Chester County’s Battlefield Farm Combines English and American Holiday Traditions
A Lincolnshire native transplants British customs to Pennsylvania.
Quaker simplicity and English traditions provide a welcoming ambiance for holiday visitors to the Chester County farmhouse known as Battlefield Farm. The historic stone house—so peaceful now—overlooks the site where American soldiers faced the British line in 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine.
Doug and Kate Marshall came upon the 18th-century house 10 years ago and knew it was the home they had been looking for. “I think it was the feeling of the house. It has a very simple, peaceful feel to it,” says Kate Marshall. “With the stone exterior, it just felt solid,” adds Doug.
Having lived for years in California and New York, the couple was taken with Chester County’s unspoiled landscape and historic homes. Kate grew up in Lincolnshire on the coast of England. Her Quaker great-grandmother was a descendant of William Penn. “We really appreciate the old stone Pennsylvania houses,” she says.
A fragrant wreath on the front door and fresh greens in every room are key to Kate’s approach to making each room look festive for the holidays. A British tradition known as “first footing” calls for setting out a plate with a silver coin, a piece of bread, salt, a sprig of evergreen and a piece of wood.
“You put it outside the door on New Year’s Eve and the first person who comes to the door after midnight brings it in for good luck,” explains Kate. The coin on the plate represents prosperity, bread symbolizes enough to eat, the evergreen long life, wood or a piece of coal is for fuel and salt for flavor.
The fieldstone core of the house was built around 1700 and was expanded by a serpentine stone addition 100 years later. The front of the house faced south with the double entry doors found in many Quaker homes. Its broad front porch was enclosed by the previous owners and now serves as a light-filled gathering place for meals or coffee.
An inviting holiday table is set for Christmas dinner with traditional British crackers at each place. A tree decorated with Brandywine River Museum of Art critters and other natural ornaments stands nearby. “Our traditions are very similar. We celebrate Christmas Day with an early dinner. Everybody does it slightly differently just as they do here,” says Kate.
On the antique pine mantel over the large kitchen fireplace, she arranges fresh greens with branches of bittersweet, pinecones and apples. Unusual antique French iron choppers in the shape of a fox and a horse are hung above the mantel.
Chester County’s equestrian scene was another aspect of the area that appealed to the couple. “I used to ride exercise for my father who trained racehorses,” says Kate, who still enjoys riding with neighbors.
Up until the 1920s, Battlefield Farm was a working dairy establishment with acres of land for grazing cattle. The Marshalls’ property is two and a half acres but still retains the original outbuildings: a fieldstone carriage house, a smokehouse, a springhouse and a milkhouse where water ran through a trough to keep milk cool.
The bright red bank barn looks like a scene on a Christmas card with its dusting of snow. “The barn was once three times that big. Fire destroyed about two thirds of it and the remaining part was refurbished,” Doug says.
In researching the history of the house, the couple found that one of the earliest residents was schoolmaster at the nearby Birmingham Meeting’s school. His initials are carved in one of the exterior stone walls.
The Marshalls were fortunate in that the house overall was in good condition. They worked with John Milner Architects to redesign the front entrance at what was once the back of the house. Stone walls were built to make a level area for plantings. A welcoming porch is reached by a brick walkway with fieldstone accents.
Low trimmed boxwoods opposite the porch create frames or “rooms” for plantings. Victorian chimney pots are filled with branches and greens for the holidays.
Inside the house the couple removed the wall separating two sitting rooms each with its own fireplace. Now the large room serves as a library at one end and a sitting room at the other. Antique French prints hang on the plaster walls painted white with muted green trim. A colorful mix of amaryllises, paperwhites, bittersweet and fresh greens decorate the room.
In the kitchen the couple added soapstone countertops and refinished the cabinets. Steps lead down to the former summer kitchen that now serves as a cozy family room. “The layout is really very good for an old house,” says Kate.
The supports for the massive stone basement walk-in fireplace can still be seen. Large conical pillars built of serpentine stone look as solid as when they were built over 300 years ago. “The people who built those originally in Chester County were from the West of England and Wales where they use this system,” Kate says.
Like most owners of historic homes, the Marshalls have devoted a lot of thought and effort to maintaining the historical integrity of the house. At the same time they have been able to adapt it to their current lifestyle, allowing them to enjoy the best of both worlds.