Click plan to view in Google Maps
- RADNOR, PENNSYLVANIA
situated dead center of Radnor Township, Delaware County,
on Newtown Road in Ithan (formerly Radnorville) and
approximately a quarter of a mile west of the historical
Friends Meeting House. The name has all but disappeared
into folklore as it disappeared from official maps
some time after 1948 but its legendary community and
distinctive wood frame houses are still very much in
evidence as a standalone piece of American history.
whole area had been occupied by the Lenni Lenape Indians but
was settled predominantly by members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) from Radnorshire,
Wales, around 1663, who purchased the 40,000 acres that became known as the "Welsh Tract".
Banjotown is a 12-acre section of the initial land grant made to Richard Davies
(aka Daves) when in 1681 he bought 5,000 acres from William Penn, who had been granted the land by Charles II of England. Radnor Township was founded a year
later. There's no record of Davies ever visiting America and he soon sold his land, mostly in the southern part of Radnor, to various purchasers. 350 acres were sold to John Evans and then in 1688 (the same year that William Penn was imprisoned
in the Tower of London for blasphemy) 152 acres were conveyed
to John Jerman (aka Jarman), constable of Radnor Twp
1685-1721. This included 26 acres split between
the north and south sides of the lane that was to be called
Newtown Road, laid formally in 1716, (the road leading to Newtown,
named in 1685).
Close by on the Old Lancaster Road (now Conestoga
Road) the original Ithan General Store was built. It
was where one of Jerman's sons was born - Radnor Twp's
very first registered birth. It was used as the place
of worship for Radnor Friends before their own temporary log Meeting
House was built around 1695 across the road, followed by their more permanent stone building in 1717-18.
Ithan General Store c.1910 by Frank Hamilton Taylor
The General Store later
became the Post Office. Although physically closer to
the town of Wayne (and even nearer to Ithan) the postal
address of Banjotown nowadays is Villanova - formerly
Villa Nova and named after the Spanish order, inspired
by Santo Tomás
de Villanueva, the university founders.
In 1894 it was recorded that just before its rapid expansion (to include the settlement of Banjotown) Radnorville contained a store, hall, hotel, school house and a post office named Ithan. At this time the village had six unnamed streets and about 30 houses.
name changed to Ithan around 1850 because of its
similarity to the nearby town of Radnor and was altered
to match the name of the adjacent Ithan Creek, named from the mid-Wales River Ithon (Afon leithon). The
Kings Highway was laid through Jarman's property in 1691
(called Radnor-Chester Road from 1697). Legend has it
that Jerman was so opposed to the road that in its early
days he continued to plant crops across it.
Title to the land changed
hands several times over the years. In 1864, on her widowed
mother's death, Sarah Jane Matlack, nee Siter, (husband
of Isaiah Matlack M.D.) was allocated 56 acres including
the present land of Banjotown 43 years after the death
of her father, John Siter, whose estate was divided between
her and her sisters Elizabeth S. Parke and Mary Anne
Jacobs. She was from the Siter family who owned and farmed much of the land south of Wayne and had built a sawmill in 1799 at the site of what is now the Mill Dam Club. Her 56 acres extended from the present west
boundary of Banjotown north- eastward across the intersection of Newtown
Road and Conestoga Road where, before the arrival of
the Pennsylvania Rail Road, the covered wagons trailed
between Philadelphia and Lancaster. (Before that it had
simply been an Indian trail between the Delaware and Susquehanna
Rivers.) By the 1850s over 8,000 of these huge wagons lumbered regularly along this road, bringing food and produce to Philadelphia markets. Sarah Jane Matlack's parcel included the land on which the historical
Meigs Estate was subsequently built and backs directly
onto what is now Harrison Road and Parkes Run Lane.
