The Fight to Keep History Alive at Strode’s Barn
Local preservationists and organizations have been hard at work restoring the East Bradford Township landmark, which played a major role in the Battle of the Brandywine.
(From left) East Bradford Township manager Mandie Cantlin, Friends of Strode’s Mill president Linda Kaat, township director of property and recreation Rich Phifer, and Friends board member Andy Schaum. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
It’s a treasure—a treasure of agriculture, industry and history,” says ardent preservationist Linda Kaat. “It has it all going for it.”
You wouldn’t know it if you drove by the dilapidated barn at the intersection of Route 52 and Birmingham Road in East Bradford Township near West Chester. “George Washington is associated with this corner; the Battle of Brandywine is associated with this corner,” says Kaat.
This is the seventh restoration effort for Kaat, who heads the 220-member Friends of Strode’s Mill. She’s also a former president of Brandywine Battlefield State Park in Chadds Ford and a current member of its friends organization. “How can you turn down a project that’s associated with George Washington?” she says of Strode’s Barn.
Washington’s soldiers sought flour for themselves and grain for their horses at the circa-1722 mill on the adjacent property. The earliest building at the crossroads and one of the first mills in America, it now houses Strode’s Mill Gallery. It’s been in the private care of Carol and Harry Waite, though Harry is now deceased.
But the barn just across Birmingham Road couldn’t continue to be ignored. Four years ago, Kaat explained as much to the township. In all, 120 acres and 11 buildings in that crossroads area have been registered with the National Register of Historic Places. The barn is where British Gen. Charles Cornwallis paused to arrange columns of 9,000 men a mile wide before sweeping south to the Battle of Brandywine.
Strode’s Barn and its immediate surroundings were also hubs for early Chester County industry. At one time, there was a farm, a mill, a school for boys, a blacksmith shop and more—all owned for 250 years by one prosperous Quaker family. Starting in 1893, the barn structure housed one of the most successful businesses in Chester County history—a pork-processing plant nationally known for its sausage and scrapple until 1987.
What followed eventually amounted to “demolition by neglect,” as the friends group terms it. Local developer Mark Rowan bought the barn property on spec—perhaps for conversion into a farmers’ market. But when he died in 2013, his estate was left holding it. When the township acquired the barn in 2017 for $210,000, it sat on seven acres. Following a flood plane donation from Toll Brothers, the property had grown by another 30 acres. Toll is currently developing the 90-acre track Tigue Farm—the last working farm in the southern part of East Bradford—into townhomes and single-family dwellings. The land donation made the project easier to swallow. “It was the game-changer,“ says Andy Schaum, a friends’ board member who lives behind the restored mill in an early village house his wife loved. “The only way to do any of this is through partnership.”
In time, the Strode’s Barn property will connect to the West Chester borough via a pathway for bikes and pedestrians. The most challenging task will be building the trail bridge crossing Plum Run to Strode’s Barn and its interpretation center and community area. Officials also hope this corner will become the second stop for a planned Brandywine Battlefield trail tour.
What happens inside the barn is debatable. Township residents have been surveyed for ideas, but public access may not be possible.
Originally, organizers thought the master site plan might take 18 months. They’ve tried to expedite the process, and it could be finished as early as March 2020. “It will be worth waiting for,” says Kaat. “History will lead, and nature will follow.”
Kaat was inspired to save buildings when an Native American fort near her home in southern Illinois burned and was subsequently torn down. “It was all log and wood, and it was gone,” she says. “Here, the stone buildings have lasted.“
She arrived here in 1976 with her husband, pro baseball player Jim Kaat, who was the Phillies opening-day pitcher that year after his off-season trade to Philadelphia. She formed Friends of Strode’s Mill in 2015. During the first fundraiser, the British 49th Regiment of Foot—which fought at the Battle of Brandywine and housed and fed its horses at Strode’s Barn—sent financial support. “These are the things that keep my blood going,” says Kaat.
Schaum, an attorney, describes the donor base as a “well-heeled group.” Expert help came in the form of Westtown architect Dan Campbell, who specializes in barns and mills and drew the first sketches of the future corner. Well-known Unionville-based designer Richard Buchanan contributed sketches and plans used in applying to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for a grant.
Schaum and others envision a Plum Run Greenway connecting West Chester University’s Gordon Nature Preserve through Tigue Farm to Stode’s Barn. The Brandywine Conservancy and senior planner Sheila Fleming have included it in their Brandywine Creek Greenway initiative, which attracted funding from the William Penn Foundation.
Meanwhile, Friends of Strode’s Mill raised $56,000 through 2018, most of which has been used for environmental cleanup and to help define the project’s vision. Since then, every penny raised of an anticipated $250,000 is going directly to restoring the barn.
An act of nature helped save some money when a snowstorm brought down the sagging roof and collapsed an addition where the sausage plant had been. There’s work ahead to restore the structure, the masonry and more. “It’s so important that this crossroads be recognized again,” Kaat says. “It’s the founding of our nation that took place on these back country roads.”