The "open road" such as it was in primitive times, with its aura of freedom and the ongoing experience of life, was the great attraction to colonists on Narberth's turf originally. For there were ample springs here to persuade Swedes to leave the river's edge and tarry by the Great Trading Path of the Susquehannock Indians, which traveled along Montgomery Avenue past Narberth. And when Welsh Quakers arrived in 1682, Narberth's land quickly became productive farms, the hub of village life for miles around being Merion Friends Meetinghouse, the present structure built in 1695, and its next-door inn built in 1704.
Oldest construction along Montgomery Avenue
Thus Narberth's historic center in terms of its surviving oldest buildings is along Montgomery Avenue. (Figure 1) Adjacent to each other at its western end are our two earliest colonial sites, their remnants going back to the primitive era, possibly even as far back as the Swedish/lndian trading post that is supposed to have existed in Narberth.
The town's oldest surviving piece of construction seems to be the enormous base of a chimney still in the existing cellar of the original log cabin, probably Swedish, that stood at 1226 Montgomery Avenue until a century ago, when its above-ground portion was razed and the present Victorian wooden structure erected over the cabin's old dirt basement, and attached to what had been the cabin's stone addition of about 1798, still standing.
This private residence is called Libertyville House because a patriotic Liberty Pole was erected in front of it by the owner in 1798. The incident gave the locality its name, Libertyville, during the Columbia Railroad era—a designation that lasted until the Civil War.
Also believed to be Swedish is Narberth's oldest intact building, a two-story, plastered-over log cabin at 610 Shady Lane. It has an eighteenth-century stone addition and a 1924 addition, and lacks only its original massive chimney. Innkeeper and patriot Abraham Streeper, who fought under General Washington at Valley Forge, was captured by the British either in this house located on farm he owned or else at his inn (Streeper's Tavern, later General Wayne Inn, and thrown in the dreaded Walnut Street Jail.
Certainly Narberth's most distinguished surviving Federal era building—and a very significant landmark of Narberth history—is the Price House (1803) at 714 Montgomery Avenue, currently Lankenau Hospital's thrift shop. Edward R. Price, whose family had arrived on Narberth's land in the first wave of Welsh Quaker immigration to reach Pennsylvania (1682), was born in this Price house, lived all his life in it and died in it. And inasmuch as this devout Quaker farmer in 1881 founded the town of Elm that became Narberth (a street he laid out for Elm is called Price Avenue), this house can be considered Narberth's birthplace, because the idea and plans for establishing Elm as a town took shape in it. This is also the last remaining Price family mansion of several built in colonial times (this one built slightly later) that dotted the immediate vicinity of Montgomery Avenue, Narberth's front street—the stretch of road along which George Washington's Army camped in September 1777, as a stone marker on the site indicates.
Colonial plantations shape modern property lines
Other neighborhoods that fan out to form part of Narberth's historical center, while they lack very old dwellings such as those mentioned above, nonetheless are identifiable as the location of specific colonial plantations, something which has been verified by checking very old deeds and studying property transfers. Several old Welsh boundaries thus are "readable" by examining closely Narberth's 1895 atlas map and comparing its layout then with subdivisions of today.
Even so, generally overlooked by most people is the fact that the southside of the Borough of Narberth includes part of the large plantation of the physician Edward Jones who led the original group of seventeen Welsh Quaker families in their settlement in 1682 of the Merion Welsh tract. (Figure 2) Bounded by the Schuylkill River on the east, City Avenue on the south, on the west approximately along Narberth's west-end boundary, and by Penn Valley's Mill Creek on the north, the early "Merion" settlement, although smaller than the present Lower Merion Township, included all of present-day Narberth except for a thin sliver along North Wynnewood Avenue. Subsequently, Doctor Edward Jones' grandson, the eminent scholar of the Revolution, John Dickinson, with an eye to acknowledging his early roots in the Merion Welsh tract, bought back some of that hallowed ground (including all of Doctor Jones' land in Narberth) that had gone out of family ownership, and held onto it throughout his lifetime, renting it to a tenant farmer. So when Dickinson's rallying cry for American independence contained in his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer is studied, it is well to remember that a hundred-acre farm Dickinson owned that had special meaning for him in terms of his family heritage was located partly in Narberth. Dickinson's turf included the site of the Green Drop station at Haverford and Montgomery avenues, and all borough land south of an ancient plantation boundary running east and west (Edward ap Rees' 1682 land on the north, Doctor Jones' land on the south, and today still a property line) midway between the houses that are back-to-back on Woodside and Chestnut avenues. That plantation boundary continued as a straight line to borough limits, both east and west.
