201 Harry Street
A House With A History
Sit Back and Let Me Tell You About A True Conshohocken Gentleman
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. 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 large gray house at 201 Harry Street, commonly known as the house at East Second Avenue and Harry Street, was built in the early 1870’s on property owned at the time by James Harry.
James Harry owned and operated a Drug Store on lower Fayette Street for many years, he was the son of Benjamin Harry who was born in 1809 in what was known as the Harry Homestead once located at Apple and Hector Streets. In 1836, Benjamin married Lydia Wood, the daughter of James Wood, who along with his son Alan Jr., started the Wood Iron Mills in the borough in 1832.
At one time the Harry family owned nearly the entire east side of Conshohocken including a nursery that provided all of the trees throughout the borough in the early days. Of course Harry Street was named after the Harry family. All of the street names on the east-side including Apple Street, Poplar, Cherry, Elm, Ash, and Walnut Street were all located in the nursery portion of Harry’s property, hence the names of the streets are named after trees.
In 1939 Joseph Leary purchased the former James Harry property at 201 Harry Street, a year later Mr. Leary married Anne Carroll in 1940 and together they lived at 201 Harry Street for the next half of century raising their three children Beth, Joseph and Ann.
Following Leary’s graduation from St. Matthew’s High School in 1928 he became a 1932 graduate of St. Joseph’s College Pre-Dental Program and a 1936 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dentistry. He opened his dental practice in 1937 on the corner of East Sixth Avenue and Fayette Street, the former home of Jawood Lukens, (currently 7-11) before setting up his office at 201 Harry Street where he practiced dentistry for half of a century.
I met Doctor Joseph Leary in 1982 and I remember it well. I never called him Joe, or Mr. Leary, I always called him “Doc” from the day I met him to the day he passed away 20 years later. There was a small announcement in the Conshohocken Recorder newspaper in February 1982, stating that Doctor Joseph Leary would be giving a slide show on the history of Conshohocken at the Conshohocken Fire Company No. 2 located at Ninth Avenue and Harry Street.
I went to the show that evening with about 40 people in the audience and I fell in love with the history of this borough and I fell in love with Doc Leary. Every time I was with Doc I’d pepper him with questions about early Conshohocken, never losing sight of the fact that Doc being born in 1911 lived the history, he didn’t read about it, he didn’t get second hand stories, he lived it. The great professional football teams, the trolley cars running up and down Fayette Street, World War I and World War II, a war which he participated in and retired in 1946 as a Captain. He could tell you everything about St. Matthew’s High School, football games between St. Matts and Conshy High, the borough’s great Centennial Celebration in 1950, and on and on.
I talked to Doc every chance I got over the years and the two things I remember most about this was, every time I asked him a question, and I asked a lot of questions, he would answer with, “Welllll, and he’d cock his head back just a little, and with a slightly crooked smile, it always seemed to me that one side of his mouth was always open wider than the other when he smiled, and he’d start with, Let me tell-ya.” Doc was a real live walkin’, talkin’ Conshohocken encyclopedia.
Doc will best be remembered by thousands of residents who visited his dentist office at 201 Harry Street where he practiced for nearly fifty years after moving from East Sixth Avenue and Fayette Street. Everyone talked about the many Conshohocken post cards of Conshohocken from the turn-of-the-century hanging in his office.
Doc Leary served his community as a leading member of St. Matthew’s Church, a devoted member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, giving me up-dates on Conshohocken residents in the numerous senior citizen living quarters and was a founding member of the Conshohocken Historical Society in February 1963.
He was proud of the house he purchased and lived in at 201 Harry Street often talking about the Harry Family and what the Harry family meant to the founding of Conshohocken. Doc’s father Patrick Leary was an early merchant on lower Fayette Street running a grocery business.
In the fall of 1997, I ran into Doc, I was going into the post office and he was coming out. I had just opened my frame shop two months earlier and the first thing out of Doc’s mouth was “How’s business going for you Jack?” The thing about Doc was he always engaged in conversation asking about you, your family, your kids and in-laws. He took a genuine interest in your life and your family and you always felt welcomed when you ran into Doc. So I replied to his question about “How’s business.” I said ya-know Doc I’m a little slow but I’ve only been open for two months.” Doc threw his head back, just a little with that half-cocked smile on his face and said “Ya-know Jack, I opened my business at Sixth Avenue and Fayette Street in the old Lukens House back in November 1937, when I closed out the year in December I had made a total of $46.00 for what was my first year, Doc conducted a very successful business for more than half a century, he said I know it was only two months, but I think you’re gonna do just fine.”
When we parted ways I thought about our conversation and I thought “I’m gonna be alright.” As my business grew over the years I often thought about our conversation and I know that when he said I was gonna be just fine, it was as if he knew something, To this day even though Doc has been gone for nearly 17 years, I often think of him and thank him for the encouragement he gave me on that fall morning back in 1997.
When I saw Doc’s slide show back in 1982 I was fascinated with his pictures and talk. Five years later in 1987, Doc gave his last slide show at the Mary Wood Parkhouse. Following the show he contacted me and asked if I would be interested in obtaining his slide and perhaps giving slide shows to the residents. I accepted, and the two hundred or so slides Doc gave me turned into more than 30,000 vintage slides and for the next 30 years I traveled the borough, and throughout Montgomery County giving slide shows spreading the wonderful history about our borough. ( In my hey-day I was giving up-to 15 shows per year, more than one a month). I recently gave my final slide show at Conshohocken Elementary School, it was a very short show but it was the last. I thank Doc for providing me with 30 years of entertaining residents, and for biting me with the history bug.
Doc and his wife Anne lived at 201 Harry Street for a half a century before moving to Sherry Lake Apartments where I visited him regularly. I wish everyone living in Conshohocken today could have known Doc, above all he was a very loving man and a true gentleman, the kind of gentleman that doesn’t exist today. I think the thousands of patients who visited Doc’s dental office at 201 Harry Street would agree.
Check out our next History of a House – Coming soon.
We’re only a few days away from the Conshohocken Adult Prom or Conshy Prom at the Great American Pub. If you want to buy a ticket stop in Coll’s Custom Framing or click on Eventbrite for your tickets. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/conshohocken-adult-prom-title-sponsor-the-great-american-pub-tickets-83826680859?fbclid=IwAR1v3JsvuTZCghgZ0UheRvizHNqNYetq2_JSOHTUumAAFYGENSIJ8qNM-mA