Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Some call it a time capsule from the eighteenth century, others, a place hallmarked by beauty and tranquility, ambition and greed, deceit and scan­dal, joy and happiness, sadness and sorrow – all of which have left an indelible spiritual imprint. But mostly, Graeme Park, a country estate less than twenty miles north of Philadelphia in Horsham, Montgomery County, is a place of pure paradox.

Sycamores line the drive in straight rows. Elsewhere, walnut trees, pin oaks, and catalpas punctuate the rolling landscape, while undulating cornfields recall the agrarian roots of the estate. A pond, fed by cooling springs, is a place of serenity. In the mansion – one of three buildings, includ­ing a summer kitchen and a visitors center – the chaste, uncluttered rooms make a perfect foil for the stunning Georgian period architectural elements that stand out in dramatic relief.

The history of Graeme Park, now adminis­tered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), dates to 1706, when a tract of five thousand acres in the vicinity of Horsham was acquired by Samuel Carpenter, a Penn grantee. Within a decade, though, the property and its owner were touched by scandal. Carpenter had served as treasurer for the colony during Queen Anne’s War, but was one of a group of Quaker politicians who resisted spending money for the effort. During his administration, Carpenter withheld two thousand pounds sterling that had been earmarked for colonial defense. Whether Carpenter was personally dishonest or was acting to uphold his pacifist convictions remains, nearly three centuries later, unknown. In either case, after his death in 1714 Carpenter’s heirs were forced to cede twelve hundred acres to the province to compensate for the shortfall.

At the time, Sir William Keith (1669-1749) served as Pennsylvania’s provincial governor. The first years of the native Scot’s administra­tion were peaceful and prosperous. He mediat­ed disputes between Quakers and Anglicans, Assembly and Council, Pennsylvania and the Lower Counties (now Delaware), and settlers and Native Americans. Beginning in 1722, the colonies experienced a severe recession. In Pennsylvania, trade was curtailed and unemploy­ment was high; grain piled high and rotted on the docks of Philadelphia. Out of compassion for the common people, Keith strove to revive the economy. By convincing the Assembly to establish a loan office that issued paper money with private owners’ land and buildings as collateral, he gave Pennsylvania an efficient medium of exchange. With his vision, business and commerce sprang again to life.

As fate would have it, Keith was the official who had, with the Provincial Assembly’s approval, seized Carpenter’s land on behalf of the province. In 1717, Keith acquired this acreage for himself as part of his annual salary, possibly as compensation for having outfitted two sloops to pursue the pirate Blackbeard. He added five hundred additional acres to these holdings by 1721. When the recession occurred the following year, Keith – ever the opportunist – proposed using the Horsham property to malt otherwise unusable grain, distill liquors, and possibly brew beer and aJe. Although a malt house was erected, there is no evidence that it was ever used for its intended pur­pose. Governor Keith engaged in other business ventures as well, including the ownership of a copper mine in disputed ter­ritory west of the Susquehanna River, and a foundry in Delaware.

Construction of his mansion at Horsham began in 1722. The three-story stone structure epitomizes the colonial vernacular style, with arches emphasizing both windows and doors. Called “Fountain Low” because of its natural springs, the property served as a summer country retreat, far away from Philadelphia’s high temperatures, stifling humidity, and out­breaks of disease. High ceilings – measuring thirteen feet, two inches on the first floor and nine feet, eight inches on the third floor – helped the summer heat to rise and escape from the rooms.

Unfortunately for Keith, his conviction that Pennsylvania must inevitably revert from proprietary status to direct royal control so much alienated Hannah Penn, the founder’s widow and chief proprietary from 1712 to 1727, and the Provincial Council that he was ousted as governor in 1726. Still popular among the citizenry, though, Keith was elected to the Provincial Assembly in 1726 and 1727, but failed to win the speaker’s position. He returned to England, in hopes of securing a more lucrative position, while his wife and family remained in Philadelphia. The hapless Keith failed to raise funds to return to the colony or to bring his family to England. He died in debtor’s prison in 1749.

When Keith sailed for England in 1728, Fountain Low was placed in trust. One of the trustees was Dr. Thomas Graeme (1688-1772), husband of Keith’s stepdaughter Anne Diggs. Graeme purchased the property in 1739, intent on creating a summer residence for entertaining appropriate to his social status as Port Physician for Philadelphia and a judge of the Supreme Court of the colony.

