A brief history of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania

The following account was contributed by the Stewartstown Historical Society and is reprinted from Stewartstown Walking Tour, second edition, copyright 1993.

Stewartstown, the seventh oldest borough in York County, has a long history.  In 1774 James Savage was granted 100 acres of land in Hopewell Township by John Penn, son of William Penn.  That grant was land upon which Stewartstown now stands.

There were settlers in the immediate area as early as 1750.  The area that is southern York County was in dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland even earlier and settlers entered the area under Maryland and Pennsylvania warrants in the 1720s.  This boundary dispute was resolved by the surveying of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1767.

The town and surrounding area are located on a site previously used by the Shenks Ferry and, after 1575, the Susquehanna Indians as a hunting ground.  Some believe the Indian practice of burning off underbrush to provide for better hunting caused early settlers to give the region the name, “The Barrens.”

Today, Stewartstown’s Main Street follows the path of a road, well established by 1777, that was a route from York to Baltimore.  About 1812, several prosperous farmers set out to establish a community in south central Hopewell Township.  The earliest buildings were several houses, a workshop which produced furniture and spinning wheels, a store, and a tavern.  Anthony Stewart, owner of the workshop, served as the village clerk, and his shop became the meeting place.

At first the village was known as Meadstown, after Benedict Meads, owner of the tavern and store.  (These buildings were located just south of where the Ramsey Theater is now.) Then it became Mechanicsburg, because of the number of carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tinsmiths, and other tradesmen who lived in the community.

By 1828 the town was large enough to have its own post office, and, because there was another Pennsylvania town called Mechanicsburg, postal officials assigned the name “Guilford” to the community and appointed Anthony Stewart as the first postmaster.  Through Stewart’s efforts and those of Judge Adam Ebaugh, the Post Office Department changed the town’s postmark to Stewartstown on March 24, 1832.

Pennsylvania authorities officially incorporated Stewartstown as a borough in 1851.  That same year the Stewartstown English and Classical Institute, better known as the Stewartstown Academy, was chartered.  Over the years, before the public high school was established, the Academy educated people who became distinguished ministers, doctors and lawyers.  The addition of upper grades to the public schools around the turn of the century led to declining enrollment, and the Academy closed in 1909.  The site where the Academy once stood is now occupied by the funeral home.

Many businesses and industries have operated in Stewartstown, including:  the Stewartstown furniture Company, established in 1903, which produced bedroom and dining room furniture, school and office equipment; the Stewartstown Lumber and Manufacturing Company, founded in 1885, now the Lumber Yard; the Stewartstown Manufacturing Company, owned by L. Grief and Bros., Baltimore, who established a branch of their men’s suits and coats business here in 1933 and employed 400 people at its peak; The Stewartstown News, which served the area from about 1890-1950; several cigar manufacturers; a cannery; four blacksmith shops; Augustus Neller’s surrey, buggy and sleigh establishment; a dairy; a creamery; hotels; and several leather workshops where shoes and harnesses were made.

The establishment of the Stewartstown Railroad in 1885 boosted manufacturing and commercial activity.  Several times a day, trains carried loaded cars to New Freedom, where they were transferred to trains bound south to Baltimore, or north to York.  Passengers also regularly traveled on the Stewartstown Railroad for business and pleasure.  Nature and a changing economy eventually brought freight traffic to a halt.  As businesses closed, or moved away from Stewartstown, there were fewer freight orders for the railroad.  Then, in 1972, the winds and rain in the wake of Hurricane Agnes wiped out much of the connecting Pennsylvania Railroad rail bed, shutting down local operations.  But the Stewartstown Railroad celebrated its centennial by resuming operations in 1985.

As the 20th Century draws to an end, Stewartstown is experiencing new growth, a result of the search for “country living” by residents of the Greater Baltimore area.  New homes are being erected, old homes are being refurbished, and new business is coming to town.

Posted by Dan Baldwin on 04/01/2001 at 03:45 PM in History
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