A generation before Perkasie’s Great Fire of 1988, the town’s leaders literally bulldozed its first historic area, including the grand home of Perkasie’s founder. Urban Renewal was perhaps Perkasie’s greatest controversy of the 1960s.
After World War II, the mass demolition of older buildings to be replaced with new ones became a national policy after Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949. During the 1950s, Philadelphia started a program of taking the wrecking ball to older neighborhoods considered as “blighted.” However, these areas had been harmed greatly by discriminatory lending policies since the 1930s that led to their disrepair.
Perkasie Borough is divided by the Perkiomen Creek’s East Branch and like many towns with a creek, it has an extensive history of flooding.
The Perkasie Central News and the Perkasie News-Herald reported detailed weather accounts, with the Central News featuring more news in the 1930s about weather with reports from Frank Hall, Perkasie’s official “weather observer.” In later years, John A. Moyer and Jim Pritchard assumed that role in an unofficial capacity.
Bystanders rescue a vehicle in 1971 at the Savacool Mill
Today, the South Perkasie Covered Bridge faces another fight for its life after record flooding on September 1, 2021. In the next few weeks, experts will assess the bridge’s condition. Below is a story I wrote in 2019 about our bridge’s special legacy.
Dr. Anderson M. Scruggs liked to send poems to the New York Times, which featured reader submissions in the 1930s. He taught at Atlanta Southern Dental College in Georgia but loved writing poetry about rural life based on his childhood in West Point, Georgia, a small railroad town on the Chattahoochee River.
Scruggs, in particular, loved covered bridges. By 1932, many covered bridges from his childhood were disappearing as Georgia’s state highway department demolished them and built modern steel replacements. That didn’t stop Dr. Anderson from questioning why this was happening.
“Only the country folk, whose careless tread endears a dusty road, can ever know the peaceful, clattering joy of rude planks spread above a drowsy creek that gleams below,” Scruggs wrote. “Yet there are soulless men whose hand and brain tear down what time will never give again.”
Scruggs’ poem soon became popular nationally as other state highway departments were eliminating covered bridges. By 1940, the Harrisburg Sunday Courier publicly questioned Pennsylvania’s strategy of mass covered bridge demolition. Publisher Leon Lowengard reprinted Scruggs’ poem and then told readers that he recalled it as he stood with his grandson at the former site of a covered bridge on the Tuscarora Creek.
“I suppose its removal was necessary, but I personally am sorry that this and many another old covered bridge like it are being removed. They are so typical early American in this day of turmoil and change that I would like to hang on to them to preserve them, even though it may be necessary to direct traffic over a new and wider bridge at a new site,” Lowengard wrote. “There is an atmosphere about them that conjures up pictures of peaceful, and perhaps happier, days and quieter ways that may not come this way again.”
A similar debate was underway in Bucks County just outside Philadelphia in Perkasie, a small Upper Bucks County town much like Scruggs’ West Point, Georgia. In 1938, local residents pressed county officials to repair two covered bridges, including the oldest remaining one in the county: the South Perkasie covered bridge. Instead, the county spared the South Perkasie bridge but demolished Steeley’s covered bridge two miles east of it. A local postman, Andy Schuler, suggested moving the South Perkasie bridge to a newly built Lenape Park to save it from a seemingly unavoidable fate.
A generation later, Schuler would help lead that effort. At the urging of Perkasie’s Borough Council, the county commissioners in October 1957 condemned Bucks County’s oldest covered bridge. The commissioners gave the Perkasie Historical Society nine months to move the bridge if it desired to preserve it, a seemingly impossible task for a small local group with no funding.
Moving an intact covered bridge for posterity’s sake was a novel idea. Covered bridges had been moved before. Henry Ford bought a covered bridge in 1937 in western Pennsylvania and had it moved to his Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1949, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont moved a bridge onto its grounds. At least three other covered bridges were moved by well-funded private groups or government officials before 1958 nationally. In all of these cases, the bridges were taken apart, shipped to their new homes and reassembled, with little publicity.
The South Perkasie bridge situation was different. Local citizens funded the move, managed by the home-town Historical Society, to preserve the bridge as a “shrine” in Lenape Park. Children went door-to-door seeking donations. Bucks County’s own Planning Commission and the Delaware Valley Protective Association vocally disapproved of the County Commissioners’ threats to demolish the covered bridge if it wasn’t moved. In fact, Protective Association leader Hal Clark lobbied the county commissioners for the extra month needed to get the bridge moved safely.
