Strafford’s Wentworth family & mansion – Martha Wentworth Suffren


Probably no one is better qualified to discuss Strafford of an earlier day than the delightful little gray haired lady now almost ninety-two years old, with whom the writer had the pleasure of talking one afternoon last week. As the train outside beat against the window panes in an almost torrential downpour we sat in her quiet living room as Martha Wentworth Suffren told of a childhood spent in the old Wentworth mansion still standing on the hill on the right of Homestead road as one turns to the left from Old Eagle School road.

Built in 1856 by the White family of Philadelphia, this spacious home, with its ceilings constructed 13 1/2 feet high for coolness and ventilation, was bought in 1857 by Mrs. Suffren’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Langdon Wentworth, who were living at the time in an old inn in Paoli, kept by one John Evans. Since the Whites could not, in the end, finance the large home which they had undertaken to build, it was sold to Mr. Wentworth under “mechanics liens.” The latter, in looking for a home for his family, was touring the country roads in this vicinity when the large sign advertising the place for sale attracted his attention.

Here he and Mrs. Wentworth raised their three daughters. In addition to Mrs. Suffren, the daughters are Mrs. Foote, now residing in Garden City, New York, and Mrs. Charles Ruschenberger, who died a few years ago. The latter was a charter member of the Saturday Club and prominent for many years as a member of other community groups. The Wentworth place, with its spacious home surrounded by its 130 acres, gave its name to Strafford Station, formerly called Eagle Station. Although a little reluctant to give his consent to the use of the name, Mr. Wentworth finally did so since the Pennsylvania Railroad was anxious for a word of two syllables which could be clearly called out by conductors!

Martha Wentworth Suffren recalls a quiet childhood when “the seasons were her clock.” There was strawberry time, raspberry time, peach time, apple time, chestnut time. The latter she remembers especially because it was then that “the children had to ge up early to beat the turkeys.” As the latter started from the barn they described a complete circle of these trees that brought them back to the barn again at sundown. As the bushes and trees blossomed and fruited, the small girl picked the ripened fruit as she made her quiet rounds of her father’s farm. In winter she attended a school frun by Miss Anna Markley and Miss Anna Matlack. The school moved from time to time to various locations “which made it exciting,” according to Mrs. Suffren! She finished her education by extensive reading, of which she was naturally fond.

In 1880, Martha Wentworth marries Charles C. Suffren and moved away from Strafford, not to return until 1920, when she occupied the home on Homestead road which she and her husband had built in 1909. Here she has lived ever since, just a short distance from the house in which she was born in 1858. It is now the home of E. Brooke Matlack.

Of the old Spread Eagle Inn, of which we have written recently in this column, Mrs. Suffren recalls that the last owner before Mr. George W. Childs was a Mr. Crumley. When it was occupied as an Indian School as described in last week’s column, this school was run by mary McHenry Coxe, wife of Belangee Coxe. Its purpose was to teach good housekeeping methods which Indian girls might impart to other members of their tribes upon their return home. Before the old Inn was destroyed for stone for the new houses and roads that Mr. Childs was building in Wayne in the late eighties and early nineties, it was occupied by workmen from the Wayne Estate building operation.

The present Spread Eagle Mansion, which takes its name from the old Inn, was built some years before the destruction of the latter. It has had many occupants, of whom the writer hopes to learn more and to tell about in this column. Mrs. Suffren remembers particularly the John B. Thayers, who bought the place in about the middle sixties. There were six children in the family, among them John B. Thayer, Jr., a vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad who lost his life in the sinking of the White Star liner “Titanic,” at that time the largest ship afloat, when it went down in 1912 after a collision with an iceberg.

The small white house to the West of the Spread Eagle Mansion which is now occupied as a Beauty Salon was once a toll house, Mrs. Suffren tells us. A that time a room that just touched the Lancaster Pike was the vantage point from which tolls of three cents per vehicle was collected by the woman in charge as she lifted the long bar that extended across the road in order to let such vehicles pass – a procedure rather difficult to imagine in this era of the fast moving motor vehicles.

An interesting correction on the story of the big oak still standing in Strafford to the north of Lancaster Pike and described in a recent column as a “lookout tree” has come to me from L. E. Davis, of Weadley road, in Strafford. This lookout tree, according to Mr. Davis, was a giant chestnut over six feet in diameter and about seventy-five feet high. This “Signal Tree,” of which Mr. Davis still has a piece, was taken down when Sigmund’s drug store at the intersection of Lincoln Highway and Old Eagle School road was built. The next signal tree was just at the top of the hill north of the Doyle Nurseries. The interesting story of these historical trees was told to Mr. Davis by his grandfather, who died in 1906 at the age of 88. The latter’s son, still living at the age of 85, can also remember these trees.

When the big chestnut on the Pike was taken down to make room for the building of the drug store, it was rescued from burning by Mr. Barr, of Phoenixville, who still has much of it stored in his barn. Out of parts of it he made boot jacks which were sent to the museums of a number of large American colleges.

(The original “Ship Tavern” near Downingtown which is picture in this week’s column is the one described in a recent column as the predecessor of an Inn of the same name, now standing on the highway a mile east of Exton. A group of American soldiers put the “Patriot’s curse” on this original Inn by shooting thirteen holes through the sign in front of the Inn. The curse was apparently potent, as the Inn soon went out of business. The old sign now swings in front of the second Ship Inn. This picture has been used as aprt of a series of places of historical interest. Major Frank Ankenbrand, of Valley Forge Military Academy, has been instrumental in obtaining the picture for use in this column.)

(To be continued)