By Mary U. Brooks, Photo Archives Volunteer

This digitization project was made possible through a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission grant for Historical and Archival Records Care.

Pownall and Margaret (Brosius) Jones of New Garden Township discussed the history of their family farm and the challenges to retaining open space in the county, 2002

Additional historical resources are now available in the Chester County History Center Library with the completion of digitization and description of three groups of oral history recordings. Originally recorded on audio cassettes, the stories from the three projects – Between Women, World War II, and Open Space – are now preserved digitally and have collection guides to aid users. Those guides can be found on the Center’s website while the digital recordings are available in the library. Funds from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) supported this project which opens new material to interested researchers.

Mildred and Karen Barkley, 1990s

The three oral history collections record the experiences, memories, and perspectives of a number of Chester County residents, each adding something to the historical record about life in their community during a specific time. Between Women records the personal experiences of approximately twenty Black women, who ranged in age from their teens to their eighties at the time of the interview, and who discussed family life, education, employment, segregation, and integration. An often-underrepresented group in the historical record, these women gave first person accounts from different time periods about how being Black and a woman affected their options and choices while also providing rich information about the West Chester community. (See previous blog post on Between Women for a full description of this project.)

Records associated with the World War II oral history project include biographical information, prepared questions, and extracts of interviews.

The World War II oral history project was conducted by West Chester University students under the direction of WCU professor of history Dr. Charles Hardy in 1992 in conjunction with the Chester County History Center. Among the twenty people interviewed are many who experienced the effects of the war while remaining in Chester County while others interviewed served in the military or in a non-military capacity. Those who remained at home discussed topics such as the food supply and rationing, civil defense measure such as blackouts, and employment opportunities including those for women. Robert Balderston and Marshall Jones discussed the impact of the war on farmers and the use of POW labor on farms. Among those who served were Agatha Hellenthal, an enlisted nurse, who recalled medical treatments available at the time. James Ward had enlisted, and he discussed serving with an all-Black engineering corps, which included an assignment in Washington, D.C. with duty to rescue the President if necessary. He also discussed his experience as one of the few Black students at West Chester University before the war. Those who served also discussed what it was like to return to Chester County after the war. Several people referenced family members who served, including Warren Burton whose son served; Burton was the first Black man to play football for West Chester University and later a professor at Cheyney University. Burton, along with James Ward and several others, discussed racism and segregation in the community.  Henry Scattergood, a Quaker, discussed his status and service as a conscientious objector while David Swift, a pacifist whose brother served in the Marines, described his non-military service at the Philadelphia State Hospital (Byberry). This wide range of experiences and perspectives adds to the historical record of Chester County and its residents during World War II.

Thomas J. Comitta of West Chester, a landscape architect, was interviewed for the open space oral history project, 2002

A later time period and different topic were explored through oral history by West Chester University students in a class co-taught by Dr. Charles Hardy and Dr. Elizabth Nollen in 2002. These university students interviewed Chester County residents as part of the project “Witness to Change: Personal Reflections on the Transformation of Chester County, 1950-2000,” also undertaken in conjunction with the Chester County History Center. These 36 interviews discuss the many facets of open space in Chester County, including agriculture, natural resources, commercial and residential development, transportation, and the changing character of various communities in the county. Among the residents interviewed were some with a professional or career connection to the disciplines of planning, land development, and conservation; some who engaged with the issues as an elected official, and others who as long-time residents of Chester County had witnessed change in their community. Charles Brosius served as Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture and discussed his family’s history of agriculture in the county; David E. Davis discussed land use in the county through his involvement with the County Planning Commission, Chester County 2020 Trust, Stroud Water Research Center, Buck & Doe Run Trust, and the Brandywine Valley Association. Alice Halsema discussed many years on the Wallace Township board working on land issues, while Helen John, who grew up in West Chester, described different aspects of life in the area including transportation, the pace of life, businesses, and the farming industry. Richard Sprenkle was the Pennsylvania Secretary of Conservation & Natural Resources at the time of the interview, having also worked for Natural Lands Trust and Chester County Parks and Recreation; he provided an in-depth discussion of land issues and open space. Molly Morrison grew up in East Vincent Township, lived in Thornbury Township, and was Senior Vice-President and Chief Operation Officer of Natural Lands Trust. Among those who discussed Landscapes, a comprehensive plan for Chester County first developed in 1996, was Henry A. Jordan of Chester Springs and the Claneil Foundation,  a founder of the Chester County Community Foundation, chair of the Chester County Planning Commission, and one of the architects of Landscapes. The most recent iteration of the plan was Landscapes3, adopted in 2018, so these oral histories provide a foundation to an evolving understanding of open space in Chester County.

Irene Brooks of East Bradford Twp., who served in the PA Dept. of Environmental Protection and as a Chester County Commissioner, discussed open space in the county, 2002

All three oral history collections provide researchers with access to the stories, perspectives, and insights of Chester County residents impacted by significant issues and events of the 20th century. Visit to access the finding aids for each collection and discover the names of interviewees. For full interviews, please contact the CCHC Library.

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