A Trip to Taylor Arboretum

Today I went for a walk through Taylor Arboretum with its manager, Tom Kirk, who shared great information about the arboretum filling in a lot of what is missing in the newspaper records.

What is Taylor Arboretum?

Widener University has created a website for Taylor Arboretum with photos and a map of the 30 acre arboretum. Taylor Arboretum’s main entrance is on Ridley Dr. near Providence Rd. and the arboretum lies along Ridley Creek adjacent to Chester Park. There are a number of nicely maintained walking paths throughout the arboretum. The arboretum has a variety of trees, with many dating back to the original park design in the 1950s and 60s. There are groves of oaks, magnolias, dogwoods and cherries, and a pond with cypress trees among a variety of other trees. In more recent years, the arboretum has planted more native species. The arboretum has a wealth of wildlife with deer and foxes regularly in the area, a variety of birds including red tailed hawks and blue herons, frogs and reptiles, and other creatures that take advantage of the creek and pond. Bald eagles have been reported in the area in recent years as well. The foundation of the old mills and the mill race can still be seen as well as the site of the old dam and the remnants of the Taylor’s greenhouse.

Who were the Taylors?

Joshua Taylor from the Chester Times

The land that became the arboretum was purchased by banker Joshua Taylor and Anne Rulen Gray, his second wife, in 1926. Joshua Taylor was a local banker and Anne Rulen Gray was a real estate businesswoman. Joshua Taylor was born in Rochdale, England in 1873 and moved to Chester from England at the age of 6. He started as a butcher before graduating Michigan Law School in 1899. Afterwards he helped found the law firm of Taylor, Chadwick and Weeks. From there he became the chairman of the Delaware County National Bank and evidently saved up a sizeable fortune. One obituary in 1946 said he traveled in the 1930s studying economics.

Anne Rulen Gray is unusual among the 20th century women I’ve read about in that she is written about in her own name in the newspapers. Her marriage to J. C. Taylor made the front page in 1912 under the heading, “Prominent Chester Couple Were Wed”. Anne Rulen Gray was the daughter of Col. William Gray, a prominent business and political figure in the area. Both her and her mother are mentioned several times in the newspapers. She also ran her own real estate business; there are numerous listings in the early 20th century seeking renters for her properties in the Chester area. She died after an illness in 1930.

History of Taylor Arboretum

The land that Taylor Arboretum sits on was part of the initial land granted to John Sharpless by William Penn in 1682. From 1740 until 1880, the property was used as a mill site. The river was dammed and the old mill chase ran through what is currently the center of the arboretum. Gunpowder, textiles and other goods were manufactured over the years. Along the river were once powder houses for making gunpowder. In the center of the park is a site that was used as a quarry. Much of the stone likely went into the early buildings and houses in the area. The Sharpless family lived in the area until the late 19th century.

Joshua Taylor and his wife acquired the property with an apparent eye toward developing it, but that changed with the depression and Anne’s death in 1930. Instead, Joshua Taylor set it aside and “conceived the idea of providing a spot where others could go for the peaceful enjoyment of the wonders of nature that so often revived his spirit and brought him renewed inspiration.” After his death in 1946, he left a fund to maintain the property as an arboretum. Unfortunately, his will was challenged by his third wife and later lawsuits were filed against the bank that had managed the fund, undermining the arboretum’s financial situation.

Charles Gordon Tyrell took initial charge of the project for Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, and the arboretum was opened in 1952. Dr. Camp, another member of the academy, planted trees with a vision to have plants from along the coast within the park in levels going from the New England plants near the entrance to floodplain plants in the creek’s floodplain. The house at the entrance was built in the 1950s using some of the funds set aside by Mr. Taylor. The park was overseen by the Girard Trust, which was acquired by Mellon Bank in 1983. For many decades, the relatives of Joshua Taylor served as trustees – including his third wife Millicent and Mr. Taylor’s sisters Lillie Dempster and Elizabeth Ives. Mrs Dempter’s son, Dr. Rulon Dempster, also served as a trustee and lived on what is now arboretum land until he passed away in the mid-1980s. His property reverted to the arboretum and the house later burned down.

CRC stream cleanup

For a time in the 1970s, a pump house fed a waterfall in the quarry from the pond. The pond was once fed by the mill race, but after the removal of the dam, water is sometimes be pumped in to maintain the nearby cypress trees. Over the years, the CRC stream cleanup has taken place in the arboretum along Ridley Creek and CRC has played a role in other developments along the creek such as the dam removal. Removal of water from Ridley Creek by businesses in the area has led to lower water levels. Meanwhile, the increased development in the area has led to higher levels of flooding, with 6 or 7 floods in the floodplain over the last 20 years.

The park was administered for several decades by the National Land Trust. After several incidents in the 1990s, however, Nether Providence Township reached an agreement with the bank to manage the property for a year, but it proved too expensive for the township. The old mill dam, which was the cause of multiple dangerous incidents resulting from children swimming in the creek, was removed in 2005. After Nether Providence passed on managing the park, Mr. Kirk was hired by the trust to manage the arboretum in 2001. In 2016, Widener reached an agreement with Mellon Bank to take over management of the Arboretum. Today Widener’s biologists use the arboretum for research and teaching.

Taylor Arboretum Today

Update – The DelCo Times later posted some pictures of Spring in the arboretum.

Categories: History