Although the exterior of the stone building could be altered little, Graeme’s vision for the interior blended practicality with the prevailing English style. He renamed the estate “Graeme Park” and enthusiastically embarked on ambitious refurbishing projects. His taste was impeccable. Under his stewardship, the mansion became an elegant summer estate by the 1750s.

The sheer number and scope of improvements Graeme made to the house and property are astonishing. Stairs were added, removed, and relocated. Exquisite Georgian paneling was installed. Closets were created. Rooms were partitioned. Walls were moved. The kitchen was moved to an outbuilding, and the former kitchen remodeled as a dining room. The malt house was turned into a dormitory … the list seems endless.

Museum assistant Carl Klase likens eighteenth-century Graeme Park to a busy and noisy modern-day construction site. Workers, he believes, were constantly busy – installing panel­ing, digging large formal gardens, creating a deer park with large hedges and double trenches to contain the animals, and completing major projects that Graeme envisioned.

It was not an easy task to keep up with these renovations, satisfy the needs of family members and their guests, and main­tain three hundred acres of cultivated land and pastures. “To have supported a household of that size is signif­icant,” says Stephen S. Miller, historic site admin­istrator for Graeme Park. “By the means of the day it took even longer. They had three hundred acres of labor-intensive operations here.” Graeme converted what had been a center hall in Keith’s time into an office – not for his medical practice but to manage the business affairs of a thriving plantation.

Although early Pennsylvania earned a well­-deserved reputation for religious tolerance and an abolitionist stance, slavery did exist in the colony and at Graeme Park. It was not until 1780 that the Commonwealth passed the Gradual Emancipation Act that caused slavery to dwindle slowly. Graeme likely owned a dozen or more slaves who tackled the grimmer tasks at the property. He also hired indentured servants from the British Isles. A current initiative at Graeme Park is delving into the lives these people led. “We are involved in reinterpreting the history and researching to gain a new perspective on groups that have previously been underrepre­sented,” Miller says. “Our interpretive direction is not to lose the story we have now, but to include other historically impor­tant groups such as African Americans and bonded Scots-Irish labor.

“We have the historical documents to undertake this pro­ject,” he adds. “‘Raising Our Sites’ is an initiative under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council to link acade­mic and public historians in order that stories about these groups are told accurately and more frequently. This is one way that Graeme Park reaches out to a larger community.”

It was during Thomas Graeme’s tenure that the property enjoyed its heyday. Guests making the six-hour, seventeen-mile journey from Philadelphia were treated lavishly by their gra­cious host. Graeme was proud of his estate, and after 1765 he spent more and more time there during all seasons. On his death in 1772, the estate was inherited by his daughter Elizabeth Graeme (1736-1801), perhaps the most haunting fig­ure of all in the saga of the historic manor. Despite her life of privilege, and the advantages of breeding and education, cir­cumstances conspired against Elizabeth. For two decades after she took title to the property, she and Graeme Park were trou­bled by misfortune.

Elizabeth was the youngest of Thomas and Anne Diggs Graeme’s nine children. Only one brother and two sisters sur­vived to adulthood. Unlike many females of the day, “Betsy” received a well-rounded education, and particularly enjoyed music, French, and Bible study. She had fallen in love with Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son William Franklin (1730-1813) when she was seventeen, and the two became engaged. Neither father was happy with the romance, in part due to a difference of political opinion. Benjamin Franklin, disenchanted with the Proprietaries, favored a royal government for Pennsylvania. Graeme, on the other hand, preferred the Proprietary system. When Franklin traveled to England in 1757, William accompanied him. Absence did not make his heart grow fonder, however. The distance, combined with the cou­ple’s political incompatibility, led to discontent. When William returned to the colonies, he was accompanied by a new wife, also named Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Graeme was devastated. She became a recluse, suffered frequent headaches, and experienced a decline in her overall health. One of her distractions was the painstaking translation from French into English of Télémaque written by Francois de Salignac de la (Mothe) Fénélon (1651-1715), a philosopher known for his modern teaching ideas, including a 1687 treatise on the education of girls. Fenelon’s twenty-four volume novel, published in 1699, about the mythical Ulysses’ son, presents his ideas about a utopia where power was tem­pered by a people filled with civic virtue, his position on the dangers of absolutism, and a poorly veiled critique of King Louis XIV that caused the author great disgrace. Elizabeth Graeme’s fascination – obsession, actually – with this consuming translation alarmed those about her.

