The Book “Our Pennsylvania”, part 1 by Amy Oakley, illustrated by Thornton Oakley, Bryn Mawr College

Although a number of contemporary reference books have been used from time to time in writing this column, so many of the others have been ancient tomes that this columnist thinks mostly of yellowed pages and frail bindings as she reviews in her mind the columns of the past two or three years. And supplementing old books have been time worn records, many written in faded ink.

By way of contrast we turn today to a book published only about a year ago by two of our Delaware County neighbors. “Our Pennsylvania”, by Amy Oakley, with illustrations by her well known artist husband, Thornton Oakley.

The Oakleys live at “Woodstock”, their lovely home on Spring Mill road where it is intersected by Sproul road. This book on their native state is dedicated to the memory of their parents, James Hunter Ewing, of Philadelphia, and John Milton Oakley, of Pittsburgh. In writing it they have traversed the length and the breadth of the Keystone State, so named, Mrs. Oakley explains in her preface, because this Commonwealth, holding seventh place geographically among the thirteen original states, was the “key of the federal arch.”

Large though the state may be, there is “no monotony to travel in Pennsylvania” in the opinion of the Oakleys. Not only are there famous historical shrines and “time mellowed architectural survivors of the years 1790-1800, when Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, “but forests cover approximately half of Pennsylvania’s area since the reforestation of the State. As the reader of any volume such as this might easily anticipate in advance of perusing it, one of the greatest problems of the author has been that of omission. “Exigencies of time and space” have not permitted a complete picture of the State either in the way of story or illustration. But as the reader closes the blue and gold volume on the delightful experience of traversing Pennsylvania with the Oakleys, he may well wonder not at what has been omitted, but rather that it has been possible to include so much that is vital in so limited a space.

Certainly that particular section of Pennsylvania which in a broad sense we may term “our own” has been described in pleasing detail. The first five chapters include those of “Historic Philadelphia”, “Modern Philadelphia”, “The Main Line and Valley Forge”, “Vignettes of Chester County” and “The Glorious Delaware”.

The first fourteen of Mr. Oakley’s illustrations have been made in Philadelphia. Others that follow are of Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge, Old ST. Davids at Radnor, The Augustinian Chapel at Villanova, Radnor Meeting House at Ithan, Plymouth Meeting Electric Station and May Day at Bryn Mawr College. Still others that follow have been made in Delaware and Chester Counties. They show a wide diversity of subject and interest. Just as the text covers the past and the present in order to give a full and comprehensive word picture of Pennsylvania as it is today, so do the illustrations present both the historic and the contemporary.

For her chapter on “The Main Line and Valley Forge”, Mrs. Oakley writes, “Continuity is no less in evidence on the Main Line than in the City of Brotherly Love itself. Our common memories go back, through hearsay, not necessarily of our own but of neighboring families, to the days when the Old Lancaster road (now appropriately called the Conestoga road) was an Indian trail”.

A paragraph or two further along she adds, “The Main Line is no Styx; but it is a region where the inhabitants each feel in possession, like Saint Peter, of a key to Heaven. ‘All this and Heaven, too’ is the attitude of the confirmed Main Liners–among whom I am fortunate to be able to include myself, my Scotch forebears having settled, in 1757, on the farm where their descendant still dwells.”

Since the Oakleys are residents of Villanova it is natural that in enumerating Main Line colleges, some slight special emphasis should be placed on Villanova, founded in 1842 by the Augustinian Fathers who had been established in Philadelphia more than fifty years before their purchase of the farm then known as Belle Aire, in Radnor Township, Delaware County.

It has the distinction of being the oldest Catholic college in Pennsylvania, having been named “in honor of the Spanish Augustinian Archbishop of Valencia, canonized as St. Thomas of Villa Nova, who had, in 1533, sent missionaries to Mexico”. The school which began with 13 students now has a registration of approximately 5000. Its campus which now covers 166 acres has 28 buildings on it, the most conspicuous being the chapel itself, “recognizable from afar”, because “with twin steeples, like cathedral spires” it stands on such high ground. An exquisite sketch of this building features the chapter.

“May Day, Bryn Mawr College” has been chosen for the subject of a scene typifying the activities of that Main Line institution of learning where the “flag of scholarship flies as high as ever” and where “its wealth of events, intellectual, musical, artistic, held in Goodhart Hall, have won for it a leavening place in the life of the community”. And “the same may be said for Haverford and, eleven miles away, the college of Swarthmore”, Mrs. Oakley’s narration continues.

All three of these institutions, which were originally founded by Quakers, have the exchange of professors, and even of students, an innovation instituted during the War which has since proven so successful that its continuation is assured.

Preparatory schools, Mrs. Oakley mentions as a special feature of the Overbrook, Wynnewood, Haverford and Bryn Mawr area. Baldwin School shares with the College its Mrs. Otis Skinner Memorial Theater “erected to one well beloved on the Main Line”. To our own local high school Mrs. Oakley pays especial tribute when she writes “Lower Merion and also Radnor High School are second to none”.

In connection with Bryn Mawr College, the author of “Our Pennsylvania” reminisces of the days when Woodrow Wilson lived with his young family in a house on the grounds of the Lower Merion Baptist Church across Gulph road from the college. The man who was laterto become president of the United States during one of its most crucial periods was then a professor at Bryn Mawr. The churchyard which surrounds the Baptist Church is a non-sectarian one where many of William Penn’s descendants are buried. “In the churchyard also”, Mrs. Oakley writes, “are early Presbyterians who preferred to worship with the Baptists (where they were welcomed as members of the Board) than with the West Angicans at Old St. David’s”. And then in delightfully personal vein, the author adds, “My widowed grandmother was so faithful and so punctual at St. David’s, with her little brood, that the rector was known to delay beginning the service, in snowy weather, realizing her lateness must have been unavoidable”.

(To be continued)