Early settlers, Old Eagle School

From time to time reference has been made in this column to one of the most interesting historical landmarks of rural Pennsylvania, the Old Eagle Schoolhouse. In its restored state it still stands on the hill north of Strafford Station, on the east side of Old Eagle School road.
This road, one of the oldest in this section, starts at Lancaster Pike at the Covered Wagon Inn, and goes in a northerly direction under the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. It was along this road that the first German settlers in Tredyffrin township made their homes, on a tract of land which was part of an original purchase by Richard Hunt, of Brome Yard, Hereford County, Wales, from William Penn in 1683.

In October and November, 1950, three of these columns of “Your Town and My Town” were devoted to the early days of this German settlement, and to the building of the first crude structure for church and school purposes in about the year 1767. The stone, inscribed 1788, which is now set in the south gable of the restored building, supposedly belonged to a second building which was erected close by the first. Later on the two buildings were apparently made into one.

In September and October of the year just past, three columns of “Your Town and My Town” were devoted to the reminiscences of three of the one-time pupils in the old school. One was Margaret Cornog, who was 90 years old when she wrote of her school days, which began in 1818, at the age of eight years. Another was Joseph Levis Worrall, born in 1817, who started his schooling in 1826 when he was nine years old. And still a third old-time pupil, who was born in 1824 and who attended Eagle School at an early age, was Joseph Fisher Mullen.

Quite recently several pictures of this qaint old building have been made available to your columnist. And so, after a brief resume of what has already been written in regard to its early days, we shall bring the story down to the present with the aid of these pictures.

In his book “The Making of Pennsylvania,” George Fisher says that Pennsylvania was altogether different from the other early colonies, in that it had a much greater “mixture of languages, nationalities and religions; Dutch, Swedes, English, German, Scotch-Irish, Welsh, Quakers, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Reformed, Mennonites, Dunkards, and the Moravians, all had a share in creating it”.

Of these settlers. the Germans were decidedly the most numerous. Two divisions among them stand out prominently, the sects of Pietists, and the Church people. The first included the Amish, the Mennonites, Shakers, Schwenkfelders and many others. The Church people were divided between the Reformed and the Lutherans, the latter of especial local interest, since it is of them that the settlement in Tredyffrin Township seems to have been mainly composed.

Most of these original German pioneers were immigrant peasants, the first of that class to land in America. Many of them were rough in manner and in dress, and spoke a dialect that was almost unintelligible to those outside their immediate group. But they were a hard working lot, thrifty and frugal, who took their work of settlement in a new land seriously. For the most part they became farmers, who took good care of their cattle and of their property.

The particular group of these German settlers along what is now Old Eagle School Road followed Welshmen who were the original settlers. With these Germans were a number of Swiss and even a few of the unfortunate Acadians driven from Nova Scotia. Following a custom of the homeland, these Germans probably built their combined church and school before they had even completed their homes. For tradition has it that the first small log structure to be erected on the approximate site of the present restored one served both of these purposes.

The first authentic evidence of the existence of the German colony in Tredyffrin Township is found in the deed books of Chester County which, according to Henry Pleasants’ “History of the Old Eagle School”, indicate “the purchase by Jacob Sharraden… from Sampson Davis and wife on March, 1765, of 150 acres of land in Tredyffrin”. It is followed, in March 1767, by a deed from Jacob Sharraden to his son-in-law, Christian Werkiser. These two men were undoubtedly the most prominent of the German pioneers connected with the establishment of the Old Eagle School.

Jacob Sharraden died in 1774, leaving a will which indicates that he was “a religious German of some education and property”. Tax lists of Tredyffrin Township show him to have been the proprietor of a grist mill and owner of 150 acres of land. His son-in-law, Christian Werkiser, also owned a considerable amount of real estate in Tredyffrin. The tax list of Tredyffrin in 1768 shows that he was taxed with only 149 acres instead of the 150 which Jacob Sharraden originally held. This seems pretty direct evidence that the latter established “what was then a distinctive feature of German Protestant settlements – a place of church and school purposes; and that he was the donor, at least of the ground on which it was located”. This fact has been confirmed by several of the very early residents of both Tredyffrin and Willistown townships.

According to Mrs. Martha Wentworth Suffren, one of Strafford’s old-time residents who still lives on Homestead road, the original school house was only about half the size of the present reconstructed one which is about 33 feet by 19 feet. One of the pictures illustrating Mr. Pleasants’ book is from a drawing which has, according to him, “been carefully prepared to conform as far as possible to the most authentic traditions of its appearance. Built of stone and one story in height, it had a door set between the two westward-facing windows, the window on the right being much larger than the one on the left for some reason. These windows, with two others on the northeast side and two on the southeast side, lighted the interior.”

Benches for the pupils were arranged in double rows around the side of the building, making a hollow square space by the fire- place. Here stood the schoolmaster’s desk. At first heat came only from this open wood fire, though later this was replaced by a stove, an innovation which was of distinctly German origin. Inside walls were entirely without plaster, while window sashes “slid sidewise on the inside, as is yet often done in old barns… there were no shutters to these windows. The front door was secured by a long wooden bolt, slipped into place by a crooked piece of iron, passed through a hole”.

(To be continued.)