When their Birmingham Township properties backed into one another, Al Bush fondly recalls visiting—and even talking to—Ann Davis’ heifers. He’d often visit Ann, the former township secretary, and her first husband, Charlie. Then Charlie died, and Birmingham began to change.
The Davis dairy farm was one of two, each 100 acres, that went to market. The families—Davis and DeNenno—sold and moved. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the large tracts became the Knolls of Birmingham and Birmingham Hunt. Those developments—along with Radley Run, a four-section, decades-long project on land once owned mostly by Gilbert Mather, who ran the Brandywine Hunt—transformed the character of Chester County’s oldest township from rural to residential.
“It was hectic,” says Bush, a 20-year member of Birmingham’s planning commission and now in his first six-year term as a supervisor. “We had to start meeting twice a month—and going late into the night. We used to meet on the porch at Ann Davis’ house.”
Halfway between West Chester and Kennett Square, Birmingham was founded in 1686 and is at the geographic heart of the American Revolution’s Battle of Brandywine, which was fought Sept. 11, 1777. Today, it has Chester County’s highest per-household median income at $152,516 (as of the last Census). “I suspect there was always quite a bit of money here,” Bush says. “But the farmers had it in their socks.”
Buoyed by admirable open-space planning, the township’s successful residential growth reflects on the quality folks it’s drawn—and those like Bush, who have steadfastly preserved its past. Like others, Bush relocated here 27 years ago as a general manager of a manufacturing plant. Many moved from Philadelphia to Delaware County and into Chester County in the 1980s.
Delaware state’s corporate friendliness—and the need to feed the likes of DuPont and Hercules—were draws. The growth of the Route 202 corridor played a part. The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District is excellent. But Birmingham Township’s real estate taxes are low (1.6 mills), and there’s no earned-income tax.
Quina Nelling, the township treasurer and secretary, manages a $1.7 million annual budget. She was part time for five years, then went full time in 1993, as Birmingham was in the midst of a building boom that more than doubled its population from 1,584 residents in 1980 to 4,221 by 2000. By comparison, population grew from 338 in 1930 to 453 in 1960. “It came on fast and furious,” Nelling says.
Now, says Bush, “There are no large parcels left, just some 4- or 5-acre sections that could be subdivided into two lots. We’re effectively built out—but we developed sensibly and appropriately.”
A Delaware transplant, Nelling lives next to the township building. Her husband, Tom, has been Birmingham’s police chief since 1993. Much of Birmingham’s security rests in his 24-hour force, an anomaly for a small township. “It’s one thing our residents fought for,” his wife says. “Safety is important to them.”
Status—and historical significance—comes with the territory in this rustic paradise just off the hustle-and-bustle of 202. Where there are developments, culs-de-sac limit through-traffic.
“It feels like we’re in the country, but we’re in close proximity to everything,” Nelling says. “Yet, it seems like when you cross into Birmingham, you enter into another dimension.”
Once pronounced “Brummagem,” Birmingham is derived from the ancient Saxons’ Brunwycheham. The name was likely conferred by William Brinton, the first white settler in 1684, in remembrance of the English town.
The Birmingham Township Historical Commission is updating an inventory that identified 77 structures of historic significance in 1981. Past commission chair Lloyd Roach says there must be 177.
In 1960, the entire township was cited as a National Historic Landmark as part of the Brandywine Battlefield. “This area is a historical hotbed that’s been under-appreciated for a lot of years,” says Mark Gross, vice chairman of the commission, which is now headed by Will Snook. “It’s not just the battlefields.”
With cooperation from current property owners, the extensive research effort will net a detailed inventory, a digital photo library and immense pride. Among the treasures, there’s the 1763 Birmingham Friends Meetinghouse and its 1819 octagonal school, which neighbors the Linden Farm of 1732 on Birmingham Road, the spine of the battlefields. The colonists made the meetinghouse their field hospital. After the American defeat, the British used it for their wounded.
The Dilworthtown Historic District at the intersection of Brinton’s Bridge Road and Birmingham Road was long the center of commerce. Vital businesses included a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright shop, a general store, a harness and saddlery shop, a cheese factory, a hatting business, shingle and stave cutting, and a barrel and powder keg manufacturer. The Dilworthtown Inn, the Blue Pear Bistro and the Innkeeper’s Kitchen thrive there today.
In May 2005, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation designated Route 52, Creek Road (old Route 100) and Meetinghouse Road as the Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway. Birmingham Road climbs Osborne Hill, where British Gen. Howe watched the battle. While Gen. Washington waited at Chadds Ford for the battle as a means of protecting Philadelphia, Howe took his troops up the west side of the Brandywine and then down Birmingham Road to clash at the Birmingham Meeting lands and beyond.
Sandy Hollow Heritage Park, at the intersection of Birmingham Road and New Street, is where the Americans made their last-ditch defense before retreating. Gen. Lafayette’s stone monument is in the front yard of a Birmingham Road residence. It marks the spot near where he was wounded.
Many of the era’s residences are preserved—like the Benjamin Sharpless house, which is said to have served as part of the Underground Railroad. Now, it’s sandwiched between the various Radley Runs.
“We have inventory that’s either 30 years old or 300 years old—and not much between,” Bush says. “It’s all aged well.”
Since the land is no longer a battlefield, Birmingham is often labeled a bedroom community—all 6.125 square miles of it, including a small non-contiguous piece of land within the great bend of the Brandywine. These days, residents fiercely defend their privacy and quality of life.
Former Phillies’ pitcher Curt Schilling lived there until he left for Boston. The late, great Andrew Wyeth’s widow, Betsy, still owns a home and studio there. After her release from prison, Martha Stewart was rumored to be moving in. There was even a sighting of her on horseback en route to Hank’s Place, a local eatery. “I haven’t seen her yet,” says Nelling. “There are probably lots of others who do interesting things, but we’re very private.”
And resourceful as a municipality. “We operated for 300 years without a township building,” says Roach.
“We do an awful lot with volunteers,” Nelling adds. “A lot of townships have people with names and titles, but that’s a lot of waste. There’s no waste here.”
But plenty of remaining open space. Thirty-eight percent of the township is perpetually eased, under conservation ownership, protected by homeowners’ associations, deed restrictions or in flood planes. The township’s 49-acre park at Sandy Hollow was a developer concession.
“Even with the subdivision invasion, newcomers are sensitive to the fact that we have something special here,” says Roach. “When the [Brandywine] Conservancy came in, it wasn’t whether to preserve or not, but how and when.”
The battle to secure—and conserve—the final pieces of Brandywine Battlefield land was won last year, when the conservancy purchased a 100-acre farm atop Birmingham Hill, the American army’s second line of defense and where some of the fiercest fighting took place. Roberta Odell and her late husband always called the property Skirmish Hill. On a 13-acre Odell parcel, the township would like to create a trail that connects with old Brandywine Hunt country land and the trail at Sandy Hollow.
“It’s a township for romance, I guess,” jests Nelling about her home. “A big rural frolic in the hay.”