Conestoga Wagons originated in Pennsylvania in the early
1700s & were still in use throughout Banjotown's
the Revolutionary War all the land directly
in the eye-line between Philadelphia, the lookout post east of Ithan's
Friends Meeting House and Valley Forge was designated
a no man’s land. This
eastern outpost was less than a mile west of the original Sorrel
Horse Inn (now part of Agnes Irwin School) which reputedly
housed George Washington during the 1777-8 Valley Forge
encampment. (An inn by the same name appeared later, closer to Radnorville.) Washington's troops were camped approx 300yds south-west of Banjotown on cleared land now called "Camp Woods" while the Friends Meeting House, in what is now Ithan, was annexed as officers' quarters and a hospital. This was in the year of the Paoli Massacre, where 272 of Washington's men were killed, wounded or went missing, and just before the British seized Philadelphia. Others of Washington's US Army were simultaneously encamped several miles to the north-west at Valley Forge.
Radnor suffered from the British during their occupancy of Philadelphia with many families having their livestock, crops and possessions confiscated, leaving them without provisions through the winter of 1777-8. Many skirmishes between British and Americans took place at this time.
Great prosperity came to Radnor after the Revolution with an abundance of saw and grist mills, new settlers and highways including America's first turnpike (Philadelphia to Lancaster) in 1792 and in turn many wayside inns. But the Banjotown area remained vacant farmland and
woods for another 100 years.
Further details can be found in Radnor In The Revolution edited by Phil Graham, published by Radnor Historical Society 2014.
Around 1881 a 12-acre plot was sub-divided. 10 acres
on the west were split into 36 lots by Mrs. Sarah Jane
Matlack. It was arranged in three rows of 12 lots running
roughly north/south. Twelve of the lots faced onto
Newtown Road while the remaining 24 bordered the dead-end
track which was to become Matlack Lane. Not all the
tracts had dwellings built on them so over the years
the lots were combined and renumbered.
can only speculate why Mrs. Matlack, who owned
quite a large piece of property around Radnorville, suddenly
decided to carve up 10 acres of this 12-acre space
into 36 small lots, on which were erected just
a few small houses for the laboring class.
she need money from selling the land? Was there
an increased demand for artisans in the Ithan/Wayne
area or were there already rumors of another Railroad
coming this way? Whatever her reasons she very deliberately
created a unique community eventually known as
It has recently been noted that a very similar sized parcel split occurred a short while later 1/2 mile east on land wholly owned by noted architect, housing developer and landowner Theophilus P. Chandler who owned land all round, and within, Banjotown (see right). At least three houses on one side of a street now called Radnor Ave are still very reminiscent of some of the original Banjotown houses. Chandler owned, designed & built Ithan Farm - and various adjacent properties on the south side of Newtown Rd.
1887 map shows a spring house (red), the first 3 houses
(of these only Lot
1 survives) and the barn on Lot 3.
T.P.Chandler & his wife owned land in Banjotown; also
to its west, east and south-east bordering his farmland.
1881 map showed no buildings here but by 1887
there were three permanent houses shown on the map
(above right) of what was then identified as the “Matlack Tract” -
one on each of Lots 1, 35 and 36. A small wooden barn
by the stream in the center of Lot 3 was also present
at this time - its stone foundations still remain about
a foot below the current ground level - and although
it was still standing in 1948 it had been superseded
by the larger one still straddling Lots 3 & 4.
1913 two small structures (side-by-side on adjacent properties)
and two separate larger structures stood at the bottom
of each of lots 1 & 2 but these were gone by 1920.
It has been suggested that the smaller structures were
privies. The houses on Lots 35 & 36 unfortunately
burnt down in the late 1920s (though their footprints are still shown
on maps up to 1937) and were not replaced during that
century. Today just ten 19th century original buildings remain, including two barns.
By 1913 all the original buildings had been completed. In 1889 Whiteman (Lot 3) bought a 20' wide strip of land from Derrickson's Lot 2, thus protecting open land between them. A decade later Whiteman owned part of Lots 2 & 23, plus Lots 3, 22, 21, 20 & 29 in their entirety. By his death in 1914 Whiteman had been "seized of the premises" and his executor Henry Pleasants sold all the land to Robert & Hope Montgomery who had just built Ardrossan. The Ardrossan Estate Plan of 1936 describes the whole 12-acre acquisition as "The Town", scribbled in pencil in one corner.
