Historical Markers
Hopewell Historic District Historical Marker
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Hopewell Historic District

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Intersection of Hopewell and Lower Hopewell Roads, Lower Oxford and E. Nottingham Twps

Dedication Date:
October 10, 1996

Behind the Marker

Southeast Pennsylvania is part of the Pennsylvania Piedmont, a region of rich soils, temperate climate, a long frost-free growing season (an average season of 195 to 210 days), and plentiful rainfall that was ideal for agriculture.
Stormy farmscape
John Neagle, Painting of Chester County Quaker Farm. 1825.
Most colonists became farmers, who sought out the rich lowlands that also had running water for fish and water power.

In the late 1700s, Philadelphia was the intellectual and cultural capital of North America. Southeastern Pennsylvania was the home of botanists William and markerJohn Bartram and markerBenjamin Smith Barton, astronomer David Rittenhouse, chemist Joseph Priestley, and the internationally renowned markerBenjamin Franklin, whose election to the Royal Society in 1756 had confirmed his status as one of the greatest scientific minds in the English-speaking world.

By the late eighteenth century, scientific inquiry was a popular hobby among wealthy gentleman farmers in Great Britain and the United States, some of whom - including Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington - turned their attention to agricultural experimentation. A small number of farms in southeastern Pennsylvania became laboratories for the testing of new tilling practices, fertilizers, horse-powered farm equipment, and newly introduced plants and animals to sustain soil fertility, improve productivity, and reduce labor. In the early 1800s some of these Pennsylvania farmers combined commercial agriculture with water-powered industrial enterprises. And around these enterprises grew rural villages and communities that came to represent the promise of an America in which people, machines, and nature worked as a harmonious whole. Prominent among these agricultural tinkerers and community builders was the Dickey family, who built a thriving mill and farm complex in southwest Chester County.
Winter scene of the rear view of Hopewell Academy, A "V" shaped large brick building with a car in the yard.  There is a picket fence in foreground.
Rear view of Hopewell Academy, Hopewell Township, PA, 1938.

The Dickey family immigrated from Ulster, Ireland to Pennsylvania in the 1730s, where Samuel Dickey Jr. settled on a 260-acre farm he called "Palmyra" in East Nottingham Township. Samuel III, also a farmer, showed a keen interest in technology and invention. He patented a kitchen stove, experimented with horse-powered spinning machines, and became fascinated with the mechanical process then revolutionizing the production of cloth - the water-powered textile mill. In 1807, Samuel III became an honorary member of the markerPhiladelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. Two years later, he moved to the valley of Hopewell Creek, whose waters were steady and forceful enough to spin water wheels. Within a few years Samuel and two of his brothers had constructed water-powered mills that produced cotton yarn and finished cotton cloth. They soon diversified their prospering enterprises to include saw and gristmills, a blacksmith's shop, and a wagon making shop.

The brothers applied the same willingness to experiment on their farms, which they used as laboratories for progressive farming and developed into large-scale commercial operations based around grain production, dairy operations, and orchards. By treating their fields with manure, crushed bone, and ashes, they were able to produce 76 to 116 bushels of corn per acre at a time when 30 bushels per acre were common. E. J. Dickey developed a seed drill for planting corn, which he patented in 1849, and a butter-working machine guaranteed to "work 100 pounds of butter in fifteen minutes and with extreme ease to the operator, thus making the most arduous part of the dairy labor easy, and at the same time improving butter both in appearance and keeping quality." (How well that butter-working machine worked is unclear.) The brothers were the first in the region to use a water ram, which by lifting water from the creeks at the base of the valley to the fields above, enabled them to farm land that previously had only enough water for the grazing of cattle.
Landscape photo of Hopewell historic district
Hopewell Historic District

The Dickey brothers built a community around their enterprises. They constructed housing for their workers - many of them skilled workers from the British Isles - and a school, which by the 1840s, had both a liberal arts and a practical curriculum. Active in the abolition movement, Reverend John Miller Dickey in 1854 helped found the Ashmun Institute - today's Lincoln University - the first school in the nation to provide higher education for African American students.

The Dickeys' world collapsed, however, during the Civil War. After the family went bankrupt in 1862, farming continued on the Dickeys" lands. Indeed, the main orchard on the Samuel Dickey farm continued into the 1940s.

Today, the Hopewell Historic District is markerstill an agricultural community, its buildings and landscape little changed since the late nineteenth century. Located just a few miles off Route 1 outside Oxford, the district is a living reminder of the American rural enterprises of the early nineteenth century, and of a time when water power was the energy force that helped to drive industrialization in America.
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