Leaving his mark on Chester County history
Local historian, locksmith and author Keith Smith tells the story behind the many historical markers in the area.
“Site of the first schoolhouse in West Chester (Turks Head). Built of logs in 1760. Used as a hospital for American wounded after the Battle of Brandywine Sept. 1777. Some soldiers died and were buried here in the schoolyard.”
Until local historian, locksmith and author Keith Smith told me about this historic marker, I didn’t know it existed.
It’s not hidden. The marker sits within a fenced in flower bed and is in plain view. I’d walked past it hundreds of times. It is in front of Iron Hill Brewery, where Woolworth’s once stood, at the corner of Gay and High streets in West Chester.
Another similar marker with the same text stands nearby. Until Smith pointed it out- and without reading those markers - who would have known that there was such history on this corner?
For an August 2014 column I’d walked this street and counted 231 signs. Amazingly, all those signs were located just within a single block on Gay Street, between High and Church streets.
“People walk by them every day and don’t know they’re there,” said Smith about historic markers.
Thankfully Smith has been out there on the roadways for about eight years snapping photos and documenting such treasures.
He has sifted through the volumes of photos and information to compile a book, “That’s Going To Leave a Marker … Historical Markers in Chester County & Just Beyond its Borders.”
The locksmith is also a regular contributor to a national website, the Historical Marker Database or www.hmdb.org
Smith has added about 100 historical markers to the website. He even listed two within a few days of their placement. For both the database and his book, Smith takes photos of a marker, lists the coordinates, notes which side of the road a marker is located on and transcribes the text and notes of the person or organization that erected the sign.
Most importantly, he adds to the information which otherwise is limited by the size of the typeface and sign, thus presenting a deeper synopsis of local history.
For his job, the only gig he’s ever known, Smith travels extensively.
“The nature of being a locksmith is that you end up traveling to different places every day, all over Chester and Delaware counties.
While out and about, Smith will spot a marker, often asking his understanding wife if he can pull over and stop.
Friends and acquaintances also supply tips.
“It’s exciting,” Smith said. “I’ve also had people say, ‘Have you seen this?’”
Why is it significant that we know a little about the first West Chester schoolhouse and site of a Revolutionary War grave site at a major borough intersection?
“Even though the school here no longer exists, its location is saved for posterity,” Smith said.
Smith noted that small Southeastern Pennsylvania towns like West Chester helped establish America.
“It’s a little piece of history that tells a story about where you’re standing,” Smith said about historic markers. “After visiting a marker, I can write more about it so the story makes more sense. People want to know the back story.”
Smith is a regular contributor to two local Facebook sites, “You know you’re from West Chester When …” and “West Chester PA Reflections,” where he posts sev-
eral times a week.
People are also the subject of many markers. One of the West Chester East Class of 1980 grad’s favorite plaques notes the spot where the last living Lenni-Lenape Indian was born.
The marker sits near the Brandywine Valley Visitor Center, at the entrance to Longwood Gardens.
The marker reads that Indian Hannah was “the last of the Indians in Chester County” and was born 300 yards to the east.
That information is no longer fully accurate.
The marker was moved to where it now stands, a quarter mile east of where it once was. The move of Rt. 52, between Rt. 1 and Rt. 926, necessitated the marker’s relocation.
That first school in West Chester led a trend. Oh my, what you learn when you read and listen to Keith Smith.
Chester County soon became a hotbed for schools, attracting students from near and far. Those schools included a Quaker school, Westtown School, which opened in 1799.
One local historic marker was toppled over onto its face. After the state debunked the theory that General Lafayette stayed at what was referred to as his headquarters during the Battle of Brandywine, the state park marker was flipped over.
Smith also talked about those blue and yellow Pennsylvania markers, though few are included in the book since the text is copyrighted.
Smith laughed when he talked about a chance encounter with a state crew from Lancaster, or what he refers to as the “Holy Grail” working on state markers along the Pennsylvania/Delaware border.
These types of markers, made from aluminum and cast iron are the most prevalent type in the country.
Don’t expect a historic marker to pop up in your backyard anytime soon, no matter how significant the spot.
“The process of having a (state sponsored) marker made for a particular location is an arduous one, there is an approval process, and the person or group that proposes the marker is responsible for its payment,” wrote Smith in “That’s going to leave a Marker…”
Toward the tail end of the book, the author suggests future markers that he’d like to see. And why not?
I’ll agree. A sign noting the former site of Lenape Park is a fine idea. And West Chester icons the Mansion House, Sharples Separator Works, Schramm Inc., and the Farmer’s and Mechanics Building also need signage.
Smith even suggests a whimsical mock marker reading, “Keith loves Kathy!” (his wife).
So, if you see somebody intently peering up, along the side of a road, it might just be Keith Smith. Stop and take a look. The view might be quite informative and interesting.
Smith’s new book on markers is available at his brother’s shop, Kyles Auto Tags, 529 E. Gay Street, at the Old Food Fair Center. Or go online to www.lulu.com/spotlight/keythsmith
Smith has also published the first of four books concerning West Chester, with a second soon to follow, “How the Streets Got Their names … Book one: Streets of the Southwest Neighborhoods.”
Smith will talk about historical markers at East Brandywine Township Building on Sunday Nov. 20 at 3:30 p.m.
Local historian Keith Smith poses with one of his favorite historic markers at Borough Hall in West Chester.
One of West Chester’s historic markers seems “hidden” in a flower bed in front of Iron Hill Brewery at High and Gay streets in the borough.