Unionville Retains 19th-Century Charm
A brief history of Unionville, Pa., known for its 19th-century rural heritage.
Strolling the back roads of Unionville, Pa., one senses the serenity of a small village on the fringe of a bustling Chester County. Although it doesn’t see quite the amount of activity of larger settlements, Unionville has its share of fascinating events and individuals.
One good summary of the area is “Old Jacksonville — Now Unionville: A Historical Sketch of A Small Country Town” by Joanna Bucknell. The pamphlet mentions how William Penn laid out Chester, Bucks, and Philadelphia counties in 1682. The village was first known as Jacksonville because of the prominent Jackson family, many members of whom lived nearby. Remnants of John Jackson’s original log cabin, built in the 1700s, still stand; today, the cabin houses Catherine’s, a popular local restaurant.
Another portion of Jackson family property was later sold to Samuel Entriken, who opened the Cross Keys Tavern across the street. Colonial taverns were important stops for weary travelers and “drovers”–men who moved livestock to distant markets. Mail service began around 1804; parcels were carried by stagecoach from Kennett Square.
By the early 1800s, the town’s name changed to Unionville. The first general store in town was opened by Robert Buffington. He was succeeded by Charles Buffington, who advertised “Goods of all kinds free from the evil of slavery.” The village had a wide array of merchants, including blacksmiths, a tannery, a shoemaker, a tinsmith, a wheelwright, a cabinetmaker and a coach maker, in addition to a meeting hall used by the International Order of Odd Fellows.
Most of the existing homes in Unionville date from 1820 to 1880. These lovely brick structures are good examples of Federal and Greek revival architecture. Some houses were later refurbished with Victorian-era additions such as bay windows and gables, their facades serving as a cherished reminder of the town’s heritage. One well-known resident was cabinetmaker James Chalfant, who ran his business near the old Union Hotel, selling beds, clocks, sofas and sideboards, as well as coffins. His home had unique half-circle windows, which led it to be nicknamed the “eyebrow house.”
With a growing population, Unionville needed schools–and it built several, the best being Unionville Academy. The townships of East Marlborough, West Marlborough, Newlin, and Pocopson built the Unionville School, replacing 21 other regional structures. Among the dignitaries attending the school’s dedication ceremony was industrialist Pierre S. du Pont. Many people today might be surprised by Unionville Academy’s breadth of disciplines. In addition to algebra, history, and grammar, courses included surveying, navigation, astronomy, French, German, and Latin. Its most famous alumnus was Bayard Taylor, Minister to Germany, world traveler, and author of “The Story of Kennett.” Other former students included J. Smith Futhey, co-author of “History of Chester County” and William Marshall Swayne, noted sculptor of a bust of Abraham Lincoln.
Local historian Mary Dugan taught at Unionville High School for many years. She was active in showcasing Underground Railroad locations around the area. She wrote a brief summary, which mentions several colorful characters who lived nearby: Thomas Seal, the town’s first doctor. His beautiful white brick house still stands at the corner of Route 842 and Route 82. Mary Gordon, who was dearly loved by the community, ran a “Sabbath-day” school in her home. “Granny Lu” Walls was a caring soul who became a foster mother to 60 needy children. Webb Crossan ran a convenience store and gasoline station, which was a popular meeting place for those who stopped in to discuss the events of the day. Crossan became township supervisor and also served as Chester County Sheriff from 1947-1951.
Rumor has it that, in the days before the Civil War, future Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson visited Unionville. Later, when Rebel guns fired upon Fort Sumter in April 1861, men from around Pennsylvania were among the first to answer the call to arms. Several markers in the Unionville Cemetery now denote their final resting places with a stately black, wrought-iron fence ringing the property. The site includes more than 50 Grand Army of the Republic plaques honoring local heroes who fought to defend the Union.
Due to its significance as a 19th-century rural village, Unionville was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Despite the years, one thing that has not changed is the delightful charm of the old homes, which grace the byways near Route 82, now a busy thoroughfare for truckers serving local farms and businesses. Although the sound of hoofbeats on dirt roads have been replaced by the roar of modern contraptions, there is still something precious that lingers in the air. As you gaze at the structures from yesteryear, you can almost hear the busy merchants at work, the schoolchildren chatting on a leisurely stroll, and the presence of proud local citizens who called this peaceful town their home.
Gene Pisasale is an author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. He’s written six books focusing on Chester County history that are available on www.Amazon.com. For more information, visit his website at www.GenePisasale.com or e-mail him at Gene@GenePisasale.com.