Radnor Fire Company did answer the alarm but due to
the frame construction of the houses and an inadequate
water supply they were rapidly destroyed. George Munger's
stable stood slightly north across the same two lots
until four large, identical mansions to the north and
east of Matlack Lane were constructed on this divided
lot around 2003. Munger used to lead his horses through
the gardens and driveways of Banjotown across Abrahams
Lane or Newtown Road into Ardrossan where he had permission
to exercise them on the open farmland.
The oldest structure in Banjotown today is on Lot 1, originally owned by George W.
Derrickson, a local auctioneer, who also owned Lots
2-3 until 1888, & 20-21 until 1889. His house now forms the original
front section of 728 Newtown Road. Derrickson’s
three southernmost lots were rearranged as two in 1889, when he sold off some of his land. Lot 3 and part of Lot 2 is now known as 724 Newtown Road while Lots 20-21 eventually became part of 22 Matlack Lane.
1892 four more houses had been built -
on Lots 3, 4, 25, & 27. The house on Lot 25 was inhabited
by George Handy, an African-American, and his son.
Mr Handy was a good natured man who did odd jobs
around the neighborhood and collected garbage to
feed his pigs. One night Mr. Handy heard what sounded
like a burglar prowling outside his house. He took
his gun, waited until he heard the sound again, and
fired in its general direction. There followed a
deathly silence and he proudly announced to his wife
that he had shot the burglar but would wait until
daylight to inspect his victim. Next morning Mr Handy
went out to find that the 'burglar' he had shot dead
was simply his own horse. His house on Lot 25 no
longer exists but wind chimes are still to be heard
nearby, no doubt warning away any vengeful equine
Lot 24 in winter 2011 - both
front doors can still be seen either end of the
porch. House first appears on 1897 map.
The remaining frame
dwellings on Lots 9, 21, 24 & 29 on Matlack Lane
were built by 1908. Lot 24 (above) was a similar
design to the others but was built as a duplex. Although
the house was combined by the 1940s two separate
front doors still exist on the front porch to this
Profile of Lot
3 showing original structure on right.
extensions added, demolished, replaced
original eight houses of Banjotown were built of wood
frame on a field stone base, covered with a hard white
pinewood siding. Taking our house at 724 Newtown
Road as an example (left), many changes have been made
over the years. The original house, built in 1888 by or for Davis Whiteman, had two rooms downstairs, and two bedrooms
upstairs. There was no running water within the house,
a privy was at the bottom end of the garden and the
house was heated by a wood stove in each of the four
Subsequently an extension was attached at the rear
for the kitchen, with a chimney, and a third bedroom
added over that. A porch alongside the kitchen to the
rear of the house was later enclosed to make another
room and, still later, a small room was added to the
rear of that by Davis Whiteman who used it as a cobbler's
shop when he retired from his premises in Wayne.
became a downstairs full bathroom before the current
remodelling. The kitchen chimney was demolished (by
Bertram Wolfson, lawyer, owner 1958 - approx 1966
and author of this original article) to make way for
a washing machine. By 1900 there was a covered front
porch constructed, covering the brick patio (likewise
on Lot 1) but this was gone at least by the early
1960s and may not have been an original feature.
It is believed that brick patios were built when the porches came down as the
wooden flooring would no longer survive the weather.
Those houses that retain front porches however still
have original wooden flooring.
Rear of Lot 3 showing 20th century
add-ons (left) & final structure (right). Front view remains
true to original 1880s dwelling.
Lot 4 showing original
front structure (left) & 21st century addition
2008 it was clear that all the leaky, rough,
make-do additions on Lot 3 would either fall down of
their own accord or would have to be replaced - so
they were demolished. A new kitchen has now been built
in approximately the same position and the cobbler's
shop area has now become the main family room with
a screened porch approximately following the original
footprint. Similar updates, expansions and improvements
have now been made to all the original Banjotown properties
still standing, though as most have managed to retain
the original front sections visible from the street
they are largely still true to the overall look of
the 19th and early 20th century structures. In 1988
the Radnor Historical Board added the remaining original
eight Banjotown houses to its “Historic
Resource Inventory”, along with the central 1920s
stone duplex, and in 2002 again recommended to “make
sure that important resources such as Banjotown are included
in the expanded resource inventory being undertaken” as
part of the ongoing Pennsylvania Historical and Museum
Commission Work Program. In 2011 all nine properties
are in the process of being added to the inventory
database of the Township’s Radnor
Historic District #12 (Allocated inventory codes D12-H01
through H09). Addresses now identifiable as follows.