The local newspapers and radio covered the controversy for months and local television crews covered the event when the historical society moved the bridge over an eight-day period in August 1958. A photo of the bridge lifted by a crane became the national Associated Press photo of the day on Saturday, August 23, 1958, appearing in newspapers from Oregon to Texas to Georgia.
On the surface, it seemed — as in the mythical covered bridge in Scruggs’ poem — it was the “country folk” of Perkasie who saved the South Perkasie covered bridge from the “soulless men” who condemned it.
In hindsight, the fight to save Perkasie’s bridge reflected social and cultural trends building for decades. Locally and nationally, the efforts to save covered bridges from extinction represented a rejection, at least in part, of government policies that preached everything new was good and the old was just a remnant of horse-and-buggy days. The pro-bridge forces also had silent allies who definitely were not country folk and by most accounts were soulless men; they came from Madison Avenue and understood the powerful feelings that covered bridges evoked in the American populace. After World War II, advertisers deployed covered bridge imagery as a symbol of wholesomeness to sell homes, cigarettes, automobiles, whiskey, beer and most importantly, Coca-Cola.
While the Bucks County commissioners won a court decision to condemn the South Perkasie covered bridge, they never had a chance in the court of popular opinion. Covered bridges had become part of American popular culture, partly through the shared memories of people who grew up with them but also through their regular promotion in the arts and mass media.
After the South Perkasie covered bridge relocation in August 1958, the Bucks County commissioners supported covered bridge preservation and embraced the covered bridge as one of the county’s official symbols along with William Penn’s image. Pennsylvania state highway officials, however, were not as gracious with the covered bridges they still owned. They still planned to demolish the two closest covered bridges to Perkasie: Mood’s Bridge and Sheard’s Mill Bridge. However, a new state covered bridge preservation group formed just after the Perkasie bridge move confronted state highway officials, who begrudgingly (and belatedly) fixed the two bridges instead.
Back in August 1959, Hal Clark spoke at the South Perkasie Covered Bridge dedication ceremony, which was attended by local leaders, two county commissioners and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “The Perkasie Covered Bridge project helped to bring brought thousands of dollars of favorable publicity to the Perkasie Community and Bucks County plus an augmented stream of well-paying tourists, “ Clark said. “Fifty years from now the descendants of those who helped preserve this bridge in Lenape Park will bless your memory.”
That memory, Clark said, was “the bridge’s legacy as a ‘kissing bridge,’ a tunnel of love and a good place to save a load of hay on a rainy day. It carried a sign reading “$5 fine for any person riding or driving over this bridge faster than a walk or smoking segars on.’ It was a community center where affairs of state were settled, gossip exchanged and circus posters studied and it was a fine place for the kids to fish in its shade. In one way or another it had a part in the great days in history, the Mexican War, Civil War. elections.”
Dr. Anderson Scruggs could not have written a more fitting description about why people love covered bridges today and why the South Perkasie Covered Bridge could last another 187 years, if people wish for it to happen.
On August 30, 1963, Pennridge graduate Sara Ann Baker became the subject of national news coverage when Sara and her husband bought a row home near Philadelphia’s airport. Today, few people may know about her experiences over a nearly three-year period in Folcroft, Pa. The Folcroft riots of 1963 along with the 1957 Levittown riots were milestone events in the battle over housing integration in suburban Philadelphia.
In part two of a series on the Pennridge School District’s early history, the period between 1954 and 1967 saw rapid enrollment growth, disputes among board members, and a taxpayer protest as the state forced a complete merger of the Deep Run Valley and Pennridge school boards.
While the annual Thanksgiving football game and new high school united the Pennridge community in 1954, it would take another decade for the school district to unify as one entity. Divisions within the Pennridge District Joint Board continued into the 1960s. The Pennridge Joint Board has 40 members (five representatives from each municipality) and some member municipalities had questions about expanding to a unified school board that controlled all levels of public education and taxation.
