Welcome to Hackberry Hill

It’s been nearly two years now since I started chronicling this house’s misadventures.  Clumsily, I pieced together the parts needed to get a blog up and running.  I still don’t know what I am doing 99% of the time. but I did recognize that the format needed a bit of a refresher.  I hope the new look is cleaner and easier to read.

It seemed a shame not to use our humble house’s moniker:  Hackberry Hill.  There is something utterly charming about a house with a name.



I am looking forward to 2017 as we are hoping to kick off some long-awaited projects.  Our wheels have been spinning and I  am so thankful to have waited on the bigger projects as our needs and ideas have changed.  Anyhow, welcome to Hackberry Hill!

The Laboratory

On a daily basis, the word “lab” is used in our home.  Go put the shovel back in the lab.  Did you lock the lab?  Make sure to close the lab windows before bed.



Here is the lab, just out the back door.  Good thing it’s cute as it is going to be a fortune to restore!

IMG_1603I can’t begrudge it because the lab really does give our yard some pretty structure.  And, I would miss my courtyard.


And stucco walls to grow vines . . .


And, of course there is that small piece that the building has a special place in history.  So, let’s start there and take a peek inside.  In 1933 the Rettew family bought ‘Hackberry Hill’ – it hadn’t yet been named and the house was still the smaller, more conventionally floor-planned center hall colonial.  There’s the garage peeking out from behind the house.  Construction on the garage started the same year the Rettews bought the house.


Let’s go inside!  img_0676

The first floor of the lab is broken into 5 very small rooms.  There is the entryway, boiler room, main room, kitchen and storage.  It sounds far grander than it is, and I only have a picture of the boiler room right now.  The beast!


The stairs are just to the left as you go through the front door.  They turn past a fire extinguisher from the 1960s.

img_0236The wood flooring is in pretty good shape, all things considering.

This is the view as you ascend the stairs.  The light in this space is wonderful and the windows are definitely a standout feature.  This was Rettew’s work area and according to his daughter it looks just the same.


img_0237 img_0225 img_0224 img_0222 img_0226

Raymond Rettew is second from the left with Alexander Fleming in the bowtie.


And, Rettew’s lab as it looked in the 1930s and 1940s, photographed for his book A Quiet Man from West Chester.  The fixtures and all the built-ins are still in good shape.


The roller shades were still hanging on the smaller front windows but we took them down for restoration work.  Essentially it looks the same from so many years ago.

The sterile room and growing room run along the back of the lab.  It is dormered out for space but we found it curious there were no windows.  It makes sense as the growing room had to be dark. The other doors on either side of the window seat are a bathroom and storage closet.

There is no plumbing, heating or electric hooked up so that would be the first order of business and then the question is – how best to preserve the character of this special place?

Wonder what the Oak looked like in 1949? Probably smaller.

photo-17The tallest crane in the world arrived in front of our house around 11 a.m.  Not long after there was a man dangling from said crane.  He was easily 100 feet in the air.  My husband and I were so focused on willing this man not to fall that we did not notice the tree paparazzi congregating across the lawn.  On the other side of the chipper was a man and woman, each with a camera.  They were snapping away and then not moving along as one would expect of curious pedestrians. Nope, they kept taking pictures.  They didn’t stop for the entire time the man was dangling about.  They finally stopped when the man had two feet on the ground and was beginning to untie himself.  Then they hugged.  So, that explained that.  Or maybe not.

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Here he is being lifted to certain death, I mean into the big black oak tree.

photo 2-20The tree is down.  I can’t bear to take an after picture quite yet.  Maybe tomorrow.

The scientist and his family – the Rettew Family – did something very clever and thoughtful when they added on so long ago.


They tucked the local newspaper into the wall behind the closet.


So this morning I sat in the bedroom on a makeshift chaise (radiator) and read the 1949 Daily Local from front to back.  If you read yesterday’s post then you will know this is funny.


The new closets are being framed out and it is the perfect spot in which to tuck the newspaper back into the wall. Along with a current Daily Local, of course.  If the house is on an every 65 years renovation loop, then it will be 2079 when the walls are opened up again.  2079!!  When robots will be opening walls with laser cats. . .

