February 2023 Historical Society of Riverton vol. LIII, no. 1 (#194)
A “Mystery House” found
by Roger Prichard
Over the years, Riverton has lost far too many fascinating houses, some quite exceptional. One which we’ve always wondered about occupied 505-507 Bank Avenue, on the downriver corner of Howard.
We knew something was there as early as 1860 from the Stone and Pomeroy map; it shows a tiny rectangle for a house.
This house and the one next door (which we call the Caleb Clothier House, the blue “Mt. Vernon” at 503) were owned by the same person, just legible as “J. Willis.” Note that “First Street” (today’s Carriage House Lane) continues from Penn Street all the way through to Howard.
What kind of house is that rectangle? Certainly not the mid-20th Century rancher that stands there today with its magnificent view of the river.
A tantalizing tiny sketch in the 1890 bird’s eye view lithograph by Riverton residentbird’sKoehler provides another clue.
And who was “J. Willis”? When was the house built, and when was it lost? A mystery mostly no one ever thought about because the house was long gone.
Then we recently hit pay dirt. HSR’s good friend Miller Biddle (great-grandson of Charles Miller Biddle, who built the mansion at 207 Bank) donated a large number of photos (some scans and some originals) from his family by way of his cousin Stephen Biddle Russell. Two images in that collection stood out.
First was a magnificent picture of Riverton Yacht Club locked in the ice. Note the house in the background by the red arrow.
This enlarged view shows the mystery house better.
At first, its identity was puzzling because it looks a lot like Ezra Lippincott’s house at 303 Bank, now part of Riverview Estates.
But it’s not Ezra Lippincott’s house.
Miller Biddle’s paper archives donation then hit the jackpot. Included was a highly-detailed original print by prolific Riverton photographer David Lothrop of a substantial stone house.
This is 505 Bank Avenue, in a photo taken from almost the same angle as the 2022 Google shot of the rancher, from the little park at the foot of Howard Street.
The tip-off isn’t so much the house itself, but look next door – see the cupola, or “belvedere,” looming over the trees?
We know that house! It is what the house at 503 Bank looked like before being “Mt. Vernon-ized” in the 1930s, and we know this from a wonderful 1912 postcard.
(That cupola, by the way, still exists, down on the ground in the backyard, restored, and is used as a pool cabana.)
Some months after getting those great images from the Biddles, HSR was contacted out of the blue by a rare book and print dealer in North Jersey who said he had a lithograph of a riverfront villa in Riverton, and on the back was a vintage real estate ad, with lots of particulars. (Lots to be said for HSR having a good web presence.)
The dealer didn’t know what house it was, but we sure did! Have a look:
The artist probably stood where David Lothrop later took his photo!
After much debate, the HSR bought it. (This is why your contributions to the Society are so important, so we have resources to grab things like this before they vanish.)
The detail on it is exquisite.
Just as interesting is the real estate sale advertisement glued to the back:
The details are fun but note the name of the person selling the house on the last line. “JAS. WILLIS” is the same name that appears on the two side-by-side dwellings on the 1860 map.
We haven’t yet done a deed search, but at this point, our hunch is that James Willis owned the original Clothier house at 503, along with the lot on the corner, and subdivided off the corner to build this beautiful new stone house in 1860 or just before.
With Willis’ name now known, we found a sale advertisement in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1860 that is unmistakably for this house.
So who was James Willis, a name not generally found in Riverton stories? So far, we know that he was a Philadelphia Quaker manufacturer of ladies’ shoes. His business is listed in the Philadelphia Public Ledger starting in the 1840s occupying various buildings on 4th or Arch Streets.
We know that Willis was sympathetic to the movement to abolish slavery because at least two of his advertisements for shoes appeared in anti-slavery newspapers, the National Anti-Slavery Standard in 1842 and the Pennsylvania Freeman in 1851.
Those ads mention that he sells shoes “entirely free from the contamination of slave labor.” (Close students of Riverton’s history might recall that early Riverton founder J. Miller McKim edited the Pennsylvania Freeman at various points while he was running the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and McKim and Willis likely knew each other well.)
Much more research is needed on the life of James Willis and on the house. Who were its owners and residents over the years, and what were their stories?
All are still mysteries waiting time to uncover.
Boffo Box Office: Roger Prichard’s presentation on the History of Riverton informed and delighted an SRO crowd
The presentation on The History of Riverton by Roger Prichard on November 15 last at the Porch Club was the excuse we needed to break a two-year COVID-induced moratorium on meetings of the Historical Society of Riverton.
On a dreary night on which few would normally venture out, we were standing room only in a venerated century-old building whose members have long played an integral part in Riverton’s history.
There, we heard an innovative spin on Riverton’s founding from Roger Prichard, Borough Historian and HSR Board Member. The historic venue only served to amplify Roger’s compelling and insightful interpretation.
Comprised of many images not seen by the public before and containing Roger’s new research on Riverton’s founders, the program connected the dots between people, places, and events of early Riverton in an enlightening and entertaining way.
As the story unfolded, it could have been a script for a best seller or a historical screenplay.
It had drama, humor, a sweeping story, and a colorful cast of characters, some of whom changed America, not just Riverton.
The central thread that ran through the presentation was that many of Riverton’s original founders were related by blood or marriage and that every one of them had a connection to the Abolition Movement.
Entitled The History of Riverton, Part 1, it was the subtitle, celebrating the founding of an unlikely village, that really addressed the uniqueness of Riverton’s founding.
