We know this: Ezekiel Shur, 19th century farmer and veteran of the War of 1812, is buried around here somewhere.
That’s his tombstone, marked 1794-1863, in the backyard of Bob Kershaw’s house at 145 Shurs Lane. It’s hard to tell where the actual grave was located, as a contractor found the marker broken in half, way in the back, in the 1990s. More on that in a minute.
Thanks to city records and genealogy data available online, we also know this: Shur, the son of a Revolutionary war veteran, married well. In 1817 he wed Margaret Levering, an ancestor of Manayunk-Roxborough founder Wigard Levering.
And in about 1835, around the same time Ezekiel and Margaret’s eighth child was born, they built a house, decorating it with fine touches like pocket doors, wide plank floors, tall windows, intricate moldings and woodwork.
What happened in the century and a half after that is unclear, but Donald Sloan, president of the Roxborough-Manayunk-Wissahickon Historical Society is consulting local archives to try to shed some light.
Kershaw said he tried to search city archives to trace the house’s history, but didn’t have much luck combing through the old documents. All he knows is, by the time he bought the place in 1995, it was a dump.
“It was the first house I looked at, and I went to look at about 35 more,” Kershaw said. “I said I wouldn’t live in that house if it was the last house on earth.”
Kershaw paid $93,000 for the four-bedroom, 2,400 square-foot house, which sits on a fenced double lot facing the intersection at Tower Street. After 16 years, a lifetime’s worth of joy and heartbreak, and upwards of $700,000 in renovations, the house is for sale again.
Like many couples reaching a certain age, Kershaw and his partner, Robert Barton, are approaching retirement and ready to make a switch. They’ll leave the house much changed, from the finished basement dug out of what had been a rough cellar, to the airy master bedroom suite that offers a commanding view.
Standing on the front porch as the morning sun climbs higher in the sky behind the house, it’s still vaguely possible to imagine it in another age. The three houses directly across the street, Kershaw said, sit where a barn was, and his neighbor’s place was once a garage or carriage house.
“In my mind, I can visualize this as a whole estate,” Kershaw said.
At the time the house was built, it sat on either Rittenhouse or Walnut lane, as various maps of the period show either and sometimes, both. By 1855, though, it was Shur’s Lane, and that year’s edition of McElroy’s Philadelphia Directory, a sort of Yellow Pages of its day, shows Ezekiel Shur, farmer, living there.
If it was ever a bucolic country estate, the peace and quiet likely didn’t last long with the busy canal only a few blocks away. As the century drew to a close, things looked very different and then, as now, the streets just off Main were hot property.
One of the many antiques in Kershaw’s collection is a hand-colored map of the 21st Ward, printed on thick linen in about 1892.
The document shows Shurs Lane had grown two arms, as Tower Street and Ezekiel Street (now Boone) were cut through, and sprouted rows of houses like the daffodils poking through the soil in Kershaw’s yard.
Whatever Shur’s holdings before, the map shows his widow’s estate consisting of several large lots, some disconnected, interspersed with lots of houses and plans for even more, which brings us back to the tombstone. At some point in all that dividing and building, the white slab was split in half and built into a set of steps that led to the neighbor’s yard.
“I asked the contractor what he did with it, and he told me he sold it to a guy on Main Street for $35,” Kershaw said. They got it back and installed it in its current place, giving the back yard an intimate, ancient feel.
Today, the house is nearly surrounded by other homes, and it’s easy to whiz right by Ezekiel Shur’s house. But it’s there, on the street that bears his name, a little pocket of textile-town history sewn into the fabric of modern-day Manayunk.