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Chester County Honors Humphry Marshall, Marshallton’s Founder

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Photos by Jim Graham

The tiny Chester County town celebrates the 300th birthday of its well-connected founding father and his Main Line-area history.

Befitting his Quaker upbringing, Humphry Marshall had a keen interest in the raw Chester County wilderness that surrounded him. A largely self-educated farmer, stone mason and amateur astronomer with a passion for botany, Marshall evolved into an important figure, though he never traveled far from the last vestiges of the Lenni Lenape tracts bordering his father’s farm—land with links to William Penn. Born in 1722, Marshall would’ve been 300 this year. Over his 79 years, he was able to nurture productive relationships with Benjamin Franklin and others of international acclaim.

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Franklin Marshall at ancestor Humphry Marshall’s gravesite.

Mark Slouf can appreciate how difficult that must have been in a place so remote. “By the time he’d get a letter into Ben Franklin’s hands in London, it could be three months, and then three months for Franklin to converse back,” says Slouf.

A West Chester builder and designer, Slouf is a member of the Humphry Marshall 300th task force, a community group organizing a year-long series of events to commemorate a milestone and propagate the legacy of the town’s founding father. There will be a lecture series in June and a park dedication in October, Marshall’s birthday month. Other events were in the works at press time.

With its dense woods, plentiful water and fertile soil, Marshallton was a perfect place to sustain milling and farming operations. The West Bradford Township hamlet was organized in 1705 and officially named 100 years later once the post office arrived. Aside from agriculture, the region had blacksmiths, coopers, shoemakers and wheelwrights who plied their trades near once-bustling Strasburg Road. Built in 1750 and refurbished in the early 1970s, Marshallton’s blacksmith shop is a well-preserved example of Colonial-era architecture. Along the main street stands the preserved remains of Martin’s Tavern, originally Center House. While spending the night there on Sept. 10, 1777, Squire Thomas Cheyney witnessed a large British force marching near the forks of Brandywine Creek. He and other local militia rode toward Chadds Ford, alerting George Washington so the general could avoid disaster. Marshallton also lays claim to Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who lived at the Harlan Farm when they surveyed the Mason-Dixon Line from a point of astrological observation known as the “Stargazer’s Stone.”

The first cousin of Philadelphia botanist John Bartram, Marshall has been called the father of American dendrology, the science and study of woody plants. Built between 1773 and 1774, his home still stands. There he established the nation’s second proper botanical garden—only outdone by his older cousin. But Marshall’s commercial success surpassed that of Bartram, a well-respected naturalist who also sold seeds and plants to the world.

The Humphry Marshall House was documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1958, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Marshall built the 2.5-story structure himself to specifications that furthered his management and collection of botanical specimens. He’s buried across what’s now West Strasburg Road at the Bradford Friends Meeting Burial Ground—without a marker, per Quaker tradition.

A native of Gratton in Lincolnshire, England, Abraham Marshall arrived in America about 1697. He settled near Darby and married Mary Hunt, the sister of John Bartram’s mother, Elizabeth Hunt. Her husband was James Hunt, a companion of William Penn.

marshall home

The Humphry Marshall homestead.

painting

Adrian Martinez at work on his latest commission, celebrating surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.

In 1707, Abraham moved to the forks of Brandywine Creek near the western branch, purchasing large tracts of land among the Indians. He lived there until his death in 1767 at age 98. Of Abraham and Mary’s nine children, Humphry was the eighth, born at what the family called Derbydown on Northbrook Road. Today, much of the original acreage is a horse farm known as Castle Rock.

Married twice (first to Sarah Pennock in 1748), Humphry Marshall never had children. Upon his father’s death, he inherited the family estate and later bought his own land, expanding his collection of plantings through personal exploration, transatlantic correspondence and mutually beneficial botanical exchanges. He also commissioned friends and relatives to collect plants and seeds during their travels. For years, Marshall provided seeds and plants to clients in England, Scotland, France, Italy, Brussels, Holland and Germany, sometimes in exchange for scientific instruments. Plants from his nursery graced the gardens of King George III of England and King Louis XVI of France. He also supplied Chester County neighbors and typically wealthy friends in Lancaster and Philadelphia.

