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13 West Cestrians
If you scan the list towns across southeastern Pennslyvania and the eastern seaboard, everyone loves an historic borough like West Chester and everyone thinks that their native sons and daughters are the most important. The difference is that, in West Chester, West Cestrians (yes, "Cestrian" sans the "h") just know it's true. Our history includes the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Civil Rights, Women's rights, and everything in between. The architecture yearns for us to inspect, "look up" as we tell our students at CCHS, and fantasize about days long gone with horse-drawn vehicles gracing the dusty streets. Here are some people that personify the diversity and richness of West Chester's illustrious past. I know I've missed a few - William Everhart, for instance, who developed the southwestern section of the borough. And I’m sure that you could think of many more of your own - and that's the beauty of history's eternal quest - that none of us will ever fully learn the full greatness and depth of those who have come before us and their times, especially in West Chester.
Mary Sharples Schaffer
West Cestrian Mary Townsend Schaffer was born into a life of privilege in 1861. Nannies, maids, and private tutors attended to her needs. She took painting lessons from renowned artist George Lambdin and accompanied her father and famed scientist Joseph Leidy on mineralogy expeditions.
Her life's course, however, took several sharp turns that took her away from the lavish relaxed lifestyle she seemed destined for. She met and married medical doctor/ botanist Charles Schaffer and the two summered in remote Canadian Rockies collecting specimens. When her husband died, she took to adventuring on her own. After several expeditions, she discovered "Chaba Imne," a lost lake in the Canadian Rockies, in 1908. She wrote about her adventures, lectured in Philadelphia and West Chester, and was called “one of the eminent explorers of the world” by the Chester County Ledger.
Today, there’s even a Mount Schaffer and Schaffer Lake in Yoho National Park and you can learn of her story in several biographies, including a children's book.
Dr. William Darlington
Born 1782 in Birmingham Township, William Darlington has been referred to by West Chester University Professor Emeritus Dr. Robert as “Chester County’s most distinguished person.” He attended the University of Pennsylvania where he became friends with architect William Strickland and Botanist John Bartram. He learned from famed Dr. Benjamin Rush, and visited the nearby Peale museum of artist Charles Wilson Peale. Darlington married, settled in West Chester, and set up a practice here. But medicine is not what Darlington's claim to fame was. In an era when someone could be and do everything, the civic and scientific-minded man founded and became the president of the Bank of Chester County and served two terms in D.C. as a Congressman. His true love was botany. He helped establish the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences on the first block South Church Street (old New Haven Pizza building). In 1826, he published Florula Cestrica - a book about the botany of the area. A fellow botanist even named the plant "Darlingtonia colifornica" in his honor. And if you visit the coast of Oregon you can visit "Darlingtonia State Natural Site" dedicated to preserving the species.
There must be something about Church Street that breeds or attracts accomplished individuals. Samuel Barber was born in 1910 and spent his childhood on South Church St. He was exposed to music at an early age, at the nearby First Presbyterian Church and through his uncle Sydney, a composer.
While most kids were busy being kids, Barber was busy starting a career in music. He began playing piano at age six. By age nine he had already written ten compositions and by age eleven, he was learning to play organ at First Presbyterian Church.
A graduate of Henderson High School, where he wrote the school's alma mater, Barber later attended the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Barber went on to compose some of the most recognizable compositions in the 20th century, including the signature "Adagio for Strings" in 1936. And his global fame all started on Church Street in West Chester.
If you're a big fan of mid 20th film, then Claude Rains needs no introduction. The Brit starred in some of the most famous movies of his time, as Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca to Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. Rains's role as Ceaser in Julius Caesar made him the first film actor to make a million dollars for a part. He acted alongside some of the greatest actresses of his time, including Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, and Ingrid Bergman. Rains never won an academy award but was nominated four times for the role of supporting actor.
