The Philadelphia area has been populated for centuries. The city has been a center point of the area, even since before the nation’s conception. Any space that has been occupied for so long is bound to have a rich and storied history. Dove Mill in Lower Merion is no exception. However, as the area transformed so too did the purpose of Dove Mill. The property transitioned from a commercial mill to one of the most luxurious residences on the Main Line. The role of Dove Mill changed dramatically between the 1850s and the 1920s, and the changes that Dove Mill experienced were representative of how the entire area was changing throughout this time.
The Dove Mill property has been prominent since the pre-Revolutionary War era. By the mid-1700's it was discovered that the Mill creek was an ideal place to sustain a milling industry. The creek has a fall of two hundred and fifty feet from the Schuylkill which made it very adaptable to the manufacturing of white paper[i]. The earliest of these was that of Conrad Scheetz, of Germantown, who bought a former fulling mill in 1748. Fulling is a step in the process of cloth making (particularly wool) which eliminates oils, dirt, and other impurities and makes the material thicker. Scheetz however converted the fulling mill into a paper mill. Scheetz's "upper mill" was located at what is now Dove Lake. After Scheetz's death, his son-in-law sold the "upper mill" to Thomas Amies of Philadelphia in 1798. The mill was then dubbed "Dove Mill" because of the dove and olive branch watermark that Amies used, which became widely known. Here paper was manufactured for the Second Bank of the United States and in 1817 for a special printing of the Declaration of Independence[ii]. The paper that Amies produced at Dove Mill was second to none and of an incredibly high quality.
Dove and Olive Branch Watermark, Courtesy of Smithsonian Institute Archives
After a long history as one of the original paper mills of the Mill creek, in 1844 the property was sold to Samuel Croft by a descendant of Amies. Croft was born in 1808 in Clee, Lincolnshire, England to Haman and Ester Croft. Once in the United States, Croft marries an American woman, Candace. The Crofts had one child, Cornelia Croft, who was born in 1837[iii]. In 1850 the family was living in Philadelphia, because Croft was also the leading button manufacturing of the city[iv]. By 1870, Croft and his wife had relocated to Camden, New Jersey, where Croft retires and eventually dies in 1888[v].
In 1846, Croft transformed the Dove Mill property from a former paper mill into a brass and cooper rolling mill known as the Croft-Kettle Mill[vi]. At the Croft-Kettle Mill, Croft rolled silver and cooper for the United States mint in Philadelphia. The Croft-Kettle Mill remained operational for much of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Croft-Kettle Mill ruins, photographed in the early 20th century, Courtesy of Lower Merion Historical Society
Perhaps the biggest impact Croft had on the Dove Mill property was that he created Dove Lake. In 1873, Croft, constructed a dam on Mill Creek to get more power to better fuel his mill that was downstream. At this time it is believed that Croft owned two separate pieces of land in the Mill Creek, one of which being the Dove Mill property. The other property he acquired did not touch the Dove Mill property. Dr. J.R. Dodd owned a piece of land that separated Croft’s two pieces of land[vii]. Croft dammed Dove Lake so that there would be more power downstream on his other property. The “upper mill” site where Amies had produced his paper disappeared when Dove Lake was dammed in 1873. Although the mill had not been operational for some time, the disappearance of the site is fairly symbolic. The mill culture of Lower Merion was slowly beginning to disappear altogether. Croft never lived at Dove Mill. For Croft, the property was of only commercial value. At the time Croft owned the property, there was yet to be an influx of elite Philadelphians into the area. Many people who lived in the Mill Creek during his time were mill workers. The affluent Philadelphians were still very much Philadelphians and most were still living in the city. However, this begins to change in at the end of the nineteenth century.
Dove Lake 1880s, Courtesy of John C. Browne
The last Main Line Atlas that listed Croft as the owner of the Dove Mill property was the 1880 atlas. In the next edition of the Main Line Atlas, printed in 1887[viii], Croft’s son-in-law, I. Layton Register, was listed as the owner. It was in Philadelphia that Croft’s daughter, Cornelia met Isaac Layton Register. Register was a prominent life insurance salesman from Delaware. Register and Croft were married in 1864. However, only four years later, Cornelia tragically dies at the young age of thirty-one, leaving Register to raise their twin sons, Samuel Croft Register and Albert L. Register[ix]. In the book Lower Merion, A History, the author asserts that Croft was forced to sell in a sheriff’s sale[x]. Although a record of the sale has not been found, it could be speculated that Croft was forced to sell because of the losses he sustained in a massive fire in Philadelphia. The insurance he carried did not cover all of the damages and that very well could have put him in a bad financial situation. Croft also could have been ready to retire and liked the idea of keeping the property in family. Regardless of the actual reason for the sale, Croft sold his commercial property to his son-in-law I. Layton Register.
