Pay A Visit To Wawa, The Place

Posted: June 15, 1989

There are Wawas, and then there's Wawa.

You know the Wawas: Aisles filled with squishy bread; teenage clerks in brown aprons; in the corner, the familiar banana tree, which really looks like a cat's scratching post draped in bananas.

Ah, Wawa, you might say: haven of the hurried, not quite a quick stop and not quite a grocery store, a homey kind of 7-Eleven, a place you might even go with a shopping list.

You might say "Ah, Wawa," that is, if it didn't sound so ridiculous.

Because what, after all, is "Wawa"?

The answer is right there on the milk cartons.

Wawa is a place. It is a dairy.

It is also a state of mind.

It used to be a post office, too, and a railroad station, but now those things are memories. Wawa is just a neighborhood.

And it is filled with very proud people who insist on marking their return address "Wawa," even though the post office says Wawa doesn't exist.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

Forget the convenience stores, for a moment. They're doing just fine.

Think about Wawa, the place.

Several centuries ago, Canada geese migrated over parts of Delaware County, among them a verdant, hilly valley fed by several creeks, including the West Branch of the Chester Creek and Rocky Run Creek.

The area was populated by Lenni Lenape Indians, whose name for the Canada goose was wawa.

Gradually, one of the geese's favorite stopping-off points became known as Wawa - an appropriate name, given the fleeting nature of the geese's visit, for future convenience stores.

In the 18th century, Wawa was settled by outsiders from Philadelphia and New Jersey who were drawn, like the geese, to the water. It became a milling area: Paper mills, gristmills and other mills sprang up along the various creeks.

Today, Wawa is a pocket of estates, open fields and what may be the last dairy farm in Delaware County. It is also home to company headquarters of Wawa Inc., the dairy and convenience-store chain.

Some people also say it is home to the Franklin Mint, but the mint has named its immediate environs Franklin Center - a slap in the face to Wawa, perhaps, but mint officials say it is really just a matter of convenience, considering the volume of mail they receive.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about Wawa - pronounced to rhyme with ''saw-saw" by natives - is that no one can agree on where it is, really. It is a place where a lot of people would like to live, and so a lot say they do. But ask them where the boundaries of Wawa are, and, well. . . .

"Wawa is a state of mind," said Fritz Schroeder, vice president of Wawa Inc. and a lifelong resident. "If you want to be in Wawa, you can be in Wawa."

Estimates of those who do live in Wawa range from about five families (according to one longtime resident on Wawa Road) to 265 families (the estimate of Walter Kirby, 68, the head of the Wawa Farms Association, which just had its annual dinner at the Log Cabin Inn).

"No one's ever drawn a line on a map saying this is where Wawa begins and ends," explained W. Bruce Clark, Middletown's manager.

Still, there are generally agreed-upon specifics.

On maps, Wawa is a pocket of green space that hugs each side of the Baltimore Pike just north of Glen Mills and south of Lima. Part of it is in Middletown, and part of it is in Chester Heights Borough. Because Wawa predates both municipalities - as a settlement, it even predates Delaware County - Wawa doesn't bother to conveniently contain itself within either municipality.

Rather, it spreads along the small roads of the community, the way life spreads through veins, only in Wawa's case, the pulse is quiet, and the signs of life subtle.

The roads - Valley Road, Wawa Road - are narrow and winding and take you through dappled woods, only occasionally interrupted by a house. The houses are 18th-century stone houses, sometimes, or 19th-century wooden homes with large porches.

It is, quite simply, beautiful.

The open land that characterizes Wawa, and the state of mind to which Schroeder referred, comes from the dairy and the Wood family, of which he is a member.

For those who don't know, Wawa was first a dairy, and only later a convenience-store chain. These days, the company's 400-odd convenience stores account for 95 percent of the company's revenues (about $450 million a year), making the whole town, dairy and Canada goose history a severe case of the tail wagging the dog.

But, once, it was the dairy that controlled Wawa, and today, many residents, including Kirby, say they are from Wawa because they live on land once populated by cows.

"All of us here now live on ground that the dairy used to own. They did, beginning around 1940, begin to sell off five-acre lots," said Kirby, who lives on Valley Road.

It is the dairy, then, that gives Wawa its flavor.

It is also the dairy that both preserves Wawa as a neighborhood and threatens it, according to some residents.

The Wawa dairy was born in 1890, when there was no pasteurization and children often got sick from raw milk. George Wood, a New Jersey businessman, bought 1,000 acres in Wawa and imported cows from the English Channel island of Guernsey. Then he hit upon a marvelous marketing strategy: He had a group of doctors certify that his milk was sanitary and safe.

It apparently worked, and the Wawa dairy grew and grew and grew until, by the 1960s, its only problem was that people were no longer having their milk delivered to their homes but rather picking it up at stores.

