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

On November 7, 1849, a brief notice appeared in the Germantown Telegraph notifying Philadelphia gentle­men that a club for farmers was about to be organized. Individuals interested in becoming members were informed where and when they could attend this organizational meeting. This single paragraph in a small, local newspaper seems hardly worthy of note, except that this group, the Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania, endured well into the twentieth century, evolving from a supper club for country squires to a regular assembly of some of the most wealthy, successful, and prominent men of southeastern Pennsylvania who shared a common interest, if not in farming itself, then at least in claiming the deceptively humble title of farmer.

Agricultural societies had existed as early as the eighteenth century. As increasingly complicated and expensive farm machinery replaced hand tools, and demand grew for new and improved agricultural products, these organiza­tions helped spread technical knowledge through discussion groups, publications, and agricultural fairs. The Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania was actually an out­growth of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA), one of the country’s first agricultural societies. Founded during the winter of 1784-1785 by some of the new nation’s leaders, the PSPA initially occupied rooms in Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall, where it stored a collection of farm machinery. The PSPA languished and nearly went out of business in the early nineteenth century, but it was reborn in the 1830s under the leadership of Philadelphia banker Nicholas Biddle.

By that time, Pennsylvania had a number of other agricultural societies, including the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society, which had been sponsored by the PSPA and was not to be confused with the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society, which had been established to rival the PSPA and appeal to smaller, or as they were then called, “practical” farmers. By the mid-nineteenth century, more than six hundred agricultural societies had been established in the nation. The PSPA meetings regularly held in Washington Hall on Third Street were becoming overcrowded, so a number of PSPA members decided that a new organiza­tion was needed where ideas could be discussed in more depth and by a smaller group.

The founding members of the Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania convened their first formal meeting in Olney, Bristol Township, on August 6, 1850. They adopted the rules by which they would be governed, elected their first officers, and agreed to meet monthly at the so-called “farm” of one of their twelve compatriots on the Thursday preceding the full moon. Seventy years later, in the 1920s, when members were researching their club history, they discovered the existence of English “moon clubs.” They speculated that their mentors had patterned the Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania on the Faversham Farmers’ Club of Kent, established in 1727, which limited membership to twelve. Even more telling, the Faversham farmers also met at their various houses on a particu­lar day of the week nearest the full moon.

It’s impossible for historians today to reconstruct the proceedings of the Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania’s monthly meetings, but researchers have uncovered what the club’s secretary chose to record in the regular minutes and what the club later chose to publish. The club’s first secretary, Major Philip R. Freas, owned the Germantown Telegraph, which he used to publicize the club and its early activities. In 1920, and again in 1930, the club’s collected minutes were published in two privately printed volumes and distributed to members and their families, as well as to selected libraries and repositories in the Com­monwealth.

According to its minutes, the Farmers’ Club was “a medium for disseminating a large amount of social information in matters pertaining to the art of husbandry.” Early minutes also hinted at another purpose, something that today might be called “networking.” In 1852, the Germantown Telegraph opined that the Farmers’ Club offered “an occasion to bring residents of the same vicinage, following the same pursuit, face to face, making them better neighbors and better friends. They are permitted to know one another, and that is a great point gained in the science of good neighborhood.”

Late in life, the club’s first president, George Blight, reminisced that in the early days of the club, members usually arrived around noon “and dinner was served at three o’clock, because as members had long distances to drive they left by eight o’clock, returning home by the light of the moon.” A club meeting formally commenced with that month’s host conducting a tour of the property where the meeting was being held. Club members could examine, firsthand, crops, livestock, implements, buildings and structures, and agricultur­al marvels, such as a remarkable hen house they saw in 1851 at the home of James S. Huber of Germantown “which was such that the eggs could be taken from it without entering the house or disturbing the fowls.”

From the club’s inception, members were “gentlemen-farmers” who pursued their hobby not in the Commonwealth hinterlands or remote rural areas, but in suburban and even urban locations. Freas’s Telegraph Farm in Germantown was essentially a vegetable garden of less than two-and-a-half acres. When members met in 1857 at the residence of General Robert Patterson, they toured a “farm” in the heart of Philadelphia bounded by Locust, Thirteenth, Spruce, and Juniper Streets. Patterson’s “crops” – exotic flowers, plants, and fruits – were grown in elaborate conser­vatories and greenhouses.