On May 16, 1885, it was reported that I. Layton Register was building a fine mansion on Mill Creek, which would be known as Lynhurst[xi]. This is an important shift for the property. Over the hundred and fifty years that the property had been used commercially, the owner never lived on the property. Lower Merion and the mill creek area was not regarded as the highbrow suburb that it soon became known for. If you had any kind of social standing, you wanted to be seen in the city. This all begins to change as the mills began to close and the city becomes more congested. Many mills were wrought with disasters, such as fire and flooding, were forced to close, and others were purchased for residential use, like Dove Mill. The cities were also becoming far more industrialized and many working class individuals moved to the city to work in the factories, and consequently many of the elite left the city. Around 1884 there were fifteen mills along Mill Creek in full operation, By 1885, when Register announced the building of his home, of those fifteen mills, only six were still running. The industry that lasted more than a hundred years in the area was beginning to vanish. Register may have been one of the earliest to build a lavish mansion on a former mill sight, but he was certainly not that last to do so.
I. Layton Register's Mansion, Lynhurst,1890, Courtesy of Lower Merion Historical Society
When a family like the Registers moved out of the city, it was a sure sign that the demographics of Lower Merion were changing. Although this transition did not happen overnight, it was clear that things were changing for the Philadelphia elite. The Registers were undoubtedly members of the Philadelphia elite. The patriarch of the family that moved them to the suburbs, Isaac Layton Register, was born in 1842 to a prominent family in New Castle, Delaware and came to Philadelphia when he was eighteen. When he was twenty, he became affiliated with the Equitable Life Insurance Society and worked his way all the way up their corporate ladder. He was later elected president of the Philadelphia Association of Life Underwriters. Register was recognized as a very influential member of his professional community when he was elected president of the National Association of Life Underwriters. In addition to being highly respected professionally, Register was also an active member of the Masonic community. He served as grand high priest and grand commander of the organization. Register was an original organizer of the Sons of Delaware group and eventually served as their president. He was also very active in the Presbyterian community where he formerly served as president of the Presbyterian Social Union[xii]. In multiple circles, both professional and personal, Isaac Layton Register was a man that received a significant amount of respect and whose opinion was not taken lightly.
Following the death of Cornelia, Register married his second wife, Emma and the two remained married until Register’s death. With Emma, Register fathered two more children, Henry V. Register and Mary Louise Register, born in 1872 and 1878 respectively[xiii]. All members of the Register family were frequently featured in the society pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The happenings of a family like the Registers were newsworthy, even though they relocated to suburban Philadelphia. There were countless mentions of parties that I. Layton Register and his wife attended and charities that the Registers made considerable donations to. Their family travels were also mentioned in the papers, as the Registers were very well traveled for that time period. In July 1896, I. Layton, Emma, and Mary Louise all sailed to Europe for several months. This announcement was run for several consecutive days and in multiple newspapers[xiv]. At the time, traveling for pleasure was mostly an activity reserved for the elite. Many Americans would not see Europe in their lifetimes, but the Registers were afforded this magnificent opportunity. Also at some point in his life, I. Layton Register visited a point 150 miles from the North Pole, which even today is not a common place to visit[xv].
On November 22, 1899, the Registers once again solidified their position as a family in the Philadelphia elite. On this day, Mary Louise married Matthew Baird. Baird was the son of the proprietor of the Baldwin Locomotive Works. This wedding was one of the social highlights of the year and a wedding announcement made headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer[xvi]. The Baldwin Locomotive Works was one the most recognizable businesses in the area, and even far outside the Philadelphia region. The Baird family was just as notable as the business they built.
