Ardmore Project Suburban Life in the Early 20th Century

Howard S Stillwagon

The Apple Never Falls Far From the Tree: Life and Political Career of Howard S. Stillwagon


In the history of the urban development in the United States, Philadelphia, once a contender for the nation’s capital, remained a hub for business activity and cultural diversity in the late nineteenth century.  As a major port city, Philadelphia focused on commerce, finance, industry and manufacturing.  The result was a rapidly expanding city, too small to hold all of the people that it was bringing in.  Philadelphia went through a period of expansion where those people who wanted a breath of fresh air and less cramped living quarters branched out beyond the city limits. These people were mainly wealthy men, and as they fled to the suburbs they brought with them the best parts of the city—the business and the commerce. 

One such rural area that was targeted was Ardmore, a small town on the Main Line, located a little ways outside of the city.  The perfect blank slate for these wealthy business investors, Ardmore serves as a microcosm for an analysis of the effects of these business tactics. Just like the movement of Ardmore from a rural to urban area, so Howard Spencer Stillwagon developed his life from an area concentrated in the rural farmland, to a life concentrated in public affairs.  He became relatively wealthy at the height of his career, but at a cost.  He became successful primarily due to the fact that the society set up by the wealthy investors catered to his every need.  He reached the height of his career in the early 1900s, and when he died in 1941, he left his family comfortably in a house valued at round $40,000.[1]   All in all, Howard left behind a great legacy, one that can teach important lessons about how to succeed in savvy politics as well as business proceedings. 

As stated previously, Howard’s life started from very modest means.  A native of Lower Merion, he was born on March 15, 1869 to William H. and Emma J. Stillwagon.  He was the first of three sons, his two other brothers being, Edward, four years younger, and William P., fourteen years younger.[2]  Being the oldest, Howard definitely felt the need to set a positive and impressive example for his siblings. 

With this progressive thought in mind, Howard developed into a “man of the people”.  Throughout his life, Howard took jobs that connected him to the community.  Whether he did so with a final purpose in mind is unknown, however it is interesting to note that even from his very first jobs, Howard was in direct contact with the people of the community.  This would probably serve him well later on in life.  Beginning at the age of sixteen, Howard worked on his father’s farm, while at the same time attending public school.  His father’s farm was not grand in scale, but rather very modest.  In an 1840 record of land holdings, William is recorded as having a small farm with only six laborers.[3]  At sixteen, Howard then enrolled in Pierce’s Business College while also taking up a position in the real estate business with a prominent agent in Lower Merion at the time—W. G. Lesher.[4]

The influence of the wealthy businessmen fleeing from the city can be clearly seen through the development of Lesher’s land.  In 1877, a map of Lower Merion Township shows that W.G. Lesher owned quite a bit of profitable but undeveloped land around the train station.[5]  By 1889, Lesher was wealthy enough to be placed on the board of founders for the establishment of the Merion Title and Trust Company.[6]  With the help of business investors, Lesher developed most of his land by 1896, helping to create an urbanized area of the suburbs in Lower Merion.[7]  At this point in time, Lesher lived on a large estate, but also left many large plots of land, most consisting of a few acres, to the Ardmore Real Estate Association.  The 1890 census shows that Lesher was very much content with his life and had settled down as a general store owner.[8]  There is no doubt that this time period had an influence on Howard.  Able to see the profitability of transforming farmland into urban spaces, or even simply the profitability of selling homes and land, Howard would carry this influence with him until later in life when he sets up his own real estate company.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the visions of the business elite were finally coming true—business was booming in Lower Merion.  Among many other things, the Auto car industry and the railroad were both bringing in much more commerce, but also, people. With the influx of people to these suburbs, there became a need for more housing.  Thus, Howard, being the cunning business man that he was, saw the advantages of working for Walter Bevan & Bro, a lumber retailer of Ardmore.  With the increase in numbers of people coming to work for the railroad and auto car industries, the need for housing rose exponentially.  This company however did not just concern themselves with homes.  They also were very much invested in the community.  In an article documenting the dedication of a grade school in 1900, Walter Bevan & Bro is mentioned.  Walter Bevan is listed as the chairman of the Building Committee of the Lower Merion School Board.[9]  It is comforting to note that the business men of Ardmore were not all out solely for themselves, but also came to realize the importance of investing in the community.

