Old Inns, part 1

As we stand at the busy intersection of North Wayne avenue and Lancaster avenue waiting for the red light to stop the stream of automobile traffic and permit us to go on our way North or South, how many of us realize that the highway we are about to cross was the first stone turnpike not only in Pennsylvania, but in this entire country as well? Replacing the old conestoga or King’s Road, which connected Philadelphia with Lancaster, the chief inland city of Penn’s Colony, the Lancaster turnpike was started in 1792 and finished in 1794 at an expense of $465,000, which was financed by a private company. Extending the 62 miles between Philadelphia and Lancaster, it became the pattern for all subsequent hard roads in the country. Along these 62 miles there were originally nine toll bars, beginning two miles west of the Schuylkill. Many of the travellers who passed along the old turnpike were Germans. To them these toll stops were known as “Schlagbaume”.

Far different and more picturesque was the scene on the old turnpike in the late 1700’s from what it is in 1950, when the honking of horns, the grinding of tires and the screech of brakes mark the passing of automobiles of all sizes, makes and descriptions for all of the twenty-four hours of the day and the night. The Conestoga Wagon with its broad wheels rolled along its leisurely way a hundred and fifty years ago, along with the slow-plodding six-horse team with tinkling yoke bells; the Troy Coach, swinging upon its leather springs and drawn by four prancing horses; the stage-wagon and the mail coach; the farm wagon, or “dearborn”, with the farmer going to and from the city market. Interspersed with these vehicles of a by-gone day were the large droves of cattle being driven from the green pastures of Chester County and of Lancaster Country to the seaboard. This was the traffic that once made its way through the countryside that was later to become Radnor, Wayne, Strafford and their neighboring suburbs, both to the East and the West.

For these travellers, making their slow and ofttimes weary way along the solid stone turnpike, the most important institutions were the wayside inns. Indeed, it has been said that these inns ranked in importance next to the church and the school house in our commonwealth in provincial days. J. F. Sachse, in his book, “The Wayside Inns on the Lancaster Roadside”, a beautifully illustrated and valuable record of this section of the country published in the early 1900’s, states that “the highest development of the wayside inns was reached when the Lancaster turnpike became the chief highway and the model roadbed in the United States.”

As all outstanding and typical example of these roadhouses of the better class, Mr. Sachse describes the Spread Eagle in the extreme northwestern part of Radnor Township. Built only a year or two after the completion of the stone turnpike that was to be the earliest link of the first great National highway to the West, this was first called the “Spread Eagle Tavern”, and was known far and wide to travellers from both continents. The lovely old three-story stone building with porch and piazza extending along the entire front, stood slightly to the West of the present building now known as Spread Eagle and occupied by the A. L. Diament Company, Interior Decorators, on the first floor and by apartments above. A few foundations stones still mark the old site just at a point where the Highway makes a slight curve.

This building, with its date stone of the year 1796, high up in its gable, supplemented a small, crude stone house used as “a place of entertainment” even before the days of the turnpike when the road that passed it was only a dirt one connecting Philadelphia and Lancaster. A reproduction from a quaint old engraving in Mr. Sachse’s book shows this as a one story structure with a sign board swinging from its standard in front of the Tavern. This “Spread Eagle” was still a crude reproduction of America’s glorious bird of freedom before some artist at a later date added another neck and head harking back to the nondescript birds used in ancient heraldry. The engraving shows a stage coach drawn by four horses about to pull away from the small tavern along a narrow lane bordered by a forest of tall trees on one side and by a cornfield on the other.

This early Spread Eagle Inn was run by one Adam Ransower as early as 1769. In his petition of August 28, 1770, to have his license renewed, he says “Your Honors hath been pleased for these several years past to grant me your recommendations to the Governor for a license to keep a public house of entertainment . . .” Among the signatures on this petition is that of Anthony Wayne. In 1771, the following advertisement appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper:

To be Sold

On Thursday, the 26th of December instant, A Valuable message, plantation and tract of land, situate in Radnor Township, Chester County, adjoining the Lancaster road, containing near 100 acres of good land, about 16 miles from Philadelphia; about 70 acres are cleared and the remainder exceedingly well timbered; about 17 acres of very good watered meadow, and an excellent orchard that bears plentifully every year; the dwelling house is a large well furnished stone building, and a well accustomed tavern, known by the name of the “Spread Eagle”, and is well accommodated with a barn, stables, sheds, gardens, and a pump of good water near the door, with trough to water creatures. Any person inclining to purchase may come and view the premises before the day of sale, at which time the conditions of the sale will be made known by Adam Ramsower. (Penna. Gazette, Dec. 19, 1771)

As a result of this advertisement, or perhaps of similar ones, the tavern was sold to Jacob Hinkel, a tanner of Lancaster County, who was recommended to the Judges of the Peace of the Chester County by a group of his friends as one who, while living in Lancaster County “acted the part of a true and honest member of the civil government.” Daniel Hinkel apparently became a co-owner at a slightly later date. These two operated the inn until 1778, and perhaps later. From 1787 until 1791, Alexander Clay was in charge. He was succeeded by Adam Siter, who was followed by John Siter.

During the Revolutionary period the old Inn was known as the gathering place of the patriots of the neighborhood, while “Miles” Tavern, a short distance away, was patronized by those who were either Tories or Loyalists. Mr. Sachse states that during the alternate occupations of this section of the country by the American and English forces in 1777-78, “the house became somewhat of a landmark, several reports and letters in reference to the military situation being dated at, or mentioning the “Spread Eagle” tavern. During the encampment of the American army at Valley Forge, the inn for a time was used as an outpost, where the large chestnut tree on the West side of the Valley Road, about fifty feet North of the present turnpike, was utilized as a signal station, or outlook for that picket; this tree still standing (18-66) may easily be recognized on the road leading to the present railroad station; it also marks the boundary between Delaware and Chester counties.”

(To be continued)