Baldwin Locomotive Works Ad, 1882, Courtesy of Cooper Collections of U.S. Railroad History
Although the union between the Registers and the Bairds was perhaps Mary Louise’s biggest moment in the spotlight, she was no stranger to the Philadelphia society pages. Following her introduction to society in 1896 and her wedding, Mary Louise continued to be a regular feature in the papers[xvii]. The many dinners and events that she both hosted and attended would be reported on for decades. The Registers and the Bairds were among the wealthiest families in Lower Merion and the greater Philadelphia area at the onset of the twentieth century. For a brief period of time after their marriage, Mary Louise and Matthew lived on the Dove Mill property. The union of these two families, and their living at Dove Mill, further solidified that the upper class of the area was relocating to Lower Merion. Although Mary Louise was frequently the center of attention, her brother Henry V. Register, was also regularly featured in the society pages. On numerous occasions the weddings and dinners he attended and the parties that he threw at Dove Mill were written about in the newspaper[xviii]. The happenings of most members of the Register family were considered newsworthy and were heavily reported on. Today reporting on what appears to be the trivial daily events of a family in a major newspaper would be unusual. At this time, however, being reported on in this fashion was another indicator of the social status of a family.
In 1889 when the train would leave the Board Street station and heat and dust of the city, it made its way into the picturesque fields of the beautiful Overbrook station. “A lovelier spot a pastoral poet could not desire, and here might have been written the beautiful lines of Gray’s Elegy.”[xix] The city of Philadelphia was becoming overcrowded and stuffy with the rise of industrialization. More people wanted to seize the opportunities that working in the newly built factories could afford them, especially since more mills were closing in the surrounding areas. With an influx of people moving into the city, Main Line was now a retreat from the troughs of the busy, overcrowded city. The first thirty miles of the main line was a scene of rural, charming beauty that the city could not provide. The option to depart the city for the scenic Main Line was beginning to look more and more appealing to many people that had spent their entire lives living in the city. Retreating to the main line was suddenly the “chic” thing to do. Property values across the entire area also saw dramatic increases as more people demanded the land.
In 1884, Dove Lake was immortalized in Thomas Eakins’s painting The Swimming Hole. In the painting, Eakins paints an image of young, healthy men engaging in a common leisure activity, swimming in the lake. A great believer in the living model, Eakins came to Dove Lake to paint the male subjects swimming in the nude. Even though the theme of male bathers was not new to Western art, Eakins’s execution of the painting was novel for American art at the time. The painting is often referenced as an American masterpiece and has been widely accepted as the prime example of homoeroticism in American art[xx].
The Swimming Hole, 1884, Courtesy of Amon Carter Muesum
Eakin's Student Models Bathing, Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum
Eakins immortalized one of Dove Lake’s prime purposes. The lake became a sort of semi-public space where the community could gather. Dove Lake was surrounded by a fairly wooded area and was a bit isolated. Even though the Lake was formally owned by the Registers, it became a community space. As swimming became more popular as a reaction activity in the area and many pools were opened in the city, people began coming to Dove Lake to swim in the summertime. Even though the window for outdoor swimming is particularly narrow in Lower Merion, people adapted and maintained Dove Lake as a gathering point in the winter. During the winter months, people came to ice skate on the lake. However, on multiple occasions, both in the winter and summertime, people got into serious trouble on the lake.
On January 23, 1903, twenty-two year old Harry Dambly of Philadelphia, an employee of the Corn Exchange Bank was visiting relatives he had in Gladwyne. The group decided to spend an afternoon leisurely ice skating on Dove Lake. While skating on the lake, he fell through the ice and, despite efforts to employ a human life preserver, drowned[xxi]. It took until after three o’clock in the morning for Lower Merion Police to recover his body, but not until after over fifteen feet of water had been drawn off and the heavy ice was broken off[xxii]. Although Mr. Dambly wasn’t as lucky, just a week earlier William Frame, of Lancaster County, who was employed at the still operational Merion Golf Club, was saved from drowning on Dove Lake on January 15, 1903[xxiii]. There were several other instances over the years where people were both rescued from drowning and more people that unfortunately died on the lake. In today’s world, if people were dying on a property, the owners would most certainly be held liable for their deaths. But the Registers and the subsequent owners were not held responsible in any capacity. This would imply that the people on the lake were trespassing or that the space had become an informal reaction, leisure space for the community. Either way, Dove Lake was a facet in the community that was recognizable to nearly everyone in the Philadelphia area.
