Local History

My writings and research on the history of Perkasie.

Perkasie’s Ties to a Strange Victorian Murder Mystery

Was it the veal or the arsenic that killed Mrs. Roberts? In May 1878, the national newspapers were abuzz with that question during a trial that featured one of Perkasie’s first businessmen.

Frank Willett and his brother Allen Willett had moved to the Perkasie area in the 1870s to start a sawmill and a wheelmaking shop. But after several trips to Camden with his wife Harriett to check on her parent’s sudden illness, Frank Willett stood accused of complicity in a deadly poisoning.

Sell-Perk High School’s Early Days

Pennridge South Middle School Teacher Brooke Burgy asked me to do a brief review about the early history of her school for her students. Here is a profile of one of Perkasie’s most-important buildings.

The old part of Pennridge South is historic for several reasons, including why it was built and who designed the building. A third part of the old Sell-Perk High that is historic is outside and in Perkasie Borough: the former football field.

Architect Martin’s conceptual drawing of Sell-Perk High School

Introduction to “An American Hometown”

You can read the introduction to “An American Hometown” for free. To order the book online, go to www.perkasiebook.com, and Shopify will safely and securely print your book and ship it to you.

Introduction

On a winter day in December 2019, more than 5,000 people gathered in front of a community Christmas tree to watch Santa Claus arrive in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, on a borough-owned electric-service bucket truck. The crowd cheered as Santa climbed in the bucket to the tree’s top and it roared after Santa hit a switch to light the tree—continuing a tradition dating back more than 100 years.

The American House

To those unfamiliar with Perkasie, the borough is 35 miles north of Philadelphia, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It has about 8,500 residents. Perkasie Borough was born in the Victorian age, about 30 years before the Christmas tree lighting became a big deal for its residents. Before then, a handful of farmers and their livestock inhabited the area after the Europeans arrived in the 1680s.

New Perkasie History Book Debuts February 15

The first new book in quite a while about Perkasie’s history will be released next month, and here are the details.

An American HometownI have been threatening to write such a book for the past few years since starting my Preserving Perkasie blog. The book, called “An American Hometown,” combines three past historical projects with about six months of new research.

“An American Hometown” is the first fully documented history of Perkasie Borough from William Penn’s time until August 1945. The project combines background from several past Perkasie histories with primary sources, such as county records, newspapers, census data, and personal accounts.

Perkasie and World War II: A Difficult End to the Global Conflict in 1945

Editor’s Note: Allied forces push toward Berlin and Tokyo at a great price in early 1945.

Headlines in World War II’s final year in Perkasie were again dominated by sacrifices made overseas and at home and the debate over the Borough’s post-war fate.

Early January 1945 started with the news that PFC Walter Moyer, only one of two married men from Silverdale in the conflict, had been killed in Germany. Moyer was well-known in the community and president of the Silverdale Fire Company. PFC Warren Forgan of Seventh Street in Perkasie also had been captured at the Battle of the Bulge. On January 25, 1945, three other soldiers from the Pennridge region were unaccounted for at the Battle of the Bulge, followed by two more the following week.

Perkasie and World War II: Paying the Price of Freedom in 1944

Editor’s Note: World War II was taking its toll on Perkasie’s domestic economy during 1944, a year that also saw the most fatalities for local servicemen during the global conflict.

The news in Perkasie during 1944 would be dominated by the deaths of 13 local young men in service of their country and the sense that World War II was about to end.

To be sure, labor shortages, rationing, and an upcoming presidential election were big news, too, in a small town. But the price of freedom was steep, and the nation would keep paying that price for another 20 months.

The U.S. Gauge played a key defense role

PFC Kenneth Maurer, 19, of Blooming Glen was the first causality of 1944 reported to a war-weary public. His mother received the telegram on January 2, 1944, that her son died in action in Italy. Then on February 3, 1944, Lieutenant Charles Gemmell was reported missing in action after the plane he was piloting was shot down over Germany. (Gemmell was captured by the Germans and released a year later.)

Perkasie and World War II: Fights at Home and Abroad in 1943

Editor’s Note: After the shock of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and a year of preparedness in 1942, World War II’s reality becomes a part of daily life in Perkasie.

By January 1943, Perkasie residents and their neighbors were fully vested in the fight for victory in World War II, making daily sacrifices on the home front. At the same time, local troops overseas hit the battlefront in Europe and Asia.

Indeed, even with two years of war preparations, the global war deeply affected the Borough at a local level that is hard for us to understand in modern times. But some measures taken by the government to conserve resources seem familiar today.

canning posterFor example, in January 1943 the federal government limited all forms of pleasure driving after gasoline was rationed. Officials ordered police to impound any cars parked in front of the Plaza Theater in Perkasie; people were expected to walk or take mass transportation to town. Mass vaccinations were put in place against smallpox to ensure workers could remain on the job in war-related industries.

