Falls Common: The Great Timber Swamp

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Categories: Falls Township, Land Use

While William Penn was parceling up Pennsylvania for the first generation of European settlers, England’s system of land use was undergoing a fundamental shift. Since medieval times English agriculture was for the most part practiced communally, employing an “open field” system in which each community had a few very large fields which were divided into smaller strips to be farmed by individual families. Likewise, livestock grazed on common pastureland and the right of common use extended to lumber harvesting, fuel gathering, pig foraging, berry picking, and any number of activities essential to the community members’ subsistence.

At the time of Pennsylvania’s settlement, much of England’s commonly held land was been seized by wealthy land owners and enclosed as private property. While the new property owners became rich, the rest of the community was forced off the land they’d been farming for centuries. The frustration of the commoners is perhaps best summed up in the famous poem:

They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

Interestingly, while the traditional commons of England were increasingly threatened with enclosure, William Penn set aside a commons in what would eventually become Falls Township. According to historian (and former Spruance librarian) Terry McNealy:

The Manor, as it was eventually laid out, and the plantations of the earlier settlers, with the lines straightened in accordance with Penn’s wishes, are shown on Holme’s map of 1685. Penn, in compensation to the landowners whose boundaries were changed by the adjustments, granted a tract of 120 acres to the inhabitants of the area which was later established as Falls Township, as common land. This tract, not indicated on Holme’s map, came to be known as Falls Common, but was also known as the “Great Timber Swamp.” The Common was located in the Middle Lots between the village of Crewcorne and the spot where Falls Meetinghouse was built in 1690 forming the nucleus of the village of Fallsington. Since it was a large tract of undeveloped land, the Common formed an effective barrier between Crewcorne and Fallsington.

The early use to which the Common was put, as well as a glimpse of Penn’s efforts to keep firm control of matters in Pennsylvania from England, is revealed in a letter he wrote James Logan, his secretary in the province, on 4 January 1701-2: “There is a swamp between the Falls and the meetinghouse; I gave the Falls people, formerly, leave to cut timber in it for their own use, which they have now almost spoiled, cutting for sale, coopery, &C., which now, or in a little time, would have been worth some thousands. Phineas Pemberton knows this businees; let all be forbit to cut there any more, and learn who have been the wasters of timber, that hereafter they may help to clear the rubbish parts that will be fit for use, or give me tree for tree, when I or my order shall demand it.”

(The Middle Lots, by Terry McNealy. The Historian, Summer 1970, Vol. VI No.3, p.22-23)

Given Penn’s personal intercession to control the use of the land and its apparent short life, Falls Common may not have played a formative role in the development of early Buck County. However, it is interesting to note this relict of medieval communalism  in a pattern of development primarily defined by the allotment of land to individual owners in fee simple.


Doylestown in Kodachrome, 1938

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Categories: Doylestown, Film, New Galena, Tags: ,

A few years ago I found a reel of 16mm film on the shelf at the County Theater. It contained a silent film of miscellaneous Bucks County scenery, and wasn’t that interesting. However, enclosed with that reel I found a page of notes referring to another 16mm film shot during Doylestown’s 1938 centennial parade (marking the incorporation of the Borough in 1838). With big plans underway to mark Doylestown’s 2012 bicentennial (commemorating when Doylestown became the county seat in 1812), I decided to track down the missing reel.

As it turns out, the film was last shown over 20 years ago by Closely Watched Films, the local film group that would eventually purchase the County Theater and convert it to a non-profit art house. I was able to find the owner of the reel, who still lives in Doylestown, and he agreed to let me borrow the reel (as well as three others) on behalf of the Doylestown Historical Society. His grandfather, Oscar O. Bean, shot the film in 1938. Census records show that he was a lawyer who lived on East State Street in 1930, and would have been about 57 years old at the time of filming.

