Adrian Martinez calls it God’s country. “This was the frontier,” he says.
That argument could easily be made, given the background of the Marshallton Historic District, a linear stretch along Strasburg Road in Chester County’s West Bradford Township. Two hundred years earlier, it was a thoroughfare between Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital, and Strasburg, the breadbasket of Lancaster County. Four miles west of West Chester, the village functioned as a rural service center for travelers and local farmers.
An artist by trade, Martinez is also part of the Friends of Martin’s Tavern. He and the other board members are authorities on Humphry Marshall, the village’s namesake. Their story begins with the preservation of the ruins of a pre-Revolutionary tavern listed on British spy maps. That has become the seed for a larger mission to further the historical and cultural heritage of the whole village. “It’s a commonwealth treasure,” says Linda Kaat of Marshallton, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986.
Fellow board member Mark Slouf brings a bit of humor to the discussion. “This is the center of the universe,” he quips.
Martin’s Tavern—or Center House—was first built as a residence in 1750, before becoming a crossroads inn and lively meeting place for George Washington’s troops during the Battle of Brandywine. It was a focal point after the nonprofit FOMT formed in 2003. They were able to preserve only its stone ruins, and the site is now an interpretive pocket park. FOMT members are also stewards of the village’s preserved blacksmith shop, opening its Marshallton Village Heritage Center a year ago. The center cost $90,000 to build, and another $50,000 was spent on the interactive exhibits and displays. To celebrate its one-year anniversary, there’s a fundraiser on Oct. 26 at the blacksmith shop.
This past summer, a circa-1715 log cabin was uncovered. Torben Jenk, a neighbor and historian, discovered the related story of a spinster, Sarah Arnold, and her illegitimate child. Kaat, a juried preservationist, makes this announcement during a conversation with other FOMT board members at the village’s Four Dogs Tavern. “We love this place, and we love history,” says Bob Lyng, a founding member with Kaat. “We’re just nuts about history.”
“There’s no place to stop, so we’ve continued,” adds Kaat. “The history here is so deep. We peel back one layer, and it reveals so many others.”
Next on the agenda: an adjacent property to Martin’s Tavern. Once a vacant residential rental, it burned to the ground a few years ago. It’s likely another 18th-century building once stood there—perhaps the tavern’s small stable, which the group hopes to restore, honoring its ruins with interpretive signage much like the tavern’s.
Marshallton originated between 1750 and 1760, its growth occurring from 1790 to 1810. Had it been selected as the county seat in the 1780s (as proposed) instead of West Chester, a much different town would’ve developed. By the 1880s, Marshallton was a self-contained community. Today, it still features some 50 dwellings built a century ago or earlier. Three buildings are listed in the National Register: the Humphry Marshall residence, a 1773 stone house built by its original owner in the Georgian vernacular; the Marshallton Inn, a double-door Georgian constructed in 1814 by Abraham Martin; and the 1765 Bradford Friends Meetinghouse. “This was a town of craftsmen who did what they had to do to make a living,” says Lyng, a retired chemical engineer for DuPont. “It was a typical small American town—but not many of these are left.”
Marshallton survived because it was surrounded by large parcels of protected family-owned farmland, and rail transportation never disturbed it. Plus, its village was filled with underrated visionaries like Marshall (1722-1801). “This guy would get his telescopes and microscopes from Ben Franklin—they were friends,” says Martinez, a highly regarded painter. “He was the Ben Franklin of this community.”
Martinez arrives at our Four Dogs Tavern meeting with a framed print of his Marshall portrait. The original hangs in the Chester County Historical Society’s collection.
Marshall would rise at 4:30 a.m. to start the morning in his scientific lab, though he had the rough hands of a farmer and talented mason who filled the rest of his day with physical chores. “He was proud of his telescopes and his speculation on sunspots,” Martinez says. “But he never saw himself as a Renaissance man. He’d just get up and look through his telescopes, correspond with Europe’s leading scientists, then go work in his nursery.”
Without question, Marshall would’ve frequented Martin’s Tavern. A condemned four-story apartment building occupied the site when Kaat moved to the village 20 years ago. “I saw that monster and asked it, ‘What happened to you to be condemned?’” she recalls. “We were 100 years too late to save the beams.”
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She gave the owner two choices—restore the structure or sell it. A year later, he sold it to her privately for $1. Kaat’s paternal grandfather owned one in Illinois, and she all but grew up there. So a tavern restoration was in her DNA.
Marshallton resident Tom McGuire—a historian, author and Malvern Prep teacher—asked FOMT members if they realized the structure was once a Revolutionary War-era tavern. They didn’t. “It was the most popular place in Chester County in its day,” Slouf says. “If you had no newspaper, the tavern is where you went to gather your news.”
The group secured noted local preservation architect John Milner, who agreed to get involved when the “garbage was gone.” Deconstruction went from the top down, one story at a time, until Milner confirmed what was the original structure. “We tore off anything that wasn’t 1750,” says Lyng, who lives in the carriage house to an 1800 Quaker-built dwelling called Stone Wall.
Kaat points out a bungalow across from the tavern. It sold for $37,000 in 2000 but was purchased recently for a price in the mid-$300,000s. “That’s what history can do for you,” he says.
Naysayers once called the bungalow’s unavoidable bright-red door “the door to nowhere” because it fronted only ruins. Now, it’s a door with a mirror. “My profession is to remember, to put stories in the context of now, always asking, ‘What’s the story? Why care? What’s the point of this old stuff?’” says Martinez. “But then there’s this magical moment when the audience gets it and says, ‘That’s us. That’s who we are.’ We’re making it possible to go through a door to see where we’re connected. We’re not empty. We’re not avatars.”