HISTORY OF A HOUSE
103 East Fifth Avenue
Have You Ever Heard of John Pugh?
By Jack Coll
Editor’s Note: (This is one in a series of short articles on random houses throughout the borough of Conshohocken, enjoy)
Houses up-and-down the avenues and streets of Conshohocken are, well, today, just houses, but back in the early part of last century, say a hundred years ago many of these houses provided needed services to the community. Many of them were corner stores or mid-block stores, the living rooms of some of these houses doubled as pool rooms, barber shops, cigar stores, candy stores and doctors’ offices. Sometimes the house was owned by a borough business-owner, or someone who contributed to the success of our community. I thought it might be fun, and interesting to point out of few of these houses, that today are occupied by residents who I’m sure had no idea that their house was at one time something more than just a house.
The stone home with the front porch enclosure located at the corner of East Fifth Avenue and Harry Street across from the Fellowship House, (Conshohocken Community Center) was built a decade after the Civil War ended in 1875. The Conshohocken Historic Resource Survey book stated “As a prominent corner Second Empire house in a block of large, predominantly 1860’s free standing houses, 103 East Fifth Avenue contributes to the upper class neighborhood established by the wealthy industrialists in the second half of the nineteenth century. Across from the Alan Wood, Jr. estate, the 1875 house marks the corner of the most exclusive residential block in the borough.”
A good many of the early built stone houses in the borough were constructed by the early wealthy industrialist. While many of these early mansions (and small mansions) were built before the turn of the century a good many of the borough’s mansions were built post 1900.
One of the most interesting residents to inhabit 103 East Fifth Avenue was a fella named John Pugh. Mr. Pugh was born July 2, 1838, in Radnor, Delaware County. At an early age Pugh was apprenticed to learn the trade of a carriage builder but a business depression in the 1840’s set-in and Pugh was unable to secure work in his trade. He went to work at a general store and gained his first business experience. He remained at the store until the outbreak of the Civil War and with a number of friends he enlisted on August 9, 1862 as a private in Co. D, 124th regiment, Pa. Vols. His company was assigned to the first brigade, first division of the 11th corps, Army of the Potomac, and was sent immediately to the front.
Within a month he was in the Maryland campaign and found himself involved in the heat of the war September 7, 1862, at Rockville, Maryland. He participated in the battle of South Mountain for two days and was in the fighting at Antietam for another two days being wounded on the second day. He was later transferred to Co.1, second division 12th Army Corps, on March 21, 1863. He participated in the whole campaign including the three day battle at Chancellorsville. He was mustered out of the army at Harrisburg, May 15, 1863. He served for nine months and was with his company and regiment in the most severe campaigns and battles of the war.
After being mustered out of the service, he enlisted June 17, 1863 as a corporal in Co. 1, 29th Pa. militia and the company was sent to Virginia the same month and engaged in a number of skirmishes at Clear Spring near Winchester.
After the war, he returned to his home in Radnor and managed a general store for a short time, in 1864 at the age of 31 he went into business with his brother Samuel in Conshohocken.
John’s Brother Samuel owned and operated a Feed business with his partner Owen Hatten. John purchased the 50 percent of the company from Hatten and went into business with his brother calling the business “The S & J Pugh Coal, Flour and Feed Business.” Ironically, John’s first day on the job the S & J Pugh business had coal delivered to their coal yard. The two car-loads of coal were being shifted into position to unload the coal when the train cars shifted into his building and demolished the entire structure.
In 1884, twenty years after joining his brother in business Samuel and John moved the business into a new location on Fayette Street adjoining the Reading Railroad Bridge. In the summer of 1888 Samuel married Sallie E. Davis of Philadelphia and by the spring of 1899 Samuel passed away leaving the entire business to John.
On June 13, 1867 John married Katharine Leedom, (Sara) of Gulph Mills and was married in Philadelphia by Mayor Richard Vaux. The couple moved to Conshohocken in 1871 and built their stone house at 103 East Fifth Avenue, (on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Harry Street).
