The History of Willistown Township, Pennsylvania
Willistown Township is located in the eastern part of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Willistown is five miles east of West Chester and approximately 20 miles from Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. Willistown is considered to be on the rural fringe of the Philadelphia metropolitan area. As of the 2020 Census, Willistown has 11,273 residents.
Early Years to 1700
Willistown was a part of the 50,000 acre Welsh Tract surveyed for William Penn in 1684. This tract was to be reserved for settlement by persons from North Wales and South Wales and the adjacent counties of Havefordshire, Shropshire, and Cheshire.
As it happened, much of the southern portion of Willistown Township was settled by second generation English Quakers who migrated up the Ridley Creek and Crum Creek valleys from earlier settlements nearer the Delaware River.
The Holmes Map of 1681, in which Willistown was referred to as Willeston, holds the first written reference to Willistown. Six original land grants were made by William Penn in the township, but it is unlikely that any of these landowners actually lived on the land at that time.
In 1699, Willistown was mentioned in the Chester County treasurer’s book listing the same six landowners. This shows that they were paying taxes at that time and also indicates that they were then living on the land.
Years 1700 - 1800
In the year 1704, Willistown became a township and was first represented at court in 1705 by Thomas Garrett, as constable.
William Penn established the first Indian reservation in the county in 1702. The Okehocking tribe of the Lenni Lenape Indians occupied the reservation after being forced out of their homeland along the lower Ridley and Crum creeks by the expansion of white settlers.
The 500 acre reservation, previously owned by Griffith Jones, was located mostly east of the Ridley Creek and north of Route 3, where it has been memorialized by a monument. The Okehockings occupied this area until about 1737 when their title to the tract was relinquished.
The first roads in Willistown were Indian trails. With the expansion of settlement in and around the township, new cart paths were needed. Goshen Road, laid out in 1710, was the main route used for travel between Willistown and Philadelphia.
The other remaining roads from that time are Sugartown Road (1710 and 1732), which was the first road to pass directly through the township, and Boot Road (1710). As a result, the Willistown Stone Crushing Company was organized to supply gravel for roads. The crusher, which was used to mesh large rocks for gravel, is still located within the township.
Agriculture was the main occupation through the 1700s in Willistown and dominated the lives of its early inhabitants. Major crops included wheat, rye, Indian corn, oats, and hay. Dairying was also common.
The Paoli Massacre of the Revolution occurred within the boundaries of Willistown Township as they existed at the time, where Monument Avenue and Warren Avenue exist today. A number of survivors from that battle retreated to and took refuge in a swamp which was then south of Paoli Pike. Those who were killed in the massacre were buried at the Paoli Memorial Grounds, presently located in Malvern Borough on Monument Avenue.
Scattered villages emerged in the late 1700s as business grew. The villages usually emerged at major crossroads and contained a school, tavern, general stores, and craft shops. Sugartown, White Horse, and Plumsock were the earliest villages in Willistown. In 1796, the following trades were represented in the township:
- 5 cordwainers
- 2 carpenters
- 2 tanners
- 2 masons
- 3 wheelwrights
- 1 weaver
- 1 saddler
- 3 storekeepers
- 1 cooper
- 2 fullers
- 1 innkeeper
- 1 clock and watchmaker
- 2 millers
- 1 tailor
- 1 chair-maker
- 1 smith
Years 1800 - 1900
As the population growth rate rapidly increased, railways, as well as roads, became important to the development of Willistown. During 1832, the first operating railroad in Pennsylvania was completed and its eastern terminus was situated in Willistown.
The railroad linked West Chester to the soon to be completed Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, later becoming the Pennsylvania Railroad, at what is today Malvern Borough. The West Chester Railroad originally used horses to pull its cars. The terminal was relocated to Frazer in the 1870s.
During most of the early years of the township, education was initiated and controlled by the Society of Friends. In what was to become the Village of Sugartown, the Goshen Meeting established a school in 1783, and another was later built near the present site of the Willistown Friends Meeting. Public schools were located in White Horse, Shady Grove, East Willistown, and Sugartown.
Throughout the 1870s a stagecoach traveled from West Chester to White Horse via Sugartown three days a week. During its run, the stagecoach delivered mail to the villages, and transported passengers to points along the route.
At this time the Philadelphia, Delaware, and Chester Central Railroad was also organized and surveyed through Willistown Township. The railroad was intended to stretch to West Chester from Newtown Square, passing near White Horse, Sugartown, and Goshenville.
Although the railroad was never completed west of Newtown Square, effects of grading for it may be seen in the township.
In 1865, Joaquin Bishop moved to Willistown from Rosemont and established one of the first platinum refineries in the United States located in Sugartown. Later, Bishop’s company moved to Malvern Borough when the factory was destroyed by fire in 1903.
Malvern Borough, formerly part of Willistown Township, was incorporated in 1889. Malvern’s roots reach back to 1871, when property was assembled in the north central part of the township by David Evans in order to establish a village.
Years 1900 - Present
In the early 1900s the township mainly developed agriculturally with the increasing use of more advanced farming techniques and improved machinery.
The electrification of the Paoli and Philadelphia commuter railways in the 1920s increased
suburbanization in the entire area and population grew rapidly. Nearby towns such as West Chester, Malvern, and Paoli become more accessible after the invention of the automobile during the 1900s.
As a result, the crossroads villages decreased in their economic importance to the people of Willistown. From that time on, suburbanization has had an important role in the township’s development, especially with the improvement of transportation methods.
During the early 1970s, a four-lane highway, Route 202, was built between King of Prussia and West Chester. Rapid development spread southward along the high tech corridor. The proximity of this highway to Willistown, and the availability of new jobs had increased the demand for housing in the township.
Considerable growth has occurred particularly along Route 30 (Lancaster Pike) and also along the southern edge of Willistown, bounded by Route 3 (West Chester Pike) which links with 202. Although Willistown Township has expanded in population, the rural character remains amid the suburban landscapes which surround it.