Roger illustrates his “unlikely village” thesis:
Overall, no one had ever thought of having a summer resort village that was within commuting distance so that the men could still go to work every day while their families enjoyed the clean, quiet countryside.
These were all sober, hardworking people (nearly all Quakers) with many businesses and charitable interests which must have filled every hour of every day. Their character seems in unlikely conflict with the concept of “a place of resort” as the Public Ledger called it. These weren’t “resort” kinds of people.
If this was simply a business venture, it seems unlikely to the point of absurdity that ALL of those families who decided to invest were active in the abolition movement.
Given their committed abolition interests, this exact time seems very unlikely for following a distraction of developing a resort at just as their anti-slavery activities were being thrown into chaos by Congress’ passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (just a few months before purchasing the Lippincott farm).
Incredibly, they built all ten founders’ houses AND a steamboat wharf AND the riverwall AND sundry other supporting work in just a few months!
They bought the farm in February 1851, and only advertised for a contractor for the wharf in May, but the Public Ledger in early September said the NJ governor came to visit and stayed overnight. All ten founders’ homes were built (most occupied), the wharf and riverwall were complete and the riverbank was “sodded.” It was unlikely to do all that between February and September!
Afterward, business was brisk at our merchandise table as folks bought holiday gifts and gifted themselves as well with our new historically-themed mugs* and other items.
People quenched their thirst for history with purchases of Riverton*, our Arcadia Images of America book, our Romance of Riverton DVD, Bay Ruff’s Ruff Copy, and Bill Washington’s Historic Riverton and History of the Riverton Fire Department.
Altogether, the night was one for the history books. -JMc
*Copies of Riverton, an Arcadia Images of America book, and a selection of mugs are available for sale at The Early Bird and at Tillie’s Trinkets and Treasures.
Thank you to Mary and Tom Bailey for donating PHS yearbooks
Tom, who lived in Palmyra and Riverton for a time, explains that his father collected the Tillicum volumes. Tom drove all the way from Lumberton on February 19 and dropped off the following yearbooks for us at Riverton Library: 1929, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1948. We will store them in our archive space with some other earlier PHS yearbooks. -JMc
A Message from President William C. Brown Jr.
One of our goals this year is to increase membership and support for our marker program. We are most thankful for the support that has us more than halfway towards our fundraising efforts.
The Marker Program has replanted the Campbell marker at 308 Main St. after the post had been damaged in an auto accident. We also placed the panel for a new marker at 303 Bank Ave. (see related story below)
With no law in effect to protect it, the Superior Court has ordered that the Groves Mansion be demolished.
303 Bank Avenue gets a historic marker
The panel for the new marker at 303 Bank (Ezra Lippincott/Baptist Home, now Riverview Estates) arrived at the end of November, and Roger Prichard arranged a little get-together there to celebrate its installation.
The event honored Nancy Hall and her daughter Marj (Ezra’s great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter and also served to welcome to Riverton Ben Kurland, who is the CEO of the company that now owns the Baptist Home, Allaire Health Services. -RP
Heather MacIntosh Huffnagle reports on fundraising
Thanks to the following members for your generous support: Lara Ballard, C. Miller and Joan Biddle, Anna Blake, Bob and Amanda Boulton, Annette Brown, Bill Brown, Pat Brunker, George and Cynthia Cammarota, Steve and Nedra Cawley, Norman Coone, Joseph and Michele Daniel, Joe and Eileen DellaPenna, Dennis and Janet DeVries, Richard and Iris Gaughan, Granite Health and Wellness, Paul Grena, James Griffin, Henry Hackett, Bill and Nancy Hall, Helen Hughes, Mark and Karen Jendrzejewski, Michael and Mary Kate Kearney, John and Terri Laverty, Alan and Helene Lilholt, Adele Lippincott, Weir Lundstedt, Barbara Mayberry, Steve and Tricia Moore, John and Barbara Palko, Bryan and Phyllis Rodgers, Steve Russell, Paul Schopp, Pat Solin, Brad and Maryann Young, and Harold and Judith Zimmerman.
Gusky Rides Again!
Photos by Susan Dechnik
From former resident Rob Gusky and originator of 2014’s Historic Riverton Century:
Dec. 10, 2022: About a week ago, I asked if there were any Riverton residents interested in reading some poetry to a group of ten riders I was leading from Philadelphia to Riverton.
Well, the Historical Society of Riverton came through in spades providing not only one but two volunteers. Susan Dechnik read poetry, and Roger Prichard gave us an overview of Riverton’s interesting history.
Thanks to Milanese Pizza – Riverton, NJ, for serving us a great lunch. You all live in a great community, and it sounds like exciting things are in store for 2023. As a former Riverton resident, I just want to share how proud I am of having grown up there, and look forward to biking there again next year!
From the “You can’t make this stuff up Department”
by Roger Prichard
Cathy Martin asked me to do a quick research on the history of 802 Main Street for the Candlelight House Tour booklet. The house turns out to have been a wedding present from the bride’s father. The bride was the second cousin of famed accused-but-acquitted ax murderer Lizzie Borden. See the complete research here.
Kerry and Jen Brandt also asked for a quick summary of the history of their house at 719 Main, which was also on the tour. No murderous connections here, apparently, unless you count pigs. The house and its twin next door, the Sencindivers,’ were likely built in the early 1890s by the family who butchered and processed “Troth’s Hams and Famous Mince Meat” in Philadelphia. See the complete research here.