The Laboratory

In our backyard is a laboratory. It is very close to the house and super convenient if you wish to use the Bunsen burner on a whim one evening. In fact, it is not too far from the back door as noted in the picture below.

I will not take you into the lab quite yet as there is a bit of history that may be forgotten once you see the interior photos. First let me introduce you to G. Raymond Rettew. He has his own historical marker in town, and this was his lab many many years ago.

Granville Raymond Rettew was born in West Chester in 1903 and studied chemistry at the University of Delaware and Swarthmore College. Despite his lawyer father’s desire for Rettew to follow in his footsteps, Rettew became a chemist. He did, however, try to appease his father by working in his office but not even a month later Rettew received a phone call from Hires. Swarthmore had recommended Rettew for the job and he was soon hired by the root beer manufacture where he proudly recalls introducing ph control (Mainline Today,”The Mushroom Man” by Mark E. Dixon).

Meanwhile Rettew marries into a mushroom family and with his father-in-law in the business the dinner table conversations were often centered upon the challenges the growers faced. Rettew and good friend Joseph Strode decide to go into the mushroom spawn business. He left Hires and he and Strode incorporated as the Chester County Mushroom Laboratories in 1929. They did well right from the get go despite starting a new business just months after the beginnings of The Great Depression.

The 1930s were a busy and prosperous time for Rettew and it is during this decade that he bought our house. In 1933 he moved in and begins experimenting in the “lab above the garage”. It seems as if the lab may have been the garage initially, though at some point the lab/garage was reworked and possibly added onto as the stucco is noticeably different from one part to another.

The war was approaching and that necessitated a change to their approach to business. The first thing Rettew did was encourage the study of the nutritional value of mushrooms so they could be deemed an essential food. The second thing he did was to consider his hobbies and decide if he could contribute anything of value to the war effort. In 1941 Rettew read about penicillin and its potential at healing wounds. Rettew decided this was to be his focus.

Here is an excerpt from Rettew’s own writing (A Quiet Man from West Chester by G. Raymond Rettew):

During the remaining part of 1942, I worked alone in my own laboratory, mostly at night, experimenting with the cultivation of the Fleming strain of Penicillium notatum, developing an improved culture medium, and proving the adaptability of the 40-ounce culture flask (a kind of shortnecked bottle with four flat sides), and the equipment of the Chester County Mushroom Laboratories. It was then that I started to develop the method for the recovery of penicillin from fermentation broth.

Raymond Rettew (on right) with Dr. Desmond Biel, holding sterile culture with seed spores of Penicillin Notatum, circa 1945. (from ExplorePAHistory.com)

By 1943 Rettew figures out how to stabilize the penicillin cultures that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered and sends his first penicillin to the United States Government with 90% of it going to the Armed Forces. Fleming and Rettew became friendly over the years and it is rumored Fleming had dinner in our dining room. Rettew partnered with Wyeth in town and eventually moves into a sizable lab not too far from our house which is where the historical marker sits today. For a long time the historical marker sat at the edge of our property.

Rettew never goes back into mushrooms and continues working for Wyeth producing penicillin. He died in 1973 but before that the family sold the house to a pediatrician in town to whom they entrusted the preservation of this home lab.

We bought the house from the pediatrician’s daughters who listed the house after their parents passed away. The daughters left paperwork from the historical marker dedication which does a wonderful job describing Rettew’s work and contributions to World War II. We also get bits and pieces from the neighbors. In fact, one day a neighbor explained that his grandfather was visiting. He recognized the lab – he had been inside that lab working on several occasions. He then went onto tell the story that the FBI sat outside the house many evenings as he (a Dupont scientist), other local scientists and Rettew worked on chemical weapons for the U.S. Government.

The interior pictures are fascinating but will make you question our sanity. Fortunately the lab is not an immediate project as the house is taking priority, so we have time to mull over how to best use the space. That is a hot topic in our house. One part of the family envisions a ping pong table and dart boards, another faction thinks it would best function as pool house for a pool that would need to be installed and yet another faction believes it is charming as is and would be even more charming with lots of rakes, shovels and lawn equipment inside. More to come!