KENNETT SQUARE — Many of Kennett Square’s beautifully restored historic homes bear plaques with names and dates that give tantalizing hints about those who built and first lived in them. It’s possible, for example, to imagine streets like East Linden, Union, or South Broad developing through the early decades of the town’s history as open spaces gradually filled in with homes, churches, and places of business.
And it’s fascinating to trace generations of family names like Pennock, Taylor, Peirce, and others through these buildings. But names, dates, and buildings tell us only so much. Talking with someone like town historian Lynn Sinclair brings this storied place alive.
Sinclair possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the town’s history, based on years of research and combing through primary sources like deeds, wills, books, newspapers, and maps—in addition to an indefatigable curiosity to continue to dig deeper and learn more. She has a storyteller’s ear for a good tale, a dedication to untangling fact from myth, and an impish delight in scoundrels as well as a deep respect for those who made Kennett Square, and the world, a better place.
She also has a passion to share this history in ways that are both dynamic and interactive. Popular annual events like the Haunted History Tour and Kennett Occupation Day have inspired many to learn more about some of the fascinating characters—abolitionists, farmers, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, inventors and, yes, even a few scoundrels—who have called Kennett Square home.
Over 300 years after the name Kennett first appeared in Chester County court records, it’s finally time for all of this rich history to have a home, and for Sinclair’s long-held dream of a Kennett Heritage Center to become a reality. Several years ago, Sinclair bought the building at 120 North Union Street, which was built in 1901 by Dr. Isaac D. Johnson.
Over the past few months, she has painted, refinished the original flooring, and added a beautiful front porch. Far from a dusty don’t-touch museum, the Kennett Heritage Center (KHC) will bring Kennett Square’s rich and varied past alive. Sinclair and KHC’s Board of Directors have been working with Miller Designworks, the firm that created the display at Marshallton Village Heritage Center, on displays that will take visitors through four rooms and three centuries of Kennett Square history.
An interactive kiosk is also planned as a next step at the Center.
Fittingly, the Kennett Underground Railroad Center has also found a home at the Kennett Heritage Center.
KHC’s mission is “to research and document, and to celebrate Kennett’s unique history, through tours, special events, and a permanent exhibit. The Center will foster a greater understanding and appreciation for the development of our community and its contributions to the history of Pennsylvania and the United States." Sinclair said
“Miller Designworks are ready to go with our displays, and we’ve applied for and received a grant,” says Sinclair. But the Kennett Heritage Center, which is a 501C3 non-profit, is still a few generous donations away from setting a date for an opening reception. “Once people see what we’re doing, they’ll be excited about it,” Sinclair says.
Sinclair’s favorite character from the annals of Kennett Square history is Ezra Durand, who bought the building where Work2gether now is, at 120 East State Street, in 1871. Durand was a “music man” who built and sold dulcimers. But Durand was also a confidence man—and he absconded to Mexico with bank notes to the tune of $10,000.
By contrast, Deborah Pennock, who lived on South Union Street and died in 1912, is one of the heroines of Kennett Square history. Deborah and her family were all abolitionists who were part of the Underground Railroad movement—and then, Sinclair says, Deborah rolled right into working passionately for women’s suffrage.
Stories of Kennett Square citizens who risked their lives for justice and freedom for people of all races and who fought for voting rights are powerfully resonant and relevant today. The Kennett Heritage Center will preserve and bring their stories, and those of many others, to life.
Sinclair, who owned the beloved Sunrise Café and served as chair of the Kennett Square Historical Commission for many years, has deep roots in Kennett Square. Samuel Sinclair came to Kennett as a justice of the peace in 1794. As the Squire in Bayard Taylor’s The Story of Kennett, Samuel Sinclair is the only character to be referred to by his actual name.
If she could go back in time, Sinclair says, she would want to go to her grandfather’s restaurant. She loves an old newspaper story that reports that Mary Sinclair served “frankfurters and sauerkraut” for breakfast. And therein, she says, lies one of the fascinating conundrums of historical research. “Did the reporter include that detail because that was what people usually ate for breakfast or because it was weird?” Sinclair asks.
Though perhaps we’ll never know the answer to that question, there are countless more curious details to ponder, generations of intriguing characters to meet, and uniquely Kennett stories to tell.