A Series of Lectures on “PM” Sharples, the “Millionaire Manufacturer”

The Sharples Separator factory, now an apartment complex in West Chester
The Sharples Separator factory, now an apartment complex in West Chester

            Long before there was such as term as “global market,” West Chester was home to the largest industrial company the borough had ever seen.

            One newspaper notice from 1906 suggests that reporters were unfamiliar with the concept of the worldwide market strategy. It was explained that the borough’s Sharples Separator Co.formed a “business alliance” with a firm in Japan and had begun selling a “considerable number” of milk separators there.

            Milk separators, which enabled dairy farmers to separate milk from the cream on the farm rather at the local creamery, were made by other firms. But no one sold them like Philip M. Sharples. Surpassing mere calendar giveaways, the company had 100 account executives whose sole job was to travel throughout the world, attending dairy fairs and exhibits. In the process, Sharples not only made a fortune, he became West Chester’s first industrialist.

         Postcards became an important way to promote products and goodwill

Postcards became an important way to promote products and good will. This one depicts Greystone in a romantic light

   Born in 1857 into an old West Chester Quaker family, the man known simply as “PM” poured his wealth into building West Chester’s grandest estate, “Greystone Hall.”   Surrounded by nearly 1000 acres of woods, trout ponds, open fields, and formal “Italian” water gardens, the mansion remained the talk of the West Chester community in part because its acreage and massive size, with more than 70 rooms.

            The present owners of Greystone – only the second family to live there after Sharples – describe the mansion’s architecture as “Elizabethan-Jacobean”. They have long off-set its costly maintenance by renting out its first floor rooms, mostly as a wedding venue but once also for conferences, according to Velda Jerrehian Moog, whose family purchased the estate in 1942. She has lived there since 1952 and launched the rental business in 1992.

                The former Sharples Co. headquarters, which once employed hundreds of men and women, and turned out 200 separators a day, is now the Sharples Works apartment complex. Its history, like that of many early industries and trades, remains preserved in the library archives of the historical society.

                        Particularly fascinating, for me at least, is “PM’s” public persona as an innovator in mass production and marketing. A former machinist, Sharples literally enabled every farmer in the country – and those in Europe, South America and Africa, to name just a few of the places where the company had factories or branch offices – to have a separator for as little as $40.

               Even in Sharples’ day, the West Chester headquarters was never a Dickensian vision of smokestacks and sooty buildings manned by a poor

This postcard was designed by a popular artist Cole Phillips.
This postcard was designed by the popular artist Cole Phillips.

and beleaguered working class. But somehow PM began to be seen as “millionaire manufacturer” who lived a storied life far above the common “West Chesterian,” as borough residents once called themselves. (Sharples’ “outsider” persona was later magnified when newly widowed, he married his daughter’s best friend from art school. But I digress.)

            Today Sharples is credited for building “much of the northeast section of the borough” thanks to his invention of “the first cream separator” made in America, as one obituary described it when Sharples died at the age of 87 in 1944.

Sharples was known for his work in forestry, both on the state and local level
Sharples was known for his work in forestry, both on the state and local level. The drive extended through the famed woods on Greystone’s property

Others hailed Sharples’ early work in forestry and developing the state park system. But in West Chester, he was typically remembered both for his philanthropy and   eccentric habits. He tooled around in an one-of-a-kind, hand-built car, for instance, and later had a small plane that he kept in a hanger on his property. Landing it, he often nearly touched the tops of the hundreds of Norway pines and Japanese larch that formed the woodlands of the estate.

                        Partly because of these imported trees as well as “transplanted” animals such as “Kentucky” rabbits, “Chinese” pheasants, and Mallard ducks “raised from eggs secured from the [Mary]Cassatt farm,” as one paper reported,  few seemed to know what to make of the place.

                        In the words of one writer, who wrote of the “long rose pergola” at the foot of the mansion’s lawn, “West Chester residents can scarcely believe that such a place exists so near their home.” As for the estate’s “hidden” location, reporters routinely recalled the “Catskills” with its dense scenery or they compared the grounds to Switzerland with its “cool waters” and “woodland glades and dells.”

            Ironically, given its mysterious allure, much of the estate’s extensive grounds were open to the public during its peak years from 1911 to the stock market crash of 1929. There were even posted hours at a gate house, resulting in generations of borough residents treating the estate much like an English country park.

The "sunken" pond and Italianate gardens. This photo ran in a program featuring the menu for the US Marine dinner
The “sunken” pond and Italianate gardens. This photo ran in a program featuring the menu for the US Marine dinner
Judging from the previous photo, this postcard captured the grounds fairly realistically. The gardens were once reached by a drive with a gatehouse near the Chester County Hospital
Judging from the previous photo, this postcard captured the grounds fairly realistically. The gardens were once reached by a drive with a gatehouse near the Chester County Hospital

            Reached by two long driveways (including one near the Chester County hospital), Greystone was known for its copses of thick woods and “hairpin turns” that threatened to topple old jalopies. Those driven by intrepid reporters, as many news stories suggest, considered the estate open territory for the latest news scoop. Perhaps most descriptive was the sea of “khaki tents” that appeared on Greystone’s open fields when a unit of the U.S. Marines was invited to dinner in 1915.

            By then, “Greystone Park” included an experimental dairy barn with a famous occupant – a bull that cost $60,000 and was so celebrated it was given its own pen at dairymen’s convention held in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.

            On a recent visit, Greystone’s long drive (now reached only from Phoenxiville Pike) was full of twists and turns, reminding me of a landscape design element known as the “ha-ha.”   Velda Moog, who greeted me at a side door framed by a porte cochere, had a ready explanation. “When they were building estates such as this one, they deliberately had a winding main entrance so you had a longer approach. The idea was to build up your anticipation.”

            Despite the years Greystone has served as a wedding venue, it still must be promoted and its appeal explained to offset such trends as the informal, country-style wedding, Moog says. Describing the Tutor Manor-style architecture, Moog noted that the mansion is very adaptable especially since outdoor tents can be used, and wedding parties can stage different rooms for each part of the ceremony and reception.   (I have always likened Greystone’s many rooms to that of a Clue board game, complete with a conservatory and billiards room where “Col. Mustard” might be lurking. )

            Walking down one of the long corridors, Moog pointed out doorways designed to be hidden when closed. They were flush with wainscotted walls, some of which are leather lined, and so I immediately concluded that they led to a secret room – and I was somewhat disappointed to learn that they were once used for a practical task, bringing firewood into a room without disturbing the occupant.

            As recently as the late 1980s, when plans were first being discussed to develop part of Greystone’s 450 acres, newspaper stories told of the era when Sunday drives through the estate were popular and many West Chester businesses closed early on Wednesdays during the summer so that people could boat or swim at one of Graystone’s three lakes.

            In the early 1990s, the late historian Liz Heed was the first to write about that aspect of Greystone’s history in a limited-edition booklet. According to Heed, Sharples lost his fortune and his mansion during the depths of the Depression, in 1934, despite beginning production on a promising product: the electric refrigerator. As Heed wrote, “the paradox of his life was that although he was brought up a simple Quaker, he made West Chester’s greatest fortune and built an estate that rivaled many an aristocratic manor house of Europe.”

For more information about the Greystone lectures or to purchase tickets, visit: www.chestercohistorical.org/events

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