In 1888, John Pugh and Robert Green of Philadelphia were appointed to represent a monument committee for the 124th Pennsylvania Regiment Association to arrange for the design, construction and ceremony of a monument to be placed at the Antietam National Battlefield, and arrange for ceremonies for the unveiling and dedication ceremony location at the battlefield.
The estimated cost for the monument was $5,000, half to be paid for by the State. Pugh and Green made many trips to the foundry and stone cutter yard to approve the shape and design of the monument over a period of years. Finally on September 17, 1904, the monument was dedicated in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people. Conshohocken had arranged for a special excursion train to the battlefield that carried more than 200 local residents. Pennsylvania Governor Pennypacker made a stirring speech in front of the monument in 1904, praising all who sacrificed their lives during the battles and commending Pugh and Green for their dedication and commitment so that all Pennsylvania’s Volunteers would never be forgotten.
. In the early 1900’s, monuments representing all the states involved in the brutal battles at Antietam started popping up across the once bloody battlefield. If you ever find yourself in Sharpsburg, Maryland, in Washington County, you might want to visit the Antietam battlefield. A short drive to the intersection of Dunker Church Road and Starke Avenue, the 124th Pennsylvania Monument will hit you square in the face, the pride of Conshohocken is written all over it!
John Pugh was a long-time member of the George Smith Post No. 79 G. A. R. (Grand Army of the Republic) who had their headquarters on the corner of West Third Avenue and Forrest Street. He participated in many July Fourth Parades and many other parades and was the guest of honor at many occasions over the year. He was quite active in town over the years participating in anything and everything to help Conshohocken move forward helping the borough’s reputation as being a progressive borough. In December of 1912 local newspapers dubbed John Pugh as a “Real live Santa Clause” as he sold coal to Conshohocken residents for below cost due to tight times at the local mills. He was also the President of the First National Bank of Conshohocken where his son Harry was a Teller for many years.
In December of 1918, at the age of 81 Mr. Pugh had a bad fall from a wagon and broke his right arm at the wrist and his collar bone. In the summer of 1922 Mr. and Mrs. Pugh celebrated their 55th Wedding Anniversary. Eight months later in February 1923 John suffered a stroke while attending church at First Baptist, the church that adjoins his backyard, and six months later on August 28, 1923 John Pugh passed away.
His widow Sara lived in the house they built until her death in 1931, she was 87 years old.
In more recent years the once beautiful front porch has been enclosed, a small side porch has been removed and other general construction has been done to the building, but the integrity of the original stone building remains the same. for a number of years the building served as a doctor’s office, if Im not mistaken it was Dr. Nicholson’s office and today I’m not sure if it remains a private residence or an apartment, but the building seems to be well maintained and remains one of the many beautiful building on East Fifth Avenue.
Among the photographs shown in this article include:
A postcard photograph of the Pugh residence taken in 1906 showing the front and side porches.
A recent photograph taken of the former Pugh house located at 103 East Fifth Avenue.
A photograph of lower Fayette Street showing the covered bridge crossing the Schuylkill River looking towards West Conshohocken shows the S&J Feed Store, (Samuel and John Pugh Feed Store) on the left with the white sign with the letters S&J Feed Store barely visible. The photograph was taken in 1866.
A bill from the S. & J. Pugh Coal Company to the Conshohocken Free Library for an entire winter’s worth of coal deliveries.
A check from 1909 from the Conshohocken Library to the S. & J. Pugh Company signed by Conrad Jones for winter coal deliveries, the Pugh Company always delivered to the library as a discounted rate, the check for $67.50 was for the entire winter.
John Pugh dressed in his full Civil War uniform standing in the front yard of his house before the start of the November 11,1921 parade that celebrated the grand opening of the new Matsonford Bridge, (and the opening of the Riant Theatre)
The Pennsylvania monument located at the National Battlefield in Antietam designed by John Pugh and Robert Green, it was dedicated on September 17, 1904.