Meet the Benners

My house in 2021

Do you live in an old house? Do you know who lived there before you moved in? Before you were born? How about who lived there before your grandparents were born? Wouldn’t you like to find out? This post is about how I learned about who lived in my house 170 years ago, and learned some interesting facts about the history of my Philadelphia neighborhood, known today as Bella Vista.

I became acquainted with Elizabeth Benner when I moved into an old house in South Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. Elizabeth wasn’t a neighbor in proximity so much as she was a neighbor in time. She and her family occupied the house I live in now some ninety years before I moved there. As the new owner of an old house, I took a workshop at the Philadelphia Historical Society called, “Who Lived in Your House in 1880?” and found Elizabeth’s name in the 1880 census. Interesting, but I didn’t think much about it as the years passed.

My interest in the Benners and the history of my house was rekindled recently when a member of my book club remarked that my house was probably a trinity house that had been expanded. Intrigued, I went into my basement and compared the floorboards and crossbeams in the front basement with those in the back basement. I know bupkis about construction but even I could see that they were very different. What do you think?

If you’re not from Philadelphia, you might not know what a trinity house is. A trinity house gets its name from its three one-room stories that sit on top of one another over a basement. Built to house the working class, each small room was probably around 200-250 square feet and accessible via a circular stairway like this one. This was typical working class housing in Philadelphia because land was cheap and there was room to spread out. That’s why we don’t have a history of tenement living like New York City. We are a city of row houses and the trinity is the smallest row house you can get.

I found some old pictures on the Philadelphia Free Library’s photo collection site of trinity houses with a third floor dormer (which my house has) and outside cellar entrances (which my house had at one time) here, here, and here. When my house was expanded, they tore out the circular stairs and installed straight staircases that are almost as steep as ladders. The risers are nearly 10 inches high!

Climbing these stairs give you a workout!

I already knew that the neighborhood Catholic Church around the corner, St. Paul’s, was founded in 1843. This got me to wondering about how old my house really was and wanting to learn more about the people who had lived here before. Here’s what I learned.

Elizabeth Benner’s husband was named William and he was a brick maker. He was deceased by the time I caught up with his family in 1880, but I was curious to know when he and his family moved into my house.

I scoured the online city directories and found some answers. The first mention of William was in the 1851 McElroy’s Philadelphia Directory which gave his address as “10th Street above Christian,” the intersection where I live now. A couple of later directories put him at 377 South 10th Street which is a few intersections away from my house. This doesn’t make sense and I wonder whether the information is accurate. People didn’t move around a lot in those days.

The old City directories indicate that the Benners were definitely living at my address by 1858. The directories and census show they remained there there through the 1860s, the 1870’s and the 1880’s. The elder William is listed in the 1870 census as being 50 years old. He and Elizabeth were probably born in 1820. The 1880 census indicated that Elizabeth was born in Ireland. The 1860 census said that she and her husband William were born in the US. Given the anti-Irish sentiment of the time, this might not have been an error on the part of the census taker but who knows?

By 1880, Elizabeth Benner was a widow who lived with four adult children: two boys, (30-year-old Joseph, a gas fitter, 27 -year-old William P. who worked as a clerk in a mercantile office,) and two girls, (24-year-old Rose and 22-year-old Mary, who were listed as being “at home.”) Nicholas Stafford lived with the Benners, too. He was a 40-year-old plumber, and I think he was a relative (he is identified in one census report as “son”) because the 1860 census indicates he was living with the Benners 20 years earlier. His date of birth and the spelling of his first name varies from census to census, but I finally settled on “Nicholas” born in 1840 and probably in Ireland. Elizabeth’s four other children, however, were probably born in Philadelphia, starting with William P. in 1848. The Benners had a fifth child, a daughter who was stillborn in October, 1865.

The neighborhood where my house sits now used to be known as the Township of Moyamensing, and it wasn’t part of Philadelphia until the surrounding boroughs and townships were consolidated into the city in 1854. Even after consolidation, Moyamensing was a rough, high crime neighborhood populated with Immigrants who poured into Philadelphia to escape the Irish Potato Famine. I would guess that William and Elizabeth came over during the first wave of the exodus.