When Rains looked for a place to call home, he chose Chester County. In 1941, he moved from his Delaware County home to "Stock Grange Farm" in West Bradford Township. in 1953 he called the county “the best place to live in the world.” In 1956, he moved to the "Hawthorne House" on South Church Street in West Chester. Rains was naturally shy man and by the time he lived in West Chester, he led a reclusive lifestyle. He was in the borough for seven years before moving to New Hampshire in 1963, where he died in 1967.
If you stroll down Gay Street to the 300 block just outside of the business district, you'll notice one of those trademark blue PHMC historic markers recognizing Horace Pippin across the street from Jasmine. Pippin, born in West Chester in 1888, acclaimed African American artist, lived in this house throughout his adulthood with his wife Jennie Oral Featherstone Wade.
A veteran of WWI, Pippin was injured during the war which led to a particular trademark style of painting. He was right-handed but his right arm was immobile, so he supported his right wrist with his left hand while he painted. His paintings relied on a powerful primitive style and focused on issues, places, and people important to him. He was a late bloomer. Recognized by N.C. Wyeth, he caught the eye of Albert Barnes of the Barnes Foundation, and was the first African American to show paintings at the Chester County Art Association. His works can be found today in some of the nation's most prestigious museums, including the Phillips Collection, Brandywine River Museum, the Met, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and many others.
Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights leader, "architect" of the 1963 March on Washington, began his career at a young age, as a youth protesting segregation at the businesses, restaurants and theaters in West Chester. "It was here that Rustin..." Catherine Quillman and Sarah Wesley write in Walking the East End: A Historic African American Community in West Chester "became a Quaker and began to practice a non-violent type of civil rights activism that he later shared with King." Yet as an outspoken gay man in an era what that was condemned, his name was relegated to the background of the movement.
We should remember him today for being the silent backbone of the Civil Rights movement. He was there for the Freedom Rides of the 1940s and introduced a once more militant Martin Luther King Jr. to pacifist resistance beliefs. And Rustin, who graduated as valedictorian from West Chester High School (today's Henderson) in 1932 never forgot where he came from. Even after gracing the cover of Life magazine in 1963, he returned to West Chester to fight for equal education and equal housing for all.
Joseph T. Rothrock
Ok - I'm a little partial to Joseph Rothrock because he was the Chester County Historical Society's first president when the organization was founded in 1893. But seriously - if you go to Harrisburg, among the first things you see when entering the State Capitol is a plaque in his honor. And he lived right here in West Chester, from his 30s until his death in 1922.
In the late 19th century, the forests of Pennsylvania had suffered the effects of massive logging to the point when the Commonwealth's resources were seriously threatened. Rothrock, the Lorax of the 1880s and 1890s, took photographs and travelled the state spreading the message of the deforestation's ill effects. He propounded proper conservation methods to preserve and use these forests. In 1895, he became Pennsylvania's First Commissioner of Forestry and also established the Mount Alto School of forestry.
Hazel Johnson-Brown is not a household name but she should be. In 1979, President Carter nominated her as Chief, Army Nurse Corps, and as such, promoted her to the rank of Brigadier General. This made Hazel the first black woman general in the entire history of the U.S. military.
Hazel Johnson was born in West Chester in 1927 to Clarence L. and Garnett Johnson but spent most of her childhood growing up in Malvern. Hazel excelled at academics, as a student at East Whiteland Elementary School and later Tredyffrin-Easttown Junior/Senior High School (today's Conestoga). She experienced racial discrimination early in her quest to become a nurse.However she persevered and after attending school in Harlem, she started as a
beginning level staff nurse in Harlem Hospital's emergency ward.
Hazel quickly rose up the ranks. In 1955, she entered the Army Nurse Corp as a staff nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Over the next twelve years, she held a variety of positions at various medical centers, and eventually oversaw the school of nursing at Walter Reed Medical Center. She excelled academically, earning a Ph.D. in 1978 from Catholic University and taught health care and health administration at a variety of universities. But she'll be forever remembered for her accomplishment as the first female African American General in the nation's history.
