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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Levittown ~ The All-American Community

The end of WWII was the start of the Philadelphia suburb – Levittown.

Levittown has significance beyond the local area. It is of interest nationally and internationally because it is the archetype of modern suburbia and as such gets attention from the political, academic and media communities,” said Rich Wagner, Levittown historian and director of the Levittown Museum.

After the war, millions of veterans were coming back to the states ready to put to use their government issued GI Bills and start a picture-perfect family.

There were two problems: housing was tight and expensive.

The U.S. economy was recuperating from the dark decade of the Great Depression (1929-39). WWII broke out in 1939 with Germany’s notorious dictator Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in September. The U.S. entered in 1941, after the bombing the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor by Japanese air forces that year without warning; the war ended 1945.

Savvy businessmen knew the war would eventually be over and the service personnel would have the financial backing of the GI Bill of Rights, which provided them a series of benefits, including low-interest mortgages.

Enter William Levitt. And say good-bye to hundreds of acre of farmland.

Levitt, then owner of the family New York-based developing company Levitt and Sons, built thousands of affordable cookie cutter-home communities in Hempstead, N.Y. (1947-1951); Bucks County (1951-1957); and Willingboro, N.J. (1958-1962). He named them all Levittown.

Levitt revolutionized the housing industry using his knowledge and techniques that he learned during WWII while serving as a Seabee in the Navy’s Construction Battalion, which constructed anything from air strips to bridges for the military, said Wagner, runs www.levittowners.com, a website dedicated to the community’s history.

This year, the Pennsylvania Levittown celebrates its 60thanniversary, a milestone to the community that was built in five years – from 1952 to 1957 – for the middle class, fueled by the steel industry, and whose goal was to live the American Dream without war.

Levittowners started moving into their newly built homes in June 1962. Many Philadelphians left behind their row homes and family tradition of city life to move into the new all American town, Levittown.

In Bucks County, the single-family-home-with-a-yard development has homes in Tullytown Borough, Bristol, Falls and Middletown townships, some still occupied by families that moved in directly after WWII.

And in those municipalities, Levittown is broken into 42 sections with names such as Snowball Gates in Middletown, Pinewood in Falls, Indian Creek in Bristol, and Stonybrook in Tullytown.

Albert DiGiovanni is one of the oldest residents in Stonybrook. He bought the 22ndhome out of 17,311 built in the housing development, which DiGiovanni said he helped construct.

I worked on the first house to the last house,” said the 93-year-old Tullytown resident.

The daily goal was to build 40 houses a day, with 26 contractors per house working around the clock seven days a week, said DiGiovanni, adding that his job at 32 years old was to do anything that needed to be done.

For DiGiovanni, Levitt was “a genius” of a developer turning farmland to a booming community in five years.

Levitt was the Henry Ford of home building, Wagner said.

He bought forests and sawmills all across the country, set up local manufacturing factories to precut and prefabricate the lumber and piping. So when material arrived at construction sites, contractors assembled the homes without the hassle of measuring or cutting, he said.

Wagner added that Levitt pioneered the standard 4-by-8 plywood roof, making it faster for contractors to built the track homes. He created infrastructure in the development.

That’s how he was able to sell them so cheap,” he said.

With the homes came a boost of developments that included strategically located parks, schools and churches. Levitt didn’t stop at homes; he knew the new residents would need shops, so he built strip malls.

Even before the homes were built, there were lines of people waiting to purchase their plot of land. Levitt would not sell to blacks, though.

And once homes were built, many came with some features, including curtains, patio furniture, appliances, trash cans and well-manicured lawns.

Buyers had a few cookie-cutter options.

In 1951, the housing company started with the Rancher, which was the smallest with two-bedrooms, one bath and an unfinished attic for the selling price of $8,990. For veterans and their families received special deals such as zero down payment and $57 per month, Wagner said.

Later, that type of home was upgraded to a Big Rancher, which included four-bedrooms, two baths and a finished attic for $10,500.

