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Harriton House – founded 1704
Harriton House c. 1890
500 Harriton Road
In the mid-1680's Welsh Quaker Rowland Ellis built a small house and cultivated wheat, oats and Indian corn on 15 of the nearly 700 acre piece of land he received from William Penn. In 1704 he built a large stone house, at what we know today as Old Gulph and Harriton Roads, which he named "Bryn Mawr" or "Great Hill." The extant three story, nine room, T shaped structure had flaring eaves and tall brick chimneys. The original interior had paneling and a closed-string staircase.

Rowland Ellis was a substantial member of his Welsh community. He represented Merion as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and he was an overseer or manager of the Quaker Schools in Philadelphia – the first public schools in the country. Ellis was ultimately forced to sell his property due to financial reverses. The property was sold in 1719 to Maryland tobacco planter Richard Harrison. Harrison increased the number of acres under cultivation and renamed the property Harriton. Harrison's principal crop was tobacco, which was grown very successfully until his death in the 1740's. Though a Quaker, like Rowland Ellis, Harrison cultivated his tobacco on the slave economy.

Harriton's most famous occupant was Charles Thomson, who acquired the house and estate through his marriage to Richard Harrison's daughter, Hannah Harrison, in 1774. Thomson was a Scotch-Irishman who emigrated to America at the age of 10. Among his many careers he taught Latin and Greek in the Philadelphia Quaker schools – those same schools of which Rowland Ellis had been an overseer. Thomson later became a merchant and distiller of rum, but he is best known as the first Secretary of the Continental Congress, serving for 15 years.

In April of 1789, Thomson traveled to Mt. Vernon to inform George Washington that Washington had been elected the first President of the United States under the new constitution, shortly after which Thomson retired from public life to Harriton. During his retirement at Harriton, Thomson made the first translation of the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament into English. The four-volume Bible was printed in Philadelphia in 1808. Thomson's second retirement interest was America's principal industry after the revolution – agriculture. He was a beekeeper and "scientific farmer" at Harriton. In contrast to his father-in-law's slave economy, Thomson was an abolitionist.

After Thomson's death in 1824, the house and farm were run by tenants. By 1908, descendants of Hannah Harrison's brother started the Harriton Guernsey Dairy, using the old house as a home for the dairyman and about 85 acres for crops and grazing. The premier dairy operated until about 1930, providing milk and cream to the local community.

The 1704 house was purchased by Lower Merion Township in 1969 with funds principally raised by the Harriton Association. Today a restored Harriton House and surrounding 16 acre park are open to the public as Lower Merion's only public historic house museum. The house and surrounding park are owned by the Township and administered in a public/ private partnership by the not-for-profit Harriton Association.

The Harriton House has been restored and furnished to the period of Charles Thomson's occupancy (1789-1824), including objects owned and used by Charles Thomson. The Harriton Association's collections of decorative and useful arts, farm implements, and books and papers document 300 years of life in Lower Merion. The Association's collections also include four additional buildings at the historic site representing 17th century settlement to 21st century comfortable suburban residence. The most recently acquired buidling takes us to a place of beginning – Rowland Ellis' small 17th century house, which has been enlarged through the years, is today used for meetings, program space, and the Association's beekeeping program.


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