bystander asked small Anthony Fillipone.

“Because they are tearing down His House”, the boy replied.

Few perhaps could express in words what Anthony had said so simply. And yet all much feel a sense of sadness at the vacant southeast corner of old Conestoga road, where it is intersected by West Wayne avenue. For 60 years one of Wayne’s largest and most stately stone churches had stood there. For 50 years before that its people had worshipped in the small building that had previously stood on this same site. Now all that remains is a great pile of stone, fallen in on the foundations of the former church. Soon even these stones will be hauled away, and the last vestige of the old Radnor Baptist Church will be wiped from the landscape.

And yet it is inevitable that this should have come to pass. The last entry in the old Church Record Book is under date of January, 1929. It is but three lines long and states simply: “After struggling along for several years now with only a handful of attendance to pay a pastor, we decided to discontinue services.”

Just a year before, the church had “received its greatest loss when two of our oldest and most loyal members answered the call of the Great Beyond”. Mrs. Sarah M. Siter was a member of the church since 1893. For many years she faithfully served as church treasurer and also on the Board of Trustees. Mrs. Mary E. Longacre, who until her death was the oldest living member of this church, died April 5th.

It was in May, 1896, only six years after the completion of their handsome new church building that a special business meeting was called “for the purpose of considering the advisability of securing a location for our Church and re-building near the center of the town”. A motion to this effect was defeated by a narrow majority of three votes.

In July, 1896, another meeting was called “by order and in behalf of the Board of Trustees.” The call to this meeting states: “The lot which we hope to procure, and which is valued at $6,000, has been offered to us for $1,500. Towards this amount, interested friends have pledged $1,000. If the Church would raise $500 we could secure the most desirable location for a church in our town.”

Again the idea of moving to a new location was rejected, this time by a slightly larger majority. Then at a meeting held early in November of 1896 at the home of one of the members a resolution was passed “to form a new Baptist Church in Wayne” and to build on a lot on Lancaster avenue, west of the Trust Company”. This is, of course, the site of the present Central Baptist Church. Those who had decided on this step asked for “the encouragement and sympathy of the entire membership of the First Church, since they believed “that the erection and maintenance of a Baptist church in a more central location would result in greatly blessing the community and the building up of the Christian life of those who hold to Baptist faith and principle.”

The tersely worded reply of those who wished to remain in the church on Conestoga road is as follows:

“We, the undersigned members of the First Baptist Church of Wayne, do agree to stay in the present church building to worship and to support it, and let those who wish to go and build a new church, go, and leave us undisturbed in the future and may God be with them.”

And so the matter was settled. Soon thereafter the Central Baptist Church was built, just west of the Wayne Title and Trust Company on a lot extending from Lancaster pike to West Wayne avenue. And for more than 30 years there were two Baptist churches in the small community of Wayne.

In view of the widespread attention entered on the demolition of the old church building, it would be interesting to know who the architect and builder were, as well as the names of the building committee and the means by which funds were raised.

But church records regarding these matters were apparently not made, or if made, were not kept in the old record book. There is, however, a record of Dedication Day of November 30, 1892, conducted by the pastor, the Rev. John Miller, when Dr. Abbott, president of the Board of Trustees “made a report of all the money and donations given in helping to pay the church debt . . . the mortgage was then burned, while the congregation joined in singing the doxology.”

Resolutions adopted on this occasion “recognize the self-sacrificing devotion and untiring energy with which our beloved Pastor, Reverend John Miller and wife, have most efficiently and successfully borne the larger share of the burden involved in the achievement in which we now rejoice.” When this writer went through the old church just before its demolition, the portraits of the Reverend and Mrs. Miller still looked down from the walls upon the deserted church which, 60 years ago, they had been instrumental in erecting. These pictures have since been placed in the rooms of the Radnor Historical Society. The big three-toned bell, presented to the church in 1890 by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Childs, has been taken across Conestoga road, where it may be seen in front of the store of Louis Fillipone, new owner of the old church property. It was made by the McShane Bell Foundry of Baltimore, a firm established in 1856 and still in existence.