As a tonic, her parents suggested a trip abroad. She sailed to Great Britain, where she visited relatives in Scotland, was intro­duced to King George III, and participated in fashionable pri­vate gatherings frequented by important literary and political personages. A cruel hand of fate once again slapped Elizabeth. While she sojourned in England, her mother died. She immedi­ately returned home and assumed the role of hostess for her father, both in Philadelphia and at Graeme Park.

Inspired by the salons she had attended abroad, Elizabeth Graeme inaugurated her own series of “Attic Evenings.” These lively gatherings attracted luminaries from throughout the region, including the illustrious physician, Benjamin Rush (1745-1813); noted musician, statesman, author, and poet Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791); and poet Annis Boudinot Stockton (1736-1801). Elizabeth Graeme was known well for her poetry, signing many of her works “Laura,” a romantic reminder of Petrarch’s great love who inspired the Renaissance humanist’s brilliant writing.

During one of her Saturday evening salons, Elizabeth was introduced to Henry Hugh Fergusson, a poor but charming Scottish immigrant. Although Elizabeth was ten years older than Fergusson, the attraction was mutual and immediate. Her father disapproved of the match, but his strident opposition went unheeded. Elizabeth Graeme and Henry Hugh Fergusson secretly wed on April 21, 1772. The newlyweds kept their mar­riage a secret from Elizabeth’s father.

In September, Fergusson gave his bride an ultimatum; if Elizabeth would not tell her father she and Fergusson had married, he would. Elizabeth reluctantly agreed to break the news. On September 4, as Dr. Graeme took his daily walk about the expansive grounds of Graeme Park, Elizabeth watched and waited for his return to tell him of her marriage. She never had the opportunity, though.

I sat on a bench at the window and watched him coming up the avenue. It was a terrible task to perform. I was in agony: at every step he was approaching nearer. As he reached the tenant-house, near the gate, he fell and died. Had I told him the day before, as I thought of doing, I should have reproached myself for his death and gone crazy.

Immediately following Graeme’s death, the Fergussons made Graeme Park their home, hoping to settle down and embark on a life of farming. By right of marriage, Elizabeth’s husband gained title to her family home. Henry Hugh Fergusson became active in the communi­ty. He became director of the Hatborough Union Library and was commissioned a justice of the peace for Philadelphia County. All appeared normal.

Then, in September 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, Fergusson sailed to England. He clearly sympa­thized with the Crown, and Elizabeth advised him to stay away until the hostil­ities were resolved. Fergusson returned to America in 1777 and sailed to Philadelphia from New York to join Sir William Howe’s army. He was appointed commissary of American prisoners dur­ing the occupation of Philadelphia and, despite his political leanings, he – mir­roring his American counterpart, Elias Boudinot – worked to improve the con­ditions for the prisoners in his custody.

Fergusson urged his wife to meet him in Philadelphia, but she declined to cross the line between the British and Americans. The pair met later in Germantown, and Fergusson asked her to deliver a letter from the Anglican min­ister Jacob Duch&eacute (1737-1798) to George Washington, suggesting that the general renounce the Declaration of Independence and negotiate for peace. Ignorant of its contents, Elizabeth consented to deliver the missive. Washington was insulted, and Elizabeth’s loyalty to the American cause became suspect.

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson failed to learn her lesson. While staying with her brother-in-law, the loyalist Charles Stedman, she met George Johnstone, one of three Britons of Lord Carlisle’s Peace Commission. Johnstone had been authorized to offer the colonies almost anything – short of independence – to end the war. He desperately wanted to convince Congressman Joseph Reed to influence Washington. Johnstone used Elizabeth to deliver a sealed message to Reed. The message turned out to be a bribe, and even more vilification was directed her way.

When the British withdrew from Philadelphia, Henry Fergusson fled to England, never to see his wife again. The situa­tion went from bad to worse for Elizabeth. Partly because of her ill-advised involvement in delivering Tory messages to the Americans, and partly because of her husband’s activities, Graeme Park was seized under the Confiscation Act of 1778 as property belonging to a traitor. After three years of legal wran­gling, and primarily with the support of loyal and influential friends, Elizabeth regained title to the property in 1781. The con­tents of Graeme Park were sold at auction, but she was able to purchase several pieces.