Opening the Wawa stores, then, started as a way to market the milk.

The company opened its first store, in Folsom, in 1964. (The store just celebrated its 25th anniversary.)

Now, the markets open at the rate of about one a week, according to Schroeder.

The Wawa dairy, on Route 1 in Middletown, still produces all the milk for the Wawa stores. But to keep up with the outlets, the dairy will have to expand soon or move.

"It's our wish to stay here if the township will let us expand," Schroeder said. But that depends, he conceded, partly on the reaction of residents.

The dairy began selling off parcels of land in the 1940s and continues to divest itself of unneeded land here and there.

It sold the Franklin Mint about 40 acres in 1964 and followed up by selling 25 acres for the Granite Farms Estates retirement complex on Route 1 several years ago. As part of the deal, it deeded about 30 acres of wetlands to Middletown Township as a preserve.

"We felt we didn't have much use for the land, and the township felt Granite Farms would be an asset," Schroeder said.

Even with the sales, Wawa Inc. and the Wood family still control about 725 acres of Middletown and Chester Heights, making the family the closest thing to a feudal barony this side of du Pont.

Family members own 300 acres in estates. An additional 150 acres around the dairy on Route 1, and 50 acres around "Red Roof," the corporate headquarters, are owned by Wawa Inc.

And Wawa Inc. owns "J. T. Farms," a 225-acre farm on Wawa Road that is leased to Bill Faul.

Ironically, Faul, who leases the farm for $1,500 a month, has a herd of more than 100 Holsteins and produces lots of milk - but none of it goes to the Wawa dairy.

Because of the complexities of the state's dairy farm cooperative, Faul's milk goes to Acme markets, he said.

Wawa Inc. plans to keep the farm anyway, partly for symbolic purposes.

"Around here, you say 'Wawa,' and people think of dairy," Schroeder said. ''We have no plans to sell more open land."

For the same reason, Wawa keeps heifers in front of its plant on Route 1, even though the cows don't actually produce milk. "We like them for the ambiance," Schroeder said. The cows are not there now but will be back after the company finishes some construction, he added.

Today, Wawa residents are both grateful to the dairy and wary of its success, according to Kirby. They realize Wawa has remained a pocket of green space because the Wood family owns so much land.

They also realize that the land may not stay open forever.

And they worry about Wawa's success.

When Wawa Inc. announced its hopes of expanding the dairy at a Middletown Township meeting about eight weeks ago, Wawa residents turned out in force - alerted by Kirby.

"We are in a little rural pocket here which is getting surrounded by everything," said Kirby, who moved to Valley Road in 1955.

The neighbors aren't thrilled about Wawa's hopes of expanding its dairy plant, but they definitely favor a dairy over some other development, he said.

"We hope they'll stay. A dairy is the kind of installation you can accept," he said.

In general, Kirby said, relations between Wawa residents and their powerful corporate neighbor are "very good."

Perhaps it is because both persist in perpetuating the "state of mind" of Wawa as a beautiful, rural dairying community, even as outsiders ignore it, or worse, regard it as a convenience store. In recent years, the outside world

hasn't been all that kind to Wawa.

Consider: SEPTA closed rail service to Wawa in September 1986, leaving a meaningless station stop sign at the end of a flooded dirt road.

The post office that served Wawa, which was known as the Darling Post Office, closed in 1973 or 1974, said Ron Lincoln of the Media Post Office, forcing residents to use Media's post office.

Traffic now clogs Baltimore Pike, splitting Wawa into east and west.

And Middletown doesn't really recognize Wawa as anything more than a neighborhood, said Township Manager Bruce Clark.

Yet many residents - particularly the older ones, according to Lincoln - persist in writing "Wawa" as their return address, and they tell people they are from Wawa.

"Occasionally we stamp letters 'Please notify correspondent of your correct address,' " Lincoln said. But, he added, it rarely seems to work.

"It's like a sore point with them," said Linda Del Piano of the same post office. "They don't want to change." But in reality, she said, "there is no Wawa, Pa."

Then there is the indignity of being from a town now associated with a convenience store. Unlike, say, Hershey, Pa. - or Wawa's cherished dairying past - outsiders now tend to associate Wawa with Chee-tos, emergency toilet paper errands and Super Squeezers.

"People say to me, 'Where do you live?' " said Billy Willcox, a lifelong resident. "I say, 'Wawa.' They say, 'You live in a Wawa?' "

Willcox laughed.

He wasn't really upset - he grew up in a gorgeous 19th-century farmhouse overlooking a beautiful, lush green valley, and he has 11 horses to play with - when he isn't haying the fields, that is.

Let them wonder where Wawa is.

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