The history of the Hartranft Birthday house

Original 1773 painted decoration in the German baroque style found
in the Hartranft House.
Original 1773 painted decoration in the German baroque style found in the Hartranft House.

Situated on Cross Road between New Hanover Square Road and Sanatoga Road, the Hartranft birthplace is the most historically significant house in New Hanover Township. Currently owned by Jean Magilton, who inherited it from her father Joseph Kunkle, this early Colonial house is the real deal in every way.

The house is named as the birthplace of Major General John Hartranft, Civil War general and later Governor of Pennsylvania. But the story of the house starts in colonial days

With the arrival of Rev. John Philip Leydich in 1748, the property became the parsonage and church farm for the Swamp Reformed Church and school. Before that in 1744 Boehm (first minister) said in a report the congregation at Falckner Schwammhad as yet no dwelling house for either pastor or reader. The reader here was John Reifschneider the schoolmaster.

Unlike most old houses, the exact date of construction of this house is not difficult to pin down. We know the following facts about the chain of title to this church farm:


Henry Vanbeber (spelled Vababer, also Bieber) bought 500 acres from merchant John Henry Sprogell in 1718 which was part of the original tract of 22,377 for which Daniel Falkner had been agent.

In 1722 Vanbeber sold the 216 acres to Philip Rinhard Erhard of Lancaster county.

In 1738 Erhard sold it to Michael Baughman, shoemaker, of New Hanover Township for fifty pounds.

In 1750 Baughman gave half of it, 103 acres, to the congregation as appears from the following record: and said Michael Buckman (Baughman) did give grant, etc.; unto Andrew Smith in trust for the use of the Reformed Church and school now located in New Hanover Township all that the above described messuage and tract of 103 acres, in trust for the intended use and behoof of church and school. (Reformed Church history).

This farm property was later sold by the church in 1836, but John Hartranft was born there in 1830, so its use as a parsonage likely stopped sometime before 1830.

When Baughman gave the farm to the church in 1750, was a house already there? Perhaps. The deed was not just for the tract but for the messuage and tract. Messuage (pronounced mess-wij) is a legal term for house and associated buildings. That indicates there was a house there, but probably not the house that is there today.

Documents confirm that the existing house was built specifically as a Reformed Church parsonage in 1773. Among the items listed in the Church treasurers full account of March 2, 1774, under the heading The expenses for building house and barn on the congregations land are as follows:

(The account lists a variety of building expenses including).

3000 feet of pine and cedar boards

1500 feet poplar and oak boards

Cedar shingles

7 lb. Ceiling nails

Lime, nails, glass

Fees paid to carpenters, masons, painters, plasterers.

All told it came to 178 pounds, 2 shillings and 4 pence including 1 pound 3s. and 6d. to Jacob Dengler for tailor work; perhaps he made curtains.

As told in A History of Americas Oldest German Reformed Church the minister incurred an additional 18 pounds of expense for rum for the workers, (five gallons), paint and painters wages. This was no small building project. These were major expenses. Since they are specifically listed as expenses for building house and barn on congregation land combined with the existing architectural details of the house, we can be confident with the construction date of1773.

This house is relatively spacious. Built of rough stone, the walls are about thirty inches thick. A curious feature seen from the cellar is that the joists for the first floor had a one and one-half inch deep grove hewn into the sides down their whole length. Into this groove and between the joists were fitted short boards and on top of these boards was spread a layer of lime-sand mortar about three inches thick. Although now removed except for a few remnants, this construction served to insulate the first floor living area from the cellar damp and cold. This practice was common in colonial stone houses in this region. A very similar feature remains in the Antes House (built 1736).

Unlike farmhouses of the day the front door didnt open into the kitchen. The kitchen was in the back. The front door opened into a kind of anteroom where the visitor was faced with an open stairway with fancy banister. Most early farm houses in New Hanover had two doors into the kitchen and a narrow winding staircase behind a door on a gable wall.

The most remarkable features of the house are interior wood surfaces painted in German Baroque decoration. That these still remain intact is remarkable. Historians have pronounced them unlike anything else in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Next week: the historical significance