Elizabeth readjusted to life at Graeme Park with one servant, one slave, and a friend, Eliza Stedman. She lived quietly for the following ten years, a far cry from the bustling and exciting planta­tion life she had known at Graeme Park as a young woman. “Every event of my marriage and all that relates to my husband,” she wrote one year before her death, “is as recent in my memory as though it had occurred but yesterday. Though strange, out of twenty-eight years, I lived but two and a half with him, the period of separation exceeds that of the celebrated Ulysses and Penelope.”

Debts and poor health forced the frail Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson to sell her beloved manor in 1791 to William Smith, her nephew by marriage. “Her life,” writes one historian, “had been filled with both tragedy and suspenseful insecurity, yet with her indomitable strength of character, she rose above what would seem insurmountable odds, retaining a position of respect through her grace and dignity.”

After her death in 1801, the main section of the property, including the manor house, was sold to Samuel Penrose (1748- 1835), a Quakertown, Bucks County, farmer. He and his family lived in the mansion only until a new house could be built on the grounds. The Penroses respected Keith House, considering it “a sacred relic of antiquity worthy of being preserved.” Four generations of the Penrose family adopted this philosophy of stewardship throughout more than a century of ownership. The Penrose family, which owned the property until 1920, was responsible more than any other force for keeping the legacy of the country estate intact. The creed of William Penrose (1782- 1863), as recalled by a granddaughter, influenced the clan: “To be well born was not a cause for pride but for thankfulness. It entailed a great responsibility for one should learn to live up to his heritage.”

“What I find intriguing,” says Stephen Miller, “is that people began to view Graeme Park as a historic site as early as 1810. The Penroses were bringing people in for tours. This was the Federalist period, when Americans were looking for images and icons for the new nation, looking back at our own history. Graeme Park was one of the first places that was viewed that way.”

In 1920, the property was acquired by Welsh and Margaret Strawbridge. Welsh Strawbridge, an investment broker with the firm J. & W. Strawbridge, was a prominent Philadelphia socialite who served as master of the hounds for the Whitemarsh Hunt Club. The Strawbridges maintained Keith House, and in 1958 gave forty-two acres, including the mansion and a barn built by the Penroses, to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Administered for the Commonwealth by the PHMC, and supported by the Friends of Graeme Park, the pop­ular visitors attraction has been entered in the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as a National Historic Landmark. If not for the Penroses and the Strawbridges, it’s highly unlikely that the mansion – and its history – would have survived through the years.

The Keith House remains much the same as it appeared in Thomas Graeme’s day, and is open for guided tours. Only a sampling of representative pieces of furniture have been placed in the manor house to enable visitors to concentrate on the building’s greatest treasures: its architecture and design. Throughout the building, visitors are shown evidence of Thomas Graeme’s renovations. In the dining room, originally the kitchen, the fireplace was twice made smaller to better suit a more formal space. The original iron cooking bar is still visible to those who peek up the chimney. The paint has been analyzed as “Spanish brown,” but horizontal lines found under the wall­paper remain a mystery. The dining room pantry door is the only interior door that remains from Governor Keith’s residen­cy. It has a typical 1720s pattern with the small panels in the center, not on top as was popular later.

The parlor, perhaps, offers the best insight into Thomas Graeme’s image for his home. The most elaborate room, the twenty-three by twenty-three foot parlor was redesigned to adhere to the principles of Georgian-style symmetry. Balance was so important that a false door was added at the left of the fireplace to match a functioning door on the right. The room retains its eighteenth-century paint, once glossy white. Magnificent wooden paneling and molding have survived intact, and remind visitors of the luxury enjoyed by the owners of Graeme Park. The floorboards in this room are original, and guides tell visitors that they might very well be standing in the place where William Franklin, Francis Hopkinson, Elizabeth Graeme – or any one of a number of colonial period luminaries – once stood.

Carl Klase inventories pieces the parlor contained in the mid-eighteenth century: “Three mirrors, paintings of birds, twelve plaster heads of the poets, presumably Greek, three tables, twelve chairs, and a clock.” A harpsichord in the parlor resembles one that Elizabeth described playing. As they ascend the staircase, visitors notice the brass eyelets that once anchored bars used to secure carpet runners. To appreciate the Graemes’ affluence, one might consider that while less than two percent of Philadelphia’s houses were fitted with carpets, Graeme laid carpeting on the stairs of his summer home. The second and third floors contain bedrooms, storerooms, and a nursery. Metal bumps on the wall are all that remain from an elaborate bell­-pull system used to summon servants.