Faced with rapid changes in the agricultural character of the area since the advent of the railroad age, Edward R. Price experienced a further wake-up call when local farmer William Thomas gave the railroad a go-ahead to construct a rail station on former Price land Thomas owned here. A Welsh-born Baptist from West Philadelphia, Thomas is believed to have suggested the Elm Station name that the railroad adopted.
Once that station was built, its very existence created a stir. Soon people were urging Price to take action and construct a town around it (something William Thomas never attempted, although he is often mistakenly credited with doing so). After some initial hesitation, Price accepted the challenge. He made his move on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the formal resolve that a group of persecuted Welsh Quakers made, including his ancestors, to leave their homeland and settle in America here on the Merion Welsh tract.
Edward R. Price and Godey’s Lady’s Book
Thus in April 1881 on his own inherited farm where he was living, Price officially established the nucleus of a town, laying it out on paper with one of its main thoroughfares to be Elm Street, running north and south midway between what is now Essex and Dudley avenues. (Figure 3) Elm's actual key streets turned out to be Price Avenue and Old Gulph Road (later renamed Narberth Avenue). For this Elm project, Edward R. Price picked a "Godey's Lady's Book architect," Isaac Harding Hobbs, who was producing house designs for Louis A. Godey's publication, in its day the most popular and influential women's magazine in America. The several large houses on large lots that Hobbs designed for Elm are thus referred to as a "Godey's Lady's Book village," a type of development once widespread across the country. (Figure 4) Price gave this new settlement a Quaker tilt by hand-selecting Elm's prominent "first family." His choice says a lot about what Price hoped to achieve. Head of that designated family was American naturalist John Bartram's grandson Samuel Richards who had been a tireless land developer and town-builder in Southern New Jersey and who, like the Price family and other early-arriving local Welsh, traced his roots to Merioneth, Northern Wales. The Richards household here included Sam Richards, his wife Elizabeth Ellison who was the daughter of a prominent Quaker industrialist, their son Samuel Bartram Richards in business with his father, and his wife Mary Dorrance Evans of the Campbell's Soup family.
Price was no longer young at this time, nor was Samuel Richards. But Richards kept his hand firmly on the Elm town-building project after Price's death in 1887, and the signatures of Samuel and Elizabeth Richards appear on the final court petition that won Narberth's eventual independence. Although Richards' Narberth Avenue all-stone Hobbs house with its porte-cochère and pear orchard is now only a memory, another one of these "Lady's Book houses"—the Vauclain/Barrie House at 206 Price Avenue—still stands like a sentinel to remind us of Narberth's beginnings. For many years serving as the parsonage of the United Methodist Church of Narberth, then converted to condominiums in 2016, it is the principal surviving residence built for Price's town of Elm. Especially meaningful is the fact that this house clearly shows the type of dwelling Price sought, hoping it might attract desirable citizens needed for his new suburban community. After its first owner, Hobbs, completed it speculatively in 1883, Price owned the house for a time. Undoubtedly it gave satisfaction to Price that, by 1885, its first resident was Samuel M. Vauclain, renowned chairman of the Baldwin Locomotive Works and his young family. They occupied that manse until 1901 as the guest of next-door neighbor, friend and brass foundry owner T. Broom Belfield whose country residence was a "Lady's Book house," where Montgomery Court Apartments now stand.