Perkasie and World War II: Enlistment, the Draft, Rationing in 1942

In Part One of this series about Perkasie and World War II, Perkasie finally saw the Great Depression’s end as America pondered its role in a global conflict.  Events at Pearl Harbor changed life in the Borough forever.

Three realities dominated 1942, the first full year of World War II as it affected Perkasie residents: voluntary enlistment and the military draft; home-defense preparations; and rationed goods.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, led to a truly global conflict with the United States getting ready to fight battles on two fronts in early 1942. The daunting task required the full mobilization of all local economies, along with the national economy. The nation also needed 15 million people to join the military in service of their country, with two-thirds of those people inducted via the draft.

ration cards

Ration points, as well as cash, paid for food

On the home front, domestic labor shortages; restrictions on household goods and raw material purchases; and constant appeals for donations to the war effort were daily facts of life.

In Perkasie (and Bucks County), tires were the first items to be rationed to the general population, and motor vehicle registration became required to track who had tires. Shortly after, tin cans were banned in the use of consumer products such as beans, condiments, and beer. Perkasie also started practicing blackouts as part of a national exercise on January 19, 1942; people not cooperating in the Borough between 9:00 p.m. and 9:25 p.m. faced possible arrest for 30 days or a $100 fine.

A booming Perkasie enters World War II

Editor’s Note: This five-part series looks at the World War II-era in Perkasie Borough, using accounts from Perkasie’s newspapers and other primary sources. In Part 1, by 1941 defense production leads to an economic boom in Perkasie, but war looms as an inescapable reality.

In January 1941, Perkasie Borough was a town on edge, as it finally recovered from the Great Depression while residents prepared to fight an uncertain war against a despised foe.

The big business in town was pants, and the latest addition to Perkasie Borough’s most significant employer was the new jagged-roof modern clothing factory in South Perkasie. The Royal Pants Factory expansion in South Perkasie (the current location of the Free Will Brewery) was built to supply plants for the defense effort, with nearly 500 workers churning out 1.3 million trousers in 1940. The new building’s walls were 85 percent glass, and architect Charles Talley tailored the establishment to win Army contracts with its efficient production design. Royal Pants was so successful that it had to sublet half of its cloth cutting to other factories.

Solving the mystery of Perkasie’s first photographer

A.R. Housekeeper’s name is familiar to collectors of early Victorian photos from Bucks and Montgomery counties. But little has been known until recently about a man who played a brief, but important role, in Perkasie’s history.

One of Perkasie’s oldest known photographs was reprinted in the Borough’s 50th-anniversary book in 1929, showing the town as it looked at its founding. It turns out A.R. Housekeeper took the picture, but probably not in 1879. Housekeeper also took several other Perkasie photos in the 1880s that are very rare, in addition to the numerous portraits he made in his traveling photography wagon.

Perkasie 50th Anniversary Book

Photo in Perkasie 50th Anniversary Book

Housekeeper’s carte de visite, or CDV, photos are collectibles. The small pictures were produced cheaply on heavier card stock and were a combination of a calling card and a trading card. People had their own CDVs made, kept them as family heirlooms, or swapped them with other people.

The Perkasie Historical Society’s project to digitize editions of the Perkasie Central News from 1881 to 1943 shed a great deal of light on the enigmatic Mr. Housekeeper, who turned out to be a household name in Perkasie for much of the 1880s. Little was known of him personally, except that he swept into town by 1881, and left abruptly by decade’s end. The Central News printed various anecdotes and advertisements about A. R. Housekeeper “the Artistic Photographer” for almost nine years.

Then as fortune had it, Housekeeper’s great-grandson, Jerome Feaster, contacted the society from Shiloh, Florida. Jerome and his family have been researching Housekeeper and had the original Perkasie landscape photograph, along with other mementos of his business career.

Perkasie in 1886-1888

The original photo is from 1886-1888 and shows Perkasie’s Opera House on Walnut Street on the far right. Credit/Source: Feaster Family Collection.

This unusual find, combined with their genealogy work, the Historical Society’s newspaper project, and the recent discovery of a brief lifetime diary kept by Housekeeper, show a detailed picture of his short career in Pennsylvania as an itinerant photographer.

Born in 1841 in Hilltown, Pennsylvania, Abraham Housekeeper’s father died when Abraham was just three years old. For the next 14 years, Abraham said he lived with neighbors, and occasionally his mother, in the Hilltown area. He spent much of his time with the Enos Moyer family.

According to his diary, Abraham learned how to make cigars at the age of 16 and began his full-time career in 1859 as a cigar maker in Philadelphia at the age of 19. He also remained in school, where he was taught briefly by another Hilltown resident, Abraham K. Funk, who was just a year older than Housekeeper.

