Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: Bucks County, Pennsylvania

If it is not so easy to trace the historic developments that have taken place in Bucks County, it is possible to discover the point at which the locality became fashionable. It is customary to attribute the rise of Bucks County as a fashion to the presence of Hollywood and Broadway writers who, in the 30’s, began to make their homes here. There is no doubt that when Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Budd Schulberg, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, Ruth and Gus Goetz “lived here”—though finally in as transitory a way as “Washington slept here”—the publicity value of Bucks County was exploited by the inevitable train of gossip columnists and slick magazines looking for copy. But the intimation that Bucks County was emerging from the anonymity of just another Pennsylvania place came from a less publicized source.

When Holger Cahill wrote a monograph on the importance of early American folk art for the Newark Museum in 1930, he could no more have foreseen the consequences than Van Gogh could have imagined that the theme of his life would one day be contorted for the movies. There is no straight line between Cahill’s monograph and the costume jewelry that began to appear in the 30’s utilizing for their designs the angels in the old birth certificates. But the interest in Pennsylvania folk art, confined previously to connoisseurs and antiquarians, began to have repercussions that affected people who never intended to put a foot inside a museum.

In a decade when the future of banks was doubtful, antiques began to look like a good investment to people who still had money to invest. In the early 30’s when Henry Ford bought up the entire contents of the old Fountain House in Doylestown, with every piece of furniture, every china washbowl and pitcher as intact as it had been in the time of George Washington, antique dealers multiplied. The auction sale, once a colorful local affair where neighbors came to bid on the furnishings of a house finally changing hands, now drew buyers from all parts of the county and from beyond.

The depression also accelerated an interest in real estate. You might not be able to take it with you, but as long as you were here you had something more substantial than fluctuating stocks and bonds. The real estate values in Bucks County had not altered appreciably for a hundred years. You could buy a beautiful old stone house with a hundred acres of field and woodland for $4,000 or less, on easy terms. New Yorkers, who had never given a thought to Pennsylvania, now discovered that Bucks County was only sixty-five miles distant. The movement out of the city had begun after the First World War, but mostly to New England. Rural areas in Connecticut and Westchester no longer provided a buyer’s market.

What’s more, Bucks County presented a general atmosphere of laissez-faire that was enticing. Newcomers were not prodded to give an account of themselves on grounds of race, religion, or politics. There was not only no curiosity, there was outright indifference. You weren’t going to be urged to join anything; the local minister wasn’t going to call. Nudity might be more shocking than adultery. But the mild moral flurry caused by rumors of sun-bathing on the part of the city folks soon passed with the changing fashions in clothes and cars. In the early days, slacks worn to the shopping center made a woman conspicuous, but on questions of human relations there was a great deal of tolerance. The old toll-keeper Who collected the two cents for pedestrians, ten cents for cars, over the long covered bridge then crossing the Delaware, once stopped us to ask, “What do you folks think of this companionable marriage proposition?” He read the papers assiduously and had unearthed Judge Lindsay’s recommendations for “companionate marriage” which he had transformed to a handsome compliment. When we said we hadn’t given the idea much thought, he cackled that there was a lot of it going on, on our side of the Delaware, and cited several characters who had long practiced the art, including a respectable widow whose bachelor boarder was surely united to her in closer ties. Old widowers often had “housekeepers” and the young frequently only went to the marriage altar with the approach of a first child.

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Though the group of Broadway and Hollywood homeowners drew public attention to the charms of Bucks County, they were not among the first to percolate from New York, nor were they to be the last. There were actually three waves of migration. The first began toward the end of the 20’s. The second in the mid-30’s comprised not only Hollywood and Broadway people but journalists and professionals on the periphery of the arts. The third group, following the Second World War, has been the most substantial. They might be GI’s, or young couples who were being pressed out of the big cities in the search for space and country air in which to bring up their children. Many of them commuted to New York, swelling the number of cars parked around the railway station at Flemington from a dozen to from three to four hundred.

The first group were all young, mostly childless, and of the rebel generation of the 20’s. Though there were few actual writers among them, they shared literary tastes. They might hold varying opinions on the value of Ulysses or Gertrude Stein, but their general views on human affairs were simpatico. Without exception they were a curiously unworldly lot who were apt to fall in love with the first house they saw and to be unwilling to shop around for a better buy. They weren’t looking for a profitable investment and it never occurred to any of them that in a relatively short time the value of their holdings might skyrocket to many times the original price. Most of them bought on a shoestring and held a substantial mortgage. The majority of this group were priced out by the 30’s and gave up.