Three simultaneous tract developments: Price, Ridgway, Macfarlane
Upon Price's death in 1887, a tract adjacent to his farm swiftly changed hands, the property (including a large eighteenth-century Price residence that had been serving as a boarding house) was acquired by a land investment company headed by John J. Ridgway, a Philadelphia lawyer and public figure well known to Samuel Richards and his son Bartram. Ridgway's investment firm was so new that this, its first business transaction, a settlement, took place for convenience sake and to assure that the title was clear, in the offices of the Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company. That circumstance of where the event took place was wrongly interpreted in some accounts of Narberth's history to signify that the insurance firm bought the land—something, in correspondence with the writer, it denies. Meanwhile, this confusion has totally obscured John Ridgway's vital role in the town-building process. For it was John Jacob Ridgway who named our streets in alphabetical order and, most significantly of all, introduced the use of the name Narberth for Narberth Avenue early in 1888 (as shown in a deed of sale for a residential lot, February 16, 1888, Deed Book 320, page 67). (Figure 5)
Ridgway's firm, the Real Estate Investment Company, in December 1888 conveyed its property to a woman developer, sixty-six year-old S. Almira Vance who, with the stroke of a pen, became the largest developer of housing in the Elm Station vicinity. Phase two of town-building, well under way here by 1890, saw three simultaneous tract-house developments going full tilt that year—two to the north of the tracks and one on the southside. (Figure 6) The latter boasted its own waterworks and water tower designed, as were its houses, by its developer Charles William Macfarlane who was both an engineer and an architect, and whose project retained the name Elm longer than any other part of the community, due to the vigor of its Elm Association residents' group. Each of those three simultaneous housing developments had its own church—Mrs. Vance's tract with an east-west orientation along its Windsor Avenue main street had a Presbyterian church (she was the daughter of a prominent Presbyterian minister); the Belmar tract being developed by the Elm Land Improvement Company on a hilly site had a Methodist church crowning its Essex Avenue main artery, this congregation led from the start by a cadre of high-profile Methodists; and Macfarlane's southside Elm tract acquired a Baptist church, never very much doubt about that, in deference to the religious preferences of the Thomas family who had made the land available for development.
Narberth Park and the Narberth Park Association
In its earliest days, the Vance land development received the name "Narberth Park," which appears on Mrs. Vance's first deed of sale in January 1889 (Deed Book 331, page 240). This occurrence suggests the influence very definitely of John J. Ridgway who, with his wife Elizabeth Fry, retained small land holdings on this tract until 1892. Ridgway had Anglophile interests, as a number of our street names suggest, and in the late 1880s he was absorbed in studying his own early family history. Although it has no known connection with any Ridgway family, there is an historic seventeenth-century mansion, Ridgway, located three miles west of Narberth, Wales. John Ridgway would have been aware of such a building, and its location might have given him the idea for adopting the name Narberth. He was in an excellent position to suggest the name "Narberth Park" to Almira Vance. And if he did do so, this may have represented the second step for Ridgway (after naming Narberth Avenue) in a campaign to have Narberth chosen as town name.
One of the most crucial steps for people living in the Elm Station vicinity on their path leading to independent rule was the formation of the Narberth Park Association on October 9, 1889. Called after Mrs. Vance's 58.31 acre tract development of that name north of the rail station this organization was begun by fifteen residents seemingly just to provide simple community services for their tract equivalent to those Macfarlane was then setting up for his southside development due to open the following year.
But this residents' association swiftly matured into a true community group with wide outreach, its membership including persons living beyond its own immediate borders. Without a doubt, the closely coordinated activities of this group of new suburbanites provided a political sendup for our eventual autonomy. Dealt with through a maze of active committees were urgent matters of public safety, public works, ways and means and membership. Late in 1890, "Park" was dropped from the association's name. Still, a year later the tract had only forty-five houses. Meanwhile, hoping not to have to depend any longer on General Wayne Inn as their post office, local residents had already sought and been denied a postal facility called Elm (although they had limited postal service in the Elm train station since 1886) because of a name conflict with an existing facility in the western part of the state. However in 1890 a Narberth post office was approved. Its location was the stone railway station on the northside of the tracks, this facility itself undergoing a name change from Elm to Narberth in 1892. The Narberth nametag had won approval from Pennsylvania Railroad president George B. Roberts, who merely went along with a designation already in popular use in the locality. He certainly did not originate the name, as often has been suggested. Those rail and postal facilities served the houses being developed on both the north and south sides of the railroad.
Borough charter proposed, debated, rejected…
By this time, so widespread was community development over a large area of Lower Merion Township, especially where the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad ran through it, that public improvements were happening at a snail's pace in this neighborhood. Setting out to explore what could be done to implement change and speed up delivery of needed services, the residents' association of Mrs. Vance's tract formed a committee in June 1893 "to look into the advisability of obtaining a Borough Charter." The main selling point of independent rule was that boroughs had wider powers to accomplish public improvements than were attainable under supervisor's rule in the township.
