A Closer Look at Our Neighbor, Plymouth Meeting

Just down the road from ACE Conference Center lies the township of Plymouth Meeting – yet another town rich in American history that may be overlooked as we hurriedly drive through on our way to work, the gym, or the grocery store.  But when you barely scratch the surface of the volumes and volumes of historical information that’s readily available on the township, there’s much to share and consider.

Like many other towns in the Philadelphia suburbs, Plymouth Meeting was originally settled by members of the “Society of Friends”, or Quakers, who migrated from England to Pennsylvania looking for a life of religious freedom.  Together with a group of other Quakers from Plymouth, England, James Fox and Francis Rawle set sail for the British Colonies on the ship “Desire” arriving in Philadelphia on June 23, 1686.   Before they left England they had purchased 5,000 acres from William Penn with the intention to manufacture woolen products.   They named their new home Plymouth Meeting after the town they came from in England and their newly built house of worship, the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse.  Designed to serve as the heart of the community, a Friends meetinghouse is a place of worship that is simple and straightfoward, consisting of a large meeting room, smaller rooms for committees, a school, kitchen and restrooms.  The Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse, or Plymouth Monthly Meeting as it’s known today (see below), is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been in continuous use as a house of worship since 1708.  Almost immediately, the original Quaker settlers learned that there was a large natural existence of lime in the area and that wool was not to be their main trade.  From as early as 1688, lime kilns have been a large, productive and profitable business in Plymouth Meeting and continue to be so today.

In 1778 during the Revolutionary War, the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse also served as a military hospital and campsite for a portion of General George Washington’s Army lead by General Lafayette.  Temporarily encamped at Barren Hill on their way to Valley Forge, Lafayette learned that a British force was attempting to seize the area and cut off the movement of the Continental Army.  Lafayette took advantage of his knowledge of local roads, specifically Ridge Road and Matson Ford, and managed to successfully outsmart and outmaneuver the British Army’s attack.   The ACE Conference Center is located on the top of Barren Hill, the site of this famous local battle.

Slave holding was condemned in 1754 by the Society of Friends and so it is not surprising to learn very few slaves lived in Plymouth Township in the late 1700’s and only one by the year 1830.  During the Civil War in the 1860’s, several Plymouth Meeting residents hid runaway slaves in underground rooms or vented attics.  In fact, when most doors in Philadelphia were closed to Abolitionist speakers, a local homesteader George Corson built a large barn on his1767  farm that could be used as a local anti-slavery meeting place and safe haven.  Called Abolition Hall, the hall could accommodate up to 200 people and since the Corson farm had already served as a station on the Underground Railroad for many years, it was easy to pack the room with Abolishinist speakers such as:  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretia Mott, Mrs. Stephen Foster, and William Lloyd Garrison.

In later years (1881-1895) Abolition Hall became the art studio of one of the nation’s most famous painters, Thomas Hovenden.  Married to George Corson’s daughter, Hovenden was best known for painting realistic scenes taken right out of American lifeas he experienced it in the farmlands of Plymouth Meeting.  A modest man who lived simply and embraced his in-laws’ Quaker faith, his depictions of everyday life during the Civil War feel as if one is looking at photographs rather than oil paintings.  One of his most famous paintings,“Breaking Home Ties,” (shown below) as well as several others, can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Hovenden succeeded Thomas Eakins as the principal painting instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1886 after the latter was forced to resign for inappropriate use of nude models.  In 1895, Hovenden died suddenly at the age of 55 when he was run over by a train at the crossroads in Germantown while trying to rescue a small girl who had wandered onto the tracks.  Sadly, just six years after his death a fire claimed the art studio, historic building and all its contents.  Fortunately, his widow had already removed many of his paintings and historical artifacts collected over his lifetime but the destruction of the building is a tremendous loss to historians.  For decades after his death, art critics and collectors dismissed his work as old-fashioned.  It was only in 1995, a hundred years after his death, when an exhibition of his life’s work finnaly brought Hovenden recognition as America’s best-known painter of heroic scenes of the Civil War era.

Growth continued for Plymouth Meeting during the 1900’s which saw the advent of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Plymouth Meeting Mall, many high-rise and garden apartment complexes, significant modern industries and offices buildings.  Many notable businesses maintain their American headquarters in Plymouth Meeting, most notably the Swedish furniture company, IKEA.  So when you next sit at the traffic light at Germantown Avenue and Chemical Road, look up and appreciate the historic Lime Kilns that still stand just across the street.  Or, perhaps stop by the Plymouth Monthly Meeting and wander through the cemetery just behind, where Thomas Hovenden’s simple headstone lies humbly at the foot of an old pine tree.

{Photos: Plymouth Friends Meeting House and Philadelphia Museum of Art}

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