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.
Early on a September 1917 morning, a group of young men marched off to World War I in a scene that lives on today in one of Perkasie’s iconic photos. Recently discovered records of that day shed new light on that emotional event.
The Mercer Museum’s library contains the records of Local Draft Board Division 3, kept by Perkasie resident Mahlon Keller. In this brief file, Keller described the scene as local young men from the Perkasie area were escorted down Seventh Street to the Reading train depot. The Perkasie Central News also reported the event on the morning of September 19, 1917. It went to press later that day.
In July 1929, James E. Sanders rolled into Perkasie to start a new factory that made miniature model ships. About nine months later, Sanders left town for good – and his mysterious past soon became common knowledge.
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.
In my new book, “An American Hometown,” you can learn about Perkasie’s fascinating history from its colonial days until 1945. If you’ve read the book, you should get all the questions correct, because the answers are in text.
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
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.
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.