Four months later the Narberth Association petitioned Montgomery County courts to incorporate this locality as a borough. Proposed boundaries were to be the center lines of North Wynnewood Avenue at the railroad tunnel to Montgomery Avenue, along it to Merion Road, along Merion Road to Bowman Avenue, to the railroad tracks, along these to North Wynnewood Avenue. (Figure 7-1)
Clearly the residents of Mrs. Vance's tract acted solely on their own behalf when they sought borough status. Having no tangible link with the separately run "southside" or its water supply and drainage systems, they simply excluded the southside altogether from their proposal. Furthermore, the borough's Fiftieth Anniversary Report (1945) pointed out that opposition to creating a borough was voiced by owners of large property and by the railroad, among others, who saw no benefit. It turned out that Judge Aaron S. Swartz ruled against the borough charter for this community the first time around. The court's decision showed that the Act of Assembly dealt with incorporation of a whole community, not just one part of it. Obviously the judge considered the south side essential to the Narberth community.
June 1894 saw a larger group of citizens return to court with a new petition specifying the southside as far south as Rockland Avenue should be incorporated as Narberth. (Figure 7-2) Their document declared there were a hundred twenty-nine property owners. Of the seventy-eight resident freeholders, forty-seven were recorded in favor and had signed the petition (including Samuel and Elizabeth Richards), one remaining neutral. Thirty-eight non-resident freeholders signed the petition, as well as about seventy out of a total number of about a hundred twenty voters. Each of the various categories had a majority in favor, one of the petitioners, A. H. Mueller, explained.
…Borough charter approved, with an exclusion
Successful on the second appeal to county court, the application for borough status found favor with a majority of at least twelve of the grand jury members, its report said. Judge Swartz, when he confirmed the grand jury's findings on January 21, 1895, fixed the borough perimeter somewhat differently than proposed. Because the character of one area was rural and there were as yet no building lots laid out on it, he struck off and excluded that 61.5 acre section on the south side of Haverford Avenue extending from Narberth Avenue to Montgomery Avenue and Merion Road, that would have included everything on the west side of Merion Road to Rockland Avenue, and everything on the north side of Rockland Avenue to the bridge over the railroad tracks, letting this remain as Merion. (Figure 7-3) At the same time, in accord with the court's decree, the judge set the date for the first borough election as the third Tuesday in February 1895.
An island of self-rule completely surrounded by Lower Merion, the new borough occupied 0.52 square mile, and its boundaries are still the same today. Narberth severed its ties with the parent township when efforts to attain boroughhood were at a fever-high pitch, shortly after the neighboring communities of Ardmore and Bryn Mawr had held public meetings about taking a similar step and voted against it. This agitation for self-rule occurred not long before a township classification law was adopted early in the new century giving townships new powers, something Lower Merion turned quickly to its advantage. Passage of this law served to cool down the fervor of communities seeking borough status. Twice in the 1930's, a drive to reunite with the township gathered steam, but both times it received a setback, petered out and in the end left no trace. Emblazoned on the center of Narberth's corporate seal is an elm tree, symbol of the village, all of which at one time was called Elm.
The new borough 1895-1918
The borough community embarked on its first fifty years by revving up its engine that had won independence with a tremendously energetic can-do spirit. Certainly its first generation of residents from 1895 on cooperated in an unprecedented number of ways to make things run smoothly in the newly independent town. With remarkably harmonious and happy accord, citizens of the north and south sides of the town worked shoulder-to-shoulder on various projects. But quite likely as a legacy of the separate development of the land north and south of the tracks during the formative phase of the three simultaneous tract-house developments, say from about 1888-1892, the first fifty years of Narberth independence also saw the rise of two generations of fierce rivalry between residents of the south and north sides. This friendly rivalry was perhaps most keenly felt by Narberth public school students, all of whom attended the same school north of the tracks. Each group was ready to proclaim itself naturally superior to the other. Things the southsiders said echoed that early 1890s refrain of people living on the Macfarlane tract south of the station: "All that heart could ask for, such as elegant roads, well-kept boardwalks, elegant water supply, first class drainage."