Lot numbers as per 1948 plan [with original 1885 lot
numbers in parentheses]:
D12-H01 : 16-20 Matlack
Lane (stone duplex) - Lots 10-11 [originally Lot 18]
D12-H02 : 22 Matlack Lane - Lot 7 [originally Lot 21]
D12-H03 : 23 Matlack Lane - Lot 9 [originally Lot 29]
D12-H04 : 25 Matlack Lane - Lot 8 [originally Lot 27]
D12-H05 : 29 Matlack Lane - Lot 6 [originally Lot 24]
D12-H06 : 710 Newtown Road - Lot 4 [originally Lot 9]
D12-H07 : 720 Newtown Road - Lot 3 [originally Lot 4]
D12-H08 : 724 Newtown Road - Lot 2 [originally Lot 3]
D12-H09 : 728 Newtown Road - Lot 1
as to the early days of Banjotown was acquired from
early atlases of the Main Line, and interviews with
early inhabitants: Edward Whiteman (grandson of Davis
Whiteman, the cobbler) and Harry Miller of Wayne. The
first known maps on which the name "Banjo Town" (two
words) officially appears are the Franklin Survey Co
maps of 1937 and then again in 1948, though the inhabitants
and locals had known it as such for many years, as
confirmed by 1940s occupant Rory McAusland in 2012.
On the former map its boundaries appear to include
the 3.8 acres to the east of Matlack Lane, making the
total town area 12 acres as had been owned by Col.
Montgomery. However there were no permanent buildings
on that tract until a much later 1961 map - by which
time the name was mistakenly omitted. The name has
subsequently been contracted to one word by residents.
In 1948 the name Banjo Town appeared on an official
map for the second time.
Lots 1-3 (now split into separate 724 & 728 Newtown Rd properties) were shown on the 1887 map to be owned by George W. Derrickson, described thereon as "auctioneer". Military records show him as a Company K sergeant (Veteran Reserve Corps 1863, discharged July 6, 1865) who had fought for the President in many fierce Civil War campaigns in Virginia as well as at Gettysburg. Presumably he retired here some time within the next two years and built Banjotown's very first dwelling.
In 1890 Edward Whiteman was born in our house (724
Newtown Rd, then Lot 3 and subsequently re-designated
Lot 2). As stated above his grandfather was
the cobbler in Wayne (whose wife collected
Lancaster Pike tolls) and his father worked
for the P.R.R. (Pennsylvania Rail Road). Like
most young boys in Banjotown he attended the
Ithan School at the end of Newtown Road (currently
a dentistry practice), leaving after the third
grade. After school he helped around the house,
taking care of the ducks, chicken, sheep and
pigs kept in the back yard. The ducks and pigs
swam and wallowed in the mud of Van Leer's
Run, an open stream that flowed right through
Banjotown. By 1948 a large section of the stream
had been piped underground but originally it
was open with a steep bank. In heavy rainstorms
it still materialises overground on the property
immediately to the west of Banjotown before
plunging into the terracotta pipework and emerging
as a full-blown stream at the eastern side
of 720 Newtown. It then continues through 710,
passing under Newtown Road at the corner of
Matlack Lane, eventually joining Ithan Creek to the east of Sproul Road.
