I have not written about the ruins of Ebenezer AME in a long time. But here we are on the eve of Thanksgiving and I have a wonderful story to share. It was sent to me by a former Chester County artist named Claude Bernardin who now lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He also knows my dear friend Catherine Quillman, the historian and artist who has helped me fill in the historical blanks on many an occasion.
What I am about to post are the words of Mr. Bernardin, and the lovely green bottle and the photo of Ebenezer in 1976 are photos he sent to me. Oral histories like his are priceless. I wish my friend Al Terrell was alive to talk to Claude Bernardin!
From Claude Bernardin, his words (bold and italics):
Died 12/20/1900 I believe. But certificate of death says 1/04/01.
He lived on an odd L shaped acre of land he was willed by Thomas Quay just below the corner of Conestoga Road and Bacton Hill Road. His parcel of land consisted ( I personally now believe… ) of a driveway easement that ran across Conestoga Road and up into the Church from the. Church rear.
His parcel of land would have been on the left side of Conestoga Road, after you turned right on Conestoga Road, heading downhill off Bacton Hill. You would first pass the old Peter Manning-smith Property ( pine trees ) a drive way and bridge on left.
Set of small woods separating the next larger Estate ( what we knew in the 1960’s and 1970’s as The Merith’s ).
That small stretch of woods used to be a long cart path heading up into the higher hills and woods between both Larger farms in the 1890’s.
Directly behind the white and green Meridith Victorian stucco farm house, back in the woods maybe 50 feet, along a little creek, on a hillside, over looking the Meriths, sits the stone foundation of an old One Room cabin. It had a small porch at one time over looking the stream and a circular well.
I grew up a stones throw away from it.
Today I think it belongs to whoever owns the Manning-Smith property and it is labeled a wild bird sanctuary.
My research suggests that this was the property of Hiram Woodyard. I dug antique bottles behind the foundation, by the big tree up stream, and even out in front of the ruins and down in that stream. That property clearly dates to 1880 – 1900.
About a decade ago an old high school friend of mine sent me some newspaper article that may have appeared in the daily local news about that region, and it mentioned some information that led me to believe that that was his property. I have since lost that information. However while working for an auctioneer I was able to get my hands on in the old 1800s map book of Chester County. Within it it showed the land parcels of that particular area and it clearly showed that property with a Cabin and I think an out house. I also own the Catherine Quillman book on the history of the Conestoga Pike, and I believe there is more information pertainingto that property within it. Putting all this information together, I have now come to the conclusion that that must be his property, and that the bottles that I dug belonged to him.
The last time I attempted to dig in that area I tried to dig out the cabin foundation from inside. It was just too much work for my friend and I. But I believe that there are bottles and other things down inside there. One of the things that we found was an old bedframe. The problem is that the foundation walls are collapsing into itself.
The hill beyond the cabin and down to the stream is some of the hardest clay soil I have ever dug!! If anyone was to try to do any digging in the future I would suggest using pitchforks. There are glass bottles on that hillside under the dirt, there is all kinds of barbed wire in the old wire as well.
Directly behind the cabin and in the woods further up the hill is an odd formation of land man made. I have never been able to quite figure out what it is. It is perhaps either the foundations of an old barn, or it was a man made ice pond.
In other words a deliberate formation to collect rainwater and to collect blocks of ice in the winter, a common practice back in those early days. If you are standing between the cabin and that formation, off to your far left is the Manning Smith pond, where there used to be a stone Spring house. Off to your right back in the woods further up the hill there is the ruins of an old Spring house as well.
This of course would be where they would need the ice.
This is a brief listing of the bottles that were found at this site:
Kickapoo Indian Sagwa
Dr. Chamberlain’s diarrhea cure
Ball and patent fruit mason jars
Ka-tonka, the Great Indian Remedy.
Note: both katonka and kickapoo came from a local traveling Penna. snake oil salesman wagon show.
Beer bottles: hollmans of Phoenixville, pa.