The appearance of the town center along our Haverford Avenue main street changed very rapidly just after self-rule began, as if we had to do everything to make ourselves look like a town. Elm Hall went up on Forrest Avenue, housing both our fire company and borough offices. A large commercial complex with apartments above rose facing the rail station just east of Essex Avenue. And an imposing YMCA was built (1908) that became a mecca for sports and recreational activities for a dozen years.
Also on the northside, the densest settlement we have, Brick Row, took shape at the turn of the century at Woodbine and Iona Avenues. And before World War I, a marked trend began for the construction of small single and semi-detached houses that would continue into the 1920s, lending a particular flavor to the town. For this type of dwelling, while not rare on the national scene when new, has survived in unusually pristine condition here because these houses are very well cared for. By the late 1920s, apartment house construction began stepping up its pace.
The Narberth Civic Association, Our Town and Narbrook Park
Meanwhile, the year 1914 saw the dawn of a new day of Reform Era politics that invigorated a second generation of residents living under self-rule—people just then taking the reins. Out of that socially aware time came new ideas for running the town and new programs. Perhaps chief among these was the founding of a civic association by our new burgess. This group of citizens, as one of its first acts, began an influential weekly newspaper, Our Town. And more important in the long run, Narberth Civic Association also took on the major task of establishing a "garden city" model community (Narbrook Park) on a swampy tract of land, the existence of which had vexed local developers earlier, but which now became a community asset under the guidance of nationally known city planners whose advice the civic group heeded in laying out the land in ways that recall Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture. (Figure 8) Also in 1914, the cherry blossom was chosen as town tree, and a tradition was begun to profusely plant Asian flowering trees in focal areas here and in Penn Valley.
Between the wars, the 1920s and ’30s
Narberth's population had tripled by the end of the borough's first decade, and would continue to rise sharply throughout the 1920s, slowing a bit in the 1930s but nevertheless steadily rising until its peak figure of just under six thousand residents by about 1950. (Figure 9) Citizens were devoting much attention to the public school which through June 1923 included a Narberth High School. Those educational facilities were modernized and added to several times. By the mid-1920's, the townspeople authorized creation of a large playground, which is considered early for a suburban field of this type. Also constructed at the time were community buildings housing the Community Library, the women's club and the American Legion post. Various community improvements went on apace, meanwhile, such as adoption of a building code (1923) and the town's first zoning ordinance (1924), both of which are periodically brought up to date by amendments. To its credit, Narberth established a planning commission in 1938. Patriotism, as expressed in a number of ways whether in the heart silently, or visibly in pageants, parades or a very popular fireworks tradition dating back to 1922, has flourished here in peacetime as well as throughout two world wars.
Winding down as World War II approached was the old Narberth tradition of the adult "town team" in baseball's Main Line League. This celebrated team was managed in its final decades by the sportsman/general store-owner Gene Davis whose Davis' store (later Mapes "5 & 10” Stores, Ltd.), besides being the "oldest store in Narberth" functioned as a hot stove league where athletes, sports writers and sports personalities gathered to talk baseball and football among themselves or with National Football League commissioner Bert Bell, a borough resident.
Postwar Narberth: Victorians to apartments
The borough's fiftieth anniversary (1945) coincided with the start of the postwar period that would see a sharp increase in suburban living throughout the region and the development of previously open land in Penn Valley and Wynnewood along Narberth's perimeter. No longer having much undeveloped turf of its own, Narberth responded initially to those changes being made all around it by tearing down a number of large Victorian houses near the town center including the homes of our first burgess and first borough council president, as well as demolishing the old stone railway station that resembled Wynnewood's but was much larger and multi-leveled.
The idea of advancement through tearing down the old and starting anew took a firm hold here in those years, until numerous corner Victorians were replaced by apartment houses and some eventually by condominiums (a trend that began in the late 1920s and accelerated after the war). Some of the remaining Victorians were "colonialized" by being painted white or "streamlined" by having their front porches removed at this time, although the front porch continues to be practically an institution in Narberth.