Also in 1951, the Levittowner was being sold for $10,990 for three-bedrooms and one bath. Veterans were paying $67 per month for their mortgages.

Then, in 1954, Levitt and Sons started selling the Jubilee at $10,990 for four bedrooms and two baths. The monthly payments were $70.

Also available that year was the Country Clubber, the largest and most expensive of all Levittown homes in Bucks County. For $16,900, buyers got five bedrooms and two-and-half baths. The down payment for veterans was $1,000 and $99 per month.

These were only built in Middletown in the sections of Snowball Gate, Forsythia Gate, Snowball Gate, Red Rose Gatewhich are considered the Beverly Hills of Levittown. The developing company initially wanted to build the Country Clubers in Bristol, however, the local government did not approve them. Middletown welcomed the bigger homes.

Then, in 1956, the company put out the Pennsylvanian, which ran for $14,500 for four-bedrooms and two baths. Veterans put down $1,100 and paid $96 a month.

These were steals, Wagner said, adding that such deals will never be again.

It was a different economy back then,” he said. “Banks were a service; they didn’t drive the economy like they do now.”

The Levittowns weren’t only the talk of the nation, but internationally they received much attention.

The BBC featured the Levittowns because they were considered revolutionary and modern suburbia. For the 60thanniversary, the British news organization published a series of features of the Levittowns.

Throughout the years, the communities have been featured in different publications, including in the June 2007 edition of Old House Journal, which spotlighted neighborhoods in a five-page spread that covered from their history to their designs.

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Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Unknown Soldiers ~ American Heroes

Thousands of men died across the 13 colonies fighting against the British crown.

While many were shot and killed, others died from the area’s harsh weather conditions, poor nutrition and diseases.

In Bucks County, there are several spots where soldiers took camp – including what is now Washington Crossing Historic Park, where Gen. George Washington led the Continental Army across the Delaware River into New Jersey to surprise the German soldiers known as Hessians hired by the British. The 1776 Christmas night surprise attack was a pivotal point during the American Revolution in favor of the revolutionaries.

Dozens of soldiers died before, during and after the crossing.

Of the many soldiers who died and were buried in the area, only 23 gravestones of unknown soldiers have been located at the park, which sits along the bank of the Delaware River.

During the early 1800s construction of the Delaware Canal, which runs through the park, workers discovered body remains. More remains also surfaced during other construction projects in the area of the Soldiers’ Graves site at the 500–acre park in Upper Makefield.

“It is speculated that the remains of 40 to 60 unknowns are buried throughout the Soldiers’ Graves area of the park,” according to the park’s website, www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing.

The 23 gravestones are a memorial and representation of the many soldiers who died during the American Revolution, said Ellen Petri, a founder of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park.

Disease and illness accounted for more lives to the Continental Army than battle casualties — estimated between 6,500 and 10,000, according to the website.

“Doctors saw a variety of illnesses from dysentery to smallpox and everything in between,” reads the website. “The common problems of malnutrition and exposure could have fatal results to soldiers on fatiguing marches and in camp environments.

“Though the military tried desperately throughout the war to regulate cleanliness of camps and bedding as well as provide what was considered a balanced diet in the form of rations, keeping the camps supplied with a proper diet and clean and substantial clothing was difficult throughout the war’s duration. In this environment, diseases ran through the camps at an alarming pace.”

The 23 graves lie along the banks of the Delaware River and are on a strip of wooded land filled with oak and pine trees, where wildlife call home. A tall flag pole bearing a large American flag flies over them. The base of the flagstaff is made out of native stone from the 13 colonies as a tribute to the soldiers, who could have been from any of the colonies, Petri said.

The rest of the site is decorated with flowers and well-manicured green grass. It’s a patriotic scene, a peaceful atmosphere. The Delaware Canal towpath runs passed the area. The memorial site was dedicated in May 1954.

But it hasn’t always beautifully kept throughout the years.