The Pennridge Joint Board agreement gave any of the eight municipalities a veto on major financial projects related to secondary schools. The first veto came in May 1955, when Bedminster’s school board opposed a major addition to Pennridge Junior High School (the old Sell-Perk High School) to address overcrowded conditions.[i] Bedminster relented when the Joint Board reported that at least 250 new homes had been built in the district in 1955, and emergency expansions were needed for the junior and senior high schools.[ii] The Board authorized the project without state financial support and hired architects Micklewright and Mountford again. The move resulted in tax increases across the entire Pennridge district.
Part one of this two-part series looks at the Pennridge School District’s birth in the early 1950s and the event that brought together eight different communities: the first two Pennridge-Quakertown football games.
On March 14, 1949, a crowd packed into the Union Hotel dining room in Perkasie to hear a special guest speaker, Bucks County school superintendent Dr. Charles H. Boehm. Special guests at the Perkasie Chamber of Commerce meeting were representatives from five local school districts.
Boehm was a leading advocate of an effort to consolidate the county’s 51 school boards into a smaller number of school districts. Boehm told the local school leaders that state officials could not force school boards and districts to consolidate, but such moves would be rewarded with state subsidies.[i] As Boehm spoke, he announced recommendations from Bucks County about new school districts for Perkasie’s students and their neighbors.
Architect Micklewright’s concept drawing for the new Pennridge Senior High School
This Sunday will mark an important anniversary for Perkasie residents – the day Perkasie officially became a village with its own post office.
On July 25, 1871, the United States Postmaster General John Creswell named Joseph A. Hendricks as the local postmaster for the new office in Hendricks’ general store near the Landis Ridge train tunnel.
The official record of Hendricks’ appointment ON July 25, 1871
Hendricks had acquired the land and several buildings formerly owned by a local real estate investor, Samuel M. Hager. In 1856, Hager tried to start a new village at the location of current-day Perkasie, but he failed within a few years. Just before 1871, Hendricks and a few friends bought Hager’s former property and divided the land into building lots sold at attractive prices.
In May 1866, a “firm from Philadelphia” bought Hager’s former store and turned it into a mill that made stockings. But not much more was heard from that business. Part of the reason for the development’s failure in the 1860s was apparent animosity between investors and the North Pennsylvania Railroad’s president, Franklin Comley. Another rumored reason was that Comley was upset that his name was used for the settlement without his permission.
Perkasie Village took off that year when regular train service became available. It grew from 68 residents in the 1870s to 300 residents by 1880, just after Bucks County recognized Perkasie as a borough in May 1879.
Map shows boundaries of Perkasie Village when it became a borough in 1879.
Andrew Jackson Croman, a bricklayer who was involved with the Landis Ridge railroad tunnel project and much construction in Perkasie Borough, told the Perkasie Central News in 1908 about how Hendricks and his friends convinced railroad president Franklin Comley to allow regular service at the Perkasie depot location in 1871.
“Comley was far from being flattered by having his name attached to the colony in those early days. He not only refused a station but also declined to stop trains,” Croman said. For Christmas, Hendricks and who Croman called “the boys”—the Moyer brothers (Joseph and Henry), Mahlon Myers and Tilghman Angeny— sent Comley a gift basket with “turkeys, rabbits, cider, apples, pumpkins, and walnuts.”
Hersey’s Business Directory and Gazetteer of Bucks County, published in 1871, mentioned the earliest buildings in the “lately established” village of Perkasie, which contained “a store, several shops and from 15 to 20 dwelling houses. It was named for the old Manor of Perkasie of which Rockhill, in the early part of the county’s history, it was a part.”
J.D. Scott’s 1876 Atlas of Bucks County depicted Perkasie’s village with a developed neighborhood close to the train depot and general store. Joseph G. Moyer’s coal yard and John Harr’s hotel were the other prominent buildings in town. Hendricks and Joseph Moyer had also built Perkasie’s first row homes across from the railroad by 1876 and the town’s center was Main Street (currently Chestnut Street in Perkasie). In addition to Hendricks’ store and coal and lumber yard, Perkasie had a sash factory and a handful of shops. The village’s school on Main Street was one of its most prominent features. The school also hosted early church services.
Perkasie Village, 1876
Shortly after 1876, Perkasie residents sought borough status since Sellersville had petitioned the county successfully in 1874 to leave Rockhill Township to form its own government. Nearly 70 Perkasie residents petitioned the county in April 1878 for borough status, but the decision was delayed by a year.
