Ten Facts About Johnsontown

The Johnsontown neighborhood in Downingtown is in the southwest section of the Borough and for many years was a “town within a town.”  Except for going to school and a trip to the doctor, residents had much of what they needed right here.  It was geographically isolated from the rest of Downingtown, being hemmed in by hills to the south and west, the East Branch Brandywine Creek to the east, and the railroad tracks to the north.  Following are ten facts about the neighborhood.

1.  It was named after John Johnson, an entrepreneur and real estate developer.  Taking advantage of the strong national economy in the years following the Civil War, coupled with burgeoning growth along the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line, Johnson bought an 18-acre tract in southwest Downingtown in 1871 and subdivided the land into 102 building lots.  He built his own grand home at 249 Church Street in the center of the development, where the parking lot in front of St. Anthony’s Pool is now. 

2.  It was named after John Johnson, an entrepreneur and real estate developer.  Taking advantage of the strong national economy in the years following the Civil War, coupled with burgeoning growth along the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line, Johnson bought an 18-acre tract in southwest Downingtown in 1871 and subdivided the land into 102 building lots.  He built his own grand home at 249 Church Street in the center of the development, where the parking lot in front of St. Anthony’s Pool is now. 

3.  It was home to one of the first color photo companies in the United States.  The Solgram Color Photo Company on St. Joseph Lane was begun by William South in the early 1900s.  South was a pioneer in the color photograph process, but the company didn’t last long due in part to competition from another color photo company called Eastman Kodak.  South also operated the Keystone School of Photography out of the building. 

John Johnson built his own home at 249 Church Street to be the centerpiece his development.  It is seen here sometime in the 1950s or early 1960s.

William South's Keystone School of Photography on St. Joseph Lane is seen in this photograph ca. 1910.

4.  One of the shortest streets in Downingtown is East Church Street which is off St. Joseph Lane behind the old St. Joseph Church.  The 20 homes on East Church Street were built by local contractor G.T. Guthrie, who was also the builder of the Malvern Train Station.  Guthrie built the homes in 1904 to meet the demand for smaller homes in Downingtown which were more affordable to purchase and rent by those working in the Borough’s mills and factories.

Right, the Malone children are seen by the stoop of their home at 164 East Church Street, ca. 1940 (courtesy of Karen Anderson). 

5.  There was a cemetery on Bradford Avenue on the north side of the St. Joseph Church.  However, when Downingtown passed an ordinance in the late 1800s that forbade any new burials inside the Borough limits, the church purchased a tract of land as a cemetery at the top of Glenside Avenue in West Bradford Township.  Eventually all the graves in Johnsontown were moved to the new cemetery.

Above is a map of Johnsontown from 1883 more than ten years after construction began. Only about twenty-five homes were built by this time, and the tract would remain mostly undeveloped well into the twentieth century.

6.  There was a miniature golf course at 237 Church Street.  The nationwide miniature golf craze came to Downingtown in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  During that time at least four courses were built in the Downingtown area including the one in Johnsontown.

 

7.  There was a shoe factory at the top of Church Street owned by Dr. John P. Edge.  Unfortunately, we do not know when the factory was torn down, which sat at the top of the hill in Johnsontown approximately where St. Anthony’s Lane is now located.

A three-story shoe factory, which preceded the develop-

ment of Johnstown was at the top of Church Street.

The ‘Little Bill’ miniature golf course was located at 237 Church Street.

8.  “Stepping stones” were put in the Brandywine Creek by Johnsontown workers to give them a shorter walk to their jobs at two of Downingtown’s paper companies.  The stepping stones were actually 55-gallon drums filled with rubble and concrete and placed standing up in the creek.  The top of the drums were connected to each with wooden planks which formed a makeshift bridge.  Workers would walk to the base of East Church Street, follow a path to the Creek, and cross the “stepping stones” to the other side where the path diverged.  One path turned north to Downingtown Paper Company.  The other path turned south to the Davey Paper Company.  Remnants of one of the “stones” is still in the Brandywine.  

9.  A Johnsontowner didn’t need to leave the neighborhood to shop because of all the stores in the neighborhood.  As early as the 1880s there was a grocery store on the corner of Bradford and Viaduct, and another at Bradford and Church.  Other businesses including butchers and bakers later operated in Johnsontown.  Johnsontown store names from the past include Herbies, Petrellas, Sbei’s, The Food Center, Ciarlone’s, Canestra’s, Cozzone’s, Madrigale’s, Filoromo’s, and Capriotti’s.  Lou Beverage also got its start in Johnsontown.  There was also a pool hall, cigar store, shoe repair business, icehouse, beauty shop, Little Midge’s Place, the Bradford Grill, and of course St. Anthony’s Lodge. 

The store at the corner of Bradford Avenue and Church Streets is seen here in the early 1970s.

10.  Johnsontown was a culturally and demographically diverse neighborhood throughout its existence.  From the 1870s through the turn of the twentieth century, the residents were mostly of Irish descent.  Starting in the early 1900s Italians began to move in.  In 1900 there were just 28 Italians living in Downingtown, or just .01% of Downingtown’s population.  By 1940, there were nearly 900 Downingtown residents who were of Italian descent, or about one-fifth of the Borough’s population.  Most of them lived in Johnsontown.  Most of Downingtown’s African American residents going back to the nineteenth century also called Johnsontown home.

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