In 1998, Petri, a local resident, her husband and then one-year old son were taking a stroll down the towpath and they stopped in the area. A stone caught her eye that was covered by weeds. As they began clearing the weeds, they realized that they were gravestones, Petri said.

Two years later, her husband, Scott Petri, became the Republican state representative for the 178th district in the commonwealth. He took measures to have the area cleaned up.

The 23 gravestones are made out of the white marble, the same material as the sarcophagus for the tomb of the Unknowns – also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., she said.

“The Tomb sarcophagus was placed above the grave of the Unknown Soldier of World War I. West of the World War I Unknown are the crypts of unknowns from World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” reads the cemetery’s website, www.arlingtoncemetery.mil. “Those three graves are marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza.”

Tomb Guard sentinels look after the tomb every hour of every day of the year, rain or shine. The guardsmen are elite members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which is the oldest Army active-duty infantry unit serving since 1784.

There isn’t an elaborate Changing of the Guards ceremony at Washington Crossing Park for the American Revolution soldiers who gave their lives to help free the 13 colonies from British rule. There aren’t any guards at all.

It’s the members and donors of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park who look after the tombs.

The Friends group was created in 2010 after Pennsylvania budget cuts threatened to cancel the traditional reenactment of Washington’s crossing in 2009, tours and other programs. The group took upon themselves to keep the park running and provide tours and educational services with the help from donations and volunteers.

For the Friends group, it about preserving history for the locals and the country, Petri said.

Those buried might have been patients at the Thompson-Neely House, which served as a temporary military hospital. That house is still preserved today.

The house sits along a narrow two-lane road that winds north through bucolic Upper Bucks County. The Delaware Canal runs through the backyard of the house. The graves are in a small strip between the Delaware River and the Delaware Canal. The house and the graves are a few hundred yards apart. To get to both locations, the only way is to driver down scenicRiver Road.

The Thompson-Neely House was owned by a well-to-do miller. Like many surrounding houses, the home of the Thompson and Neely families was turned into a hospital on December 1776 when Washington and his defeated army arrived toBucksCounty, many of them exhausted, malnourished, diseased and wounded.
The names of almost all of the soldiers who died at the Thompson-Neely house during that winter are unknown, according to Petri. It’s unknown the total of soldiers who died at the family home.

She added that the only soldier’s name that is known is of Capt.-Lt. James Moore, who is also buried at the park. He held that military title for nine months before dying at the Thompson-Neely house on Dec. 25, 1776 of camp fever. Before holding that rank, Moore was named Lt. of Lamb’s Company of New York artillery on June 1775.

Because names of soldiers involved in battles in the Washington Crossing area haven’t been well recorded, people who are interested in researching their family’s involvement in the war can visit the David Library of the American Revolution, which is a mile north of the Soldiers’Graves site.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Underground Railroad ~ The Channel to Freedom

For black slaves the “Promise Land” wasn’t the United States. Instead it was Canada.

Before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and even decades before the Civil War (1860-1865), black slaves wanted freedom, especially from slave owners in the South, who considered black men, women and children their property.

Many slaves got their freedom through the national Underground Railroad movement that started 30 years before the Civil War by black and non-black abolitionists. Most of the non-black abolitionists were Quakers, an
affluent community at that time, said Millard Mitchell, whose grandfather was a slave.

In Pennsylvania, Bucks County was a hub for the movement, which locally spread from Bristol to Yardley and up to New Hope. Those communities are along the Delaware River and Delaware Canal, along which fugitive slaves used to travel on barges and as travel guides, said Mitchell, who’s been researching the Underground Railroad since hearing stories of the movement in the area after he moved to Yardley in 1956. The retired aeronautical engineer is also an avid student of black history.

Pennsylvania was a major player in the Underground Railroad. Several routes went from Philadelphia to Bucks County, then to Trenton, N.J., and New York before ending in Canada.

Because of Pennsylvania’s long standing against slavery and its geographic position as a border state, the Commonwealth was an ideal hideout for fleeing slaves, Mitchell said.

