One day each year, Bucks County’s most unique National Historic District is open for public tours. In 2019, that day is Saturday, August 3, as a new non-profit dedicated to the regional impact of the Victorian-age Perkasie Park Camp-Meeting holds its annual Founders Day celebration.
The Perkasie Park Historical Foundation, a 501(c)3, will offer self-guided tours of selected cottages and the Park’s outdoor auditorium on 21 acres tucked away on Perkasie’s Ninth Street. The privately owned Park’s Victorian architecture and unique landscape never fail to give visitors a sense of stepping back to a simpler time.
Today, this National Historic District isn’t widely known outside of the Pennridge region, and even many local residents don’t know that 60 cottages and an acoustically perfect outdoor auditorium sit across from the Perkasie police station and Penn Community Bank on Ninth Street. But 130 years ago, the annual Perkasie Park assembly brought thousands of people to its rolling grounds. In Bucks County during the late 1880s, its attendance was only surpassed by the annual Bucks County fair.
On its busiest Sunday in August 1890, an estimated 20,000 people attended six services at Perkasie Park. Numerous trains and 2,000 teams of horses brought the throng to a town that normally had 458 residents. The visitors joined a population in cottages and tents that came from Philadelphia, Allentown, Bethlehem, Reading, and other locations to enjoy the cool park confines with its fresh spring water.
The Park first opened in August 1882 as a privately owned facility that hosted family reunions, Sunday school picnics, and “moral gatherings” such as the Evangelical Association’s annual camp meeting. The Evangelical Association had Pennsylvania German origins and shared beliefs with the Methodist Church. But non-members were allowed at the summer camp meetings, with a letter from an approving pastor, and soon thousands of people started showing up in Perkasie each July and August to escape the city heat or take part in outdoor services that had plenty of singing.
At first, visitors stayed in tents, but in 1886, the Park’s owners met with architect Milton Bean to design a setting with an impressive outdoor auditorium and a ringed layout of wooden Carpenter Gothic cottages. The Park held camp meetings until 1924, and it also hosted important public events as high school graduations and Perkasie’s annual Memorial Day ceremony. And into the 1960s, church-related and public activities dominated the community’s life. Since then, the Park’s shareholders have funded and managed a nondenominational, well-preserved facility that mostly resembles what a visitor experienced in 1919.
Only recently has the Park allowed visitors to tour the full camp-meeting grounds and go inside certain Victorian cottages – for one day each year. That is why the Park’s annual Founder’s Day event each August has grown in popularity. Its combination of architecture, community, and planning transports the first-time visitor to a time when a horse-drawn carriage, railroad train or a trolley car brought campers to the quaint cottages or tents.
This year, the Founders Day theme is “120 Years Ago Today.” On August 3, 1899, the last camp-meeting was conducted at the original Park. A great fire in June 1900 destroyed one-third of the Park’s cottages and only the heroism of firefighters and residents saved the entire facility from destruction. At the same time, two new innovations – public electricity and the Lehigh Valley trolley – changed the Pennridge area forever. The Foundation will present a brief talk at 4 p.m., including rare photos of the lost cottages, the fire damage, and the impressive new cottages built in early 1901.
For more information about the event, go to www.perkasiepark.com. Or just decide to visit Perkasie Park at 200 Ninth Street, Perkasie, PA between 12 p.m and 4 p.m. on August 3, 2019. The event is free with a suggested goodwill offering.
I have talked to hundreds of visitors for the past five years at the Founder’s Day event, and they all have the same reaction – that Perkasie Park is timeless. In my opinion, it is also the best way in Bucks County to experience popular life in the Victorian era. We all hope to see you at the Park on August 3!
Perkasie Park Founders Day Committee, 2019