Earlier the locals tried to fill the creek in by using it as the dumping
ground for their cans and ashes. "Tin Can Alley" was how one early
resident described it. The 1881 and 1902 maps show the name ‘Van Leers
Run’ but by 1961 this had been corrupted to ‘Van Lear’s
Run’. The stream was named after Vanleer Eachus who owned a large tract of land through which it flows, stretching from its source just west of Banjotown, across the south side of Newtown Road opposite Banjotown, and across what is now Sproul Road, The Conestoga Swim Club and Radnor Valley Country Club.
were other children in Banjotown for the Whitemans
to play with. When they were older Mr Whiteman and
Mr Miller played for the local baseball team, The Ithan
Rovers, whose diamond was adjacent to Banjotown where
Harrison Road now lies. This was probably sited on
the open land east of the Slaymaker residence where
a tennis court was subsequently built and more recently
a house. The Rovers were one of the teams in the Main
Line League, made up of Narberth, Bryn Mawr, Wayne,
Ithan and Berwyn.
Until 1917 Banjotown
was a racially integrated community. Its inhabitants
either had a trade or performed odd laboring jobs. George
W. Derrickson, owner of Lot 1, was an auctioneer, Davis
Whiteman, owner of Lot 2, was a cobbler and William Short,
an African-American who also owned his lot, did odd carpentry
jobs and ran a horse-powered saw mill while Jim Shield
was a bricklayer. George Willis, George Handy (Lot 25)
and Jim Patterson were all (black) laborers. Matt Edwards
was a coachman and Frank Douglas was an electrician (both
white). Some owned their houses while others rented theirs
at rents varying from $8 to $12 per month.
were other local characters with no known domicile who
consequently were either claimed by or attributed to
Banjotown. Among these were "Shaky Jim" who
cut wood and did odd jobs; for this he received his
board. Also there was "Dog John" who never
washed or shaved. He collected garbage in his two-wheeled
cart to feed the pigs and lived in a springhouse with
his four dogs. He only worked enough to eat and preferred
to spend his days playing with his dogs which were
trained to dance, jump, and even smoke pipes.
Around 1900 much
of the open land around Banjotown
was purchased, consolidated and large estates constructed.
William W. Atterbury owned 42 acres on the south side
of Newtown Road, running west from Radnor Friends Meeting
House to the approximate present site of Atterbury Road.
Atterbury succeeded Mr Cassatt as President of the Pennsylvania
Rail Road and it appears natural that this land should
have been purchased from Cassatt when he took over the
In 1909 or 1910 Colonel
Robert Leaming Montgomery, founder of the present day brokerage
Janney Montgomery Scott, purchased the land from Tryon
R. Lewis at the far southwest corner of Newtown Road
and Darby-Paoli Road. He is said to have been hunting in the area and when he fell off his horse decided it was the perfect spot to put down roots. In 1911 he completed the construction
of the large 50-room Horace Trumbauer designed “Ardrossan Mansion” (named after his ancestral Scottish village),
centerpiece of what was then an 800 acre estate and farm. By 1940 it had become, along with its occupants,
the inspiration for Philip Barry's Broadway play and subsequent film "The Philadelphia Story" (starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant & James Stuart). The story was later adapted for the Hollywood musical production “High Society” (starring Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby & Grace Kelly). As lifelong friends of the Scott family Barry is said to have based his story, and particularly Tracy Lord (the character played by Katherine Hepburn), on the Colonel's daughter, Hope Montgomery Scott.
"Ardrossan" shown in the background with the distinctive black cattle
still raised here in 2012.
If one can conversely
visualize Banjotown at that time as a mixed community,
with ducks, pigs and chickens running around, several
families living together in some of the houses, and tin
cans and bottles dumped in the backyard to fill the creek,
it is no wonder that Robert Montgomery and William Atterbury
thought that Banjotown was, or might become, a shanty
town. They were not about to spend hoards of money building
big mansions only to have to drive by this shabby area
in order to get to their front gates, so Montgomery and
Atterbury conspired together to purchase the whole of
Banjotown in order to improve its appearance. Atterbury
was to be in charge of buying the houses. By all acounts
Atterbury believed in the "bull in the china shop" approach.
He largely failed, managing to buy just one house while
antagonizing all the other owners so that no one else
would sell to him. Montgomery then purchased the single
house acquired by Atterbury and personally took charge
of the bulk of the venture. He was much more subtle in
his methods, including the use of strangers who acted
as straw parties and thereby succeeded in buying up the
whole of Banjotown between 1914 and 1917.
