History Matters


Some excerpts from my former Inquirer column


In the early 1900s, a certain kind of traffic jam was common in many small towns in Chester County. It happened whenever a troupe of entertainers came to town, bringing along fleets of scenery and even live animals by the train-car load.

These groups had nothing to do with the circus, though. The elaborate stage sets that floated through the streets - "on a daily basis," as one newspaper reporter in West Chester observed in 1907 - were headed for the local opera house. 

Before movie houses, residents came in droves to such places for what was known as "dramatic entertainments." Yet "opera" rarely meant a night with Caruso.

Judging from the old advertisements and playbills, the performances included everything from poetry readings to "sensational" musical performances, with casts of 20 to 60 people. Patrons demanded, the reporter in 1907 noted, "a different scene for every act," whereas only "a few years ago, a few sliding scenes . . . answered for every performance."

At West Chester's Grand Opera House in 1912, the management "was forced to disappoint" after a traveling act went to Chester "by mistake." But otherwise, audiences got a seemingly endless dose of melodrama.

The play roster in 1908, for instance, included A Poor Relation, The Poisoner, and The Lost Trail. When the building, which now houses part of the Chester County Historical Society, was built in 1848, it was known as Horticultural Hall.

In 1880, it was purchased at a sheriff's sale and converted into a theater by local entrepreneur Uriah Hunt Painter, who enjoyed only brief success.

A reporter noted that Painter, a nationally known Civil War correspondent, had a "nose for the news" but no ability when it came to "securing suitable" dramatic attractions.

Still, minstrel shows, vaudeville acts and one-act plays could be found elsewhere - even in smaller communities such as Parkesburg.

In early postcards, the Parkesburg Opera House resembles a newsstand or small store. But early notices describe it as having a 1,000-seat theater, "two stores," a "pool room," and rooms for "secrete societies."

About the same time that West Chester audiences were enjoying a "romance of the Western Plains," the Parkesburg Opera House featured "home talent shows" and magic acts. The latter perhaps did not match the "brace of horses," including a $5,000 Morgan mare that appeared in the Western romance. But it apparently was entertaining enough, with acts that turned "a Mrs. Holliger's watch" into a "bunch of carnations," as one paper reported in 1909.

At the Downingtown Opera House on Brandywine Avenue, the entertainments included basketball games, boxing bouts, and high school graduations.

Built in 1903 in the popular Romanesque Revival style, the building was among the few in the county designed as a opera house. Yet it also featured removable seats.

In Coatesville, notices of a "Poultry Show," followed by the annual ball and "Mazy" formal dance, appeared in the local papers in 1900. Such events might seem contradictory, but according to an 1893 description of the Coatesville Opera House, the three-story building was designed in 1870 as both a "town market" and an "amusement hall."

Although it initially floundered, the "largest" opera house in Chester County was soon attracting "New York- style" productions with its dressing rooms, and a special backstage exit for "star performers," as early ads proclaimed.

In 1909, those stars included "Kaiser and his performing dogs."

Another piece and more to come (I change stories seasonally)


For generations of Chester County residents, summer fun was never far away at Lenape Park. Reporters in the 1880s described it as the county's own little Coney Island and "an assured thing" to escape the blazing hot streets of West Chester. Typically, "scores" of people stood at the trolley stop at High and Market Streets, as one paper reported in 1902.

Now the site of the Brandywine Picnic Park, on Route 100, Lenape was an oasis on the west branch of the Brandywine where time seemed to stand still.  From 1923 to 1976, when it was meticulously managed by a man named John W. Gibney, it was a combination picnic park and carnival, known for its simple, old-fashioned amusements such as bumper cars, a shooting gallery with vintage guns, and the annual Old Fiddler's picnic. Eventually it became the picnic park, which is rented out for family and company picnics.

The old Lenape Park was a place where many Chester County residents first learned to swim, or where they had their first date or first job.

Before Lenape, there were other attempts at excursion parks, but none were as successful. As early as 1886, for instance, folks could enjoy such refinements as lawn tennis and moonlit dancing in an open pavilion at Birmingham Park, a half-mile downstream.

To reach the park, patrons disembarked at a railroad station along Route 100 near Bennetts' Run and crossed a foot bridge over the Brandywine. Despite such features as bathhouses and a steam-powered excursion boat called the "Minnehah," the season there abruptly ended when the rope bridge was taken down to prevent damage from autumn floods.

For boating, there was Brandywine Park, just north of Lenape on the east branch. Though it featured a large wharf and 20 rental boats, entertainment there was confined to a 10-cent ride down to the "forks" of the Brandywine and back again. After Lenape Park opened downstream on an old fishing ground known as Sager's Island in 1896, the other parks fell out of fashion.

The force behind Lenape was William Hayes, then president of the West Chester Street Railway. Reporters closely followed his "improvements," such as renovating the property's "ancient farm house and other buildings" and building a 20-room summer boarding house. Hayes' company even built a dam on the Brandywine and carted sand to the area, transforming its rustic banks into a summer resort, complete with a 75-foot boardwalk, bathhouses and cabins.

For refreshments, there was the "Hotel De Kelly," which was actually a newsstand and cafe that advertised "Ice cream and Oysters." It was built by Jesse Kelley, an African-American who was "well-known in West Chester" as a hack or taxi driver, one newspaper reported.

In later years, the improvements included an electric-generator plant and a theater for "moving pictures" in 1904. Still, it was Lenape's scenic setting that apparently was the most appealing. In one typically glowing review, a writer observes that a new road and trolley bridge, which included a narrow pedestrian crossing, rose above the park and let visitors take a "cool and entrancing walk over the Brandywine" to the dance pavilion along its banks. Another writer noted that "the quiet flowing waters" and the "luxuriant verdure" of Lenape made it a perfect retreat for persons "tired out by daily toil in the office or home."

Keeping track of the number of visitors was another favorite news scoop. On July 4, 1902, for instance, more than 2,000 trolley fares were sold, many from West Chester, where the "stifling air of burned power and smouldering paper filled the streets."