Keeping The Past Present Group Hopes To Save Darby Borough's Historic Sites.

Posted: April 21, 1997

DARBY BOROUGH — Swedes settled along the creek here in the 17th century. Then in colonial times, this town bustled with commerce as a stopping-off point between Philadelphia and Baltimore. By the 1800s, Darby had become a villa for Philadelphia's elite and a stop along the Underground Railroad.

Today, few traces of Darby's rich history remain. Two-hundred-year-old stone dwellings on Main Street are pinned between 20th-century rowhouses. The original Borough Hall and the Bunting Freedom Friendship House - built before the Civil War, when Darby encompassed all of eastern Delaware County - lie abandoned.

Concerned that Darby's history is going the way of the horse and buggy, townspeople have formed the Darby Borough Historical and Preservation Society.

``No one seems to realize what a historic community we live in,'' said Skiles F. Montague, 64, president of the group and owner of one of Darby's oldest homes. ``Everybody gets the impression that Darby is nothing, why bother with it.''

Plans to preserve Darby's past have been talked about for years, often on borough anniversaries. John F. Child, 82, whose ancestors settled in Darby as far back as 1682, remembers participating in efforts to preserve at least six century-old homes in his earlier years. None was successful.

``The question was always asked: `You want to preserve the building? Well, why don't you buy it?' '' he said. Cynical politicians and a lack of money were always the problem, he said.

Only the Darby Friends Meeting House has been recognized by the National Register; the two-story stone building was built by Quakers in 1805 on what is now Main Street, said John E. Pickett, the Delaware County planning director.

The Darby Free Library - a two-story, red-brick building built in 1872 at 10th and Main Streets - and neoclassical Woodburn Mansion have been deemed eligible for National Register recognition, but no one has submitted petitions on their behalf, he said.

``Darby hasn't had a local group providing volunteers,'' Pickett said, noting that historical societies - such as the one being formed - often provide the impetus for action.

Lindy Constance Wardell, 68, who has lived in the borough just nine years, is generally credited with sparking recent interest in the town's history. Walking near her home three years ago, Wardell said, she noticed an assortment of worn gravestones - many overturned - amid the weeds and beer cans in a two-acre lot near the Mount Zion Cemetery on Springfield Road.

For a genealogy buff who had spent hundreds of hours touring cemeteries in her native New York, the stones were the discovery of a lifetime.

``I couldn't rest till I found out who was buried there,'' Wardell said.

After some initial research, Wardell founded the Friends of the Darby Methodist Meeting Cemetery, which obtained title to the unowned land and cleared the site of debris. The graves, some 300 in all, included Civil War soldiers and relatives of Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone, Wardell found.

Last year, many of the group's volunteers made plans to launch the historical society.

Though the society still needs to elect three board members, organizers are already mulling plans. Wardell said she hoped the group would begin seeking funds for the restoration of the old Borough Hall on Ninth Street.

Montague, standing outside his 127-year-old Main Street home - the roof is decorated with a small airplane - said he wanted to see the street declared a Historic District by the National Trust so the borough could sell itself through its history.

``We could be the next Manayunk,'' he said, a twinkle in his eye. ``We could bring in people from all around. We could have Main Street lined with specialty shops.''

comments powered by Disqus