Discussion continued through dinner and into the evening. In the 1850s, the largely pragmatic topics included such things as the design of barnyards, the construction of mowing machines, the improvement of apple crops in the immediate Philadelphia area, and the limited market for carrots which were “chiefly used for gentlemen’s carriage horses.”

The Civil War interrupted the meetings, and on June 21, 1866, the members reconvened at the home of George Blight following a hiatus of five years. America stood poised for three decades of rapid and astounding ship, but through innovative enterprise in manufacturing, heavy industry, or transportation. By the turn of the century, the Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania would emerge as one of the most aristocratic groups in the country, its members prominent men at the peak of stellar business careers in one of America’s most prosperous states, but men who still took unbridled pride in identifying themselves as “farmers.”

In the years following the Civil War, the club meeting would become increasingly divorced from workaday agriculture. Sometimes the farmers did not tour a farm at all. In 1872, club members toured the Bald win Steel Works in Philadelphia, and in 1879 they visited Lafayette College in Easton. In 1886, they enjoyed the opportunity of watching railroad rails being made at the Bethlehem Iron Company (precursor of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation) when Elisha P. Wilbur hosted them in South Bethlehem.

During this period, the group’s discussion period evolved into more of an opportunity for showing members’ possessions than for sharing any practical knowledge. Elisha P. Wilbur’s claim to being a farmer rested on his collection of hothouse chrysanthemums, judged to be one of the finest in the world. In 1886, he continued his tour in the greenhouses at his residence where, according to the minutes, “a grand array of chrysanthemums were first brought into our view, and then followed a variety of carnation pinks and orchid Philadelphia to Andalusia, the Biddle family’s expansive estate in Bucks County. At times special railroad cars were employed to convey members to locations in outlying counties.

Several meetings of the Farmers’ Club hosted by James Duffy of Lancaster County were considered important enough for a newspaper story in the New York Sun. In June 1884, a reporter noted that members boarded a twenty­-thousand-dollar palace car in Philadelphia for the trip to Duffy’s spread in Marietta. The writer included a lengthy description of the car’s lavish interior with its sofas upholstered in sky­blue velvet where members were seated under crystal chandeliers. The farmers, he observed, were dressed in diamond studs, kid gloves, and patent leather shoes. Waiters were on hand to supply them with cigars and “Monongahela,” a whiskey.

Waiting carriages conveyed the party to Duffy’s Park, a farm of seven hundred and sixty-five acres where a guide pointed out the attractions such as a prize heifer worth one thousand dollars. According to the newspaper account, “the cow’s yield of milk led to a discus­sion as to the merits of milk punches where brandy, Jamaica rum, and Santa Cruz form component parts.”

The highlight of any Farmers’ Club meeting was the club dinner, which grew more and more elaborate as the years passed. While the host flaunted his largesse, fellow members manifested their link to the soil by furnishing provisions, usually cheese or beef from their operations. T. DeWitt Cuyler of White Horse Farms in Paoli occasionally served dinner out of doors. He liked to tether his finest cows and heifers among the tables for all the guests to see. In 1922, Cuyler staged a procession of bulls between the courses, although, club minutes note, “some of the guests seemed to view this parade with mingled feelings.”

Duffy was famous for the delectable trout from his own ponds as well as the capons he raised, which a professional caterer carefully incorporated into the dinners served at his estate. In 1884, Pinelli of Philadelphia provided a feast of “Little Neck clams, green turtle soup, fried trout, fricassee of chicken capon, roast lamb, supreme of spring chicken with truffles, punch, capon turkey, devilled crabs, ice-cream, strawberries, and the usual delicacies.”

According to the newspaper account of this particular meal, “the flow of conversation equaled the flow of wine,” and “the table bubbled with wit and repartee.” Surely these owners of steel mills and railroads talked business and politics, but the minutes of the Farmers’ Club do not record the incidental conversation that must have made membership truly worthwhile.

The “wit and repartee” is captured in the minutes only when someone made a clever allusion to farming. At an 1872 meeting that the venerable founding member George Blight was unable to attend, industrialist and Lehigh Valley Railroad Company president Asa Packer remarked that “it was not usual for a set of farmers to complain of the absence of Blight.” During a birthday celebration for member Frederick Fraley in 1904, Craig Biddle remarked, “Gentlemen I really do not recollect when Mr. Fraley sowed his wild oats; but if he went into it the way he appears to have gone into every other business in which he was engaged, he must have had a tremendous crop.” In winter months it was easier for the club to meet in Philadelphia, often at Augustin’s Restaurant on Walnut Street or at the grand Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.