During the 1920s Montgomery
fixed up the dwellings and used the community to house
the employees of Ardrossan Estate and Farms. A couple
of barns or stables were built for the horses, and a
stone duplex tenant house was built near the center of
Banjotown, with the original lane now being shortened and diverted
through Lots 13-19, presumably in order to accommodate
the duplex. This structure was built identical to another tenant
house he contemporaneously constructed further west on
Newtown Road, the original part of his estate. Both buildings
stand to this day, appearing largely to be in their original
form, though the Ardrossan redevelopment program endangers the latter.
Of course there was an ulterior motive in the construction work. The National Prohibition Act hit the social classes hard between 1920-33, though as the federal government did little to enforce it Montgomery set up his very own speakeasy, complete with full bar, in the vast upstairs room of the barn at 29 Matlack Lane. It's not known for sure who its patrons were but word has it that it was Montgomery and his pals rather than native Banjotowners. Although it was technically at the end of a cul-de-sac there was immediate access to Newtown Road at the time (directly through 728 Newtown's track) and plenty of walkable escape routes in the extremely unlikely event that the place would be raided. The bar remained in situ until 2012 when the entire property was largely emptied for its sale. As the last (largely) unmodernized house in Banjotown it stands as a historic reminder of the way things were and the bar room is still a magnificent wood panelled space.
Around 1929 Montgomery
decided to move the personnel who worked on Ardrossan
closer to the farms and in so doing to earn some income
from Banjotown. He wanted to create out of Banjotown
a community for young people at a rental they could afford.
The property was transferred jointly to the Girard Trust
Corn Exchange Bank and himself, as trustees.
He made a careful study
and decided that the rent should never be more than $75
per month per house. By his reckoning there were a great
number of persons who would be willing to pay that amount. If a tenant wanted certain repairs or improvements
his rental was increased proportionately but in no case
would it exceed $75 per month.
At that time the procedure
was for a prospective tenant first to make application
to the Girard Trust. If passed by them the applicant
was then granted an appointment with Colonel Montgomery
for the second phase of the examination. He asked each
applicant two questions:
1. Are you a Democrat or a Republican?
2. Are you wet or dry (meaning, do you drink alcohol)?
This was during the time of Prohibition. In accordance with Montgomery’s
beliefs and politics the applicant was only granted a lease if he declared
himself to be a ‘wet Republican’!
In 1846 the
Pennsylvania Railroad arrived on a westerly
route out of Philadelphia directly through Villanova
University, parallel with the Lancaster Turnpike, America’s first toll road. It connected several
existing communities and created many more in its path,
giving birth to the collective name the ‘Main
Line’. The Rail Road was funded by wealthy industrialists
to ease their journey into Philadelphia from their
summer residences, country estates and gentleman farms.
It added much additional prosperity to the area and,
in keeping with Montgomery’s thoughts much
later, led to the need for artisans to live nearby
to service the rich. Davis Whiteman's father Casper, a German immigrant, was described as a farmer and toll gate operator so would have been one of the earliest toll house residents.
The relationship of Montgomery
and the tenants of Banjotown was a patriarchal one, reminiscent
of the feudal relationship between the Lord of the Manor
and tenant. Montgomery had a great affinity with Banjotown.
He was interested in the tenants and visited them regularly,
frequently bringing gifts of dairy products from his
farm. He felt motivated to preserve the feeling of the
community by upgrading the houses. His improvements,
both structurally and aesthetically, were a luxury that
the buildings had never known. For example in 724 Newtown
Road paneled cupboards, bookcases and dentil molding
were all installed along the edge of the walls in the
original house. If an emergency repair was necessary
the tenant would call upon Montgomery himself and frequently
he would arrive along with his workmen so he could supervise
the repairs. In 1955 the Montgomery Estate decided to
sell the houses in Banjotown and for the first time in
almost half a century each house was put back into individual
the occupants are the owners of each house, while a
central barn now straddles three properties (Lots 3,
4 and 21 - now enclosed and used by each as garages),
and a paddock containing ponies (until 2009) still
remains to one side. Although Banjotown was not zoned
for livestock by Radnor Township it was claimed by
the owners that the ponies were pets so after surveying
the wishes of nearby occupants, who concurred, they
permitted them to remain. Insurance rates have since
precluded the practicality of keeping horses, who frequently
escaped their paddock, in a bustling residential area. On many occasions horses were retrieved from surrounding farmland after they apparently conspired to unlock themselves and wander off to the greener pastures of Ardrossan.