The undercover movement had nothing to do with the train system. Railroad terminology was used for code words that were made up by abolitionists.

“Sometimes, routes of the Underground Railroad were organized by abolitionists. More often, the network was a series of small, individual actions to help fugitive slaves,” according to education.nationalgeographic.com. “Using the terminology of the railroad, those who went south to find slaves seeking freedom were called ‘pilots.’
Those who guided slaves to safety and freedom were ‘conductors.’ The slaves were ‘passengers.’ People’s homes or businesses, where fugitive passengers and conductors could safely hide, were ‘stations.’ ”

Stations were set up quietly and advertised by discreet word-of-mouth. Fugitive slaves traveled by night and hid during the day. They identified safe houses by lights in windows, Mitchell said.

Most of the hideouts were in properties owned by Quakers, who set up tiny spaces well underneath their structures with some connecting to tunnels to avoid people seeing the fleeing blacks.

Few records were kept of the movement and stations in order to protect homeowners and the fugitives, according to the website. It was a federal crime for slaves to escape, as it was to harbor and help fugitive slaves.

If caught, black people on the run from southern slave owners were forced back to enslavement. And those who aided them ran the risk of being jailed. This applied to people living in states that supported slavery as well as
those living in free states, according to education.nationalgeographic.com.

One of the leading black organizers was Harriet Tubman, who, according to legend, helped some 300 slaves escape from the Southern states to “free” states in the North and Canada, which Tubman referred as “the Promise Land.”

Tubman knew all too well the desperation to escape. She was born into slavery in Maryland, from where she escaped at 12 years old. Tubman was born Araminta Ross, but after marrying John Tubman, a free black man, she took his last name and adopted her mother’s name, Harriet.

After escaping, Tubman moved around and ended in Philadelphia, where she helped pioneered the Underground Railroad movement in the region with the help of other abolitionist movers and shakers.

Tubman started the Bucks County’s contribution to the Underground Railroad in Bristol, Mitchell said.

In Bristol, there’s a Tubman statue commemorating her efforts of helping fugitive slaves. Bristol resident Louise Davis is a descendant of Tubman. The BucksCountyInTime was unsuccessful in reaching Davis for comment after several phone calls.

Charles L. Blockson of Gwynedd has the largest private collection of African-American historical items in the county and is an expert in the Underground Railroad. He is quoted in a Bucks County Courier Times newspaper article as saying, “Mount Gilead Church in Buckingham, along the canal, all the way down to Bristol, up to Easton, there’s some stations in New Hope, all along the river there . . . Pennsylvania was a key state, Bucks County was a key.”

In Yardley, there a several locations that likely served to hide fugitive slaves, Mitchell said. In his research, he has concluded that those sites include a white-columned mansion on South Main Street; a shop on Afton
Avenue; a South Canal Street house, which was moved for a convenient store; the Old Library; borough Baptist and AME churches; and a River Road stone house, which Mitchell believes was used as a lookout point, he said.

In addition, Mitchell said there’s a good chance the Continental Tavern, the Grist Mill and Lakeside, a Lake Afton historic house were also Yardley stations. He strongly believes the three structures were connected by a
tunnel system because they are in close proximity to each other.

Continental Tavern owner Frank Lyons believes Mitchell makes a good argument.

During renovations of the bar/restaurant, some sort of potential tunnel system was discovered deep underground of his business.

Underneath the kitchen a basement room was found with 18 inch stone walls and there was no way in from the basement. Eventually a way was made.

“What we also discovered in the corner of this building was a 90-degree quarter circle wall,” Lyons said. “We wondered what was behind the wall, so we took a couple of stones out and put a light down and put some cameras and took some pictures. And what we found was a tunnel that went down to the ground.

“This tunnel may have been at one time a sistern to hold what they call gray water, it wouldn’t have been used for sewer underneath the building. So we when we got it opened, we began digging. We dug about 25 feet and we ran out of rope ladder.”