On May 10, 1879, Bucks County granted borough status to Perkasie and its 307 residents. Voters elected Joseph A. Hendricks as Burgess and Joseph G. Moyer as Borough Council president. Perkasie Borough now had a government, with its own laws and its own school board, as it entered the 1880s. In less than a decade, Hendricks and his partners had rescued Samuel Hager’s ghost town. Little did they know that the cigar trade would bring bigger changes to Perkasie.
Note: The above post is taken from “An American Hometown: Perkasie’s Inspiring Story of Survival and Growth from 1683 to 1945,” available online at www.perkasiebook.com and at the Treasure Trove (Hendricks’ former store) and Chimayo Gallery (Perkasie’s former post office) in Perkasie Borough.
The tradition of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, runs deep in Perkasie Borough, and newly discovered film footage shows perhaps its most poignant event: the first parade after World War II.
Perkasie had observed some type of Memorial Day ceremony since May 30, 1892, when Civil War veterans led the event. On that day, Perkasie honored the sacrifices made by all veterans, and it also celebrated the opening of is new Arch Street school and the debut of Menlo Park.
By 1905, the local tradition became more formalized, with the parade starting on Market Street in Perkasie, heading to local schools were all the students joined the parade, which then visited local cemeteries. The parade concluded at the large auditorium at the Perkasie Park Camp-Meeting, where a local veteran, and later a student honored with the privilege, recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The memorial service included group renditions of “America” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
One of the constants in our borough’s daily life for the past 120 years has been Perkasie Electric, the taxpayer-owned utility that provides service to residents and businesses in town. But many people do not know its origin story – and a decision in 1947 to keep its control locally.
In Perkasie Borough, there had been talk in the early 1890s about providing electric service to residents in conjunction with new trolley service coming to Perkasie. With three electric trolley companies interested in Perkasie, the early version of “the grid” was essential to those projects. Charles H. Edinger and Company of Philadelphia started planning the grid and power plant in 1898, and even paid for the cost of the ordinance to begin the project.
Perkasie’s Electric Plant in 1929
Edinger designed the first Perkasie power plant with the capacity to supply service to Bridgetown and Sellersville, with the expectation those communities would join the borough. The lights came on in Perkasie on February 23, 1900. By year’s end, the town-owned company had installed 87 meters, and it was considered a model of efficiency as other towns sent their leaders to inspect Perkasie’s plant.
In 1901, the man who led the department for three decades, Ed Frey, nearly died on a service call in South Perkasie at Harpel’s general store. Frey touched an arc light and was hit with a large burst of current. Somehow, he survived the incident.
Frey’s role in the electric department’s growth as superintendent was critical, but also controversial. His main job was running a privately owned business, also called Perkasie Electric, with his son Harvey that sold appliances and did building wiring. Some residents complained that they were denied borough electric service when they did not buy Frey’s products. The controversy came to a head in February 1924 when a divided borough council removed Frey as plant manager; however, council re-instated Frey that November in a vote boycotted by its three Ward 3 representatives.
By the 1930s, Perkasie’s electric company made annual profits, but it also faced debts because of the borough’s growth, which led to constant projects to expand its power plant. In 1930, the borough invested $90,000 in upgrading the power plant. At that point, the department was also making $3,000 a month in net earnings, which made its debt manageable.
On January 3, 1938, Perkasie Borough Council discussed the alternative of selling its electric company – an option chosen by other towns – as part of a three-hour debate over its $120,000 plan to upgrade the coal-burning power plant. The Perkasie Central News’ editor, John Sprenkel, wrote that council unanimously rejected the idea. “Every last man at the meeting was and is unalterably opposed to the sale of the plant, and so declared many times.”
Sprenkel had angered council with prior columns that questioned the transfer of $24,000 in electric company revenue to build Lenape Park and to pave Perkasie’s streets. He also questioned the wisdom of investing in a local coal-burning plant when Perkasie Borough could buy electric from new hydroelectric plants at much cheaper prices.
By 1940, the borough faced another $70,000 plant upgrade. Perkasie voters made an important decision in November 1940 when by a 2-1 margin they approved financing the electric department’s debt through bond issues. Even during the Frey controversy, it was duly noted that Perkasie’s electric service was top-notch and the power never went out in the borough. However, production facility costs kept climbing. In February 1941, the plant’s main 1,000 kW turbine failed and was offline until September. Perkasie Borough turned to Pennsylvania Power & Light (PPL) to supply emergency electric for the near future to supplement the Perkasie plant production.
