NEWLIN — A 95-year-old birthright Quaker from Unionville has taken on the task of organizing a tour of area meetinghouses.
“I really shouldn’t be doing this. My hearing is bad and my eyesight is going,” Ruth Thompson said of the event she is overseeing on July 19 and 20.
Still, she said she feels it is important to showcase the roots of her home meeting, London Grove, which is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year. Additionally, she said this tour is so extensive and took so much planning that it is not likely that there will be another one like it anytime soon.
London Grove Quarterly meeting is not the oldest Quaker meeting in Chester County, but it is one among many that bears the legacy of William Penn’s founding of the state. Built at the intersection of Route 926 and Newark Road in West Marlborough, it is also the site of the famous Penn Oak — the largest of its species in the state and said to have been on the property when Penn arrived.
Thompson said Penn came from England with many other Quakers and got off the ship at New Castle, Del. Largely farmers, they traveled north through Delaware, founding meetings from Newark, Del., up as far north as Ercildoun.
The meetings scattered all about came to be called the Western Quarter because they were located west of the Brandywine. Back in the 1600s and 1700s the creek was a fairly big challenge to cross for eastward travel.
The London Grove meetinghouse became the central location for gatherings of Quakers from throughout the area four times a year. To accommodate the gatherings, the meetinghouse was larger than others.
Thompson said the tour pays homage to the contributions the other meetings have made to London Grove’s growth. It also is a chance for people to see firsthand what the inside of the meetings are like and what unique events led to their founding.
Thompson, in particular, is an example of the rich legacy the Quaker meetinghouses bear.
She was born Ruth Smedley, and her mother was a Sharpless — both names that are familiar to longtime Chester County residents. Because of a philosophical split in the faith in the 1800s, there came to be two branches of Quakers — the Hicksites and the Orthodox. (Those differences got resolved over time.)
Thompson was born the product of an Orthodox father and a Hicksite mother. She lived in Lambortown and went to the Orthodox meeting for worship, but in the 1930s her parents decided it wouldn’t do the kids any harm to go to the Hicksite First Day Sunday School, which was and is the London Grove meeting.
She said they often walked to London Grove, but in cold weather they rode a carriage pulled by a horse.
“Dad got a carriage with curtains. I recall going in a horse and carriage. They had sheds for the horses at London Grove,” she said.
To this day, she still attends that meeting. It was built originally in 1724.
The tour on July 19 and 20 is open to the public. There are 19 meetinghouses on the route from Colora, Md., to Ercildoun and Parkersville. The houses will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Visitors are asked to drive from one to the other, and they will be greeted at each one by a host or hostess, who is available to questions and history information. (It’s like Chester County Day).
Thompson suggests stopping at any Western Quarterly meetinghouse to get started and obtain a booklet with the routes and locations along the tour. She suggests that a good place to start would be Longwood Progressive Meetinghouse, which today houses the Chester County Visitors Center. It sits just at the gate of Longwood Gardens. It has parking, and inside has an extensive display about the Underground Railroad, a cause former and present Quakers were passionate about. That’s arbitrary, however. People can start anywhere.
Or just go to the website www.westernquarterquakers.org.
The following 19 meetinghouses are on the route:
Centre, Delaware; Fallowfield; Hockessin, Delaware; Kendal; Kennett; London Grove; Marlborough; Mill Creek, Delaware; Newark, Delaware; New Garden; West Grove; Colora, Maryland; Homeville; London Britain; Longwood; New West Grove; Old Kennett; Parkersville; Pennsgrove.
Some of the meetinghouses are no longer active, but are opened for the tour. Others are currently in use.