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Banjotown, USA

Banjotown map
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BANJOTOWN - RADNOR, PENNSYLVANIA

Banjotown is 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.

The 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.



Radnorville's 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 construction.


During 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.


washington's camp

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. We 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.

Did 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 Banjotown.

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.

 



The 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.

In 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.

The 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.


By 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 spirits!


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 day.



Profile of Lot 3 showing original structure on right.
Various extensions added, demolished, replaced by 2009.
 
The 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 rooms.

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.

This 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 (right).
 

By 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


Information 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.


Early residents
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.


There 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.
 
There 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 role.

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 ownership.

 
Nowadays 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
The 1949 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.



How Banjotown 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”.


Banjotown 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.

Between 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", he recalls.
"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."


<Party Invitation>
1959 - 8.5" x 10" invitation (click to enlarge)

A Banjotown 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 complementary restoration


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!

This 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.

Phil Graham is Membership Coordinator and Board Director of Radnor Historical Society
Annie Graham is a professional portrait painter & teacher at Wayne Art Center

 

 

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