At the end of World War II, the power plant faced more problems. Its water supply was inadequate to cool the production turbines and its second 600 kW turbine was inoperable. Despite an offer in 1946 from PPL to supply all of Perkasie’s wholesale electric, the borough decided on another plant upgrade at $300,000 and a 10 percent rate hike for consumers.
The plan was hotly debated and the borough brought in a consultant to evaluate the plant in early 1947. The group’s recommendation was to shut down the plant, sell its production equipment, and buy wholesale electric from PPL. Retail rates would not change for Perkasie residents and businesses, but the borough would save $64,000 a year.
On August 4, 1947, Perkasie borough council voted to close its municipal power plant and resell PPL’s wholesale electric to its residents. There was no recorded debate about selling the entire Perkasie electric company. The larger debate was about the coal-burning power plant’s negative environmental impact on its neighbors. On September 1, 1947, the municipal plant closed after 47 years of operation.
Frey’s house at Fifth and Park Avenues
Just a few months before the last piece of the power plant was sold, Ed Frey passed away at the age of 78 at his bungalow home across from Perkasie’s Menlo Park in 1948. The Perkasie News-Herald noted Frey had no formal training as an electrical engineer. His legacy was making Perkasie’s electric company a strong part of the community, and leading it through the Great Depression.
At the same time, Professors John H. Ferguson and Clarence LeeDecker from the Pennsylvania State College (now university) were studying the 40 municipal electric companies in the state. Their 10-year project, Municipally Owned Electric Plants In Pennsylvania, showed that 69 Pennsylvania cities and towns had their own electric companies by 1928; among the towns that left the business by 1947 were Sellersville (1918), Souderton (1929), and Pennsburg (1923).
Ferguson and Decker said that municipal electric companies enjoyed several key advantages. For example, taxpayer-owned electric companies had the right to provide exclusive service within their legal boundaries. In the early days of the electric business, competing local private companies sometimes provided unsafe local service with duplicate electric lines. In a 1930s legal challenge to this “natural monopoly policy,” the state Superior Court ruled that “public utilities, if they rendered adequate service to the public at reasonable rates, could expect to be protected from unfair and ruinous competition.”
Ferguson and Decker also found that by 1947, 35 of the 40 municipal electric companies transferred funds from electric company earnings in lieu of taxes to their general operating funds. In 23 of 40 towns, fund transfers made up most of their revenue, and not property taxes. Also, because of their non-profit government status, municipal electric companies paid 13 percent less in taxes than private utilities to provide services.
By 1952, Perkasie’s decision to shutter its power-generation plant paid dividends. The Perkasie Electric Department showed earnings of $75,000, about half of which were reinvested into road repairs. The borough’s resumption of the policy of larger fund transfers, as it did to build Lenape Park in 1937, became part of the annual budget process.
In 1997, Pennsylvania state lawmakers passed an extensive overall of its public utility laws allowing private utility customers to choose among competitors for part of their monthly electric bill. However, state lawmakers exempted municipal electric companies and rural electric cooperatives from the changes because of their non-profit status.
Over the years, the debates with Perkasie Borough about its electric company have mostly focused on service rates and fund transfers. Back in 1941, the Central News described a familiar argument that had been discussed for years in town.
“Since WPA labor became a Federal policy to promote municipal development, Perkasie has reached into its Electric Department treasury to the tune of $65,000 to finance material and equipment to carry on its WPA projects. As a result, Perkasie has its Lake Lenape Park; it has stream-dredging projects nearly completed and more important, it has nearly all of its streets in the built-up sections of the borough under permanent street surfaces,” it said.
“To finance these projects through taxation, it would have been necessary to double the present tax rate over a period of three years. Imagine what a protest would have gone up at even a 20 mill tax rate instead of the current 10 mill rate. But, through its monthly electric bills council has financed its public improvement without offending the financial sensibilities of its taxpayers. Probably, the method doesn’t square with strict business practices but it’s the least painful method of separating a taxpayer and his money and that’s ultra modern.”
Today’s Perkasie real estate tax rate is 6.25 mills, including a 1.5 mill tax to support the Perkasie Fire Department.