So he had Mitchell take a look. At that time Mitchell made the case that there were three hidden chambers.

“Right behind us was the Grist Mill and next to us is Lake Side and the Continental contained chambers of sorts that were used to hide fugitive slaves as they fled north in the Underground Railroad,” Lyons said.

The second oldest Quaker meeting house in Pennsylvania is in Yardley.

“It would have been logical that it would have been the Quakers to be the leading abolitionists,” said Lyon, who is a history buff and an American Revolution re-enactor. “And it was logical that there would be a robust way
station here on the Underground Railroad. Now, (Mitchell) claims there was a tunnel that came up from the area of the canal and connected these three buildings. So this tunnel that we found may in fact be a part of a larger
tunnel system that was down there.”

Other than the tunnels, Lyons hasn’t found artifacts that would better cement the argument that indeed the Continental Tavern was a station for the Underground Railroad.

He’ll keep on digging, Lyons said.

But his daughter Coleen has come across a room of ghosts that appeared to have been involved in the Underground Railroad, he said, adding that he does believe that his daughter has had contact with ghost.

During a ghost cleansing of the tavern a couple of years ago by a third party, Coleen, then 11, told Lyons that she could see a black boy, about 7 or 8 years old, wearing worn out and dirty clothes and who wanted to be
reunited with his parents.

At the other end of the room there was a group of black people.

Lyons asked Coleen to ask them the location of the Underground Railroad tunnel or hideout.

They refused because it was a secret.

But Coleen heard the ghosts mumbling among each other.

It’s by the kitchen, she told Lyons.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Continental Tavern ~ Yardley’s Dirty Little Secret

Between 1920 and 1933 the Continental Tavern in Yardley was the place for a drink.

The business had all the charm that many Americans needed during those 12 years – it was a speakeasy.

But the moral police had been strong long before the Prohibition Era, which banned the production, transportation and sale of booze under the 18thamendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In the mid 1800s, the business was a temperance house. However, owner Samuel Slack was eager to get a liquor license.

He tried. And tried.

But a local women’s group fought fiercely against his attempts to obtain a liquor license in the Quaker town.

After several number of years of petitioning for the license, Slack managed to obtain the permit in 1864, said Frank Lyons, a self-proclaimed history geek and owner of the Continental Tavern for the past five years.

Then, 56 years later, the Yardley bar and those across the country were faced with the prohibition of alcohol as part of a national movement to improve Americans’ lives, protect families and society values from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse, according to PBS.com.

But instead, “thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated. Especially among the young, and most especially among young women, liquor consumption rocketed, propelling the rest of the culture with it: skirts shortened. Music heated up. America’s Sweetheart morphed into The Vamp,” according to the website.

In the course of searching for Underground Railroad artifacts underneath the building, one of Yardley’s dirty little secrets was discovered: the Continental Tavern was a robust speakeasy, Lyons said.

It didn’t come to light until about 164 years later, when Lyons gutted the place to restore it. By digging several feet into the ground thousands of glass bottles were found that were used for whiskey and beer.

Lyons, with the help from a local historian, was able to conclude that the Continental Tavern had indeed been a speakeasy through newspapers and license plates that were also found among the bottles.

The initial structure was built in 1845 as a temperance house and store, said Susan Taylor, President of the Yardley Historical Association. Then, in 1866 the proprietor received a license to operate a hotel with 18 rooms. A fierce blaze destroyed the building in 1876. The following year, it was rebuilt.

Throughout the site’s history, seven people have owned it and have made changes to the building. The history buff that he is, Lyons tried to refurbish the building to its days before the blaze.

When he purchased the building five years ago, holding up the building were a couple of rotted cedar posts, he said.

When we first moved (to Yardley) 26 years ago, I’ve always had a fascination with the American Revolution,” Lyons said. “And when we moved here of course I realized we moved three miles down the road from where Washington crossed the Delaware (River).”

