The Davis Family: An Appreciation (12/12/2011)
Long-time Newtown Square resident Ruth Ellen Pyle Davis passed away this past September. She had married into a 4th generation Newtown Square family when she took her vows with William Thomas Davis in 1939.
The Davis family first showed up in Newtown Square in the 1850 census, when Edward and Drucilla Gardner Davis were living and farming in Newtown Square with a family of six children. Edward died a few years later, and the family moved out of the township.
But second son William Thomas Davis moved back to Newtown after the Civil War in 1866. He had tried his hand at farming, and then cattle droving–taking cattle from farm to market. In our modern day, this task largely occurs without our seeing it–very occasionally we see a tractor trailer full of cattle going to market.
If you live near a meatpacking plant then this is a more regular sight. But in the 19th Century, the farmers would hire experts at this task, drovers, to take their cattle marching down the public roads to local markets, putting them up in pens and staying overnight along the way at crossroads inns and hotels. William T. Davis continued as a drover for his first year in Newtown, but when he heard that the local hotel was for sale, he bought it.
The hotel that he bought, then called the Newtown Square Inn, had first opened its doors in 1783 at the northwest corner of the intersection of the West Chester Road and the Paoli Road. Today, a vacant brick bank building sits at the location of the hotel, next to Upper Crust Pizza.
When William T. Davis bought the hotel in 1868, it was the center of town. The stage coach stopped there, mail was delivered there, elections were held there, and if you were a farmer going “to town”, this was it–a hotel, a general store next door, a livery stable across the street, and not much else.
Davis, due to his experience as a drover, saw an opportunity to build a business for himself. He knew the needs of drovers, and of their customers the farmers. Besides providing lodging for the drovers and their livestock, Davis began to hold livestock auctions right at the hotel.
Sellers and buyers would come to the hotel, stay in the rooms, use the livery facilities, attend the auction, and then perhaps celebrate their purchase at the bar, before everyone headed home. Davis got paid for his auction services, and the services provided by the hotel and livery business.
The auctions were a perfect complement to the hotel. Newtown Square was not a destination at the time, but simple a village on the way to Philadelphia, and so the hotel business must have been fairly slow. Davis’ idea to hold auctions at the hotel made the town a destination.
Davis managed the hotel himself until 1897. In that time period, he married Sarah J. Kirk in 1877, and they had a son, Edward Nathan Grim Davis, in 1880. William was a pillar of the local community, serving as township supervisor, auditor, and a proponent of building the new town hall that was constructed in 1868 (at the property where the BP Gas Station now stands).
The family lived in the Inn until 1897, when William leased the hotel and built a large home west of the hotel on West Chester Pike. In his later years, the elder Davis withdrew from the business and lived in relative retirement at his home until his death in 1916.
His son, Edward N.G. Davis, grew up in Newtown, and lived until age 17 at the Inn with his family. He attended the public schools of Newtown Square, then went away to school at West Chester, and then the St. Luke’s School at Bustleton, and then spent two years at Swarthmore College.
In 1906, he married Amelia Lavender, and they had two children, Elizabeth L., in 1908, and William Thomas Davis (named after his grandfather) in 1911. Edward Davis did business in coal and lumber at the local lumberyard, and then became a real estate broker.
One of Edward’s early real estate projects must have been the hotel. The family still owned the hotel, but leased out its operations to others. In 1903, the original building was over 100 years old. A fire the previous year had destroyed the adjacent plumbing business and several wooden sheds, but was contained before it could do much damage to the hotel.
However, that set the Davis family to thinking about the old place. In 1903, the old building was demolished and replaced by a new hotel building, as reported in the 1981 History of Newtown Township book:
“One definite sign of progress was that Newtown had outgrown its one remaining hotel, the ancient “Farmer’s Wagon.” Arrangements were made to replace the old stone colonial hotel structure with a red brick Victorian building at a cost of $10,000. However, when the old hotel was razed, the bar area was retained to continue dispensing hospitality until the new hotel was built. In this way the bar never had to go out of business.”
The fire, and a subsequent one in 1915 had started the growing community thinking about the need for a fire department. In the year of his death in 1916, the elder William T. Davis donated a plot of land to Newtown Square Fire Co. for the construction of the first fire house in the township.
William T. Davis the younger was born in 1911, in the family home that sat along West Chester Pike. The town center had grown by then; at that northwest corner of that intersection in 1911 were the Lewis General Store, the Newtown Square Hotel, and two brick stores (still standing today).
At that time, one store was a barber shop while the other was Dave Summerill’s meat and grocery store. Across the street was the livery stable. At the southeast corner was the Town Hall building, where local government meetings were held, as well as community amusements and events.
The town was also the site of a large telephone company facility – called a “test station”, with Newtown as the switching point for telephone service along the East Coast. In addition to a web of telephone poles and wires, there were several buildings as well, with lineman in residence with responsibility for wires and repairs east to Fifty-second street in Philadelphia, north to Douglassville, in Berks County, and west to Flagg’s Manor, in Chester County.
By then, the railroad had come to town from Southwest Philadelphia, crossing Bryn Mawr Avenue over a large trestle bridge near Malin Rd., cutting through the Pennsylvania Hospital farm and finally crossing Rt. 252 near where T.D. Bank now is, and ending its run at the lumber yard owned by the Davis family on Rt. 252.
Also, in 1896, the trolley had come out along West Chester Pike as far as Newtown Square. The trolley had put the old horse-drawn stage coach out of business, but a stage coach still met the trolley in Newtown Square to take travelers who wanted to continue along to West Chester. Later, the trolley was extended to Castle Rock, where an amusement park had been built’ and then later still it ran all the way to West Chester. As small villages go, Newtown Square was a bustling place when Bill Davis was born in 1911.
The Davis family sold the hotel the year after William Sr. died, in 1917. Their timing was excellent: Several years later the era known as Prohibition made the sale of alcohol illegal. Throughout the 1920s, the new owners were periodically arrested and carted off to jail, and fined for serving alcohol from the hotel.
Bill Davis lived his life in the community, and passed away in 2002. His wife of 63 years lived till age 96. Their son Randall no longer lives in the area, and so there is no longer a Davis family presence in Newtown Square.
However, Randall made a final gift from the Davis family to the township: several boxes of old history books, and letters, account books, photos and journals from the businesses that they ran in Newtown for so many years.
We are thrilled to receive these materials, and grateful to the Davis family for having contributed so much to the history of the township over the last 150 years. Communities like ours were built by families like this. We remember them with gratitude for all they have contributed through the generations.