by Richard Gwynallen
1712 – 1789
Relationship to Fawn: 8th great aunt
1707 – 1777
Relationship to Fawn: 8th great uncle by marriage
In A Mordah Immigrant Story: A Romantic Comedy, I introduced our immigrant Mordah family, and one of the children of that family, Jean Mordah. The adventure related in that story is worth reading as background for this little essay. However, the short version is that Jean Mordah married Tom Rutherford, who she had fallen in love with in Ireland, and who followed her family to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Jean and Tom moved to Paxtang, Pennsylvania about 1755. They remained in Pennsylvania when the rest of the Mordahs migrated to North Carolina, and their descendants prospered as famers in Lancaster County.
Recently, I happened across pictures of one of the homes that Jean and Tom lived and worked in. The stone house is located on South Paxtang Avenue beneath the I-83 overpass. It is known as The Old Spring House or the Rutherford Spring House because it was built over a spring; one of the many spring houses that characterized the rural landscape of the time.
According to William Henry Egle in Pennsylvania Genealogies: Scotch-Irish and German, written in 1866, Jean and Tom moved from the Ulster Scots settlement of Donegal in Lancaster County after the death of Jean’s father, John, in 1744. They lived in Derry, also in Lancaster County, then removed to Paxtang in Dauphin County about 1755, where they spent the rest of their lives.
The land they settled on was part of John Forster’s patent, dating back to the 1740s. In 1754, a portion of that land was deeded to Thomas Rutherford. When Jean and Tom lived there it was an area of rolling hills, meadows, and forests encompassing approximately half of present day Dauphin County.
Egle records that the stone spring house was probably built before their acquisition of the property. The Historic American Buildings Survey of the Library of Congress indicates that the building was constructed sometime between 1740 and 1755. The house would be one of the larger spring houses, with a second floor, built to live in as well as use for storage and working. Egle records that they lived in a log house they built, which burnt down in 1840. Most likely, Jean and Tom lived in the spring house until their log house was built, after which, Jean operated the spring house for storage, making cheese and butter, and performing other household tasks.
Spring houses were part of the landscape of rural 18th and 19th century America. The Mercersburg Historical Society offers a very good review of their use.
The spring ensured clean water and kept the springhouse cool enough to store perishable foods. The smaller spring houses were purely for storage.
Most were a little larger, divided in two rooms, one for storage and for work, such as making cheese. The storage room had the spring pool. This system could keep milk and milk products cool as well as storing meat, vegetables, fruit, barrels, jugs of cider and vinegar. Prepared foods were placed into crocks and partially submerged in the water. The second room was used to separate the cream from the milk and to churn the cream into butter. Those with a fireplace in the second room, made it possible to do laundry in cold weather. Butchering and making soap could also be done in this second room.
The larger spring houses had a second floor with windows, a fireplace, and a separate door. Many in the colonial period lived in these efficient little buildings until a larger house could be built. Afterward, the spring house was taken over by the women of the family, and the second level was used for making butter and cheese. The second floor also provided a drier storage area for items that would not do well with too much dampness. The upstairs could be used for sleeping for hired hands or tradesmen who would pass by
During particularly hot summers the family could repair to the spring house’s second floor to live temporarily.
The one belonging to Jean and Tom were of this larger two story variety. In 1935, the U.S. Department of the Interior surveyed the house as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey of the Library of Congress.
The survey produced the floor plans below. While they note that the exact use of each room is unknown, we can make some educated assumptions based on the knowledge of how most spring houses of this size were used as described above.
The House During the Civil War
This isn’t the subject of this essay, but the descendants of Jean and Tom would play a brave role in the slavery issue. Before the Civil War, the Rutherford family helped ferry fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad. It is thought that the slaves sheltered in the Rutherford barn and in this spring house. From there they went on to Harper’s Tavern, Lickdale, Pine Grove, Pottsville, and north to Canada. in fact, prior to the emergence of anti-slavery leaders in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the 1840s, the Rutherfords were the only family in the area connected to the Underground Railroad.
Several of Jean and Tom’s descendants (and thus distant cousins of ours) were involved.
Dr. William Wilson Rutherford helped convey slaves to Samuel S. Rutherford, at Paxtang. Dr. Rutherford was a vice president of the Harrisburg Antislavery Society in 1847. He arranged for the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass to speak in Harrisburg. His house at 11 South Front Street was the principal station in the Paxtang Valley. It was marked by a large locust tree at the entrance to his property. The tree, which stood until 1857, was the only one of its kind between Harrisburg and Hummelstown, and served as an unmistakeable guide to the house.
Samuel Rutherford was a dairy farmer on part of the original tract purchased by Thomas Rutherford in 1755. He and William hid the slaves in the spring house and the barn nearby.
Dr. Hiram Rutherford of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was the brother of Dr. William Wilson Rutherford. As children, their home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and both grew up helping southern slaves travel safely to Canada. In Harrisburg he was active in the anti-slavery society and worked with his brother in assisting fugitive slaves.
A Brief Note on the Name “Paxtang”
What is now Paxtang Borough is sometimes referred to as Paxton. The origin of the name “Paxtang” dates back to the 17th century Susquehannock Indian village of “Peshtank”, which means “still waters”. How important the proper use of the name is to those with roots in the area can be seen in the opening of William Henry Egle’s 1890 address at the 150th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the Paxtang Presbyterian Church. Egle started off his Glimpses of the history of old Paxtang Church with an extensive objection to the use of the name Paxton.
Jean & Tom’s Church
This brings us to one other thing we know about Jean and Tom, that being the church they would have attended while they lived and worked on the land of the old spring house. When I came across the Spring House pictures I found pictures of Paxtang Presbyterian.
The first building on this site, a log structure, was erected about 1716. The present stone building was erected in 1740 and was restored in 1931. It is the oldest Presbyterian Church building in continuous use in Pennsylvania. The church site was deeded by heirs of William Penn in 1744.
Jean and Tom are buried in the Paxtang Presbyterian Churchyard.