Martha Wentworth Suffren’s family history and home furnishings

In last week’s column, the writer told of a visit to the home of Mrs. Martha Wentworth Suffren, on Homestead road, after an invitation from “the grand old lady of Strafford” to hear her account, not only of the first telephone in this section of the Main Line, but also of the first attempts at sending telegraphic messages.

The telephone experiment was made over wires stretched through the trees between the present Rosato house, near Strafford station, and the home of Mrs. Suffren’s parents on Homestead road, now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. E. Brooke Matlack. The first effort to send a telegraphic message was made in the historic Old Eagle School House, still standing on the road to which it has given its name.

At the close of this informal interview with Mrs. Suffren, the latter invited the writer to go through her house and examine, more closely than on previous visits, the many pieces of old-fashioned furniture. The house, built in 1908 by Mr. Suffren at the almost unbelievably low cost of $8,000, stands on an acre and a half of ground, the only part of the 130 original acres in the old Wentworth tract still in the possession of a member of that family. It is a spacious white house which the visitor enters through a wide front door leading from the deep porch. The large, square hallway is flanked on the left by the living room with windows on three sides, and on the right by the dining room. A wide stairway, facing the front door, leads to the two upper floors, which contain seven bedrooms and four baths. All windows look out on a sweep of well-kept lawn with trees on every side.

From the west windows, Mrs Suffren can look out over the former farm lands which she roamed as a small girl. And to the south, she can glimpse the railroad tracks over which she watched President Lincoln’s funeral train make its slow way 90 years ago.

With “Friend Cane” (as Mrs. Suffren affectionately refers to her trusty walking stick) giving her the slight support she needs, Mrs. Suffren and the writer made their way through the first and second floors of her comfortable home. Many of the beautiful old pieces of furniture came to her through the well-known Emlen family of Philadelphia, of which Mrs. Suffren’s mother, the former Margaret Emlen, was a member.

The roomy old “Virginia sofa,” Mrs. Suffren says, has “always been there,” but of the original three handsome old mahogany chairs with their cane seats, only one still remains in Mrs. Suffren’s possession. So rare an antique is this chair that she has been told by a dealer that he has seen but one like it in all his travels. Near the sofa is a Lady Pembroke table, much used by its owner.

Then there is a mahogany desk which Mrs. Suffren thinks may have been made to order, since she has never seen another one similar in design. Among its interesting features is a set of secret drawers, placed behind the regular drawers. Directly in front of the secret drawers is a small mirror which lowers to reveal them. There is also a mahogany “writing table,” on which stands a pewter container with “blotting sand,” which, in days gone by, was sprinkled on the paper in order to absorb excess ink.

In the dining room across the hall is a clock that was a wedding gift to the Suffrens more than 70 years ago. Made of onyx, it has a lovely, gold-finished face. Chimes announce the hour. When the Suffrens moved away from their Strafford home to take up residence temporarily in Brooklyn, the clock suffered a mishap in the moving, and the top was broken. Since there was no onyx available for a new top, it was replaced by a wooden one painted black, which still serves its purpose. Among the other interesting objects in the dining room is an old silver gravy bowl and matching spoon with gracefully curved handle.

In the downstairs hallway are two fine old Sheraton pieces, a drop leaf table and a chair. Upstairs, in Mr. Suffren’s bedroom, is a quaint old “sleigh bed” of the Louis Philippe period. Mrs. Suffren explains that the term “sleigh bed” comes from the fact that its footboard is very high, like the front of an old-fashioned sleigh, which kept the snow, kicked up by the horses hooves, off the driver. In other rooms are two Jenny Lind beds.

Among the other treasures in this Strafford home is a picture of Lady Wentworth, about whom Longfellow wrote in his “Tales of a Wayside Inn.” And then there are the volumes of the Wentworth family biography, written by Congressman “Long” John Wentworth, so called because of his great height. Mrs. Suffren added that he was such a large man that he had to have four eggs for breakfast each morning to sustain him. At any rate, he spent 20 years and $20,000 in research for the writing of his voluminous family history.

And so it is that many mementoes, not only of her own long life, but also the lives of her forebears, surround Martha Wentworth Suffren as she approaches her 98th birthday, which will come on Thursday, October 10. In the serenity of her years she can look back on a full life, much of it spent on Homestead road, Strafford.

Early Telegraph and Telephone Service

As this columnist thinks of the many sources from which she obtains information for “Your Town and My Town,” the name of Mrs. Martin Wentworth Suffren seems to come to mind more frequently than that of any other person.

Born on October 10, 1858, in a lovely old house built by her parents on Homestead Road, Strafford, the year before her birth, Mrs. Suffren’s memory spans a longer period, probably, than that of any Wayne resident. At present she lives in the house adjacent to her birthplace, as it is now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. E. Brooke Matlack.

Closely as the writer keeps in touch with Mrs. Suffren, she had never thought to question her on a subject on which she had long sought accurate informatlon for this column. So it was with a feeling of real surprise that she received an invitation from “the grand old lady or Strafford” to visit and to hear “all about the first telephone in this vicinity.” What Mrs. Suffren offered was information long sought by the writer, especially since Wayne has now become “telephone conscious,” with the erection of two important telephone buildings in its midst, one the property of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and the other that of the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania.

It was in 1876, as Mrs. Suffren remembers the date, that Mr. Persifor Frazer, who was living on the north side of Strafford station, asked Mr. Wentworth for permission to run telephone wires from there to the Wentworth place.