I took the reels back to the theater to inspect them. First I opened the two small reels, labelled “Firemen’s Parade” and “Bull Fighting.” Unfortunately, they were water damaged when their storage area got flooded, and the film was coated in a white mold bloom. They’re probably salvageable, but they’d need work so I put them aside. The two larger reels seemed to be in better condition. While they showed some symptoms of age, they didn’t have the strong acetic odor of films suffering from Vinegar Syndrome, the chemical chain reaction that eventually destroys acetate film. I put the first reel on the rewind table, and as a picked up the tail of the film to attach it to the take-up reel, I found this magic word, printed on the edge of the film:


The film was in color! And not just any color. Kodachrome is one of the best color processes in terms of archival stability. If stored correctly, it won’t fade or lose its color like other film stocks. And this film dates to 1938, just three years after Kodachrome was introduced. As a color film of Doylestown from this era, it’s surely one of a kind. Thanks to the Bean family, we can see the streets of 1930’s Doylestown in color.

The next step is to find funding to make a digital transfer of the film, which I hope to do through the Doylestown Historical Society. Once transferred, I’d like to somehow include it in the bicentennial events. A lot of the images are static shots, so I think it would be nice to incorporate them into a book of single frames. I’m imagining something like this book by Swiss experimental filmmaker Hannes Schüpbach, who selected images from his films and printed them accompanied by poetry:

Selected images from a 16mm film.

Below are a few photos I took with my cellphone. The reel containing the centennial event is entirely in Kodachrome. The second reel is home-made documentary of the history of Doylestown, and incorporates still images, maps, and reenactments, as well as Kodachrome shots of landmarks. It doesn’t really do them justice, but it’ll give you a taste:

The Intelligencer Building

Hard to read here, but the marquee features Coming of Age (1938).

The New Galena Board of Censors… who knew?

And last but not least, Bucks County historian and distinguished Doylestown resident W.W.H. Davis:


The Origin of Strangers Row & The Removal of Monuments

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Categories: Buckingham, Death, Graves, Quakerism, Religion, Solebury

It’s been almost a year since I first discovered Strangers Row, the section of Solebury Friends graveyard dedicated to paupers and non-Quakers, and I finally found some written documentation of its existence. In 1906, Solebury Friends Meeting celebrated its first centennial, and a pamphlet was printed commemorating the event. Out of the many interesting pieces it contains, perhaps the most valuable is Eastburn Reeder’s account of Solebury Friends history, which he read before meeting at the centennial event. Below is an excerpted portion pertaining to the creation of the graveyard, abstracted from the Monthly Meeting minutes:

 Third-month 25th, 1808… the Friends appointed to enclose the burying ground, report the service nearly performed, and a committee was appointed to consider proper directions to give the grave digger and in what manner the dead shall be interred in our grounds.

Fourth-month 26, 1808. The committee appointed to consider the proper mode for the interment of the dead in our new burying ground, and also to particularaize who shall be interred therein, report:

“We the committe [sic] to take in view what method we shall bury in, and who may be admitted in our burial grounds, are free to propose, the following: First, That the whole ground to be ocupied [sic] shall be laid out in 84 squares, each to be 8 feet by 20 feet, 8 inches, and to begin at the upper corner of Moses Eastburn’s [property] line, and each family taking their square in succession as occasion calls for it. Servants and apprentices belonging to Friend’s families may be admitted, and such as are descendants of Friends and their families within the limits of this meeting; those of other description not included.”

Ninth-month 27th, 1808. Finding some difficulties to arise from this plan for burying, Friends reconsidered it, and decided that all transient persons who may have liberty to bury in our grounds, and not properly claiming a square, ought to be interred in a row on the east side of the burying ground, beginning at the northeast corner. This is the origin of the strangers row. The grave-yard has been twice enlarged. The first time in 1830 by the purchase of 80 perches of Aaron Paxson, Jr. The second time in 1877 by the purchase of one and a half acres of Merrick Reeder, making the whole amount of land now owned by the meeting over 5 acres.

Thanks to Reeder we have the original plan for the allotment of the graveyard, and we can appreciate the sympathy of these original Friends who set aside a burying place for people who had nowhere else to turn.