J. Harley of West Chester, Pa. and an apple green Chas. Jolly Blob beer from Philadelphia.
Numerous unmarked clear whisky’ and medicines
Horlock malted milk
Food product jars varying sizes
First of all, my name is Claude Bernardin
I used to live at 425 Conestoga Road, east white land township.
My father: Charles, my mother : Elizabeth ( Betty )
They had 9 children.
We are all still alive.
In the 1960s I was between 5 to 12 years old. That neighborhood had a tremendous group of children of similar age. In fact at times we had little gangs.
We were quite adventurous, inventive, and curious. Many of us got to know every single character, and adult at that corner on a personal basis. We would do chores for them, many of us even took care of them in their old age. A specific legendary character that lived right at the crossroads in a two room hand built shack, was L with Michael. Mr. Michael was kind of a hobo subsistence farmer of legendary status in the community.
As I recall, the inside of the church was lined in cherry wood paneling the pews we’re still in it and what color cherry wood so was the podium.
He used to drive up and down Bacton Hill Road and Conestoga Road at all hours of the day but mostly at sunrise and the sunset on his silver gray Ford tractor to doing his bugle for all the kids to come running to say hello. He often left families with the gifts from the fields.
He was a welcome guest at our house, and in his very old age we took care of him and would bring dinner to him at his bedside. To us he was like our quirky uncle. I knew Elwood so closely that I can still hear the singsong high-pitched slangy twang of his voice. He actually talked in some sort of meter. He was a lovely man, who cared for his community.
As far as I know he never graduated from high school, and yet was one of the most intelligent man I ever knew. He read books all the time. He could recite hundreds of poems from memory, and often did while sitting on the edges of our beds to wake us up to come down and join him for breakfast.
He used to give us a ride up and down Conestoga Road and Bacton Hill.
To repay his kindness, we did our chores for him around his property, including chopping wood for his woodstove. We rode with him to the old Kane form across from the trailer court, and would help fix up his hay wagons and the old barn.
To him I was always “Claudey”.
My brother is Richard, and Peter were the mechanics and engineers in our family, also sometimes brother guy. They would help Elwood and others in the region with all kinds of mechanical needs.
Back in the mid-1960s the church was abandoned. Two children that stood out in the neighborhood from the trailer park, Doug Buettner, and George Berry.
Slightly up the street towards the corner was Bruce McNaughton. Bruce was my brother Peter is my brothers closest childhood friend, also a character.
The old church was a wonderful place. Back then it still had a roof , a wooden floor, and altar, a podium, and even church pews.
The windows were huge, with deep inset windowsills and very large wooden shutters. The floor was beginning to show signs of wear, and rot.
If my memory serves me correctly there wasn’t one broken glass window. However the roof did have holes in it.
When you walked in the front door off BactonHill Road, to your far right against the wall in the corner, was a ladder that ran to the top of the wall, it was quite rickety back then. I climbed it on several occasions trying to reach the attic, but I was afraid of heights and so I never made it. But the church must have had in the attic that ran the entire ceiling.
I can actually remember one of the older children standing at the podium to court order to our meeting, a little bit like the dead-end gang in those James Cagney movies I think. 🙂
We loved that church, and we never told anybody that we would have meetings in there and just hang out in there. By the time I was heading into college in 1976, all those children had grown up and moved away or gone their separate ways.
I had become a much more brooding artist type, so it became one of my favorite places to go to for privacy. Every now and again I would run into a raccoon.
Unfortunately by 1980 I became so busy in my life and my career I never got back there until the place had fallen in.
It remains one of my fondest memories of my childhood. I always found peace of mind in that place. The interior paneling was beaded wood paneling color of mahogany, it ran just under the windowsills. There were louvered shutters inside. Windows on outside had heavy 1890’s era double hung shutters. And deep sills. There was an attic crawl space the height of the church roof rafters with a floor, that ran full length of the church. When one entered the church door off Bacton Hill Road. The ladder up to it, It was in the front right corner. I climbed it twice – it seemed very high up to young boys.