Ponies were a constant and popular feature of Banjotown
until about 2009. The
paddock, though empty, still remains.
George Munger and his
horse Bull Cactus, 1983
plan drawn up by
local surveyors M.R. & J.B.
Yerkes shows Banjotown divided into just 10
lots of varying shapes and sizes with the remaining
4.6 acres originally owned by Sarah Jane Matlack
off to the north and east of Matlack Lane being
wholly owned at this time by George
Munger. At first he lived one
house along in Lot 27. In 1950 he built a house
and barn on a separate parcel in the NE of
Banjotown but this was demolished and subdivided
some time around 2003 when four large similar
mansions were built by a local developer. Munger
was a celebrated athlete, football coach and
later director of physical education at University
Of Pennsylvania from 1938-74.
The core Banjotown
hamlet was preserved in this later form
for the near future with current owners continuing
to improve and restore the old frame houses
while retaining their original pleasing visual
integrity. Containing some of the oldest buildings
in Radnor Township it is without doubt an area
of historical significance and is recognized by
many as such. Its quirky history is a matter of
great pride to the area and is often
referred to in local real estate listings.
got its name is a matter of much speculation.
In the early days some called it Banjo Alley and others
Banjo Row. Those of us here now perhaps imagine an old
black guy sitting out on his porch strumming a banjo
at dusk. On more than one occasion my wife has woken
from a deep sleep to the ghostly vision of an old, tall,
white-haired black man folding linen in the corner of
one of the original bedrooms, moving it out from a location
which we now know is a demolished closet, as if to make
space for us to unpack.
As far as can be determined
it had been known as Banjotown even before 1900. Early
inhabitants reported that several of the black residents
did have banjoes and would frequently get together in
the evenings to sing and dance. From this group the name
apparently arose. It may also be that the name "Banjo" may
have had some early reference to the fact that there
were African-Americans, typically known for introducing
many variations on the instrument from Africa, living
here. As there is nothing recorded or reported as to
who actually played the instrument here this has not
so far been verified. When Banjotown was purchased by
Colonel Montgomery he tried to change the name to Montgomeryville
but as its existing name proved to be too indelibly entrenched
his suggestion never caught on. It proved far easier
to change the name of Radnorville, the main town at the
end of Newtown Road (still the central village in Radnor
and home of the Friends Meeting House) to Ithan - though
that name has now sadly all but disappeared in favor
of the generic mailing address “Villanova”.
during the 1930s and 1940s was a remarkably close-knit community.
Everyone was a friend of everyone else. When a vacancy
occurred another friend was notified and the vacancy
quickly filled. It was given that all personal tools,
machinery and facilities were to be willingly shared
across the community. At least one resident still carries
his own original self-made Banjotown community membership
card declaring that to be the accepted code of conduct.
This warm relationship and strong group spirit gave rise
to many interesting activities over the years. On the
second floor of the stable still on Lot 23-24 (29 Matlack
Lane) the tenants got together and initiated the Banjotown
Night Club (formerly Montgomery's speakeasy), serving up drinks and entertainment for the
whole community on warm summer evenings. In the 1940s
it was used by the children for the performance of plays
and art shows were also held.
The notorious Banjotown 'speakeasy' night club where the upstairs bar counter,
though upturned, still remained until 2012 - dating back to the dry days of Prohibition.
First appears on 1900 map.
1941-49 the McAusland family were tenants of Lot 24.
I caught up with Randy McAusland in 2012 (now DJ 'Randy
Neal' on wobofm.com in Cincinnati) whose parents, John & Helen,
raised him there with his sister Linda and brother Neal. "The
happiest, most free-spirited times of my life were in
Banjotown," he says, "biking to the post office/grocery
and gas station at the end of Newtown Road, roaming and
exploring the Montgomery Estate, riding the old P&W
Trolley to 69th St and then going into Philadelphia."