However, not everyone on the Main Line decided to participate in the typical leisure activities of the time and on June 22 1899, on his way to visit his fiancée at Dove Mill, Matthew Baird was mugged. Baird was left to fight robbers on Mill Creek Road in the night. This attempt at highway robbery made front page headlines[xxiv]. As it became better known that the Mill Creek was home to the wealthiest of Philadelphians, not all of the new leisure activities that began to trend were productive. As in most affluent areas, there is a higher incentive for individuals to engage in petty crime. Many people of lower classes, both those that lived in Lower Merion and those that came into the area by way of the railroad, began to take advantage of the high concentration of wealth in one area. While many began to engage in swimming and other recreation as new leisure activities, some instead chose to spend their free time to engage in petty crime. Dove Mill and its patrons were not immune to this new trend.
On September 24, 1908, robbers invaded the home of Henry V. Register on the Dove Mill property. Nearly everything that was not nailed down was taken, including silver cutlery, a golf trophy cup, colonial clocks, and even the linens from the beds. Henry Register and his wife had spent their summer on Long Island and when their housekeeper went to open the house to receive the family, she found the house in disarray[xxv]. With the wealthy using their leisure time to vacation and travel, others took this opportunity to use their time to profit from the elite’s absence. Wealthy families moved to the Main Line and would frequently go on vacation, and since it was most likely reported in the papers, criminals had no problem using this to their advantage. Although the area was becoming one of the most affluent suburbs in the country, not everyone engaged in the typical leisure activities that the upper classes deemed appropriate.
In 1913, Isaac Layton Registers dies of heart disease in his home on the Dove Mill property. His death made the front page of the Ardmore Chronicle and in the Philadelphia Inquirer the editors published a photo of him with his obituary. Even in today’s newspapers most obituaries are run without a picture, but in 1913 it was even rarer for a picture to be run with an obituary[xxvi]. This is yet another example of the kind of status I. Layton Register held in the community. In a time when there were minimal photos in the newspapers, it would have been an honor to have your picture published with your obituary. In addition to his extensive obituary, I. Layton Register’s will gives more insights into how the Registers were a part of the most prestigious classes in society. The will Register left is over eighteen pages long and quite explicit. He left most of his possessions to his wife, as would be expected, but then he also made gifts to countless others. He left $500 for close relatives and to the Presbyterian Church at the New Castle Delaware, for the up keep of his mother’s memorial window. He left $100 to any of his employees that had been with him for at least five years. This speaks to the character of Register. He valued his faithful employees and wanted help them, even after his passing. However, that is not the only part of the will that sheds light on the kind of man Register was. He left $10 to thirty-seven different charities. These charities range from religious groups to homes for woman to juvenile court associations, just to name a few. He also donated to some organizations that are still present today, such as the Salvation Army and the Baldwin Day Nursery which is now a girl’s school in Bryn Mawr[xxvii]. It could be argued that a man of Register’s wealth and standing was expected to be generous upon his death and that this is not an accurate reflection of his character. However what I. Layton Register’s will and newspaper coverage of his death undoubtedly prove is that he was certainly a member of Philadelphia’s highbrow society and commandeered a great deal of respect across many different groups in the community.
In 1919, Henry V. Register sold what remained of the Register land on Dove Lake. His five and a half acres, with an old-fashioned Colonial farmhouse was known as Dove Lake Farm. Register sold his property for $30,000[xxviii]. Henry V. Register’s departure from the property signified the last of the Registers to leave the property. The Registers built up the property and made it one of the most desirable residences in the Lower Merion. Even though the Registers left, their legacy did not. Long after the Registers leave, when the new residents of Dove Lake are written about, they are always distinguished as those that live on “Dove Lake.” The Registers were the first family to make Dove Lake, arguably, a premier residence in the Mill Creek, but nearly a hundred years later, living on the Dove Lake property is still a symbol of a higher status and privilege.
Dove Lake Today, Courtesy of Mark Pellegrini
The dramatic change that Lower Merion experienced, which transformed the area from a typical milling and agricultural community to one of the most affluent communities in the country, is one that has been sustained for over a hundred years and has greatly shaped the current culture of Lower Merion. In June 2014, the Dove Lake property, which is now a 19.15 acre lot, was put on the market for $7,500,000. The original houses that the Registers built have been lost and the house that is currently on the property was erected in 1993[xxix]. By examining the transition that the Dove Mill property experiences over the course of nearly a hundred years, it becomes evident that the changes that occurred at Dove Mill were representative of the entire area. The story that Dove Lake tells is an integral part of the story of the Mill Creek area, and even the Main Line as a whole.