Reeder’s history of Solebury Meeting also illuminates another intriguing aspect of Quaker history: the shifting opinions within the Society of Friends with regard to the recognition of the deceased with grave monuments. In keeping with the testimony of simplicity, early Friends erected plain, unmarked headstones or no stones at all. At Solebury Meeting, you’ll find these simple brown slabs of local stone in the oldest section, located in the northwest corner. Eventually initials or names were added, but it wasn’t until the  second half of the 1800’s that engraving the name of the deceased with their dates of birth and death (and consequently the use of marble and other easily engraved stone) became standard practice. Viewing the list of graves at Solebury Meeting (available here), the recording of dates seems to begin in the 1860’s. I can’t help but think that the Civil War transformed the Society’s views on death and remembrance.

Below Reeder recounts the controversy over grave monuments that occurred when Friends began erecting marked headstones at Buckingham Meeting. (Note: Before Solebury Meeting was constructed in 1806, Solebury Quakers commuted to Buckingham Meeting.)

Monuments. The committee appointed to unite with a committee of Buckingham Monthly meeting on the subject of monuments in our grave-yards, made the following report in writing: “The committees appointed by Buckingham and Solebury Monthly meetings to unite in considering the subject of monuments of deceased persons agree to report, that they are of opinion that all fixtures to graves with inscriptions thereon in order distinguish one grave from another, is contrary to the direction of the discipline; and as a great variety of such have been placed in our grave-yard at Buckingham, some of them by members of Solebury, we believe it would be proper for the monthly meetings to attend to the removal of them. But as this departure may have been generally from a want of a perfect knowledge of the discipline, great tenderness toward the survivors ought to be exercised. We, therefore, suggest the propriety of using persuasive measures to be used to induce such surviving relatives to remove, or consent to the removal of these monuments.”

After consideration fo the report was adopted, and Moses Paxson, Oliver Hampton, Oliver Paxson, Aaron Eastburn, Hugh Ely, Aaron Paxson, and John Comfort were appointed to use their endeavors to induce such of our members as may have placed monuments to graves, to remove them, or consent to their removal.


Corpse Thieves in Plumstead

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Categories: Crime, Death, Graves, Plumstead

If you visit Plumstead Friends Meeting, you’ll find it pleasantly sedate. The meetinghouse seems unconcerned with the passing of time (it’s only heat source is a wood stove in the center of the room), and there’s a simple graveyard enclosed by a plain stone wall, containing graves as old as the nation itself. But the graveyard has not always enjoyed this state of placidity. In the summer of 1856, some of the cemetery’s occupants were torn from their slumber in a daring grave robbery. The following advertisement appeared in the Intelligencer in the August of 1856:

Notice to Trespassers.

All those persons who, regardless of law and good order, recently trespassed on the premises of the Society of Friends of Plumstead, by abruptly driving into the Grave Yard with wagon and horses, disfiguring some of the graves, and opening others, and disinterring several coprses, and taking them away without consent of the Sexton or any of the Trustees, are hereby requested to come forward and render satisfaction for the same without delay, which may save cost, prevent exposure, and oblige the undersigned.

                                                                              ABRAHAM MICHINER, Committee

                                                                             THOMAS STRADLING, } of Trust.

                                                                             DAVID CARR, Sexton.

           Plumstead, 8th month 26th 1856 -3t.

           N. B.—Notice is also hereby given to all other persons not to commit the like depredations.

(The Spruance Library has a filing cabinet full of news clippings sorted by municipality and topic, which is where I found this little gem.)

An old grave, but maybe not that old. This etching may be the work of a vandal.

The inquisitive guest will find that this cemetery has another secret. If you climb over the far wall and search through the brush, you’ll find the last resting place of the burying ground’s most ignominious residents, Abraham and Levi Doan. They were part of the Doan Brothers gang (brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Levi, Joseph, and cousin Abraham) who gained notoriety first as Loyalist spies during the Revolution, and then as outlaws after the war. All of them were eventually captured, but Aaron, Mahlon, and Joseph escaped and fled to safety. Their leader, Moses Doan, was the victim of an extrajudicial murder at the hands of a vengeful posse, and is buried in a hedgerow somewhere in Plumstead. The other two, Levi and Abraham, were captured and hanged on September 24th, 1788, and buried at Plumstead Meeting, where they once were members. They lie outside the graveyard wall, forever branded outlaws:


The Smallest Kind of Farmer

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Categories: Plumstead

The Plumstead census in 1870 includes the following listing for Patrick Conaulty, a 50-year-old widower:

He was an Irish immigrant living on his own with no wife and no family. The enumerator manifests his pity for Mr. Conaulty in the “occupation” column, recording that he is not just a farmer, but the smallest kind of farmer–alone.