The old farmhouses were being abandoned by families that had held on to them for generations. Historic necessity was liquidating the land as farming property. The small plots on the hillside, which were the kind of farms found in many parts of the county, could not compete in a period that was already bringing depression to the farmer long before it hit the general population. Some of the old houses had been empty for years. Others had been purchased by foreign-born workers who had accumulated savings in the cities. The house which John Herrmann and I came to own had passed from its original Pennsylvania family to a Czech machine-tool worker two years before. He had piled up ten thousand dollars as a part-time bootlegger in New York, and in buying the former grist mill, with a house and some eighteen acres of woodland and brook, he hoped to continue his profitable activity in more salubrious air. But his wife had contracted the drink habit while he had amassed the profits, and in a short time after they arrived in the country, she died. When we got the place, we inherited his still, and even gingerly operated it once or twice. But it was a tricky business and we soon discovered that practically every local character operated a still for rye whiskey.

When John Dos Passos stayed in an old house in the spring of 1928 to finish The 42nd Parallel, he was even suspected of being a Federal agent. It was his custom to take long walks at the end of his working day and many roads led to nothing more than a man’s private backyard. Seeing his hasty retreat, the local people became suspicious. A little delegation called on us one evening to air their doubts. They were even proposing to “ride him out.” But it took no more than a little visit to the doubting farmers with Dos Passos in tow to quiet the tremors. Good rye was passed all around and the conspiracy cemented human relations.

There is no doubt that Prohibition helped make relations easy between the early newcomers and the local folk. Appreciation of liquor was the one sure taste in common and it was convivial. Buying bootleg rye meant more than getting hooch. It meant entrance into a man’s home on terms of confidence. You met his wife, talked with his kids and got acquainted with the cat, the dog and the live-stock. There was often good cooking going on; you might be offered a taste of it. It was risky; a man might get clapped into the local jug for it and sometimes did. But risk has never stopped people from the joys of conspiring. The odd thing about the local population was that they were all for Hoover in the 1928 election and he was hardly a liquor man. There were only two placards for Al Smith in our neighborhood and one was on our barn, but the entire inside of the covered bridge held tiny pictorials showing Al with his foot on the rail toasting the Pope. When a contraband beer truck fell through one of the bridges of the canal that summer, cars from miles around bearing the slogan “Vote for Hoover” bore down on the area, each driver determined to fish a keg from the water before the “federals” arrived.

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But there were other elements making for amenities in the earlier days. If you cared about hunting you were certain to make friends. In the lower part of the county there are a number of fox-hunting squires, but in the part where most of the newcomers were settling, hunting was for the native population. Nathanael West was the only man from the city who ever went out for hunting in a big way with dog and gun. But even I owned a gun and learned to be a good shot by aiming at tin cans. When the day came when I had to shoot a couple of invading copperheads and did, it won me respect from people who didn’t care if I ever wrote a book or not. As Pep West put it, hunting wasn’t just hunting. You might spend an entire day with nothing to show for it. Or at the last moment the whirr of wings would bring the final excitement. But it was the leisurely strolling, the wading in deep grass, the crossing a field that a farmer might close to everybody but a hunter—for he was certain to be one himself—the aimless talk, the camaraderie of the sport that he claimed made it so rewarding. In the 30’s there was many a local family that counted on the hunting season to provide them with a store of meat. Canned pheasant and canned rabbit were too tempting not to incite to poaching beyond the prescribed amount. Hunting in the company of local men in those days implied that you had been admitted to their secret lodge.

It wasn’t only that people were poor in the 30’s. Many of the local citizens had been going down hill for some time. The deeds to fine old stone houses bore the names of families who now owned little more than a small frame house. There was only one house in the village that we used to refer to as “the rich woman’s house.” It was a square Victorian house, by no means a mansion, but the owner had the distinction of living on an income, going to Florida every winter, and employing a handyman to weed her garden. The ways of life for the early newcomers and the old native population were much the same. There was no electricity; you had oil lamps. You cooked on a kerosene stove in summer; in winter on a coal or wood range. My range had a shiny metal plate on the oven door with its name boldly engraved in Spencerian script, “Alpine Canopy.” It boasted of a reservoir which kept gallons of water hot. Water piped to the house was so rare that When Nathanael West came to buy a place he passed up a fine old stone house for one only part stone, part wood, but Which had the added refinement of a kitchen sink with water piped from a spring.