The boom in Marshall’s botanical business owed much to his 1785 work, Arbustum Americanum: The American Grove, or, An Alphabetical Catalogue of Forest Trees and Shrubs, the first American imprint on the topic. Dedicated to Ben Franklin, it was more of a hit internationally, selling only about a dozen copies here the first three months. Marshall intended it to also serve as a commercial catalogue, noting in its introduction, “The foreigner, curious in American collections, will be hereby better enabled to make a selection suitable to his own particular fancy.”

The book concluded with a full-page ad for Marshall’s “BOXES of SEEDS, and growing PLANTS, of the FOREST TREES, FLOWERING SHRUBS, &c. of the American United States.”

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Humphry Marshall’s reading glasses and election certificate from the American Philosophical Society.

Marshall hoped to spur additional research here, encouraging the organization of a scientific expedition to the West. Not coincidentally, his live-in nephew and assistant, Moses Marshall, was approached by Caspar Wistar and Thomas Jefferson to undertake a trip to the Pacific. It would’ve been a 20-year precursor to the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1803 to 1805—but it never happened. Moses, a physician, continued to honor requests for plants after his uncle’s death, though he lost interest in maintaining the garden, busying himself as a local justice of the peace. By the time of his death in 1813, the garden was in ruins.

Mark Slouf has begun writing a series of Humphry Marshall articles in the West Bradford Township newsletter, noting that the task force will approach Chester County commissioners this month with a request to declare 2022 the year of Humphry Marshall. West Bradford Township has been asked to do the same. One of its supervisors, Jack Hines, even has a dog named Humphry Marshall.

The site for Martin’s Tavern/Humphry Marshall Historical Park is on a small township-owned lot west of the tavern’s ruins. It will share the mission and perhaps the historic plantings and interpretative signage of Marshall Square Park in West Chester, which was dedicated in 1848. Marshallton Conservation Trust hopes to plant a local garden with specimens consistent with Marshall’s catalog.

Beginning in July, there’s also a plan to hang banners with Adrian Martinez’s portrait of Marshall. About five years ago, the Downingtown-based artist mounted an exhibition inspired by Marshall that included a dozen paintings. “Everything Humphry did is so timely again,” says Martinez.

“This is one of our superstars,” adds Linda Kaat, a task force member, Marshallton resident and longtime preservationist in the region. “We all have such respect for this remarkable and underappreciated genius in the wilderness.”

Kaat has looked into getting a postage stamp commissioned in Marshall’s honor—a process that takes years. The subject has to be deceased, and free of scandals. “I don’t know that Humphry Marshall had any,” she says.

Another idea is to create a permanent Marshall repository at the Chester County History Center, and a short documentary is also planned. “We’d like to focus on educating school children and the general public about Humphry Marshall and his achievements,” says Slouf, “but also about how his thoughts and actions apply to today, especially regarding the environment. I can’t think of another person in the county with more impact internationally. He’s a notch below Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Everyone knows those names, but they don’t know Humphry’s name.”

At press time, it wasn’t clear if the celebration would include tours of Marshall’s ancestral home. Kept pure, it’s owned by a reclusive couple who didn’t respond to requests for an interview. “I bought my house because it overlooks the Marshall house and maybe the world’s largest collection of winter aconites,” Kaat says. “The real story of Marshallton started there.”

If there’s a controversial piece to Marshall’s story, it involves the ancestral home and its contents. In 1982, they were willed by the estate of Campbell Weir to the Chester County Historical Society. By the early 1990s, the organization had broken his will, auctioned off belongings and sold the real estate into private hands. Catheryn Campbell Weir, a niece, still heads the Humphry Marshall Fund.

Access to the house is crucial for the documentary, says Slouf, who toured the home a few times before it was purchased. Slouf was amazed by its drying room, essentially a hothouse for plants that was created by two interconnected fireplace flues piping heat through the walls in a second floor that once included a small observatory for astronomical studies. “The place was supposed to be a museum,” says Franklin Marshall, a local 88-year-old family descendant. “No one knows where all the furniture went [after auction]. Some of it was Humphry’s. We’ve asked the historical society, which said it’s in storage in York, but we can’t prove it. It’s a shame the place isn’t being used the way it was supposed to be.”

The retired sawmill operator has inherited Humphry’s 1786 election certificate as a corresponding member of the American Society, one of the organizations that merged to form the American Philosophical Society. It’s signed by Ben Franklin. He also has his ancestor’s reading glasses and other relics. “I’m certainly proud,” he says. “It’s a pretty good ancestry, I think.”

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