The old churchyard seemed very peaceful and quiet, despite the heavy traffic of Conestoga road, as the writer wandered through it on a recent afternoon. The stones bear the names of many families well-known in the annals of Wayne. The section just back of the church is the older part, while in the section beyond are the newer graves. Many of these graves were there long before 1890, when the large church replace the first small one. Deacon William Siter and his wife Emily lie side by side in one of the older lots, the former having died in 1857, the latter in 1878. There are Childs and Lewises, Pughs, Ramseys, Wilds and Rossiters, to mention but a few of the old-time family names of Wayne. A number of graves bear the G.A.R. insignia. No stone has a more touching inscription than that of “Our Sons . . . Corporal Thomas P. Davis, killed at the battle of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, aged 21 . . . also Sgt. Stephen S. Davis, killed at Petersburgh, Va., June 17, 1864, aged 22 years.” They were sons of Stephen and Mary Davis, early members of the church. There is also the grave of a veteran of World War I, Courtland Stilwell, of the 334th Field Artillery. It is pleasant to think that, even though the old church is but a memory, the money realized from its sale will assume perpetual care to the old graveyard.


Wayne’s First Baptist Church, part 7 – Civil War, President Lincoln’s Day, buildings, school, parsonage

Apparently there was never any shadow of doubt in the minds of those pioneer members of the Radnor Baptist Church as to the answer to the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. It would seem that no one ever hesitated to serve on a committee, or to visit alone, any “delinquent” member of the church. However, reports were brought back so frequently to church meetings that these committees or individuals were not able to see “the erring Brother or Sister when they called” that some doubt must arise in the minds of a reader of these Church Minutes as to whether these delinquents were not either conveniently absent or perhaps even hiding very quietly behind closed doors!

The indignation of one member when he was called upon by a committee was apparently so righteous that the committee was dismissed after making its report. According to the church minutes, “The Committee Brothers P. and B. reported that they had an interview with Bro. M., who said that false reports had been circulated in regard to his being Drunk, Swearing, etc. Said he did not get drunk before he was converted and that it was not likely he would now, and that he had passed through severe afflictions, and that the Lord had been with him, and that he still desired to serve the Lord and belong to his Church and people, and the Committee reporting favorable on behalf of our brother, the Committee was Discharged.”

Not content with taking any chances on not hearing of the possible delinquency of a church member in the matter of drinking, the minister had a resolution spread on the Church minutes, “That we as church members are under obligation to report to the church if we know of any member that is in the habit of using intoxicating liquors as a beverage”. The definition of “intoxicating” became a question of such moment that the following paragraph appeared in the minutes of August 22, 1861:

“That on next meeting for business we consider the question, whether the wine or juice of the grape that we use on our Communion occasions, it being somewhat fermented, is of such a kind as the Scriptures teach, and whether it is in accordance with the principles and former acts of our Church.”

This question was apparently settled without delay, for very shortly thereafter a resolution appeared on the minutes to the effect that “On motion proceeded to the consideration of sacramental wine, or juice of the grape, whether we use it after it becomes fermented it was resolved that hereafter we will use syrup or some substitute in which there shall be no alcohol”.

— of these incidents having occurred during the pastorate of Brother S., one wonders a bit if there is any connection between it and a “communication from —- L.”, in which the latter —- his resignation of that office —-olds in the church, giving as seen that he could no longer be —ted by the preaching of Mr. A. and that it was useless to attest to ministrations”. Brother L.’s resignation “was granted”.

As —– sinful living was concerned, it would seem that dancing —- on part with swearing —–. The Committee, who ———- Brother P. reported ——- he was willing to say ——– no more while he ——- of the church, yet ———- acknowledge its sin———— he had done wrong, and refused to fill his place in the Church and spoke of the Pastor in an unbecoming manner”. And so “in view of his past and general Christian conduct, it was deemed best to exclude him”. And it was only shortly after this incident that “Sister Emily Siter was appointed a committee to wait on Sisters M. and A. G., for the wrong of being found participating in a public dance.”

