Tuomi’s Time Machine: A Towering Figure

In Celebration of John S. Trower, Self-Made Man, Philanthropist and, at one time, Pennsylvania’s Wealthiest Black Resident

In this edition of the Time Machine, we feature long-time Black caterer and Germantowner John S. Trower and his achievements. After moving to our area from Virginia via Baltimore, Trower built his catering business on East Chelten Avenue and later, at 5706 Germantown Avenue, from scratch. His success enabled him to invest in real estate and engage in philanthropic endeavors, and by his death in 1911, he was reckoned as Pennsylvania’s wealthiest Black resident.

John S. Trower was free born on October 3, 1849, to Luke Trower (1807–1871) and Ann Maria Reid Collins Trower (1822–1889) on the Eastern Shore in Northampton County, Virginia. At about 21, he left Northampton County for Baltimore, Maryland, presumably due to the availability of jobs there.

While in Baltimore, he worked as an “oyster opener” at one of Baltimore’s many oyster houses, residing for a time with a Mr. and Mrs. Mack, who are said to have provided him with much personal advice and assistance. He did not stay in Baltimore for long; by around 1870, he had moved to Germantown. After operating a restaurant on East Chelten Avenue across from the Germantown Depot for over 10 years, he bought the building at 5706 Germantown Avenue for $12,500. It had belonged to the Germantown Saving Fund Society in 1887. Two years later, he was named caterer to the Cramp Shipyards, which would provide a major boost to his business.

He catered fashionable affairs on dry land as well, and his success would allow him to invest in real estate in Germantown and in Ocean City, New Jersey, where the family had a summer home. In Downingtown, Pennsylvania, he would purchase a 110-acre farm, on which he established an industrial school, which was to provide vocational training to Black teenagers, some of whom would continue their education at Lincoln University. In Germantown, the Trowers lived on East School House Lane.

As Booker T. Washington noted in his 1907 The Negro in Business, Trower used his wealth to support a wide range of philanthropic efforts:

Mr. Trower has contributed largely to the building up of a number of Baptist churches of his city and state. His advice is frequently sought in matters of finance and church policy in the Baptist denomination. He is president of the Cherry Building and Loan Society; treasurer of the Reliable Mutual Aid and Improvement Company, and treasurer of the Reliable Businessmen’s Building. He is a member of the board of trustees for the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, and member of the board of trustees for the Olive Cemetery. Mr. Trower is very active in charitable work where he is performing a service which the ordinary person cannot see and know.

The position that Mr. Trower has obtained in the community in which he lives has made it possible for him to be of great service to other members of his race. He has established a business in which a number of them find employment and have an opportunity to obtain a business experience and training. His own success and, in many cases, his positive aid and support has given encouragement to a number of young men, and his influence in the community has enabled him to be in many ways a friend of the colored people and a leader of his race.

Before and after: 5706 Germantown Avenue. Current location is the blue building in photo above (aka The CrabHouse Bar and Grill)

October 3: Historical Marker Celebration
It is with this legacy in mind that Historic Germantown, working with the Black Writers Museum, Germantown United CDC, and the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, planned for the installation of a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker at Trower’s former business headquarters, 5706 Germantown Avenue – now the Crab House – with a celebration planned for his birthday, on October 3. This will commemorate the location’s significance to our history, at what is a most appropriate time to reflect upon Trower’s achievements, not just in Germantown or in the City of Philadelphia, but nationally. For more info, visit Historic Germantown’s website, freedomsbackyard.com.

NOTE: Newspapers, photographs, Oscar Beisert’s and the Keeping Society’s nomination of 5706 Germantown Avenue to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, the spring 2021 Germantown Crier, and ephemera available at the Germantown Historical Society informed the writing of this article.

In mid-August, we saw this exciting post on Facebook from local resident (and Architectural Historian) Oscar Beisert.

After several years of research and writing, followed by the nomination process, I am pleased to report that the important African American landmark, the John S. Trower Building, at 5706 Germantown Avenue in Germantown was finally listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, protecting it from demolition and regulating future alterations. Immortalized in W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Philadelphia Negro”, Trower (1849-1911) established an important catering firm at the subject property. This is one of the last buildings to survive that exemplifies the significant cultural and historic legacy of what Du Bois called “The Guild of Black Caterers” that once ruled culinary Philadelphia. Rather than building a mansion for himself, he occupied the third floor with his family, leveraging his financial resources to establish important charities for his community, including a savings and loan for homeownership, the historic building of First African Baptist Church, the Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School, etc.

Congratulations to Oscar Beisert and The Keeping Society on their success. Learn more about the Society (and donate if you can to their very important work) at keepingphiladelphia.org. To read their nomination for the historic space, click here.

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.

About Alex Bartlett 33 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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