Today I am a very well-known artist of the Chester County, in 2010, I was featured in a Catherine Quillman book called the 100 artists of the Brandywine Valley. I have done many many many paintings of that entire area. But my greatest joy was knowing all those people, and growing up in that specific spot. All of us still say we were lucky to have grown up in that region. Between the woods, the streams, the wildlife, the history you just couldn’t have asked for a better place to grow up.
My brother Richard took much care and concern throughout the 1970’s to try and cut the grass. More than most. We just got busy with our own lives.
Back in the late 60s, 1966 – 1971 my brother Richard and I, Jeffrey Manning Smith, Doug Buettner, Bruce McNaughton, we all periodically would go over to the church and cut the lawn and try to keep the weeds back. None of us really knew any history about the place, may be a bit of information came from L with Michael. But mostly no one really understood what the place was, and who once used it.
But I can recall numerous occasions we would take the lawnmowers there and cut the grass and grass with the tombstones. On several occasions we picked up the tombstones and had the wedge them up because they would have fallen.
We were aware of some bad kids in the neighborhood that had done some damage to the markers. They were scolded and warned.
We love the place and did as much work as we could after school when we would come off the school bus at that corner.
But as we grew from teenagers into young adults we became far too busy with our own lives to keep up with it.
It was also at this time that the rain water washing off Bacton Hill had become so severe that it was starting to cause erosion down through the graveyard. I can recall on several occasions complaining to my mother about it and saying I wish we could get someone to do something about this. My brother Richard and I on several occasions went there with shovels and buckets and did whatever we could to fix it back up. I do recall several graves being eroded enough that one could see down into them.
There was a specific grave that got hit the hardest every year we would have to go and fix it up. That grave was behind the church down maybe 6 feet, down the hill and behind a couple large trees off to the left. On one occasion I recall actually seeing skeletal remains. My brother and I did everything we could to cover them up and to keep the place sacred.
I had no idea the linkage of history between the church and the cabin off in the woods that I would go to to dig antique bottles. From 1970 to 1985, I spent much time campus seeing those hillsides, those woods and studying every inch of that as I could to preserve and try to find any artifacts and old bottles.
Behind the Meriths’ house and perhaps connected to woodyards cabin, I found another bottle dump. Out of that dump came many blob top beers, medicines, old jugs.
One of the bottles that made me laugh, was a mosquito bite cure, with a picture of a mosquito on it.
That area really hadn’t changed much in 100 years, as kids growing up there it could be awful at times with the mosquitoes!
Bottle I dug in stream probably used by Hiram Woodyard, dating 1895 -1889. Very rare color variant.
In my 30s, I was busy carrying on an art career, teaching art, and starting my own family. However I never forgot that place, and researched it when ever possible. One of my favorite places to research Montgomery and Chester County was the pottstown public library.
Back in the early 90s probably 1993 or 94 I checked out a book on the history of both counties.
It was a small book, and in fact now maybe it was two books I checked out. Hard for me to remember. Anyway within those books there was some documents written by soldiers in George Washington’s troops, I suppose taken from some sort of diary that they kept or reports giving back to the general.
In those reports, there was quite a lot of detailed information from soldiers in charge of their encampments. After the winter at Valley Forge, I suppose that Washington was still concerned with British troops. And so they needed to keep look out on the major roads, coming in and out of the area.
They wound up camping on that ridge, I truly believe that.
How very cool. So awesome to learn even more about the area. And this re-affirms my belief the area is history worth saving and preserving for future generations. He also tells me that the Lenape Indians used to camp near there as well. I think Al Terrell and Ann Christie would have loved to have learned about what Claude Bernardin has so generously shared with all of us! I have been blessed to meet the most interesting and nice people because of Ebenezer.
It is my wish for Thanksgiving that the AME Church of today has an epiphany about this site and recognizes it’s importance and the wonderful people who have shown an interest and cared for the grounds over the years. We are all but temporary stewards for the souls of Ebenezer, but I still want it to live on long after we have left.