Martin’s Dam Club development, Unkefer Brothers builders


Probably the two most important milestones along the way of the Martin’s Dam Club, once it had been organized, were the actual purchase of the property in 1936 and erection of new bathhouses in 1947.

For twelve years after the club was started in 1924, every effort was made by Humbert B. Powell, the club’s president and attorney, to effect the purchase of the Dam and certain acreage surrounding it. But since it was impossible to locate all the bonds which had been sold by the Lower Merion Water Company in the late 1800’s, the best that the club could do was to renew the license to operate it from the trustees of the bonds, the firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, attorneys. This was done on a year-to-year basis.

Finally, however, some of the bonds came into the possession of the club, and Mr. Powell acted to obtain a foreclosure of the property under the bond indenture. Following court hearings, the property was sold at auction on the Court House steps in Norristown, on March 11, 1936. There was only one bidder against the Martin’s Dam Club and for the sum of $17,000 the club obtained clear title to the Dam itself and to 21½ acres surrounding it.

The purchase was financed from the club’s treasury and by the sale of $10,000 in mortgage bonds, which were paid off in the course of a few years. It is interesting to note that this first mortgage was taken by Miss Isabel Maddison, then owner of the old Martin homestead across Croton road, which had been occupied for some years previously by George R. Park.

Miss Maddison, an Englishwoman who, until her retirement, had been connected with the teaching staff of Bryn Mawr College, was much interested in seeing that the Club should continue to be properly run, since it was so close to her own property. In gratitude for her timely financial aid, the Club minutes of March 30, 1936, note that Miss Maddison was elected an honorary member of the Club, a privilege which she enjoyed until her death a few years ago.

It was nine years after this, however, before the minutes of the Club meeting of October 2, 1945, held at the home of Mr. Powell in Devon, show that it was “the consensus of opinion that the Club should proceed with plans for a new bathhouse, including a water system… without committing the Club to immediate execution of the plans”. At this meeting the Planning Committee, consisting of Paul L. Lewis, N.C. Cregar and Archie D. Swift, was also authorized to employ an architect to prepare plans for the boathouse. However, it was not until two years later, in time for the opening of the 1947 season, that the handsome new bathhouses, as they now stand, were completed.

The old, dilapidated buildings, which were always damp because of the heavy shade of surrounding trees and because of the constant tracking in of water, were replaced by the new bathhouses, distinguished by their open roof construction which lets in sun and air.

The buildings, made of concrete blocks, painted white with contrasting stained wood trim are striking in appearance, yet entirely harmonious with their rustic setting. Entrance to a wide passageway, which separates the women’s quarters from that of the men, is from the large parking space at the back. Included in the set-up is ample office space and a room for the life guards.

Theo B. White, of Villanova, was the archgitect for the building erected by Unkefer Brothers, of Philadelphia. Ralph T. Unkefer, long a resident of Wayne and now living in Ithan, is a member of this firm. Messrs. Lewis, Cregar and Swift served on the building committee. The cost of these new bathhouses was approximately $40,000.

As the years since 1924 have gone by, additional acreage has been added to the Club holdings, the latest purchase being 13 acres covering the crest of the ridge above the Dam in order to protect the scenic woodland and water supply. In all, the Club holdings now approximate 40 acres. Several of these are in the parking lot and from time to time, more and more space has been given to outdoor fireplaces and picnic tables and benches, which Club members and their guests use from early morning through the twilight hours.

The main dock is built where, in the early days of the Club, there was only a smooth depression in the ground from which swimmers entered the water. The dock to the left has always been known as the “Old Ladies Dock”, not so much because of the age of those who frequented it, but rather because of their reluctance to enter the water amid the splashing and shouting of the younger element. The dock to the right is known to old timers as “Stockwell’s Landing” because it was held in such high favor by one of the five founders of the Club, the late Joseph F. Stockwell. Other equipment includes diving boards, a number of floats, a long rope to swing out over the water and several life guard stands. The “Duck Pond” or “Baby Pool”, is the center of activity for the very youngest members of the Dam and the center of interest for the spectators.

The main source of water supply for Martin’s Dam is the large spring on the Machold property, on the northeast corner of Upper Gulph and Croton roads. Two springs on Miss Emily Exley’s property also contribute their share. Then, too, there are springs in the Dam itself, as the extreme coldness of the water in certain parts of it indicate. All of these sources guarantee the purity of the water for swimming purposes.

Management of the Club is now in the hands of a large board, made up of 15 members headed by Paul L. Lewis, of Strafford, who is also the secretary of the Club. J. Renwick Montgomery, of Wayne, serves as vice-president, while John B. Yerkes, of Villanova, is treasurer. Others include Drew M. Thorpe, Charles C. Stewart, Humbert B. Powell, Jr., Walter Y. Howson, T. Magill Patterson, Stanton C. Kelton, N.C. Cregar, and Archie D. Swift.

Of the original five founding members Messrs. Lewis, Kelton and Patterson are still active, the other two, Mr. Powell and Mr. Stockton having died. Messrs. Cregar, Swift and C.H. Howson were among the very early directors. C.C. Stewart has been one of the Club’s most active members since its organization. Two of the youngest board members, Ralsten Lewis and Humbert Powell Jr., are sons of founders of the Club, while John Yerkes has succeeded his father-in-law, T.M. Patterson, as treasurer. Walter Howson is a son of Charles Howson.

Officially connected with the personnel of Martin’s Dam, though not board members, are William T. Tilden, assistant to the treasurer, and Jules F. Prevost, who succeeded R.E. Hinkel several years ago as Club manager. There are now eight life guards, most of whom are of college age, in contrast to the one guard who was on duty in the early days.

As the second generation of children, many of them children of those for whom the Club was founded, learn to swim at Martin’s Dam, the two men who “sat on a log and planned the Club” 28 years ago see the dream realized probably far beyond their brightest hopes. Among the youngsters they now watch their own grandchildren. In their pleasure, and that of countless others, these two men and those others who gave of their time and wisdom through the years realize the reward of their labors.