When John Bratton, editor of the American Volunteer newspaper, paid a visit to the village of Churchtown in April 1875, and then wrote about it in his newspaper, little did he know he would rile up the editor of a competing newspaper and send him off on his own trip to Churchtown.
In 1808 Thomas Sully, artist to the rich and famous, painted the portrait of Henry Connelly. (Fig. 1) Connelly, looking contented, prosperous, and very Byronesque, was 39 years old at the time. He had reason to look both prosperous and contented for he was one of the leading cabinetmakers of Philadelphia. His furniture, now in the collections of the Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Museums of Art, filled the fashionable drawing rooms and dining rooms of such Philadelphia notables as shipping merchant Stephen Girard, Quaker banker Henry Hollingsworth, and Captain John Carson, commander of the ship Pennsylvania Packet. 1
Connelly retired in 1824 after a successful career of 23 years in Philadelphia. But he remained unknown until 1928, when a label of Henry Connelly was noticed on a Sheraton sideboard in the possession of an old Philadelphia family.2 (Fig. 2) Research on Connelly's life and work then began.
W. M. Hornor, Jr., author of The Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture, was the first to write about Connelly, who, he felt, ranked equal "in every way to the heralded Duncan Phyfe" of New York. 3 Many have researched and published about Connelly since Hornor's article appeared in 1929, and numerous pieces have been attributed to his shop. Today, the Decorative Arts Photographic Collection at Winterthur records five pieces of furniture with Connelly's label, and several dozen more pieces attributed to him. However, no one was able to locate him anywhere before he appeared in Philadelphia in 1801 at the age of 32. No one learned that while Connelly's furniture graced elegant Philadelphia houses, it also stood in simpler houses in Newville, Pennsylvania, 127 miles from Philadelphia.
Newville, located in Newton Township, Cumberland County, was founded in 1790. The village grew rapidly. By 1798 there were 41 houses and a population of about 300. It was hardly the place one would expect to find a school of cabinetmakers—among them Henry Connelly.
Henry Connelly first appeared in the 1793 Septennial Census of Newton Township as a joiner.4 The same census listed another joiner, John Peebles. Both men were aged 24 and unmarried. It is likely that both Connelly and Peebles had apprenticed in Philadelphia. Peebles claimed to have "wrought in the best shops"5 in Philadelphia, and since his career is known from 1793 until his death, the only time he could have worked in Philadelphia was during and immediately following his apprenticeship.
Connelly and Peebles may have met in Philadelphia when they were apprentices, or known each other as boys in the Cumberland Valley. It seems probable that Connelly was related to the families of Joseph and Dennis Connelly, who settled along the Conodoguinet Creek, four miles from Newville, in the 1760s. Peebles was born in nearby Shippensburg, the son of tavern keeper and Revolutionary War captain William Peebles. Having completed their apprenticeships about 1790 or 1791, it was logical that they settle in Newville, a rapidly growing town, in close proximity to their relatives.