Postwar Narberth: sports, schools, community groups
In sports, casting about for a replacement for Main Line League semi-pro baseball in which our town team had been a perennial star, postwar Narberth produced a sports program of amazing breadth for young people and children that has become one of the hallmarks of this town and a model for other communities near and far. Most notably the large and impressive Narberth Summer Basketball League, begun in 1947, moved through several phases before becoming strictly a high school league by about 1974, which it still is, now featuring girls' basketball as well as teams for senior and junior boys. In 1953, Narberth Athletic Association was launched with baseball teams for boys in every age group in a vast program backed both by the association and by the Harold D. Speakman Post of the American Legion. These and other sports programs have flourished in the intervening years and are growing.
When Narberth undertook self-rule, it thereby was required to maintain its own independent school district under state law. Eventually, our school district (beneficially) merged with Lower Merion School district in 1965, when similar mergers took place across the commonwealth. Narberth had built a new school in 1961-1962, and by 1967 there was talk of enlarging it with a new wing to be finished in 1968. But a sudden regional downsizing of elementary school enrollments intervened to prevent that, and Narberth School closed in 1978, its more than three hundred children transferred, and the building recycled. The tenant gradually occupied more and more space in that school and its auditorium, ousting the Narberth Community Theatre group from the town altogether—a displacement that hopefully one day can be rectified. It is not known whether Narberth might again some day have a functioning public school, but the possibility does indeed still exist.
Remarkably the current Narberth Civic Association can be considered the fourth incarnation of such a community-wide organization hereabouts, if our Narberth Park Association of 1889 is counted as our first. Founded in 1972 and incorporated the following year, the town's current civic association carries on a broad program of activities uniting the community, maintaining a useful dialogue with both the borough council and the Narberth Business and Professional Association.
Two Narberth institutions which have shown steadily increasing strength and maturity during the 1980s and 1990s are Narberth Ambulance and the green-thumb group, Narberth Improvement and Clean-up Endeavor (N.I.C.E.). To its credit, Narberth's volunteer medical service corps has passed its first half-century mark of existence, during which time it rose from modest beginnings as an arm of civil defense to a position of outstanding responsibility as the official emergency squad serving both the borough and all of Lower Merion Township. Former Mayor Jeff Eyster's invention, the ongoing beautification campaign N.I.C.E. (begun in 1967) to plant trees, shrubbery and annual and perennial plants at key points such as on both sides of the rail station, along Haverford Avenue's railroad embankment and at the North Wynnewood Avenue tunnel, as well as maintaining these plantings with platoons of volunteer helpers, is universally admired and widely emulated in other communities. Former Mayor Eyster's continuing personal supervision of this project has drawn praise from a wide variety of sources, moving from strength to strength. This pair of services—along with the devoted public service of the members of the volunteer Narberth Fire Company, which we tend to take for granted—have won an abiding place in the hearts of Narberth people.
Meanwhile, moving rapidly forward in a new phase of unusually vigorous growth throughout the early 1990s, Narberth Community Library and its progress bear watching during the remainder of the decade. This is especially true since they recently formed a support group, Friends of Narberth Library, to spur interest in the future of that facility.
Narberth at 100
A bracing new subject (for Narberth) has gained currency and public attention in the 1990s after a slow start: historic preservation. As might have been anticipated, this national movement to protect and enhance the finest features of our built environment that have accumulated over time in our midst so we can pass them on to future generations, has found a faithful and enthusiastic following here in the borough during the past decade. Presently  we are moving with a degree of certainty closer to one or another kind of preservation legislation in the immediate future, guided in our search by the borough's historic ordinance review board now studying options and drafting a model document best able to serve the local need to protect and enhance the character of the town.
In the meantime, Narberth still has its core assets. It is a stable community with some families who have lived here for generations, many new families and lots of children, good schools around us, excellent transportation links, a lively main street artery, and a solid local government that has kept borough finances in good order throughout the first century of self-rule, and is in 1994 completing the expansion of the municipal complex, expected by the year's end.
Consequently, the Borough of Narberth approaches its 1995 Centennial having much to celebrate. With outstretched hand, too, we salute the community of Merion Friends Meeting, which is about to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the stone construction of its (current) Quaker meetinghouse (1695). More than just good neighbors, we share a common heritage insofar as both the meetinghouse and much of the borough are located on what was the original colonial plantation established in 1682 by Welsh Quaker Edward ap Rees, whose direct descendant Edward R. Price founded the Late Victorian town of Elm, now Narberth.