Old Caln Meeting House - History                <HOME>


The Old Caln Meeting House at Old Caln Meeting House Road & East Kings Highway is the oldest building in Caln Township. For three centuries this has been a place of worship for Quakers, or members of “The Religious Society of Friends of the Truth”.  Built in 1726, the east room was added in 1801 to accommodate quarterly meetings held by Quakers from the surrounding region. Today Old Caln Meeting House is maintained by a board of trustees, all of whom are Quakers, and the Old Caln Historical Society. 



The Religious Society of Friends was founded in England in the mid 17th century by George Fox. The name “Quakers” was used at the time as a form of mockery, but it is the name by which Friends are known today. Quakers today often refer to each other simply as “Friend”. William Penn is the best popularly-known Quaker. Nearly a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, Penn encouraged Europeans to emigrate to the new land of religious freedom. So many settled in the areas that Quakers dominated Pennsylvania government until the Revolutionary era.


In 1716 the brothers John and Aaron Mendenhall -- two stalwart (or, “weighty”) Friends -- donated some land and had a log meeting house built by the railroad tracks on the west side of Thorndale. The Mendenhalls and the small community of Quaker pioneers must have done well, for only ten years later in 1726 it was decided to build a more substantial stone building “On the further side of ye valley, upon ye mountain”  -- the Old Caln Meeting House. In 1728 the original Caln Township split, creating West Caln Township. When a meeting house was built in 1756 near Waggontown it was referred to as “West Caln”. From that point on, the 1726 meeting house was increasingly referred to as “Old Caln”.


On a quarterly basis, Friends from local meetings (Bradford, Robison, Sadsbury, and Uwchlan with its preparative meeting in Downingtown) met at Old Caln to discuss mutual business. To accommodate the large group, the east section of the building was added in 1801, doubling the size of the meeting house. Even so, during these quarterly meetings in the 18th and 19th centuries “every seat was taken”. In comparison, contemporary quarterly meetings are attended by 30-40 Friends.


Back then, the road on the south side of the meeting house was the only major road from Philadelphia to points west. Commonly called “The Kings Highway”, it would have had a seemingly endless stream of enormous red and blue Conestoga wagons traveling to and from the city. With six or more draft horses pulling each one of these original eighteen wheelers, it must have been a sight. And when you consider that the polished leather harnesses had dozens of gleaming brass bells attached it must have been quite a sound as well. This was very rich farmland with the frontier and the Indians just down the road.



For the most part, the meeting house is unchanged since it was originally built. In recent years electricity was installed. Heat for winter meetings for worship continues to be provided by wood stove. Consider the aspects of meeting house construction:



Quakers are discouraged from installing elaborate grave stones or monuments of any kind over the graves of their loved ones. Originally there were often simple field stones or even nothing at all to mark the spot of a burial. Most graves were marked by simple field stones with perhaps a name and date. Over the past 300 years many these markers are no longer extant. As a result, fewer than half of the roughly 730 known graves can be identified.


There are, strictly speaking no family plots and Friends are interred consecutively. Occasionally, for one reason or another, there do appear family groupings. There are many Friend resting here. The last burial at Old Caln was in 1932. There will be no others.


There are several African-American Civil War veterans buried at Old Caln.  Their graves have military insignia and regimental information. None of the men died in the War. One can only surmise that despite the traditional pacifism in the Quaker testimony, and their animosity towards all military display they made this respectful concession to these men that fought for freedom.


(It is ironic to note that the “negro” regiments to which these men belonged were created soon after the 1863 battle of Gettysburg were formed and trained at Camp William Penn in an area of Philadelphia dominated by Quakers. There was widespread concern at the time about arming blacks and it was felt that Quakers would be more accepting of their presence. Camp William Penn was the largest of 18 training camps and the only one set up exclusively to train black troops. It was located at the corner of Cheltenham Avenue & Penrose Avenue in Cheltenham Township.)




The Old Caln Monthly Meeting was “laid down”, or retired, nearly 100 years ago. In the intervening years the meeting house suffered from neglect and vandalism. The township’s historical society, local Quakers and neighbors were instrumental in preserving the structure. The work of these forward-thinking, hard-working individuals resulted in the meeting house being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1998, the west room has been used by the Old Caln Historical Society as a museum.


Over the past ten years costly repairs have been required to preserve the meeting house. In 2006 the white oak flooring in the oldest rooms was replaced due to damage caused by powder post beetles which had eaten through the logs supporting the floor. From time to time over the past 282 years the roof has been replaced, most recently in 2007 when the roof on the south side of the meeting house was replaced with a cedar roof that will last for approximately 50 years.



With your help, the Trustees can care for the meeting house and help to ensure that it continues to be a witness to the past and a treasured part of our future. Contributions to help the Trustees preserve and care for this amazing structure would be greatly appreciated and may be made on-line (above) or by sending a check to Old Caln Meeting House; PO Box 96; Downingtown, PA 19335.



© 2010 Old Caln Trustees