James Price Made it His Mission to Repay His Outstanding Debts

The Chester County Quaker wanted to die with a clear conscience and balanced accounts.



James Price

Good parenting shows—maybe good grandparenting, too. Call it “family values.” How else would you explain James M. Price, who couldn’t go to his grave without first tracking down and repaying a 30-year-old debt?

“I will now ask thee to reply at once,” wrote Price in 1898 to George W. Johnson, the man whom Price hoped was a former employee, “for I am past 72 and know that I have no lease on life.”

Born in East Bradford, Price was the son of Chester County Quakers Isaac and Susannah Price. His father, a farmer, died the month before he was born, and his mother a few days before Christmas when he was 13. Thenceforth, Price was raised by his father’s brother, Philip Price Jr., and his wife. In reality, however, he was cared for by the extended Price clan—all the children of Philip and Rachel (Kirk) Price.

The elder Prices were beloved in Chester County. From 1818 to 1830, the couple superintended Westtown School, where, in 1861, “their gentle guardianship [was] still affectionately remembered by the surviving pupils of that period,” according to the Village Record.

The Prices’ predecessors had favored a harsher regime. Under their leadership, however, discipline usually involved a meeting of the offender, a faculty member or two, and Philip Price. Everyone sat in silence for a time, after which the offender was dismissed and rarely offended again. “Philip Price had near sympathy with the young, and a keen sense of their difficulties and temptations,” wrote Watson and Sarah Dewees in an 1899 history of the school. “His impulse was to smooth the path and see that children were happy. Without making great or startling changes, it came about that all the family felt an increase in warmth and kindliness.”

Perhaps their greatest accomplishment was holding Westtown together through the schism that split
Quakers into two denominations beginning in 1827. Students and their families fell on both sides of the divide. “A few pupils were removed from the school,” recalled the Deweeses, “and patient work with the remainder gradually restored the discipline.”

The division was also reflected among the Prices’ own 10 children. As at Westtown, however, they managed to hold things together.

“[Rachel Price’s] maternal appeal was made in the words of the Divine Master, that their fellowship should bear His test of discipleship,” wrote son Eli in an 1852 tribute to his parents. “The filial and fraternal affection of their descendants survives the grave; and that it may survive to all when time shall be no more to them is their fervent prayer.”

After their Westtown years, the Prices returned to farming. They had purchased a farm in East Bradford in 1791 and spent their years there practicing what the Village Record called “enlightened agriculture.” “He was among the first in Chester County to regard agriculture as a practical science,” observed the newspaper, “advocating the use of lime and plaster of Paris in the culture of clover and the grasses.”

Price also promoted the use of Virginia thorn—a dense, thorny shrub—as a substitute for short-lived wooden fences. About 1810, he traveled to Virginia to collect seed for the shrub and helped to plant some of the first hedges. Naturally, he was also the first president of the county’s agricultural society when it was formed.

“Philip Price was a genuine disciple of the founder of our commonwealth: mild, upright, intelligent and liberal; an earnest yet inoffensive advocate of human rights, and an unwavering opponent of human wrongs,” wrote the Village Record.

The Prices’ 10 children were lawyers, physicians and teachers. William Price taught at a school for African-American children. Hannah Price was superintendent of Price’s Boarding School for Girls in West Chester. Eli Price served in the state Senate and was instrumental in passing the Consolidation Act, which merged the city and county of Philadelphia.

Philip Price Jr. trained as a physician but gave that up to work as a surveyor, helping to plan Philadelphia’s Spring Garden section. He later helped found the Pennsylvania Railroad and, according to a family genealogy, “the Erie Railroad would not at times have lived without him.” It was the home of Philip Jr. in which James Price grew up.

James Price, of course, attended his grandfather’s school at Westtown, followed by the University of Pennsylvania and several years of teaching. By the 1850s, with a wife and the first of 11 children, Price needed to make more money and tried operating a nursery near Media.

Among his nursery employees was George W. Johnson. Born in Maryland or the District of Columbia—he cited both to census takers—Johnson may have been a slave at one point, but the evidence is contradictory. It is established that he worked for Price in Delaware County before the Civil War, but Johnson’s obituary states that he “got over into the Union lines and joined the Federal soldiers.”

