Leav­ing his mark on Ch­ester County his­tory

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - Bill Ret­tew

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.

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