As luck would have it, Patrick was eventually joined by his son Hugh, who appears with Patrick on the census in 1880:

Hugh, however, was not so lucky. By 1910 he was working as a farmhand on someone else’s land. In 1920 he appears again, a 71-year-old man, renting his house, working as a laborer, still single and living alone:

The census shows that he immigrated with his father in 1863 and was naturalized in 1880. I wonder if the lonely life they found in Bucks County was an improvement over the one they left in Ireland.


Stolen: The Restless Headstone of Lizzy M. Aingle

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Categories: Crime, Graves, Point Pleasant, Tinicum


In the winter of 2003, some hooligan stole this headstone from a cemetery in the Point Pleasant area and threw it in a ditch on the side of River Road in Tinicum Township. Bill Moser found it there and had to pour boiling water on it to release it from the frozen mud. He tried to track down its rightful home, researching county death records and contacting local churches, but hit a dead end. Today, it sits in the office of his auto repair shop in Point Pleasant, but he’d like to return it to the grave site if he can find it. It reads:

The Resting Place


Lizzie M. Aingl[e]

daughter of

Alice Otto

Born [illegible date] 1869

Died August 18, 1870

Aged 1 Year

[?] Months And [?] Days

It’s followed by a long inscription, mostly illegible. Bill told me I could come back and do a grave rubbing, so hopefully we can reveal enough to find what it says. So far I’ve checked the 1870 US Census and Mortality Schedules for the Plumstead, Tinicum, and Kingwood Township searching for Lizzie and her mother Alice, but haven’t found anything. Bill thinks it stood against the graveyard wall because the back of the stone is clean and unworn, while the front was eaten away over the 130 years it stood outside. He also suggested that Lizzie may have been born out of wedlock, since her mother has a different surname.


The Lenape Building

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Categories: Doylestown, Inns & Taverns

Dominating the intersection of State Street and Main Street, Lenape Hall is one of the most distinctive buildings in Doylestown. The building was dedicated on November 17th, 1874, and according to the late Doylestown historian Wilma Brown Rezer in her book Doylestown And How It Came to Be, it was originally designed to provide Doylestown with a town hall, a concentrated store area, and a much-needed indoor market. Before the construction of the indoor market, farmers came to town at 4am and lined the streets with their wagons, selling produce outside regardless of weather. The addition of an indoor market presumeably alleviated wagon traffic and protected the vendors and customers from inclement weather.

The construction cost was $50,0000, and it was built using a half million locally pressed bricks and trimmed with stone from Milwaulke and Ohio. It’s grand staircase was eight feet wide, made of ash planks two inches thick, with hand-carved railings and walnut balusters. Local jeweler Lewis Spellier built the gold-lettered clock at its peak. A wood awning was installed in 1876 and replaced with tin in 1898. The corner store was occupied by a drug store from its construction in 1874 until at least 1980, when Rezer wrote her history of Doylestown.

Writing in 1876, shortly after the Lenape building first opened, W.W.H. Davis reports:

The handsomest improvement, as well as one of the most useful, in the borough is the Lenape building… Its features are a market-house and six stores on the first story, a handsome and convenient hall that seats nearly eight hundred persons, and a stage equipped with beautiful scenery, four offices and dressing-room, on the second, and a beautiful lodge-room on the third. The building is brick, with stone trimmings, and is surpassed in beauty and convenience by but a few of the kind in the state.

The Lenape building remains a fixture of downtown Doylestown. The first floor still contains a number of shops, but the upper floors have been converted into apartments. It’s served different functions over the years, and it once even contained a bowling alley, as pictured below:

A child looks on as workers remove the Doylestown trolley line.