During his time working for Lesher and Bevan, Howard met, and then eventually came to be married to Miss M. Elizabeth Super on September 7, 1892.[10]  Elizabeth also grew up in Lower Merion and some of her life events paralleled those of Howard’s.  In the 1880s, both she and Howard were initiated into the Radnor Methodist Church, she in 1882, and Howard in 1885.[11]  Then, according to church records from 1890, both Elizabeth and Howard were listed in the same group for meetings with the minister or representative from the church.  This record makes it seem like these meetings were held outside of the church in a mutually agreed upon house, seeing as the areas of residence are listed after each name and each are mostly similar for each group.  Both Elizabeth and Howard are listed as living in Garrettville, in Lower Merion, so it is very possible that they not only established a connection through church, but also through their close proximity of living quarters.  Together they enjoyed a comfortable, but not terribly wealthy, life and were able to provide for their four children: Grace, Howard S Jr., Anna F. and Algernon B.R.

Just as the business men that helped to develop Lower Merion wanted the best of both worlds, so Howard too mirrored his life off of this desire.  While working for Lesher and Bevan, Howard probably met and made many connections in the community of Lower Merion.  Always looking for the path to most success in life, Howard saw an opportunity to begin his own real estate company.  However, he did not want to relinquish his connection with the community.  Thus began Howard’s two-fold career. On one hand he was a successful businessman, and on the other, he developed into a small time politician.  He most likely came to know even more people in the community through his job as Postmaster.  The position of postmaster was very advantageous because mail was extremely important at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.  Mail connected the community, and Howard realized this.  There was no good will in this move, but rather his ulterior desire of making more connections through this job in order to promote his business, was his real reason for pursuing this job. 

Thus, when Howard opened a real estate and brokerage business in the early twentieth century, his business was able to flourish. Handling both his job as Postmaster as well as real estate agent at the same time, he was able to see his business grow exponentially.  At first, he dealt with lower-scale, cheaper homes.  In an edition of the Ardmore Chronicle in 1902, Howard put an advertisement in the newspaper selling “twenty-five” new brick and frame homes”.[12] Then as late as 1910, Howard published advertisements for more expensive homes along the Mainline, but interestingly enough, he does not list his headquarters as being located in Ardmore or Bryn Mawr.  Instead, he lists his office as being located in Philadelphia, indicating the height of his success.[13]  Other evidence of his success can be seen in the 1910 census, where he is documented as living both on Old Lancaster Road, as well as being able to afford a servant, Eliza Scott, aged twenty two years old.[14]  By 1920, Howard moved his family to the more affluent road of Cricket Avenue.[15]

The most exciting part of Howard’s life is no doubt his political career.   Howard’s political career really began on September 28, 1898 when he was appointed postmaster for Rosemont (by the former President McKinley).[16]  But this would not be his last step into the public scene.  In addition to being post master he was also chairman of the Board of Directors of the Bryn Mawr Fire Co., and an active member, of which he became president for in 1910, of the Masonic Lodge.  In addition he was a member of the Choctaw Tribe, a secretary of the Rosemont Republican Association and secretary of the Board of Trustees of the Radnor Methodist church.[17] 

Not only did the prominent businessmen of Philadelphia set up successful business strategy in Ardmore, but they were also successful at dominating politics, and thus culture, in the area.  Lower Merion became, in the early twentieth century, a hub for Republicans.  Unsurprisingly, Howard was very much a part of the Republican community in the area.  Always trying to get a leg up in society, he saw a business opportunity that he could not refuse—if connected with the Republican party, he would then have hundreds of extra connections. As early as 1896, he involved himself in party politics.  The Dirigo Club, recognized as a Republican powerhouse throughout the state, was located in Ardmore.  In an 1896 issue of the Chronicle, Howard is cited as being on the entertainment committee responsible for organizing a progressive “Hearts” smoker”.[18]  In addition, Howard, just a son of a farmer, found himself widely accepted into this party in Lower Merion.  When Howard first ran for office he was glorified in the Ardmore Chronicle.  During his run for the position of clerk of courts, the April 1st, 1905 edition heralded Howard as the “representative self-made man”.  The front page article went on to highlight all of his many accomplishments, thereby insuring his election to this position.  On June 20th, sure enough, Howard was elected to this position.  By 1919, Howard went on to become magistrate of Lower Merion, and by the end of the year held the position of Justice of the Peace. 

Through his experience in business, as well as politics, Howard used his connections to his advantage.  He was acquaintances with the likes of Horatio Yocum, William A. Barker, and Algernon B. Roberts, all prominent men in the greater Philadelphia area.  Of these three men, Algernon played the most prominent role.  Algernon B. Roberts was born in 1879.[19]  Growing up in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, on “Pencoyd Farm”, Algernon was a part of a very wealthy and landed family.[20]  According to the 1913 atlas, “Pencoyd Farm” still remained a very large estate, and relatives had smaller, surrounding plots of land.  Roberts eventually went on to graduate from Princeton University and then The University of Pennsylvania Law School.  Almost immediately after joining the bar, Algernon became involved in local Lower Merion politics.  Not only was he successful in developing Ardmore into a “model government” with paved streets and sewage system, but he also became well known in the Senate where he wrote and promoted the Corrupt Practices Act.[21]  Born into wealth, Algernon had the choice to live an easy life off of family money, but instead he chose to serve the public through the voice of the government.