The country folk could use the odd jobs that the first newcomers might provide. The stone houses were solid structures and none of the earlier group went in for major reconstructions, at least not at once. But there was tinkering to be done, a cellar door to mend, a chimney to straighten. And the city people needed the country folk. Our house needed right away a carpenter who also was a mason, for we couldn’t get an oversized bed with its box springs and thick mattress up the circular stairway that unfurled like a fan. The local man had to gouge out walls two feet thick to make a long window out of a smaller one in the upper story to which the bed was hoisted up by pulleys and passed through. The bed was even a big point of local interest. Several old fellows from the village came up not only to inspect the window but to punch the bed. There were still people around who were using the old-fashioned feather beds in those days.

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Our house was a mile from the village and three miles from the shopping center in a town across the Delaware in Jersey. We had no car that first summer and thought nothing of it. Few people in the village had cars; the men who worked in the mills across the river pooled the cars that were available. We had an enormous garden and raised everything from Brussels sprouts to Golden Bantam corn and red cabbage. Once a week we walked to the shopping center through a gorgeous path that led across a wooded range of hills. From the top of them you could see a panorama of the wide Delaware Valley, the river with its little green islands, and the silvery thread of the canal, along which the old barges were still slowly moving, drawn by a team of mules wearing in summer jaunty straw hats adorned by the bargemen with living roses or poppies. Coming down the steep hillside you might hear the chime of the little brass bells on the mules long before the barge came into view.

Shopping was a festive occasion before the supermarket morgues had shrouded the vegetable and fruit with ghostly cellophane. A good deal of the produce was raised locally and the variety far excelled anything you buy today, when the belt line from the producer to the deep-freeze companies and the canneries speeds fresh strawberries to a season so short you hardly have a chance to taste them. Some brands of apples have disappeared: the fine old Belflower, that looked like a pear and tasted divine; the Snow apple, pure white with one deep red cheek. Today you can always buy frozen raspberries but hardly fresh ones. Currants and quinces have simply vanished. Even canned goods have followed the stereotype; the local storekeeper may call himself “independent” but he is inevitably tied to a marketing chain which compels him to accept one certain brand. The habit of buying frozen goods is so entrenched that a customer often purchases packages of frozen corn during the very season when he might pick up the real thing at a roadside stand.

Once in the town, we could get a taxi to take us home with our shopping bags. A thin old man, dressed always in black and whom we called “Hamlet,” was certain to be hanging around to meet the trains. There were at least four good trains a day going to or coming from Trenton. Now the only thing accommodated on this line is freight. The Pennsylvania line on the Jersey side had served a good many people in Bucks County, but when it gave up the next step was to drive some fourteen miles to Flemington, New Jersey, where a number of good trains ran to New York. This spring the Lehigh Valley has followed the pattern that in other parts of the country is isolating whole communities or abandoning them to the anarchy of the private car. Though there are still two morning trains to New York and two afternoon trains from the city, these trains do not solve the problems of the hundreds of commuters who were lured to the country by the promise of easy transportation.

Hamlet, too, has long passed from the scene, as have the sweet old men with true craftsman instincts who would undertake anything to be done. The last of the old men to know how to handle a scythe used to cut our meadow and hill behind the house to look, as he put it, “like a park.” Today, it is easier to find a contractor who will build a wing to your house than someone who can or will patch your old slate roof. If you haven’t learned to do many odd jobs yourself, you will be up against it. But in those days it wasn’t only that you could get a job done, you got conversation with it. An old man would tell you how he used to cut wood off Haycock mountain or how he had courted his wife. When an old man’s wife died, he might put on his good tan shoes and come to call to tell you in detail of the day when the partner of his life had “stepped out.”

This summer, when the local boy who had condescended to cut a small lawn in front of my house with an old-fashioned lawnmower once a week decided that only patrons with mechanized equipment were worth bothering with, he quit coming without even telling me the reason. He was the last of a string of local boys to follow the old man with his scythe, but who no longer walked the mile from the village but drove up grandly, often in new Chevrolets. Everyone in the village not only now owns a car but is apt to have a recent model. Boys taking their first jobs count on the first pay check as a down payment on a big car.

In a society aiming at a consumer’s paradise, Bucks County hardly plays a backward role. The lowliest householder is thoroughly attached to installment buying. No one considers the final price but only the upkeep. The city people can neither be credited with nor blamed for the complicated processes involving economic as well as social transformations. But in the initial stages, they surely played a part.