When he moved to the area, he had more reason to delve into research of that time in American history. About 10 years ago, Lyons got involved in the reenactment of Washington’s crossing on Christmas Day of 1776, which is something he’d always wanted to do. Then, he and about 15 to 20 re-enactors formed a company of the regiment out of Massachusetts that did the actual rowing on Christmas for Washington.

Reenacting is a progressive disease, the more you do it, the more you want to do it, the more you want to learn, the more things you want to do,” Lyons said during a recent interview while sitting on the newly renovated second floor of the Continental Tavern.

Buying the tavern had nothing to do with history for Lyons.

It wasn’t a history investment,” he said. “It was a real estate business investment. A nice adjunct of that was the fact that it has historical significant to the building.”

When he bought the building it was “old and tired. It needed a lot of work. It was kind of in disrepair. The second and third floors weren’t being used. There had been 18 boarding rooms, but it was called a hotel,” Lyons said.

He began doing the renovations in four phases. The first floor was the first phase so the restaurant could remain open while bringing the building up to code, which was a challenge because the building wasn’t built with a sprinkler, heating or air conditioning systems.

When this building was built it had no plumbing or electricity,” Lyons said. “It was the first building in Yardley that got electricity.”

Lyons didn’t know what would be found in the building’s foundation as contractors gutted the building and peeled its layers like an onion.

What we found to much to my surprise and please, underneath the kitchen is an area we call the pit, we nicknamed it. It’s a basement room with 18-inch stone walls, about 15-by-15 and there was no way in from the basement,” Lyons said. “It’s imbedded in the basement, but there was no way into it. There was an outside removal wooden window that was built in the 1930s, late 1930s. Whoever cut that window out of the foundation to get access put the date on the wet concrete. The only way to get into this pit was through a trapped door that didn’t exists when we bought the building. Since then we’ve installed the trapped door to get down into it.

What we also discovered in the corner of this building was a 90-degree quarter circle wall. We wondered what was behind the wall, so we took a couple of stones out and put a light down and put some cameras and took some pictures. And what we found was a tunnel that went down to the ground.”

The discovered tunnel may have been at one time a sistern to hold gray water, it wouldn’t have been used for sewer underneath the building, Lyons said.

So we when we got it opened, we began digging,” he said. “We dug about 25 feet and we ran out of rope ladder.”

Local Underground Rail historian Melard Mitchel made the case that the tunnel might have been used to transport and house slaves that fled north.

Mitchel claims there was a tunnel that came up from the area of the canal and connected the Continental Tavern with two other nearby buildings.

So because this tunnel may in fact been part of a larger tunnel system that was down there, Lyons began excavating hoping to find evidence of the Underground Railroad.

By this point, Lyons was doing the digging for his historical curiosity and for some building improvements.

The contractors kept digging, so 8-inch steel columns and heavy concrete footings could be put into place to help sustain the kitchen floor.

One of the guys digging said, ‘Oh my God, this place is full of stuff,’ ” Lyons said.

The digging continued, an archeological-type grid of the underground area was created along with a cataloging system for the different items that were coming out of the ground.

As they dug they were looking for evidence items of the Underground Railroad. However, after taking about 25 cubic yards of debris they found nearly 10,000 whiskey and beer bottles from the Prohibition era.

We also found old newspapers and license plates and a few coins,” Lyons said.”When we started digging we were in the mid 1930s.” Prohibition ran from 1920 to 1933.

As they kept digging they continue to discover older newspapers and license plates.

We have a New Jersey tag that’s like 2341 and it’s the two-thousand three-hundred forty first car registered in the state of New Jersey and it’s from 1913,” Lyons said. “Most of the whiskey bottles were broken because what they were doing was throwing the bottles down this secret pit and breaking them with river rocks, but they didn’t break all of them.”

When Lyons bought the Continental Tavern he knew there was some history, but he never imagined the amount of history that was beneath his feet, he said.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2012 in Uncategorized