Martin’s Dam, first white settlers, “Cherry Garth”

Martin’s Dam on an early Sunday morning in mid-June is a beautiful place. Almost entirely surrounded by low lying hills, it yet has its vista onto the wide-spreading green Chester Valley to the north.

Softy breezes ruffle the clear waters of the Dam, made green by the reflection of leaves still fresh from the spring unfolding. Overhead the sky is blue, while the air yet has its early morning freshness. The voices of a few families who have gathered for an early outdoor breakfast and swim seem far away.

The bird notes in the great trees overhead are sweet and clear. On the most distant banks of the Dam several young fishermen are casting their lines in the water.

It is a time for easy dreaming, a time when the present merges into the past until the scene as it once was becomes almost more real to the mind’s eye than the scene as it now is. It is easy to imagine this beautiful countryside with its forest unbroken, except by narrow Indian trails leading through their cool green depths, its only inhabitants these early Americans, now totally vanished from the scene.

The first white settler in this section of whom we have written record was a Welshman named Lavis, who must have made his way by these same Indian trails to the spot where he built a home for his family from materials near at hand. This was in 1648, some 30 years before William Penn received his grant of land from Charles II of England.

This crude little two-room log cabin still stands, forming the nucleus of the lovely home on Radnor Street Road known as “Cherry Garth”, owned and occupied by Miss Emily Exley, well-known landscape architect, one of the several streams which feed Martin’s Dam as it cascades it [sic] way between the house and the road.

In 1922, when Miss Exley purchased the house and some of the surrounding acreage, she kept the original structure almost intact, gaining larger living quarters by the addition of two wings, each constructed in harmony with the simplicity of the little home built almost 300 years earlier. These additions were constructed of wood from trees on the place and with stone from the tumble-down ruins of the old grist mill, built in the early years of the 18th century and operated with the stream as a source of power. The lovely gardens now surrounding the house are planted almost entirely with flowers and shrubbery native to this section of the country.

If Lavis had any of his own countrymen as close neighbors, there is no record of it. It is much more likely that those with whom he came in contact were the Indians who occupied the fertile lands of Pennsylvania, before encroaching white settlers drove them further west.

The Indians in this locality (who were wonderful fishermen, woodsman and agriculturists), belonged to the Algonquin and Iriquois [sic] tribes. Though their farming implements were of the crudest character, sometimes merely a stone or a shell, or even a bone attached to a piece of wood, their crops were varied and plentiful. From them the Welshman may well have learned to raise corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, peanuts, gourds, sunflowers, cotton and tobacco. For, strange as it may seem, North America was a country of farmers long before the coming of the white men to its shores.

In the 300 and more years since the small stone house was built it has never been without occupants. It remained in the Lavis family until 1702 when it was sold to John Davis, a silversmith residing in Philadelphia, then a settlement only 20 years old. In the course of the years it had many other owners until 1821, when James Bard Patterson bought the house and the nearby grist mill. As a source of power for the mill its owners used the stream which now runs between the house and the road.

In the first century after the settlement of Pennsylvania the comparatively simple needs of its people were supplied by individual artisans among them. Along the streams, rolls driven by the weight of falling water sawed the logs, ground the flour and fulled the woven cloth. There were various mills in the Martin’s Dam section from time to time, among them a sawmill once standing in the present parking lot of the Colonial Village Swimming Pool.

After James Patterson acquired the original Lavis property in the 1820’s he converted the grist mill into a small woolen factory, making use of the same mill race that had been utilized to run the first mill. When he retired in 1841 he sold the whole property to Richard Martin and his wife Hannah. It is from this family that Martin’s Dam derived its name.

The old Martin family Bible, now in the possession of Mrs. Emily Siter Wellcome and her brother, George Siter, shows that their grandfather, Richard Martin, was born in 1792 in Manchester, England, and their grandmother, Hannah Moore Martin, in 1806 near Halifax, Yorkshire, England.

After their marriage they lived in Kensington, Philadelphia, where the first five of their nine children were born, according to the records in the old Bible. The last four were born “in Montgomery County, Upper Merion Township”, as the faded, but still legible handwriting shows. Next to the youngest of these four was Sarah Martin, often referred to in this column as Miss Sally Martin, who taught school, first in the old Lyceum Hall and later, in the small Radnor Township grade school, once located on West Wayne avenue near the present Philadelphia and Western tracks. After some years of teaching she married William Siter and became the mother of Emily Siter Wellcome and of George Siter. Mrs. Wellcome recalls stories told of her mother, that when she taught school in Wayne, the horseback ride from Martin’s Dam was along such lonely stretches of road that she carried a pistol always with her.

In Kensington, Richard Martin had been operating a woolen mill. When he acquired the woolen mill near Martin’s Dam from James Patterson he not only continued it as such, but also added facilities for a cotton mill as well. The house into which he moved his young family was on the site of the large house almost directly opposite the entrance to the Martin’s Dam Club–it was in fact the center portion of that house is [sic] it now stands. The story goes that as the Martin family grew in numbers, Mr. Martin added first one wing and then the second one.

The original part of the house undoubtedly dates back to pre-Revolutionary days, with its great fireplace with wide triple doors, and with a huge baking oven in the basement under this fireplace. An old mill once directly opposite the Martin’s Dam Club entrance was torn down by George Park when he acquired the property in 1906. The mill stone was used at the entrance to the house, to which Mr. Park added still a third wing. Sold by him to Miss Isabel Maddison, who occupied it until her death a few years ago, the old Martin House is now the property of Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Pepper.

(To be continued)