Who lived in Moyamensing before the influx of Irish Immigrants? The European powers had been squabbling over the territory since the Swedes arrived in the 1600s. Then the Dutch drove out the Swedes and the British drove out the Dutch. The British dispossessed the Lenape tribes who were indigenous to the area, and had driven them out by the late 1700s although some remained in the area through the early 1800’s. (The word Moyamensing is a Lenape word that means “The Place of Pigeon Droppings.” ) When the smoke cleared, the British were gone and immigrants were starting to arrive.

The Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network web site has an interactive map function that let me superimpose images of maps of the same geographical area for different periods. Using this site, I was able to take an 1808 map of Philadelphia by John Hills that included my neighborhood and superimpose in to an 1843 map of the same area by Charles Ellet, Jr. While I realize that these maps are not necessarily accurate depictions of the development of a given area, it does appear that the neighborhood around my house at 10th above Christian didn’t start to get built up until the late 1830’s, early 1840’s. It was probably farmland before that.

When I tried to research beyond 1880, my census research hit a dead end. I wasn’t getting anywhere by trolling the census records for William P. Benner so I decided to switch my search to his younger brother Joseph. I hit pay dirt! The 1890 Census records have mostly been destroyed but the Benner family popped up again in the 1900 census. I always understood that the ethnic composition of my neighborhood started out as Irish and morphed into Italian. That comports with what I learned about who was living in my house in 1900.

Backtracking a bit, I said that the 1890 census records had mostly been destroyed, but not all of them. There is a record called United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War from 1890. It showed that Nicholas Stafford, who lived with the Benners for so many years, served with the Union Pennsylvania Volunteers, McMullen’s Company, Pennsylvania Independent Rangers for three months and 25 days. Such a short time! I was confused. At first, I thought he might have been wounded and sent home early but that wasn’t the case at all. I learned from this site that “this company was organized chiefly from the membership of the Moyamensing Hose Company, on May 20th, 1861, and served with Gen.Pattersons force in the three months campaign. The McMullin Rangers are credited, together with the 23d Regiment, with participation in the action at Bunker Hill, W. Va., July 15th, 1861.”

The name McMullen was familiar. Where had I heard that before? Then I remembered. William McMullen was a notorious 19th century political boss who was responsible for the assassination of Octavius Catto. Some more research and I learned that William McMullen raised the regiment Nicholas joined. I wouldn’t consider McMullen a selfless patriot. He probably raised the regiment because it looked good, and enhanced his political cachet. He ruled Moyamensing as his personal political fiefdom, and controlled the Moyamensing Hose Company which was more like a street gang than a professional fire department. Read more about them and other early Philadelphia fire companies here.

Moyamensing Hose Company headquarters on 744 S. 8th Street where Columbus Hall stands today.

I would guess that Nicholas was a member of the Moyamensing Hose Company or at least familiar with it. I can envision McMullen throwing an enlistment rally fueled with lots of booze to get drunken and naive young men to join his regiment in the early days of the Civil War when everyone thought the conflict would be over by Christmas. Nicholas must have joined up with his pals and was back in three months and 25 days. He was lucky. The unit didn’t see much action which didn’t stop McMullen from staging a big parade to welcome back the Rangers when they returned to Philadelphia. Nicholas received a military pension in 1891, however, and by that time he, Joseph, William P. and Rose had moved to 921 Christian Street which is literally a stone’s throw from where I live now. Elizabeth had probably died by this time. She would have been 80. I wasn’t able to find out what happened to Mary Benner, but I learned that Rose Benner married a man named Snyder and died in 1914. It was from her death certificate that I learned that her mother Elizabeth’s maiden name was Elizabeth Jack.

921 Christian Street, the Benner’s home in 1900

Another family had moved into my house by 1900. They were Italian immigrants Thomas Fechi and his wife Mille. Their baby Maggie was born in the United States. Thomas was a laborer. The Fechi’s were sharing the house with 46 year old Mary Tale, who I am guessing was Mille’s mother (she is listed as a boarder but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t related), and her children Louis (19) Joseph (18) and Rose (14). They had emigrated to the US a few years after Mille.

