As we begin, you are standing on the South porch of the Lincoln Building. If you face south you are about 6 miles from the Great Wagon Road that you know as Route 30. The road you are looking at below you is today called Yellow Springs Road. It was long called the White Horse Road because it led to the White Horse Tavern, a building still extant today at 606 Swedesford Road in Frazer. Today Yellow Springs Road proceeds south through the north rim of the Great Valley and ends near Great Valley High School.
The Lincoln Building; where we begin. Notice the change in elevation as you drive up and down hills. Then, stop to realize this: on the evening of September 16, 1777, 10,000 American soldiers marched for 12 hours in a driving rain from the White Horse Tavern to the Yellow Springs. Many came up the road you are looking at including George Washington and his aide Alexander Hamilton. While at the “Yellow Springs” they reported to Congress that the army had no ammunition of any use and needed to march to Warwick and Redding Furnaces to retrieve dry gunpowder. At the time Washington and Hamilton wrote that letter the building behind you was a stable.
As you look out towards Yellow Springs Road, you see an array of buildings. Beginning to the east (your left) is another barn which may also date to the time of the American Revolution. It is a modified version of a Swiss bank barn, a style brought to America from Europe. There is a ground floor forebay where livestock would be kept and above, is a storage area for silage to feed the animals. The roof was modified in the early 20th century so the barn could function as an art and sculpting studio for students of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (PAFA) PAFA operated a summer program at Yellow Springs from 1917 until 1952. The window admitted the northern light to the studio; light that is prized for its consistency during daytime. Today the studio is still used for painting and sculpting classes. The ground floor is home to the Chester Springs Studio’s ceramic operations. Behind the studio is the only wood fired ceramic kiln in our region.
To the right of the barn studio on the opposite side of Yellow Springs Road is a bath house erected in 1839 during the period Yellow Springs was a health spa known throughout North America for its natural spring infused with iron oxide. During Summers hundreds of people flocked here to bathe in and ingest this water as it was considered healthy for the skin and taken internally for “iron poor blood” and other illnesses. After the Civil War the village became an Orphans’ School run by the state for 44 years. The bath house became the village laundry. When the buildings were sold to PAFA, the building was remodeled as a stream fed swimming pool. It remains configured as such today. Just behind the pool is the Pickering Creek. It begins near Route 100 in Eagle and empties into the Schuylkill River between Phoenixville and Valley Forge. Just in front of the pool is another stucco building built about the same time (1840) It housed a firebox and steam engines to provide power to the village. Just how this power was used in a day 50 years before electricity was made useful is not clear. To the right of the steam plant is the innkeeper’s residence. The basement level contains a walk-in fireplace indicating that it was constructed in the 1750s. The elevations of the building you see are Gothic Revival and date to the 1850s. The top two floors appear to be the private accommodations of the various men and women who ran the village in the spa days. The bottom floors are laid out with many doors and porches signaling that those floors were places of entertainment. We don’t have records of precisely who stayed in the village but advertisements indicate that many entertainers stayed here including Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, Jenny Lind (a singer), Fanny Kemble (an actor) and Ole Bull (a violinist). During both the Orphanage era (1868-1912) and the Art School days (1917-1952), the innkeepers house was the home of the head of school. In 1952 the house and the rest of the village were sold to a Christian themed film producer named Irwin Yeaworth. While here, Yeaworth lived in the house and entertained the actors he hired to make films including Steve McQueen, Patty Duke, Lee Meriwether and Robert Lansing.
There were other buildings on these lawns in the 19th century including a barber shop, a billiard parlor and a ten-pin alley. The other building visible between the power plant and the innkeeper’s residence is the 1830 iron spring gazebo.
Turn to your right and walk a few paces west along Art School Road. At the corner you will see stairs headed into the woods. This path leads past an enormous tulip poplar tree to the stone foundation of a hospital building erected in Winter 1778 by order of Congress to treat seriously ill soldiers at Valley Forge. The hospital was administered by two physicians, Dr. Samuel
Kennedy and Dr. Bodo Otto. The building operated as a hotel after the war and was housing orphans when it burned in 1902. It continued as a dormitory once rebuilt but became a soundstage for motion picture production during Yeaworth’s Good New Production era. The building burned a second and final time in 1962. Today the Herbal Society of America has planted an 18th century medicinal herb garden behind the ruins to demonstrate how medicine was administered at the time of the revolution. From this elevation you can see why the Academy of Fine Arts chose this site to establish a summer school for artists. As you walk the grounds you will see many refinements such as a grass tennis court, numerous stone bridges and various ponds which were stocked with water lilies and wisteria in an effort to emulate Claude Monet’s home at Giverny.
Walking back down from the ruins you will see the Washington Building. It is connected by a walkway constructed in the 1820s as a promenade. Proceeding under the covered walkway you arrive at the Yellow Springs Tavern. It’s actually two buildings that were joined. The first building has a huge wooden door with a fanlight over it. The foundations of this building date to the first licensed tavern, granted to Robert Pritchard in 1750. The current elevation appears to be federal in design dating it to the last decades of the 18th century. The interior of the building has a brick floor and fireplace. The large contiguous building was an inn until the Civil War and a girls dormitory during the days of the Orphans’ School as well as the art school days.