Algernon and Howard, both contemporaries, became very close.  Undoubtedly more than coworkers for the government, they became close friends, seeing as Howard would eventually name his son with the exact same name as Roberts.  Algernon supported Howard’s endeavors for political office, and in return probably received praise from Howard as he talked to members of the community.  Opening Howard to more and more political connections, there is evidence that some of them may have caught up with Howard.  More specifically, Howard’s career is not untainted seeing as he was very much a proponent of the acculturization of Native Americans.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Native American reform laws began to gain momentum.  Native Americans were starting to be persecuted by the United States government.  Interestingly, it is very likely that both Howard, as well as his father, William, were a part of this reformation movement.  Howard’s biography lists him somewhat deceivingly as a member of the Choctaw Tribe.  Being a native Pennsylvanian, and very much white, this seemed a bit incongruent.  However, a newspaper article from the Philadelphia Inquirer in February of 1900 sheds a bit of light on the situation.  Located on the entirety of page four, the article detailing the opening of Bryn Mawr’s new Public School building lists the people integral to its opening.  Among the items presented at the opening was a steel engraving of George Washington, given by “Choctaw Tribe, No. 306, Improved Order of Red Men, of Bryn Mawr”.[22]  This descriptive title is a clear indication of the motives of the society.  There is no doubt that this organization was set up in order to sympathize with the United States government and anti-Native American sentiment.

In Carlisle, just an hour away from Ardmore, a famous boarding school was set up, called the Carlisle Boarding School.  The nature of the organization for Red Men was very interesting.  In October of 1900, the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that the Choctaw Tribe, 306, of Bryn Mawr, held a gala night where one “paleface” was taught “the mysteries of Redmanship”.[23] In addition, as early as 1898, the Choctaw Tribe is seen being involved in community cultural affairs and providing entertainment at Powell Hall.[24]

While Howard reached prominence in the political scene, he still led a very busy life.  Always looking for more connections, Howard’s political life very much served as a vehicle through which he promoted his business.  Howard’s methods very much mirror those of the wealthy Philadelphian’s that participated in the urban flight just a few decades back.  Like these en, Howard saw a business opportunity and was not afraid to take it.  Ultimately, his savvy tactics were able to get him wealth, however, in reality, he did not become the huge political presence that he thought he would be.

[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 15th Census (1930), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 170, Sheet 10A.

[2] Ardmore Chronicle, 1 April 1905, 1 col. b

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Church and town records, 12th Census (1900), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0214, Sheet 1B.

[3] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 6th Census (1840), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, Roll: 478, Page: 262.

[4] Ardmore Chronicle, 1 April 1905, 1 col b.

[5] J.D. Scott, Combination Map of Montgomery County; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1877.

[6] Clifton S. Hunsicker, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania: A History. Internet Archive. Chapter XV- Banks and Banking,p. 188.

[7] Ellis Kiser and C.A. Potts, Atlas of Lower Merion, Montgomery County Including Part of Delaware County and Over brook Farms, Wynnefield & Overbrook Impr. Co., (Philadelphia, 1896).

[8] 6th Census (1840), Roll: 478, Page: 262.

[9] The Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 February 1900, 4.

[10] Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records (1890); Reel: 220.

[11] Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records (1884-1909); Reel:220.

[12] The Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 May 1902.

[13] The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 March 1910.

[14] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 13th Census (1910), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 0097, Sheet 17B.

[15] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 14th Census (1920), Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township, District 110, Sheet 3A.

[16] NARA, Record of Appointment of Postmasters (1832-1971); Roll: 111.   

[17] The Ardmore Chronicle, 1 April 1905, 1 col b.

[18] The Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 November 1896, 7.

[19] Class F154, Book R64. Memorial Proceedings of the Senate Upon the Death of Hon. Algernon B. Roberts, Late A Senator From the Twelfth District of Pennsylvania. 15 March 1909.  

[20] Ellis Kiser and J.M. Lathrop, Atlas of Properties on Main Line: Pennsylvania Railroad from Overbrook to Paoli: (Philadelphia, 1913).

[21] Class F154, Book R64. Memorial Proceedings of the Senate Upon the Death of Hon. Algernon B. Roberts, Late A Senator From the Twelfth District of Pennsylvania. 15 March 1909.  

[22] The Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 February 1900, 4.

[23] The Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 October 1900. 14.

[24] The Philadelphia Inquirer,  30 January 1898. 39.