He babysat at the former Slaymaker house at the back on Harrison
Road where he "spent
hours reading Poe and playing a card game named Authors". On
the western edge of Banjotown was a wartime 'Victory Garden' on land which
now belongs to 732 Newtown Road.
"It was about half an acre just the other side of our post and rail fence",
"They grew peas, spinach and lettuce in the early season followed by pole,
wax and bush beans, corn, squash, onions, beets, carrots plus cherry and other
varieties of tomato. George Munger dug and kept his own garden to the north-west
of his house," on land which more recently was sold to a property on Harrison
Road, "and fenced it against rabbits. Everyone started seeds, hoed
and weeded. All the kids pitched in. Heavy duty 'canning' took place during
harvest seasons in Mason jars. Col. Montgomery would prep the land with plough
and harrow and leave the tenants to continue. He expanded the gardens around
his own big house [Ardrossan] and shared the bounty with everyone who helped."
1959 - 8.5" x 10" invitation (click to enlarge)
block party and music festival was held early summer each year from 1957-1959
when the 10 families in residence combined resources.
The cul-de-sac of Matlack Lane was closed off and decorated
in a circus-like atmosphere. Each household was allowed to invite up to 25 guests. The wives arranged among themselves
to bake and cook for some 250 guests and the whole community danced and revelled in the
Lane as the band played through to the early hours
of the morning.
In the 1960s at least one riotous party
was held in winter in the long barn (now garages) behind
720/724 Newtown Road. Needless to say it was freezing
cold with snow on the ground so an old oil drum was filled
with wood, where it burned throughout the festivities.
Revelers painted their names on the walls and faded graffiti
can still just about be made out to this day.
George Munger leads the dancing in
this 1960s winter snow block party
A huge ruckus
blew up in 2002 when the central property of
Banjotown, 22 Matlack Lane, was put up for sale. It continued
for several months between the seller and surrounding neighbors
when it looked likely a developer was going to buy it and
demolish the old 1600 sq ft house to replace it with something
around 3-4,000 sq ft, unsympathetic to the historical look.
A hearing was granted by Radnor Planning Commission who
decided as a whole to defend one of the oldest towns
in the neighborhood and made the following recommendation: "It
is the sense of the Planning Commission that the properties
of Banjo Town which have a distinctive character in
our Township, be retained and to the extent that applicants
come before Township Boards to seek permission to do
things which are out of character that that Board or
Commission bear in mind what a treasure we have in
that little area." As a result the sale fell through
and the owner showed their spite by erratically painting
the house in bright pink and yellow, along with all the
surrounding trees and fence rails; some with pink polka
dots which, though faded still show to this day. When
the house was finally sold it was restored more tastefully
and in total keeping with the area, much to the relief
of its neighbors.
22 Matlack Lane:
Before, During and After the 2003 dispute and subsequent
Nowadays Banjotown is home to a small group of lawyers, salesmen,
brokers, educationalists, musicians, artisans and their
families who cherish the heritage of their community
and do their best to preserve the unique homes and
beautiful open spaces they share. If you pass by and
hear the strings of a banjo above the thump of your
car stereo it might not be your imagination!
history has been adapted from Banjotown,
Radnor – A Fact or a Legend? Originally
researched and written by Bertram Wolfson, a former
owner of 724 Newtown Road, Banjotown, for Radnor Historical
Society Bulletin, Spring 1963. Almost half a century
later it has been updated with additional information
by the same house’s latest owners, Phil & Annie
Graham with supplementary information from more recent
publications by Radnor Historical Society, Ashmead's
History of Delaware County and personal interviews
with past and present occupants. This is an ongoing
history – if
you have any corrections, additional historical information,
photos, memories or anecdotes please email HERE.
ABOVE: Extract of 18th c. Land Grants map
showing Radnorville (road junction right of center) with
Newtown Rd running east-west and Banjotown's future site
at precise center of map either side of the stream