The Ship Tavern

The site of the Lenape building was originally the home of the Ship Tavern. In 1774, Samuel Flask purchased property south of present day East State Street and built the Ship Tavern at the crossroads. It stood for a century until it was demolished to make way for Lenape Hall in 1874.

The Ship Tavern

The crossroads brought a lot of business to Doylestown, and The Ship Tavern competed for tipplers with two other bars at the intersection: Doyle’s Tavern (built 1752), now the Fountainhouse, and Magill’s Tavern (1805), now partially incorporated into building that houses the Paper Unicorn.

The cornerstone of the Ship Tavern was incorporated into the rear wall of Lenape Hall, and is still visible. The words “Doylstown 26 Miles to Philadelphia” are still visible on its surface. If you look up the alley between the Lenape Building and Finney’s Tavern, you’ll find the old milestone on the back of the Lenape Building where the stone foundation meets the brick, about eye level.

Notice the omitted "e," an old alternate spelling of "Doylestown."


Slobbery Run

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Categories: Black History, Inns & Taverns, Lower Black Eddy, Places, Plumstead, Racism

The other day I paid a visit to Slobbery Run, a small stream that cuts down from the hillside on River Road and flows into the canal. It wasn’t very slobbery when I came to visit, but I imagine after a hard rain the water flows a bit more impressively through this rocky valley.

From MacReynolds’ Place Names in Bucks County:

Slobbery Run – Small short steam in southeastern Plumstead Township, tumbling through a rocky ravine about a quarter mile east of Lower Black Eddy and emptying into Delaware Division Canal. The water foams over the rough boulders, hence its name. It is a venturesome climb from Delaware River Road up this steep valley, to be paid upon reaching the top with magnificent waves of river scenery.

It’s located just north of Devil’s Half Acre, an unlicensed distillery that operated along the canal in its early days and acquired a raucous reputation. One of the reasons I visited Slobbery Run was to try to pinpoint the plot of land on the boulder-covered hill that a black farmer cleared and cultivated, which I read about in this article by Cyrus Livezy, published in the Doylestown Democrat on November 28th, 1876, and reprinted by MacReynolds in Place Names:

 On the hillside after leaving the old Devils Half Acre house is a modest dwelling erected many years ago by ‘Old Black John,’ who by a vast amount of labor and with more patience and perseverance than is often found in the African race succeeded in rendering a small stony patch susceptible to cultivation, and just beyond this we come to the famous high rocks towering grandly at least eight feet above them. The sun is not visible here and the wintry atmosphere that prevades [sic] this place gives us a taste of that season, and we remember finding a block of winter ice here late April, 1830. Advancing a few rods we pass Rattling Run Cascade and are opposite Moss Giel Rock, which rises from the side of the hill some distance above the road. The ascent is very steep and the distance from the road to the summit of the rock is about three hundred feet. Our fraternal guide offers to lead us up by a circuitous route without difficulty, but climbing steep hills was a favorite amusement fifty years ago, and we resolve to have a taste of it now and in a few minutes, panting for breath, the summit of the rock is reached. Here after resting awhile we contemplate the scenery below, around and far away. On the eastern side is the cascade, so called from a small steam of water flowing through a wildwood glen and over a ledge of rocks. The run formerly bore a name that was rather uncongenial to modern refinement and was changed a few years ago to suit the taste of some Philadelphia ladies; and, although we are generally disposed to accept names as we find them, beg leave to demur on this case (as the steam flows through a thickly wooded glen) to call it Sylvan Run and Sylvan Run Cascade. Moss Giel Rock was dedicated by an ederly [sic] gentleman and some schoolboy companions in 1865, the ceremony consisting of reading Bayard Taylor’s account of the great Burns Festival at Moss Giel in Scotland in 1845. The Broad surface of the rock is smooth and pretty well covered with inscriptions by numerous visitors. Although many years of our life were passed within two miles of this place, we never stood upon the rock before and knew not of its sublimity. To the eastward the head of the Delaware and Raritan Canal feeder, Readings Hollow, Bulls Island and Raven Rock are visible.