Mr. Frazer was making his home at the time in a large boarding house then owned by Mrs. Mifflin Lewis, now occupied by Dr. D.J. Rosato and his family. According to plans, wires were to run from the Lewis house to the Wentworth homestead on the hill to the north. Mr. Frazer, who had become very much interested in the subject of the telephone after seeing an exhibition of it at the Philadelphia Centennial, wished to do some personal experimentation of his own.

Now, 80 years later, Mrs. Suffren remembers the intense excitement she felt as she heard of this contemplated experiment. “I can never hear all that distance,” she said to herself as she looked through the thick expanse of trees that lay between her home and that of Mrs. Lewis. This feeling on the part of the young girl was strengthened by the fact that her hearing had not been very keen since she was a child – at least “not good enough for eavesdropping,” Mrs. Suffren now adds with a chuckle!

This telephone line was run between the two houses, attached to trees along the way, Mrs. Suffren remembers. When all was in order, communication was established between the two houses, and Martha Wentworth could hear through the receiver the voice coming from the neighboring house.

Mrs. Suffren also recalls clearly an early exhibition of the telephone system which was given in the Old Eagle School House, a quaint building dating back many years and about which much has been written in the column from time to time. She can visualize herself at the time as the “little Martha whom Mother took along because she couldn’t get rid of her in any other way.” Two men were seated in opposite corners of the room, with wires stretched between them. Using the Morse dot and dash system, messages were sent from one corner to be transcribed accurately in the other corner, much to the amazement of the large group or spectators eager to see one of the modern miracles of the time.

Before the writer had gone on her way, Mrs. Suffren took her around the pleasant home, built almost 50 years ago by Mr. Suffren and herself, on an acre and a half of the origlnal Wentworth property. In a later column, many of Mrs. Suffren’s fine old pieces of furniture and priceless possessions will be described.

The King of Prussia Inn

37_image01Elsie Lathrop, author of “Early American Inns and Taverns,” to which reference has been made from time to time in this column, found so many such hostelries in her travels through Pennsylvania that she devoted two chapters to our state alone. In view of the current interest in the King of Prussia Inn, we are going to give a full description of the inn as it looked to Miss Lathrop over 30 years ago.

“Built in 1709 the old house is as staunch as ever. The original two rooms on the right as one enters, have old fireplaces across adjoining corners, as have the rooms above, now used as private dining rooms. On the left downstairs, the rear room is the old kitchen, with an enormous fireplace in which two persons may sit comfortably in chairs. The old crane is still in place, as is the old oven, and up in the wall of the chimney is a small niche for keeping food warm. In front of the kitchen is the old bar. From the kitchen, a steep, narrow flight of stairs testifies to its age, and one may admire massive old beams and some of the old doors and hinges. The original stables and springhouse are still standing.

“The Inn was given its name by the builder, a native of Prussia, only a few years after the Elector of Brandenburg had made the duchy of Prussia into a kingdom and had established himself as King Frederick of Prussia.”

The date, 1769, is sometimes given the inn, as a later building date than that of 1709. However, it would seem more probable that the latter was a remodelling date for the structure. But whether 1769 was a building or a remodelling date, the work was done at that time by one Daniel Thompson, according to records in possession of the King of Prussia Historical Society. According to these same records, Thompson was a “fighting Quaker” who was active for eight years in the Revolutionary War.

The inn has definitely housed some of the most outstanding figures from the pages of American history. During the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, In 1793, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe stayed there. George Washington is said to have frequented it during the war. It is also said that not only Washington, but many other renowned men of the Revolutionary War period, attended Masonic meetings held there. Besides the historical background, there is the close proximity of the wide-spreading “Washington Oak,” which was growing when William Penn came to Pennsylvania.

The building itself is made of local stone, probably quarried from a bed on the present Croton road. This stone is now covered with plaster. As to the interior, a small brochure issued two years ago by a group of individuals interested in the preservation of the old landmark, states that “even successive alterations have not marred the charm given it by certain quaint proportions and from the large old fireplaces and other sources.”

If recommendations of the restoration committee as outlined in last week’s column were to be adopted, much of the cost of the work entailed could be cut down by volunteer work, to be given the project by skilled craftsmen in the King of Prussia neighborhood. Following the recommendation of this committee, this statement was issued:

“Since this is a community project, the restoration committee feels that it is only fair to permit those who are interested in contributing their skills to do so. Obviously there will be a close supervision of such efforts and there will be a final inspection by local officials, as well as the Historical Society Restoration Committee, before the building is used. The restoration committee agrees to use the plans drawn up by Mr. John T. Brugger, Jr., architect.”

The committee further points out that with the labor contributed, the cost of restoration could be cut to a minimum. Fortunately, there are many in the community who are skilled in cabinet making, electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, wall papering, painting or even just “pushing a broom.” And as a concluding argument for this means of restoration, the committee states that “a building which is restored through the efforts of those who would use it has a much more secure future than one for which money has been solicited and unwillingly given.”

Thus the stage is set to save for posterity one of the most historic old buildings in our neighborhood. Plans are made, funds are promised, skilled labor is offered. All that is needed is an entirely clear title to the property which, as all concerned continue to hope, may be forthcoming in the not too distant future. For those of our readers who may be interested in helping to clear up the situation, the names of those who are incorporators of the new King of Prussia Historical Society are again given. Information may be obtained from Dr. Robert A. May, Mrs. Lucressa Morrison and John R. Arscott, all of King of Prussia; Mrs. Mary Townsend and Dr. Deane Webber, of Colonial Village, Wayne.