Photography By Jim Graham

Feature

Sugartown is a Quintessential Crossroads Hamlet

Located in Willistown Township, it possesses 19th-century charm.

By Catherine Quillman |

Summertime may be the best time to visit Sugartown, a tiny settlement on Sugartown Road, not far from Radnor Hunt, in Willistown Township. 

The village includes five 19th-century attached stone and frame buildings, some resembling the connected buildings of New England, but also evoking a time when Chester County hamlets were clustered together in an open countryside of farm after farm. 

Sugartown can claim to have the region’s only interpretive general store, complete with vegetable bins and built-in shelving, hanging gas lamps, and artifacts based on what was listed in original storekeeper “day” books. 

With its many restored buildings, the village needs to be explored on foot, and summer makes it easy to enjoy the large shade trees and the cool interior of the 19th-century frame bank barn. 

At a time when many cultural history museums are promoting the “American experience,” it’s refreshing to find that Sugartown is still a sleepy hamlet where events such as bluegrass barbecues and “plein air” art shows bring local residents together in a kind of country fair atmosphere. 

Still, as an interpretive site now known as Historic Sugartown, the village offers a subtle history lesson in the way towns evolved and changed in 19th-century Pennsylvania farming communities. 

At one end of the complex is a grand Italianate home with a hipped roof crowned by a “belvedere.” That and its elaborate porch trellises seem more in keeping with the stylish homes of Cape May. But it also reflects the Victorian era of leisure and spirited entrepreneurship, when homes had spacious front porches. Across the road, fieldstone homes and a early frame bank barn recall the region’s Quaker roots, the “Acres of Quakers” as it was described in a 685-page township history by the late John C. Nagy Jr. 

In a 2004 interview, Nagy said that his research on the township of Willistown, which dates to 1704, included “every single deed, every single will and estate inventory” related to the farms featured in the 1883 Breou Farm Atlas.

Nagy is credited for sparking Sugartown’s restoration and rebirth. He once lived in a circa 1783 schoolmaster’s house along the same road and could see much of the village’s slow deterioration from his front windows. 

The five attached buildings now known as the General Store Complex were literally rescued by the nonprofit group Nagy and several neighbors formed in 1983 for the sole purpose of saving the dilapidated structures. They brought in the West Chester firm Frens & Frens to complete the restoration of the complex. 

Today, all but one of the 11 structures are original to the village. One was moved to Sugartown to avoid certain demolition. During its 2002 renovation, the three-story circa-1805 William Garrett house—made of about 300 tons of fieldstone—was placed on wheels and moved almost a mile to its present location. It now stands next to the Cheever House, built in 1835 by a widowed innkeeper named Hannah Cheever. 

Among other projects, Nagy set the course of Sugartown’s revival in the way it would reflect 19th-century life. That included tracking organizations that met at the Odd Fellow’s Hall, held upstairs after 1850 when a third story was added to the store. 

One group, the aptly named Willistown Union Association for the Detection of Horse Thieves and the Recovery of Stolen Property, was particularly active. 

In his writing, Nagly often pointed out that Willistown’s location bordering two major roads—Routes 3 and 30— but not intersected by them, helped to preserve the rural character of the township for generations. Still, that doesn’t mean that Sugartown didn’t undergo change. 

It began as a transportation hub, with an early tavern, blacksmith and saddler’s shop. It also followed the practical concern of being within a half-day’s distance of a Quaker meeting house, then the heart of all community life. 

By the late 1890s, Sugartown was a self-sufficient hamlet where life revolved around the general store. As a crossroads village, it also saw a daily parade of traffic that included mercantile Conestoga wagon teams, drovers with herds of cattle from Lancaster County, and lime carts on their way to the kilns of the Great Valley. 

That history is apparent in the Carriage Museum, described as a joint venture with the Chester County Historical Society, mainly because many of the unique vehicles on display—including a horse-drawn hearse—are from the society’s collection. Executive director Heather Reiffer explains that the hearse’s large glass windows allowed people to pay their respects as the coffin was drawn to the cemetery.

“I was particularly taken with general store,” Reiffer says of her first impression of Sugartown. “Laura Ingalls Wilder enthusiasts will immediately recognize and enjoy what they find.” 

In keeping with its mission to spotlight the 19th-century American experience, Historic Sugartown added educational components long ago, deciding to include an on-site book bindery with perhaps the strongest bookbinding tool collection in the country. A love of books, after all, once defined most American households.

Another kind of ingenuity and respect for craftsmanship can be seen in the displays of antique agricultural tools and early farm implements found (with descriptive signs) in the restored bank barn. The barn itself is a study of once-common structural features and innovations, such as the large wooden storage tank that held water for farm animals. 

While Sugartown didn’t witness the kind of major changes that many Chester County villages have undergone, it did go through the usual modernization. Local residents still remember when the general store had seen decades of use, first as a gasoline station and later as an antiques shop. 

There were also plenty of keeping-up-with-the- Joneses-style improvements. For instance, in 1889, the general store was connected to a circa-1860 Sharpless-Worrall home by a frame addition that contained a kitchen on the first floor and a bath on the second. It’s believed to be the first in the region, complete with a wood-enclosed tin tub. 

Adding to Sugartown’s importance is the way it showcases what historians call “transitions in domestic architecture.” The Garrett House dates to 1805, for instance, but it represents an earlier local vernacular architecture. Imagine an upgrade of an 18th-century settler’s log home, in floor plan, building techniques and materials. According to Acres of Quakers, it was a three-room plan, more than two stories in height, with Federal-style woodwork and grained faux finishes. 

To learn more visit historicsugartown.org. 

The Hunt Summer 2017  Issue

This article was published in Feature from the Summer 2017 issue.
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