It’s amazing to me that, following the rules of politeness in that era, Livezey dances around the word “slobbery” but doesn’t think twice before dropping offensive racial stereotypes.

I didn’t have much luck, and I have no idea if any evidence remains of this old homestead. I looked at an 1876 map of Plumstead, and it seems like the land at the top of the ridge was one large plot, while there were a couple thin strips of separately owned land running between the hill and the canal, one including Devil’s Half Acre and the other with one building shown across the road. It’s possible that John lived there, and that before River Road was widened he had enough cultivatable land to subsist on. I also haven’t been able to identify any African Amercian named John on the Plumstead census records from this era.

UPDATE: I met the owner of what is probably John’s homestead. The old house is gone, but until the 1930’s, it was an old wooden shack raised up on stilts. When the homeowner tore down the house that replaced it (a confused jumble of additions and alterations cobbled together as a residence) to build a new home, the bases of the old wooden stilts were still visible. There’s a small flat area adjacent to the house big enough for a garden.  The other houses immediately past Devil’s Half Acre weren’t built until after World War II, and are therefore unlikely candidates for John’s home site.

The owner of John’s plot also told me that, rather than Slobbery Run, the old-timers used the name Sloppy Gulch.


Sawmill Road Ruins

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Categories: Solebury

These ruins stand on the edge of an empty field on Sawmill Road between Street and Aquetong Roads. The house has partially collapsed but the spring house and retaining wall appear to be in good shape. The next time I’m at the Solebury Historical Society I’ll look into the property records and see if I can learn more.


Slavery in Solebury?

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Categories: Black History, Racism, Solebury, Tags:

I’m working on a museum exhibit for the Solebury Historical Society that will be on display starting tomorrow. The subject is medical history, and I’ve been researching the earliest doctors in the area. The first recorded in Solebury is Doctor Jonathan Ingham, and I found this interesting note about his death in Davis’ History of Bucks County:

Click to view the full passage on the Inghams from Davis' History of Bucks County.

By this account Doctor Ingham, a resident of Solebury Township, was a slave owner. If Davis is correct, Ingham’s slave Cato is the only recorded slave in Solebury. All other sources I’ve seen claim that there is no record of slavery in the township, and the presence of slaves would have been readily documented. Following Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, all slave owners were required to register their slaves annually, and if they failed to do so their slaves would be freed. A list of slaves registered in Bucks County is available here. There are no slaves registered in Solebury.

Census data also casts doubt on Davis’ claim. According to the 1790 US Census, Ingham did not own slaves. However, there does appear to be one “free” black person living in his household:

The column “other free persons” can be inferred to mean free black person. However, this “free” person could be an indentured servant. As such, the “other free person” living in the Ingham household could be Cato. While he might not have been legally defined as a slave, he may well have been treated like one.

Slavery and Other Bondage

The 1780 law dictated that all current slaves would remain slaves for life, while the children of slaves would technically be “free” but would remain indentured servants until the age of 28. In theory they had the same rights as a white indentured servant, but their actual position in society was surely quite different. While most white indentured servants willingly entered into servitude, usually being paid with cash or land at the end of their term, the black children born into bondage had no say in the matter. Their terms of service were also much longer. The 28 years of bondage required for these “free” children of slaves was most of their productive life; Davis notes that there are few slaves over the age of 45 in the register and sarcastically suggests, “From this it might be argued that the mild type of slavery in Bucks county was not conducive to long life.”

Conversely, indentured service could be quite profitable for white residents of Bucks County. After Doctor Ingham died his own son Samuel D. Ingham became an indentured servant. Samuel, then 14-years-old, was indentured as a condition of his apprenticeship to a paper miller on the Pennypack. Seven years later Samuel returned to Solebury and took charge of his family’s farm and mills. He was later elected to US Congress and served as Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, and lent his name to Ingham County, Michigan.

Clearly indentured servitude meant something different for white residents of Bucks County than for the children of slaves.

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