Thomas U. Walter
The name Thomas Ustick Walter usually doesn't ring a bell with visitors or locals, but this architect's impact has been here for over 160 years and will probably be here until well after I'm dead. His (our) Greek revival courthouse, Bank of Chester County, First Presbyterian church, and of course Horticultural Hall, the Romanesque building CCHS has called home since 1942, are some of the most notable features of West Chester.
Walter was the apprentice of noted Philadelphia Architect William Strickland, who designed the Second National Bank on Chestnut St. in Old City Philadelphia, which Walter most likely helped build. If you've ever been to Girard College, a campus full of imposing buildings that makes you feel like you're five inches tall, you've been immersed in Walter's work. But Walter's most notable achievement was the most recognizable symbol of American democracy in the world - the Capitol Dome in D.C. After his work in West Chester, Walter went on to design the house and Senate wings in 1851, then convinced Congress to replace the outdated copper and wood dome on the Capitol with his majestic creation, which graces the background of nightly news programs and Sunday morning political chats on a regular basis.
What's up with those Darlington's? Aunt and Nephew duo - Smedley Darlington Butler and Isabel Darlington
If there was ever a tough guy from West Chester's past that I'd want to have my back, it would be Smedley Darlington Butler. Born 1881 to U.S. Congressman Thomas S. Butler and Maud Darlington Butler, Smedley entered the marines at a young age. He served in the Spanish American war, quelled an insurrection in the Philippines, and was shot while suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China. He built a Marin base in Panama, helped quash a Yellow Fever epidemic in Nicaragua, and fought in the U.S. occupation of Veracruz, Mexico. Congress awarded him the Medal of Honor for his heroism in fighting Haitian bandits in 1917. Following WWI, he was promoted to Brigadier General and oversaw the Marin Base at Quantico.
Isabel Darlington, Butler's Aunt was tough as nails too. Born just after the Civil War, she grew up at Faunbrook, site of today's Faunbrook B &B, and lived there through her adult life. Daughter of wealthy banker Smedley Darlington decided she'd like to study law, which was not what women in the late 19th century did. Isabel didn't care - when her letter to the president of Penn's Law school went unanswered, she persisted, obtained admission, graduated, and went on to practice law in West Chester. In 1941, she was elected president of the Chester County Bar Association, making her the first in the Commonwealth of PA, and one of the first in the U.S., to head a bar association.
Uriah Hunt Painter
It's hard to know where to start with Uriah Hunt Painter. On one hand - he was a West Chester guy through and through - owning a lumber yard, ice house, and even the opera house in the Chester County Historical Society's current home, Horticultural Hall. He also owned business interests in the railroad, fish, telegraph, and telephone industries.
But Painter was much bigger than West Chester. His claim to fame? He was among the earliest war correspondents, reporting from the front lines during the Civil War for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In fact, he was the first to report that the North had lost the first battle of Bull Run, which nearly caused a riot outside the Inquirer building in Philadelphia. You can see his secret code book (possibly to avoid censorship and divulging secrets) and a few of the thousands of telegrams he received in CCHS's exhibition, On the Edge of Battle: Chester County and the Civil War.
If you ask West Chester University History Professor Jim Jones about his favorite West Chester historical figures (and I did) he will invariably put a plug in for Mifflin Rigg. His namesake "Riggtown" in southeastern West Chester wedged between the railroad tracks and Goose Creek (a la Riggtown Oven) evolved as a tight working class neighborhood in the late 19th century.
While the center of town was fairly established, only a smattering of homes populated the unfinished landscape in the southeastern part of town in the late 19th century. Jones's online "A Short History of Riggtown" says it best when he says that "In 1894, Mifflin Rigg altered that view dramatically." Rigg, a blacksmith turned carpenter, transformed into mini real estate tycoon that year when he purchased a large section of today's Riggtown. Within four years, he had constructed fourteen homes. More remarkable than the homes were the people who rented them - mostly Irish and German laborers - which forged a distinct hard-working character among Riggtown residents.