And that’s where I drew my search to a close. If I want to identify other people who have lived in my house over the years and maybe even determine when it was converted from a trinity to the house it is now, I will have to go to the Office of the Philadelphia Recorder of Deeds and do a title search, more properly called an information search, to trace the chain of title back through the years.

To access census records online, go to FamilySearch.org. You will have to create an account, but it’s free and well worth it, especially if you’re interested in history and genealogy.

A Winter’s Day

Winter dumped a load on the East coast this week. I’m glad I didn’t have to be anywhere. Still, it’s fun to go out and explore.

One of my favourite murals is a snow scene!

A little South Philly humor. I have yet to meet a poop fairy.
Local basketball court under snow
Bob’s garden is closed for the winter and turtle is fast asleep in the heated Koi pond dreaming about sunny days ahead.

Try Something Different and See What Happens

I did something different today.  I wrote a letter.  A real letter, not a card.  With a pen.  In cursive. On notepaper.  And I addressed it.  And put a stamp on it.  There’s a mail box on the corner across from my house.  I fought my fear that there were corona virus germs on the mail box handle.  I pulled  the handle down, and dropped the letter through the slot.   And then I looked across the street toward St. Paul’s church and saw this.

St. Paul'sChurch
Saint Paul’s Church, South Philadelphia

Actually, St. Peter is the one in the picture.  How do I know?  Peter’s the one with the keys to the pearly gates and I think the big book he’s holding  is where all your transgressions are recorded.  You die, you go to the pearly gates of heaven,and St. Peter meets you like a  bouncer at an exclusive night club and decides whether you get in.

How do I know all this?  Twelve years of Catholic school.  That and the fact that I had a mother who had a hard time allowing herself to relax, and enjoy something like a nice outfit or a yummy dessert without feeling guilty.  And when I got older, I would ask her, “Why tease yourself?  It’s not like there’s a prize for the person who suffers the most.  It’s not like St. Peter’s gonna meet you at the pearly gates with a ******* Kewpie doll.”

St. Paul is down at the end of the block out of camera range, and he is wearing a mask too.  And he’s holding a sword to smack the heads of passers by who might not be wearing a mask or observing proper social distancing.  Which is why I did not go down there to take his picture.  Because even though I was wearing a mask, I knew he was down there waiting to see if I would screw up.  Twelve years of Catholic school will do that.  I’m scarred for life.

Try something different and see what happens.  It just might spark your creativity.

Stay safe and well.

 

Opera on the Mall and Bok Party

Lots going on in Philadelphia arts-wise last weekend.  First up was Opera on the Mall a broadcast of La bohème in front of Independence Hall  Opera Philadelphia.  The event  kicked off to their Festival 019.

Two Screens
Plenty of room to stretch out, two screens and great sound.

CheckInWasEasy
Check in ran smoothly

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Some people brought their dogs.  I am sure there are Canine opera lovers.

 

FoodTrucks
Lots of food trucks

FamiliesEncouraged
And activities for non-opera lovers

 

OpeningScene
Act I begins.

 

BugRepellantAnkletsJustInCase
Bug repelling ankle bracelets just in case.

 

The next day was the family day block party at the Bok Building.

Glory Hole on9th Street!
Glass blowing on South 9th Street

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Pottery
Pottery for the kids who could have their finished product fired and mailed to them.

 

OutsideBok

InsideBokDrawings

No block party iscompletewithoutone
No block party is complete without a bouncy house!

 

 

Fleisher 121st Annual Faculty Exhibition

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I’ve started a new semester at the Fleisher Art Memorial but can’t do much in the pottery studio because of my hand (surgery next month).  But I went there today anyway  to check out the 121st (yes, you read that right) Annual Faculty Exhibition which is in full swing  and will be open for another week.  Here are some highlights from the show.

Bermudez
Henry Bermudez The Girl

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Detail

 

Budayev
Aleksandr Budayev Two Figure Drawing

Stirton-Broad
Carol Stirton-Broad  Dashes and Dots

Woods
Joni Woods Shuttle

Brett Lukens
Emily Brett Lukens Near or Far

 

There are many other fine works in the show which closes on September 21, 2019.    Don’t miss it if you are in South Philadelphia.