The club included two prominent politicians who, on several occasions, convened the Pennsylvania farmers in the nation’s capital. U.S. Senator J. Donald Cameron several times took the members by private railroad car to dine at his residence on Washington’s Lafayette Square. Philander Chase Knox – a U.S. senator, attorney general under Presidents William L. McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and secretary of state in President William Howard Taft’s cabinet – hosted meetings at Washing­ton’s tony Metropolitan Club.

As early as 1854, the minutes of the Farmers’ Club indicated that in addition to the twelve regular members, the meeting might be attended by “the company of several distinguished citizens.” Later that year the minutes duly noted that the guests included Pennsylvania Governor William Bigler. By the 1880s, the farmers were frequently joined by important politicians at both the state and federal levels, newspaper editors, industrialists, bankers, financiers, and judges.

In 1889, at a dinner hosted by Senator Cameron, President Grover Cleveland sent word through his private secretary that he would officially receive the club members in the Diplomatic Corps’ Reception Room at the White House, after which they “were entertained by Mrs. Cleveland and the President most hospitably.” In 1919, Philander Chase Knox hosted a Farmers’ Club meeting that included thirty-four senators and congressmen, as well as Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Riley Marshall (famous for his remark, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”).

Although not officially excluded, women rarely attended meetings. In the early 1850s, a member suggested that “Woman, our companion and comforter in all our sorrows, should be made to share our festivities. Her presence will dignify, grace and refine them.” Never­theless, women attended so infrequently over the years that when they did join their husbands, it was an occasion worthy of note in the minutes. Among the women especially welcomed by the farmers were their “adopted daughters.” Whenever a baby girl was born to one of them, she was ceremoniously adopted by them and presented with a gilt-lined silver goblet inscribed with her name and those of the current members. At an 1884 dinner hosted by James Duffy in Marietta, his daughter Mary Agnes received such a cup when she was carried to the head of the table in the arms of her nurse. “She firmly grasped the goblet with her little hand, and chuckled when bumpers [unusually large glasses] were drunk in her honor,” wrote a newspaper correspon­dent. “The eyes of the proud father swam with joy.” Since the members were generally older men, the adopted daugh­ters were few; members were more likely the recipient of the club’s other honor: a grand celebration of one’s ninetieth birthday.

Wl1en a member died, the club sent a letter of condolence to the next of kin and noted his passing in the minutes before electing a new member to fill his place and keep the membership at exactly one dozen. When one of its founders died in 1895, the secretary recorded the club’s “high appreciation of the gentle virtues and blameless life of Mr. George Blight, so lately taken from them by the hand of death.”

In the early twentieth century, minutes occasionally alluded to the quick march of time and the many things that had changed since the club’s inception. In 1921, the secretary noted that members “were enabled by their automobiles to be present this evening as would have been impossible not only to the founders of the Club driving their horses that distance, but also to the present members even up to a comparatively few years ago. The fact is noted in these minutes merely as a record similar to others made by the secretaries in past years, of the develop­ment of facilities of life in the country since the Club’s foundation.”

Secretary Effingham 8. Morris com­piled the minutes of meetings conducted between 1919 and 1929, and his commen­tary provides today’s historians with fairly complete descriptions of the major estates in the Philadelphia area at that time. His records also contrast strikingly with those of Philip R. Freas, showing just how far the club members had progressed from anything remotely resembling “practical” farming. In his description of a meeting in 1924 at Beaupre near Rose­mont, the baronial residence of Robert K. Cassatt, Morris traced the history of the property to its patent granted by founder William Penn. He also noted that Cassatt “does not raise any grain for the market; and confines his farming activities to producing hay for the use of his own horses and cows … and vegetables and fruit gardens for his own household use.”

Morris’s record of the first meeting of the Farmers’ Club at the home of banker Edward T. Stotesbury, Whitemarsh Hall, takes the reader on a tour of an out­landishly decorated mansion of nearly one hundred and fifty rooms, replete with colonnades and terraces, fountains and formal gardens (see “Lost & Found,” Winter 2000). It was Whitemarsh Hall that prompted statesman Georges Clemenceau to christen it the “Versailles of America.” With tongue in cheek, Morris quipped that the Montgomery County showplace might be considered a kind of example for “all farmers were they only willing to study financial plantings thoroughly – ­perhaps during the long winter evenings; and were also then able to put their study to effective use instead of confining their efforts solely to agricultural work.”

The Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania endured into opening decades of the twentieth century, most likely surviving as long as it did because it offered a means for its wealthy members to associate themselves with the all-American virtues of self-sufficiency, independence, honesty, and industry credited to farmers at the time of the club’s formation. The demise of the Farmers’ Club was inevitable, though. Even the wealthiest Americans experienced difficulties maintaining expansive estates during (and following) the Great Depression, a period during which America generally grew less tolerant of elite and exclusive clubs. Surburbanization took a grave toll. In the residential building boom following World War II, many of southeastern Pennsylvania’s great country houses and sprawling estates were subdivided for housing developments, and the meadows where prize heifers once grazed became building lots and shopping plazas and strips for the nation’s middle class.

Several of the residences where the gentlemen-farmers met still stand, although many have been subjected to what architects, designers, and planners term “adaptive reuse.” Knox’s farm is now part of Valley Forge National Historical Park, which preserves but does not interpret it as an estate of the landed gentry; the National Park Service uses the mansion for office space and a library. Beaupre has been incorporated into a retirement community. The Biddle family’s famous Greek Revival-style country seat, Andalusia, which has been home to seven generations, is open daily for guided group tours (by advance reservation). Begun in 1797, the temple­-like building was expanded in 1806 and in 1835 by two of America’s highly acclaimed architects, Benjamin H. Latrobe and Thomas Ustick Walter. Andalusia contains a fine collection of American and European furnishings and original works of art.

During the period when farming was becoming big business in America, the lively minutes of the Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania show that for the prosper­ous businessman a “farm” became a trophy intended to recall the simpler life of an earlier America, while the club’s meetings became an occasion for the successful to congratulate themselves and each other, or as the April 1884 minutes so eloquently puts it, to rejoice that “the stone jug was replaced by cut-glass and long-necked bottles, and the cider or sweetened water by the choicest juices of the grape.”


The Farmers’ Club of Pennsylvania: A Veritable “Who’s Who”

Member Farm or Estate Location
George Blight Devon Farm Montgomery County
Major Philip R. Freas Telegraph Farm Germantown
Owen Sheridan Union Grove Chestnut Hill
James S. Huber Silver Springs Germantown
Craig Biddle Andalusia Bucks County
Frank A. Comly Valley Green Fort Washington
John Welsh Spring Bank Germantown
Joseph Patterson Grace Hill Chestnut Hill
George B. Roberts Pencoyd Montgomery County
George W. Childs Wooten Bryn Mawr
John R. Fell Camp Hill Whitemarsh Township
Clement A. Griscom Dolobran Haverford
Alexander J. Cassatt Chesterbrook Chester County
Rudolph Ellis Fox Hill Bryn Mawr
Charles C. Harrison Happy Creek Farm St. Davids
James McCrea Ballyheather Ardmore
Edward T. Stotesbury Whitemarsh Hall Montgomery County
Samuel Rea Waverly Heights Bryn Mawr
Robert K. Cassatt Beaupre Rosemont
Pierre S. du Pont Longwood Kennett Square


For Further Reading

Baatz, Simon. Venerate the Plough: A History of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture 1785-1985. Philadelphia: Pennsyl­vania Society for Promoting Agriculture, 1985.

Baltzel, E. Digby. Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.

Contosta, David R. Suburb in the City: Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 1850-1990. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Minutes of the Farmers’ Club of Pennsyl­vania: A Record of Seventy Years. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1920.

Minutes of the Farmers’ Club of Pennsyl­vania, 1920-1930. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane and Scott, 1930.

Thompson, George E. A Man and His Garden: The Story of Pierre S. du Pont’s Development of Longwood Gardens. Kennett Square, Pa.: Longwood Gardens, 1976.


Lorett Treese is college archivist for Bryn Mawr College and the author of The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the American Revolution and Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol. In addition to articles for Pennsyl­vania Heritage, her work has appeared in Early American Life, Pennsylvania Folklife, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a 1996-1997 member of the Commonwealth Speakers Program of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. She is currently at work on a book on the creation of wealth in nineteenth-century Pennsyl­vania.