Looking out an upstairs window at Graeme Park, one can see where fields of corn, rye, wheat, oats, flax, and barley once grew, where black walnut trees, red pines, maples, and sycamores provided wood, bark, and oils – as well as beauty and shade. As the deafening roar of a huge C-130 taking off from the nearby Naval Air Station Willow Grove jolts visitors back to the twentieth century, it’s tempting to feel nostalgic – despite the unhappy days – for the peaceful era of the Pennsylvania plantation. Yet over the din of the military instal­lation, voices whisper from the past-telling of political upheaval, the passion of love and the heartbreak of love lost, and the pride of ownership of a magnificent architectural her­itage – and one is grateful for the richness offered by this jewel­-like time capsule, Graeme Park.

Graeme Park is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.; and Sunday, from noon to 4 P.M. There is an admission fee. For information, write: Graeme Park, 859 County Line Road, Horsham, Pennsylvania 19044; or telephone (215) 343-0965 or 343-2223. Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone or write the his­toric site in advance of their visit to discuss their needs.

Montgomery County beckons visitors with many intriguing historic sites and fascinating museums. Among these popular attractions are Mill Grove at Audubon, the first home of natural­ist and artist John James Audubon in North America (see “John James Audubon, Squire of Mill Grove and Genius of Art and Science” by Stephen May in the Summer 1996 edition). Pennypacker Mills in Schwenksville, the turn of the century Colonial Revival-style mansion owned by Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker, interprets the lifestyle of the Pennypacker family from 1902 to 1916. Readers interested in the Colonial and Colonial Revival styles of architecture will want to include Hope Lodge in Fort Washington in their itinerary (sec “Through A Looking Glass: Colonial and Colonial Revival Hope Lodge” by Lorett Treese in the Spring 1997 issue.) The Highlands, also located in Fort Washington, is a handsome mansion built in 1796-1798 as the summer home of Anthony Morris, active in both state and national government and political circles. The Morton Homestead, Prospect Park, preserves the seven­teenth-century log structure which was home of the Swedish grandfather of John Morton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In Worcester, the Peter Wentz Farmstead is a stellar restora­tion of a rural eighteenth century farm, and Pottstown is home to Pottsgrove Manor, built in 1752 by prosperous ironmaster John Potts. Founded in 1881 to preserve and interpret regional history and culture, the Historical Society of Montgomery County is located in Norristown, the county seat. The Conservancy of Montgomery County, headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, promotes preservation of the county’s open space and endangered historic buildings, structures, and sites (see “Lost & Found” in the Fall 1997 edition). Art galleries and special interest libraries are located on the campuses of several colleges and universities, including the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College in Collegeville, and the C. C. Morris Cricket Library at Haverford College in Haverford (see “Cricket Anyone?” by Tom Melville in the Summer 1991 issue).

Additional information regarding these and other notable visitors attractions in Montgomery County may be obtained by writing: Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, 600 West Germantown Pike-Suite 130, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462; or by telephoning (610) 834-1550 or toll-free (800) 345-8112.


For Further Reading

Gentile, Nancy Jacquelyn. The Penrose Family at Graeme Park, 1801-1920. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1984.

Loeper, John J. Elizabeth Graeme Fergus[s]on of Graeme Park, “A Colonial Poetess.” Hatboro, Pa.: Hatborough Historical Society, 1974.

Nash, Gary, and Jean Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Turner, Edward Raymond. The American Negro: His History and Literature. New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1969.


The author is grateful to Stephen S. Miller, historic site administrator for Graeme Park and Hope Lodge, Carl Klase, museum assistant at Graeme Park, and Louis M Waddell, associate editor of Pennsylvania Heritage, for their help in preparing and reviewing this article.


Sharon Hernes Silverman first visited Graeme Park in 1984 for an open-hearth cooking class. She has since authored several fireplace recipe articles, and more than one hundred travel features. For three years she wrote “At the Inn,” a bed-and-breakfast column for Maryland Magazine. In addition to Going Underground: Your Guide to Caves in the Mid-Atlantic (1991), she is also the author of TimeKit: A Student’s Complete Time Management System (1997), Learning to Learn: Workbook for Grades 2-6 (1997), and Don’t Let Your Time Slip Away (1997). Her first contribution to Pennsylvania Heritage was “A Passion for Wood: The Life and Legacy of Wharton Esherick,” which appeared in the Fall 1997 edition.