Housekeeper Trademark

Housekeeper used his penmanship skills for his own calling card trademark. Source: Author’s collection

For the next decade Housekeeper worked locally in Bridgetown, Pa. (now South Perkasie) and Hellertown, Pa. making cigars, but he also traveled to Philadelphia, Newark, New York, and Providence plying his craft. After attending Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1867 to learn ink-and-pen drawing, Housekeeper started a wholesale cigar business in Chicago.

On a trip back home, Housekeeper met Hannah Kile, from a well-known Mennonite family in Dublin, Pa. They married in 1870 after a brief courtship and started a family in Chicago. However, the Housekeepers fell on hard times. They survived the Great Chicago fire in 1871, but Abraham’s cigar business failed, and Abraham, Hannah, and their son Eugene moved to Philadelphia. Soon after, Eugene died from scarlet fever in Philadelphia, and Abraham picked up work as a photoengraver where he could use his artistic training. For the next few years, Abraham wrote in his diary about how the family split up and reunited as he sought work. He eventually came to Perkasie as a cigar maker, with the family living at his in-law’s home in Rockhill Township.

CDV by Housekeeper

Typical Housekeeper CDV photo, subject unknown

By 1880, things were looking promising for the Housekeeper family. A daughter, Agnes, and her brother, Sinclair, were joined by a young brother, Thomas, as Abraham Housekeeper finally started his own photography business. Then more tragedy struck. Hannah Kile Housekeeper died from typhoid fever in October 1880 and young Thomas died just weeks later. Suddenly, Abraham Housekeeper found himself in the same situation he experienced as a child.

In 1881, Abraham made the difficult decision to split up his family. Agnes was sent to live in Bethlehem while 6-year-old Sinclair went to Indiana to live with Abraham Funk, who had become co-owner of the Mennonite Publishing Company. At that point, Abraham’s career as a photographer took off. However, his diary record shows that he remembers the time as being “ALONE.”

Mammoth Photography Wagon

The Mammoth Photography Wagon. Credit/Source: Feaster Family Collection.

Accounts from the Central News and Housekeeper’s diary show that the Artistic Photographer spent much of his time on the road while renting a room in Perkasie when not working. In 1883, Housekeeper spent 42 weeks traveling in Montgomery County with his photography “car.” In one newspaper item, it was noted that Housekeeper appealed to those who wanted pictures as “reminders of friends who have left this dreary world.” Another touted him as an “artist of considerable merit.” At the same time, Housekeeper frequently advertised in the same newspaper.

By 1884, Housekeeper, 42, kept his “mammoth photography wagon” in Telford, Pa., as he remarried that summer, to Mary C. Miller of Dublin, who was half his age. By March 1886, his daughter Agnes had returned home and Housekeeper had a young son, Emanuel, with Mary, but tragedy struck again in July 1886 when his older son Sinclair, 10, died in a drowning accident in Elkhart, Indiana. The Central News noted that when informed of Sinclair’s death, it was a “severe blow to Mr. Housekeeper.”

Housekeeper had steady work while in Perkasie as a photographer. He also advertised for extra help at the time of the large July 1887 camp-meeting at Perkasie Park, just north of town. The newspaper noted that Housekeeper had just “taken a view” and was also photographing the Sellersville Chair Factory, most likely owned by State Representative John Schwartz, a camp-meeting co-founder.

Housekeeper family at Perkasie Park

A.R,. Agnes, Emanuel and Mary (or M. C.) Housekeeper at Perkasie Park. Credit/Source: Feaster Family Collection.

His landscape photo of early Perkasie is likely from the 1886-1888 period since shows the steeple of St. Stephen’s Reformed Church, which was built in 1886. A pair of pictures of the Perkasie Park Camp Meeting taken by Housekeeper are from the same period.

But in 1888, Housekeeper sold his photography business and went back to Philadelphia the following year, and in 1891 the Housekeeper family moved to the Tampa, Florida, area after Abraham had bought land and had a house built before they moved.

For the next three decades, Abraham Housekeeper held various jobs in Florida, including sales positions, making copies of photos, selling marriage directories, farming, and clerking. By 1922, Abraham was unable to work due to health issues, and he passed away in July 1924 at the age of 83 at Agnes’ home in Tampa. On Abraham’s death certificate, his son-in-law informed the coroner that Abraham Housekeeper’s life occupation was “photographer.”

Housekeeper Ad Card

Credit/Source: Feaster Family Collection.

To be sure, Abraham Housekeeper was a man of many talents and many careers who worked for 67 of his 83 years, but he spent only about 9 years as a full-time photographer in our area, according to his diary and newspaper records. That legacy gave us a brief glimpse into life in a long-forgotten era. Or as A.R. wrote on one of his own advertising cards, “You’ll never regret if you have a good picture of every member of your family.”

Author’s Note: Many thanks to the Feaster family for sharing their pictures and records.