In the late 19th century the Orphans’ School erected an infirmary on the west of the Washington Building complex. That building is today the Chester Springs Library. There is a historic photo display near the building entrance. When constructed the building had separate wings and entrances for boys and girls.
You have two choices at this point. If you walk around to the back of the Washington Building you will see a 300-year-old sycamore tree. As you approach the tree you will notice that its base is quite decayed. Meanwhile, the tree still lives. Look up at the large branch that drapes across where you stand and you will see a metal hook of sorts butting out from the tree. That hook once held the bells that would ring for dinner to alert the Orphans of the Civil War School to come to meet in the large hall on the first floor of the Washington building. From here there are trails that cover 130 acres of preserved land most on the steep hill behind the buildings.
A second option is to cross Art School Road and walk to the iron spring. Although the iron spring water does not seem attractive, it does host a community of frogs. Also worth noting is the intense yellow color of the water immediately behind the stream. That’s iron oxide.
As you walk from the iron spring toward the steam plant you can get a closer look at the pool and the Pickering Creek behind it. As you walk back towards the village over the stone bridge look to your right and you will see a Greek Revival bathhouse. The Sulphur spring was discovered just after 1800 and innkeeper Margaret Holman hired Philadelphia’s most prominent architect, Thomas Ustick Walter to design the springhouse in 1830. Walter’s work is found throughout our region and he is credited with designing the dome of the United States Capitol.
The idea of bathing in Sulphur would seem most unappealing. But in 19th century America people who still slept on straw mattresses were frequently infected with bedbugs, scabies and other vermin who like to make homes in our skin. A few minutes covered in blankets or immersed in Sulphur water was enough to make even the most ardent “bug” want to part company with its host. The spring today is called the Jenny Lind spring because the popular Swedish singer performed here in the village under contract to P.T. Barnum. Barnum is also responsible for the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker making a village appearance; two shows daily.
There are two trails heading east from the Sulphur Spring. Either one will take you to a “dragonfly” bridge designed in the 1970s by Jasper Brinton. Although they are long since past their prime, there are two ponds which were used during the art school period to replicate the water gardens at Giverny. The one pond will explode with Wisteria in late May and early June.
As you cross the Brinton Bridge you will encounter the last of our springs. Also discovered in the 19th century, it produces water infused with magnesium. The building appears to be something designed during the Academy of Fine Arts days but if you peek inside you will see a pool of the clearest water you could imagine. Look carefully and you will see air bubbles forming and rising to the surface. This water was for many years the source of the village drinking water supply. It escapes into a verdant stream on the back side of the building. While there you will see another stone bridge and watch as the Pickering Creek wraps its way around you and wanders east toward Charlestown Township and Phoenixville.
From the Spring walk uphill and you will shortly find a meadow which faces some buildings on Art School Road. As you ascend the hill you will see on the far right an enormous barn that is today the West Pikeland Township Building. Realize that in 18th and 19th century America if you were responsible for feeding more than 500 guests a day, you needed a fairly significant food supply. In addition, many of the guests in the village came on horseback and needed a place to house their “transportation.” So, a large barn was a necessity. Immediately next to the barn is the police station. It was originally a chicken coop in a day when poultry and eggs were locally sourced. The large building directly facing you is another “inn” erected about 1840 and called the Jenny Lind House. The building is currently being restored. Next to it is a tiny 1840s farm house which today operates as an Airbnb. The two buildings next to that were the post office and general store for the village. Both of those buildings also date from the mid-19th century. As you head back to the Lincoln Building you can look up the hill and see the ruins of the Revolutionary War Hospital.
This is a beautiful area. If you have a few minutes’ drive west on Art School Road. The West Vincent Baptist Church was erected in 1812. The baptistery pool is directly across the street. Venture farther west and when you arrive at Conestoga Road make a left and you will find the beautiful village of Anselma, surrounding a 19th century gristmill operation that still mills grain today. From the 1870s until the 1930s, all of this was connected by a railroad that ran from Eagle on Route 100 all the way to Phoenixville and then into Philadelphia. For the intrepid you are not very far from the various iron making villages in the northern part of the county including the Hopewell Village National Historic Site and the Redding Furnace where Washington’s Army camped after leaving Yellow Springs. In the 19th century northern Chester County was probably one of the most important iron manufacturing locales in the entire United States. Many of the small ponds you may encounter in your travels are actually abandoned iron, graphite, majolica and limestone pits. By the time of the Civil War the supplies of iron and lumber (to make charcoal) were becoming exhausted.
For the less ambitious, after you leave Anselma, bear right and proceed down Rte. 401 passing the intersection with Rte. 113. About one-half mile below the Rte. 113 intersection there is a left turn onto Lower Pine Creek Road. The next couple miles offer an amazing array of 18th century homes and watercourses. It will eventually dead end into Yellow Springs Road, the same one we started the tour looking at but a mile or two away. Turn left and you are headed back to Rte. 113 and Yellow Springs. Turn right and you will eventually link up with the Phoenixville Pike and the Great Valley Corporate Center. Search around a bit more and at a sharp bend of Bodine Road you will see Ker Feal, the summer home of Dr. Albert Barnes, founder of the Barnes Foundation on the Parkway.
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