Still A Place For The Family Farm A Hidden Pasture Amid Suburbia, Plot Is Curious Site In Wynnewood

Posted: January 26, 1988

Wedged among the stone-faced homes of suburban Wynnewood, there is a secret garden where a rooster still rules the barnyard and old-fashioned boxwood frames the perennial beds.

This is the Toland family farm, where three generations of Tolands continue to homestead and where, as recently as a decade ago, cows grazed in the open pasture.

"Not that many places around here, or anywhere, have stayed the same this long," said Polly Toland, who lives next door to her daughter and her daughter's family in a home that backs onto the four-acre tract.

For those who know it is there, hidden behind a ring of suburban houses, the farm in Lower Merion Township has endured since the turn of the century as a treasured neighborhood curiosity. For those who don't know it is there, the sight of a rooster standing on the barn roof just blocks from the John Wanamaker store at the Wynnewood Shopping Center comes as a bit of a shock.

"Yes, you see the cars slow down or stop to take a look," said Polly Toland. "It is an attraction."

In the farm's heyday, the Toland family got its milk from the cows that grazed in the pasture. The family's eggs came from hens roosting in the barn. The cows ate ground beets that were raised in the family's one-acre vegetable garden.

"There was a time when you had to be very careful walking out here," said Yale Toland, as he strode across the pasture recently and recalled how his children used to fling dried cow pies like Frisbees.

The cows have since gone. The family convened 10 years ago and calculated that with all the costs of running the farm, their milk cost $18 a bottle. Now the Tolands are talking about selling part of the land.

But still, a flock of one rooster, one chicken and four ducks, some of them descendants in a long line of Toland fowl, is kept by Rick Mariani, who rents a carriage house on the property.

Mariani, 30, grew up in Ardmore and like many neighborhood children has been fascinated with the farm since discovering it in his youth. He has lived on the farm three years and raised turkeys, pheasants and a flock of quail that once numbered 500.

"We used to walk through the farm in grade school and at night we could see the animals in there," said Mariani. "I love this place. And it is fun to keep it going for the neighborhood."

The farm has been in the Toland family since the late 1800s, when it was willed to two brothers, Edward and Robert Toland, by Aubrey Jones. Jones belonged to a prominent local family and had been a partner with the brothers in a Philadelphia trust company.

At that time, a grand mansion stood in the middle of the tract. Soon after, Robert committed suicide, but Edward raised five children on the farm. The youngest, Dr. Owen Jones Toland, lived there until his death in 1975 at age 78.

It was this Toland, known as Doc, who with his wife, Alexandra "Bonnie" Dolan Toland, made the farm a neighborhood legend.

At one point, the farm sprawled across 300 acres from the Main Line railroad tracks nearly to Montgomery Avenue, but as the area began to boom in the early 1900s, the land was parceled off. In the 1930s, the old house was torn down, and Doc Toland moved to a house on the edge of the pasture.

"The biggest change in the neighborhood came in the 1920s when this area was developed," said Yale Toland, Doc's oldest son, "but this land just never was."

For more than 50 years, the farm persisted as Doc Toland raised his four children there, and they in turn raised 16 children of their own.

At Easter, the neighborhood children were invited to elaborate egg hunts through the maze of boxwood. In the summer, they built tent camps out of burlap feedbags and scrambled to the seat near the top of a giant Tulip Poplar tree with a view of New Jersey.

Doc Toland's wife, Bonnie, kept the gardens: the boxwood and delphinium, a berry patch with rhubarb, raspberries and blueberries and the massive vegetable garden.

"She really kept the farm going," said their granddaughter Meg Lile. With her husband, Paul, she is raising a son on the farm. They live next door to her mother, Polly Toland.

In the past, the farm had a full-time farmer, for 25 years Albert McCormick, an Irish immigrant with seven children who tended the animals.

"The farm was more or less a hobby," said Yale Toland. "The animals were more like pets."

There were the cows, Daisy, Scrambled Eggs and Pansy; Little LeRoy, a Black Angus bull; Pedro the donkey, and Pete the pony.

"We always had three or four cows," Polly Toland said. "Yes, it was quite a herd."

Polly Toland recalled one new cow that could not settle down. One day it got loose and charged off into Narberth. Polly Toland, who was quite pregnant at the time, and several McCormicks shooed her back home.

When you raise cows, you're a "slave" to them, she said, "but we didn't have the problem mowing when we had the animals."

Another big day in Toland history occurred more than 20 years ago when the barn caught fire. A group of neighborhood boys had been up in the loft playing with matches. They got out safely, but the Tolands still snicker when they remember the sight of firemen chopping through the barn door only to be overcome by a rush of hysterical chickens, many of them with singed tail feathers.

After Bonnie Toland died in 1977, the estate was left in an undivided trust to the four children: Yale, who also owns and rents out the main house; Alexander, whose widow lives on the farm with her husband; Owen Jr., Polly Toland's husband; and Asheton, who lives in Rhode Island.

As in generations before, one Toland surfaced with an abiding interest in the farm. This time it was Owen Jr.

"He wanted to preserve it as we all do," Polly Toland said of her husband, who died last year. "But it's so complicated."

Now the family is considering subdividing off the barnyard and perhaps other parts of the property.

Meg Lile, it seems, is the Toland of her generation who will try to carry on with the farm. She has written to all her cousins updating them on the possibility of subdivision.

"They would all like to keep the place together as much as possible," she said. "I know I would really like to stay. And in my mind it's always open that somebody else might come back, too. There are a lot of us out there, and everyone still feels connected to the place."

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