On the credit side, they brought employment at a time when jobs were so scarce that many of the local people were forced on relief. On May Day, 1934, there was even a little parade of embattled farmers and villagers of Bucks County who marched around the courthouse at Doylestown with signs demanding recognition of their plight. Some dairy farmers had been liquidated not only by Bangs disease but by falling profits. The mills were laying off many hands. With the restoration of old houses, a chain reaction of improvements benefited not only carpenters and plumbers but anyone who could dig or lay stonework.

Even before the boom was on, rural electrification had begun, stimulated by Washington, and abetted by the foresightedness of the electric companies. On the heels of electricity came the salesmen for refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. Later it was the deep-freezers and TV. But at first there were few customers for gadgets and some local people could not wire their houses for light until the end of the 30’s .

In the beginning of the changes there must have been some bitterness on the part of local people as they saw the big cars flash by with weekenders at a time when they still walked or hitched a ride. There was also confusion and amusement. One new landowner might think nothing of paying $500 for a big maple or oak to transplant to his own soil; another might casually cut down a tree of equal beauty because it interfered with his view. Local people began to ransack their attics for “relics,” so prized by the outlanders. Bathrooms became a must. That meant employment for well-drillers as well as for dealers who could follow up with equipment. The newcomers threw out wings; added rooms; broke out partitions; restored old fireplaces big enough to roast an ox. If in the 30’s a number of barns burned down (in order to collect the insurances, the rumor went), in the 40’s many remaining barns were converted into high-class dwellings.

The coming of the city people to Bucks County signalized no more than an inevitable sophistication which was to find its goal in the accumulation of new commodities. If one looks for cultural radiations, one finds that they stem primarily from a communication system which can bring news of the latest stereotype to every home. The original arts and crafts were closely related to their functional usages and a man who could build a beautiful stone house was in a better position to judge evidences of creative forces than the present contingent of local painters who mostly contribute repetitious Grandma Moses landscapes to the popular summer “Art Festival” on the Delaware.

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The rapport between the city people, so-called even if they have lived here thirty years, and the native population is tenuous. It lacks even the roots it had in an earlier day. It takes persistence and skill to “do anything” that might win general approval unless the activity is directly tied to immediately recognizable aims. But one worthwhile attempt to combine country resources and city talents has resulted in a recent project which converted the old Stover Mill on the Delaware, belonging to a family who had already been the donors of several fine parks, to a library and local art center.

On the library side Mrs. Eleanor Allen, a former librarian and teacher of remedial reading, has induced some one hundred and fifty youngsters to become steady patrons of books, wisely selected for their needs and potentialities. Starting with thirty borrowed books, the library now boasts three thousand volumes, mostly donated, for adults, and five hundred volumes for children. In a community not noted for avid readers or public libraries, the new venture is suddenly discovering that people will use books if they are provided. The kids will even discard comics in favor of brightly written books by people like Dr. Seuss. On the art side of the project, the community has Allen Saalburg whose extraordinary silk screen reproductions of the old primitive paintings and carvings can bring to the viewer the very works of art once extolled by Holger Cahill years ago. He and his enthusiastic committee have been responsible for putting on exhibits which would be a credit to any community, anywhere.

But hopeful as this venture is, it can hardly be taken as a sign of any significant trend. The problems at stake are more fundamental and more universal. The question of more cars means more roads; more roads eat into the natural beauty of a countryside once rural. There are even characters Who propose to drain the canal, now preserved as a park, and make a super-highway. But with the menace of threats of this kind, the protective associations that have so far safe-guarded much become vigilant. There is an ever creeping population that demands places to live, and places to live mean rapidly thrown-up developments. The United States Steel project in the lower part of the county is already spreading gloom among those citizens who cannot think that more industries in a community necessarily imply the right kind of progress. A growing number of industries have given jobs to many people but they have also brought housing problems and, perhaps even more serious, they have been instrumental in lowering the water level to a point that has brought grave warnings from engineers. But then it isn’t only the industries that are water-users, though they can be held responsible for the disappearance of the famous Delaware shad. The average householder, no longer restrained by having to tote water from a well, is as giddy as any city consumer in the heart of New York. Swimming pools have multiplied fabulously even in a locality flushed with natural springs and brooks. As for the old stone houses, they are now only within the reach of the very well-to-do. Once a mere $4,000, they may now be put on the market for something nearer to $79,000. The old people who once lived in those houses, if they are still alive, must really rub their eyes and wonder.

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