POST at Bok 1

Last month I visited the Bok Makerspace which was on the South Philly list of participants in the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours (POST).  

Bok Technical High School was a vocational school that opened in South Philadelphia in 1938.  Thousands of students passed through Bok’s doors learning trades like brick laying, plastering, plumbing, machine building, tailoring, and hairdressing until the school closed its doors in 2013.

The Bok building is massive. That’s a cardboard model in the above picture. It takes up an entire city block and the interior is 340,000 square feet.   The surrounding neighborhood is made up of  mostly residential row houses.   The  residents were understandably concerned about what would happen to the building.

They need not have worried.  In 2014, a developer named Lindsey Scannapieco proposed converting the former high school into a  space for creative entrepreneurs.  The neighborhood liked her ideas  and her efforts were lauded by Inge Saffron, the Architectural Critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer.   Read more articles about the transformation of Bok here and here.    

While Bok  is thought of as a space for artists, it is really so much more as I learned on my visit for the POST tours.  All of the artists I talked to came from the surrounding neighborhood and almost all of them were business people in creative fields. 

I hope to profile some of the artists I met during the tour and show you some pictures of their spaces.

Bob’s Garden Spring 2017

They say that everybody  always complains about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it.    If you are at all into gardening, this Spring’s crazy weather has made things a challenge: Flowers opening early and freezing; buds opening up icing over and and falling off; rain and chilly weather that has made May seem more like  Fall than Spring.  

So Bob has faced challenges in the garden this spring and it’s not as full and lush as it usually is at this time of year.  Even so, there are four turtles in the Koi pond and sometimes they sit in the sun stacked up on one another.  Turtles really do that.  I don’t have any pictures because they are camera shy, but you can see many examples here.  And the turtles come out on the so far rare sunny days to bask in the sun and enjoy the flowers.

 

 

Color Wheels

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I volunteered to help in the ColorWheels mobile community art program  run by the Fleisher Art Memorial and participated in my first program on Saturday outside the Donatucci branch of the Philadelphia Free Library. After helping to set up the ColorWheels tent, I and other volunteers helped  the neighborhood kids make Gelli prints using leaves we found on the sidewalk and supplies from the ColorWheels art van.  It was a lot of fun and the kids jumped right in picking out paint and leaves, and turning out prints that twe hung up to dry for them.

We ended up closing a little early because it started raining.  Still, it was a great way to spend a Saturday.

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Pancakes for Breakfast Made With Love

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Happy Holidays from South Philadelphia!  We decided to make  plates for two little boys  for their weekly pancake breakfasts with their parents. Dad makes chocolate chip pancakes for the family every Sunday.   Yum, Yum!

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imageSo, where did we go ?  Why The Expressive Hand a charming paint your own pottery shop in the heart of Bella Vista.   That’s owner Marcie Ziskind showing Bubbie how to do lettering on the rim of the plate.

wpid-img_20141214_143135blog_wm.jpgBubbie is working hard on Connor’s plate.

imageHere’s my plate with the rim painted and the pancake design drawn out.

imageDon’t Connor’s pancakes look good?  Great job Bubbie!!

imageAnd here’s Nathan’s plate, done by yours truly.

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IMG_20141214_155236blog_wmBoy we had a good time!    Wait until the little guys see their dishes, made with lots of love and some help from Marcie.

Read more about the Expressive hand in this  Blog Post.

The View From My Front Door Bob’s Garden Summer 2014

I live in South Philadelphia where there’s not much greenery. But I’m lucky because my neighbor Bob turns the hot and gritty summer landscape into an urban oasis every year. Here are some pictures from this years’ garden.

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The Hawthorn tree

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The Koi pond

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wpid-img_20140728_174938blog_wm.jpgStreet view

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Banana tree

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 Flowers bloom, die and

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New flowers come up to take their place

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Lotus

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The Banana tree and koi pond

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Bob’s BFF Barbra keeps watch over everything.  Sqwalk!

If you want to see posts about  of Bob’s garden from summers past, click on the links below.  Not all of the slide show links work on the older posts but they will give you an idea of how the garden has changed over the years. 

2007 

2008

2009 

2011

2012

2013