Universal York

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Visiting York County in 1916

Walter Hale's 1916 drawing of York Valley Inn
Walter Hale’s 1916 drawing of York Valley Inn

It is always enlightening to see other people’s impressions of us. Just recently, we were pleased when the respected Travel and Leisure magazine named York to its list of America’s Greatest Main Streets, citing a turnaround and our historic architecture.

George Washington is quoted as saying he wasn’t in danger of being converted after attending York’s First Reformed Church in 1791, since he didn’t understand the German sermon. Charles Dickens described the beautiful scenery of northern York County as seen from his stagecoach in 1842. Going back to the beginning of the last century, my recent York Sunday News column below gives us the 1916 views of actress and travel writer Louise Closser Hale:

Travelers record their York County impressions

The York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives collection includes books written by travelers passing through this area over the last three hundred years. Sometimes there are just a few pages on York County and its inhabitants, but it is still enlightening to see what kind of impression we made. An example is We Discover the Old Dominion by Louise Closser Hale with drawings by Walter Hale (1916).

As an actress, Louise (1873-1933) appeared in many stage plays, including George Bernard Shaw’s Candida on Broadway. She later moved to Hollywood, appearing in numerous motion pictures. Already an author of popular novels, Hale wrote several travel books that were illustrated by her actor/artist husband, Walter Hale. The 1916 book, We Discover the Old Dominion took them from their home in New York to Virginia, passing through York and Adams counties.

After stopping at the “new Brunswick Hotel” in Lancaster, the Hales continued toward York:
“…we very nearly hung a string of mules on the radiator. We did turn out in time, but the muleteer was most ungrateful. ‘Why don’t you give me the road?’ he roared. W____ roared back that we had given it to him. ‘Yes, but only half of it,’ grunted the greedy man.

I kept my eyes open after that, for I may not be much use in a car, but I have always noticed that something happens if I don’t watch, and I should most certainly have missed a delightful stone house of 1697. It had hung out, on a fine new shingle, the name of Valley Inn nicely flanked by pine trees, with further announcements on an oak tree that chicken dinners would be served. A gentleman in the back yard was calling the chickens. You could see that he was new to the business by the affection he was showing them. No one can possibly like chickens who has spent much time in their company.

A very pretty daughter came out to greet us, and corroborated this inference by saying that they had just taken the inn, having come out from the city. With metropolitan vanity I thought she meant New York or course, but it was York, which lay a little way ahead. She was a very attractive girl, and made the Illustrator wish he painted portraits of nice eyes and noses and mouths instead of forever presenting hard stone surfaces which increase in value as they grow older and older….

I haven’t told you why the English settlers gave these towns–York and Lancaster–the names of the two great houses of the Red and White Rose. The settlers were funny. They came over here to escape the persecution of their own county, and they immediately name their new towns after the old ones, and began persecuting on their own hook.

In York I asked a small boy, who was trying to sell me a two days’ old Philadelphia paper with his thumb over the date, if York and Lancaster were still fighting, and he sneers ‘Lancaster–huh!’ So I infer some sort of rivalry is still going on if war is only waged in print. The Susquehanna River flows between the two cities with a bridge over it a mile long, and I know nothing more cooling to hot blood than a body of water. Then, too, they always charge 26 cents to cross the bridge, and you have to hate a man pretty hard these days to pay 26 cents to go over and fight him.”

Further down the Lincoln Highway toward Gettysburg: “It became a way of toll gates which the motorist never decries as it means good roads, except for the bother of having to stop. …I did speak to one boy, who took our money, about this annoyance of stopping when you live in the vicinity and must pass over the road every day. He had deep winkles in his forehead either from thinking hard or trying hard to think. I asked him if the authorities did not arrange some way for the constant passerby to pay by the year and flash a ticket without going into neutral. He was very positive about it. He said that such an arrangement could not be made. At that a car rushed by, the driver swiftly displaying a coloured card. I was severe with the boy–I said he was deceiving me.

‘No,’ said the wrinkled youth, ‘they pay by the month.’”

The inn with the chicken dinners would have been the York Valley Inn. The large stone building stood on the north side of East Market Street, in the vicinity of today’s York Mall. It was torn down in 1962, and part of it was reconstructed as an office at Susquehanna Memorial Gardens. It has been speculated over the years that the earliest part of the York Valley Inn was constructed anywhere from the late 1730s to the early 1760s. The latter date is probably closer, and you wonder who came up with the 1697 date “on a fine new shingle” that the Hale’s encountered, and Walter included in his illustration, around 1916.

Since one of the main roads to destinations west of us, the Lincoln Highway, went through the center of York County and the city, as had Indian trails and pioneer roads following the same route, many people passed through during the last few centuries. We are grateful that at least a few paused to jot down their impressions.