The Broad Axe Tavern dates back to 1681, long before there were the roads Skippack Pike or Butler Pike in front of it. The tavern was located on an old Indian path where farmers took their grain to one of several mills in the area. Traditionally, many farmers maintained stills for friends, neighbors and passerby. As traffic increased, this hospitality stretched the income of farm families, so some built a small tavern and began to charge for food and a place to stay. The tavern soon became a place for locals to gather and exchange news.
Mail was soon delivered there, the sheriff began to post notices on the walls and newspapers, like the Pennsylvania Gazette and Ambler Gazette, were read aloud each day for those who could not read.
Legend has it that the name came from the axes used to clear the woods and that a Mrs. Hatchet began to keep beer and candy in the area. With business booming, another man put up a public house directly opposite with a large sign saying "Broad Axe".
In 1763, Derrick Van Pelt took over the Broad Axe and began horse races along Skippack Road, which became very popular. After the races, spectators and contestants alike celebrated or commiserated over brew at the Broad Axe Tavern. Coins were hard to find during this time and it was easier for patrons to wait until they obtained some to pay the tavern back. When he died in 1767, Van Pelt left a long list of patrons who had run up a bar tab- many of those later served in the Revolutionary war.
Many history books going back a century complain that the Broad Axe is "surrounded by an aura of myth and legend (and) the verifiable history if this inn remains particularly obscure."
During the American Revolution, many taverns were shuttered due to lack of food and thousands of hungry soldiers from both sides roaming the area. General Washington is known to have marched past the Broad Axe Tavern six times with his troops.
The very first time was right after the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777. British and Hessian soldiers chased the retreating American soldiers down Skippack Road past the Broad Axe all the way to the Blue Bell Inn where the American Cavalry under General Pulaski was waiting for them and a firefight ensued with many injured and dead soldiers. As troops ran back and forth, many died along the roadside including near and in front of the Broad Axe. Both sides buried their dead alongside the road in unmarked graves where they lie today. During this time British General James Grant is said to have stopped and dined at Broad Axe and let slip that they were going to catch Lafayette and embarrass the French.
The information was quickly relayed and Lafayette escaped played a big part at the Battle of Edgehill, along with Colonel Daniel Morgan and his expert riflemen. The British failed in their planned knockout blow at Edgehill (in Glenside) and the French then decided to financially support the American effort.
While on the way from Whitemarsh to the army's legendary stay at Valley Forge, Washington and his men marched past the Broad Axe one last time, and here it is actually mentioned in diaries and letters. Washington visited the Broad Axe area twice more during his Presidency and once afterwards.
The Broad Axe was also where the annual meeting of the Whitpain and Whitemarsh Horse Company were held. Originally formed in 1841 to track down stolen horses and property, the group became a social club with an annual banquet at the tavern, where a large feast was served for one dollar.
The Broad Axe has turned up in newspapers over the centuries starting with the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 20, 1771, which stated that two stray horses were being kept until their owners could be found.
Because the area was often shrouded in dense fog and surrounded by heavy forest, the roads meeting at Broad Axe often had a reputation for supernatural sightings. This increased more after the war, when many soldiers were buried near the tavern by the woods and roads. The owner of the land at one time, George Bisbring, was said to have made a hearth in his house from fifty flat tombstones taken from an abandoned nearby cemetery. Stories abounded of the fifty ghosts who would gather at Brisbing's fireside and that when he died, he joined them. Today they are said to sometimes wander the countryside.
The most well-known ghost, Rachel, is said to haunt the Broad Axe. Stories claim she was the daughter of the tavern's owner. She was chased into the tavern by drunken hoodlums and was never seen again. For decades, workers claim to have been pushed from behind or had drinks toppled while serving. Her ghost has been spotted peering out a third floor window by people in cars at the corner of Skippack and Butler. The bathroom on the first floor is the same location where Rachel fled long ago.