Although written some 84 years ago, there is a very present day ring to the phrase used by pastor Dalley when he gave “the high price of living” as the reason for refusing to continue to the service of the church unless his salary was raised to $650 per annum. Twenty-six years before that the Church’s first minister had received $350 yearly! For one reason or another there were constant pastoral changes. There were also as many changes of sextons. One sexton flatly refused to give up his keep until the church “payed” him. This one of the church brethren agreed to do, but with the clear understanding that “the church pay him back within one monh.”

However, it was undoubtedly due to inability to contribute more to church expenses, rather than unwillingness to give more that made for an almost constantly empty treasury. Even when a new minute book was needed it was ordered that “a collection be taken up every Sabbath evening for this and other expenses of the church, so long as we have need of it.” But in some fashion larger expenditures were met.

A parsonage was erected, the one still standing between the site of the large church which is being demolished and the present trolley tracks. Later there was a stable and a carriage house. In July, 1864, a committee was appointed to take care of repairs to the meeting house, “the roofing of the house and rebuilding the chimneys to be first in order and carpet for the floor and after that the painting of the woodwork of the house and then blinds for the windows if funds hold out.”

There is frequent mention of the little old school house which antedated even the church building itself. One note states that “it is to be rented to the School Board for $25 per year.”

On September 13, 1861, “it was resolved that this church observe the 26th day of the month as set apart by President Lincoln as a day of humiliation, prayer and fasting for the blessing of the Lord on our country.” Those were the early days of the War of Secession. This September 13 was a time following closely on the Battle of Bull Run, the first serious encounter of the War, a battle in which Northern forces suffered great defeat at the hands of the Confederates. Although no further reference is made in the minutes to the Civil War, its outcome must have been a source of great satisfaction to members of the Radnor Baptist Church, with the strong anti-slavery attitude they had always maintained.

A simple marginal note in the first Record Book of the church states that “Deacon Siter departed this life July 24, 1857.” Members of the church meeting of July 23 had stated that “Bro. G. Philips was appointed collector of the pastor’s salary in place of Bro. Siter, who is not able on account of sickness.” For 16 years William Siter had served his church faithfully and well, after having been the leading spirit in starting it. Among three interesting old parchment documents held by the remaining trustees of the church property when it was sold recently, was the “Charter for Incorporating the Radnor Baptist Church.” William Siter is named in it as one of the original seven trustees, the other six being George Philips, John Beaver, George W. Lewis, Samuel Jones, Gideon D. Thomas and WIlliam Supplee. This was dated November 30, 1842.

Of the other old documents, one is the deed of recording the gift of land to the church on April 28, 1843, “from William Siter and Emily, his wife.” The third document is the deed of an acre of ground given by the church by Emily Siter on the sixth day of April, 1861. By that time only three of the original trustees were in office. The others serving were Thomas R. Pelty, John Jones, Charles Pugh and Peter Bloom.

For almost 50 years the congregation of the Radnor Baptist Church used the small building originally known as Music Fund Hall as its meeting place. Then, at a church meeting held on July 22, 1889, the minutes state that “after a very earnest prayer by Bro. Miller, we decided to tear down the old church and build a new one.” At a September 15 meeting it was further resolved “that the trustees of the Radnor Baptist Church arrange to have the old meeting house torn down and a new one erected and that they further be empowered to take all essential measures to secure the money to meet the indebtedness incident to the construction of the building.”

The old minutes book of the Radnor Baptist Church tells nothing of the actual building of the church that is now being demolished. if anyone knows who the architect and builder were, how the funds for it were raised, and any other details, will that person get in touch with Mrs. Patterson, Windermere Court, Wayne 4569?

(To be continued)