In 1898, however, West Chester’s Morning Republican reported that, during the Civil War, Johnson had joined the 127th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers. This was erroneous, since the 127th Pennsylvania was a whites-only regiment. Johnson’s unit was actually the 127th Regiment, U.S.C.T., which was organized at Camp William Penn in 1864.

At the time, Pennsylvania encouraged enlistments by paying volunteers a “bounty” of $400. Chester County added its own bonus of $25. “Not wishing to take this amount with him,” reported the Republican in 1898, “he deposited it in the National Bank of West Chester in the name of James M. Price, by whom he was employed previous to enlisting.”

Then George Johnson went off to war. The 127th U.S.C.T. was sent to the Army of the Potomac, then south of the James River and Richmond, Va. During its enlistment, the regiment experienced combat only once, in an unsuccessful attempt to cross the James River called the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. The regiment lost one man.

After hostilities ended, Johnson’s regiment was sent to Texas and posted on the Mexican frontier until the men were discharged in September 1865. “Johnson came home well and hearty, and returned to his employer’s,” reported the Republican.

As for his money, he allowed Price to hold on to most of it. “After drawing out $50, he loaned the balance, $350, to Mr. Price, upon request, to assist in carrying on his nursery,” according to the newspaper.

It wasn’t a good investment. Price’s nursery went bankrupt, and his creditors—of which Johnson was now one—had to settle for 20 percent of what they were owed. Johnson eventually got a check for $75 and thought that was the end of it.

Johnson subsequently found work as a porter at West Chester’s Mansion House, a hotel near the courthouse. “It was said of him that he could name every courthouse attaché from the judges down,” recalled the Daily Local News in 1929.

Johnson ultimately established himself as a drayman—a person with a wagon and a horse or two who could be hired to move goods from place to place. It was the trade he would follow for the rest of his life.

Johnson lived on Merchant Street in Coatesville. He was a member of Bethel AME Church, along with a veterans group known as the Grand Army of the Republic and several fraternal organizations. He married three times, but his obituary mentions no children.

The Local summarized him: “George Johnson was a plain, simple, good-hearted colored man.”

Price went to work for an insurance company, but eventually turned to railroads. Rather than become a railroad executive like his uncle, Price was an
inventor. His business, Price Railway Appliance Company, offered new parts and improvements to existing parts that all railroads needed. In 1891, for instance, his company introduced a “channel rail” system intended to reduce the problem of wooden stringers rotting out, which shortened the life of the rails. In 1893, it patented a joint plate to carry weight across the space between two railroad ties.

At this, Price apparently did very well. He and his wife, Sarah Lightfoot Price, had 11 children—one of whom was architect William Lightfoot Price, who designed much of Rose Valley. The family later moved to Overbrook.

At some point, Price turned his attention to old debts. Though the books were long closed on his nursery bankruptcy, he sought out those who had lost money and paid them all back. But he couldn’t find Johnson.

“About the first of February (1898), William Kirk of West Chester received a letter from James M. Price of Philadelphia, inquiring to whom he should write to receive some information concerning the whereabouts of George W. Johnson,” reported the Republican, and all without explaining why or how he chose Kirk.

In any case, Kirk referred Price to John Gladman, “an old resident who could probably give the information desired.” Gladman soon hailed Johnson
on a West Chester street and, several days later, Johnson heard from Price directly: “If thou art that man,” wrote Price, “I shall be glad first to hear from thee at once, and next to have thee name a day, preferably within this month, on which thou couldst call thyself at this office on a matter of business, which I think thou wilt find of interest and value to thee.”

And so, it was done. Price repaid Johnson his $275, with interest—nine shares in Price’s company, valued at $100 each. Then Price took his old employee home for tea with his wife. Sarah considered Johnson a savior of sorts because, when she had been very ill years before, he had been the one to fetch a physician.

The Republican called Johnson “the happiest man in Chester County.”

Perhaps Price was happy, too—and able, after his death the following year, to rejoin his parents and grandparents with a clear conscience.

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