Introduction

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

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.

The Christmas Tree ceremony is one of the few Victorian traditions observed in Perkasie today; the others are a Memorial Day parade and the Menlo Park carousel opening, which date back to the 1890s. At its core, Perkasie’s public culture remains influenced by its Victorian-age roots. The community Christmas tree ceremony started as a general way to provide food and gifts to those in need during the holiday season. Over time, the event included a Christmas morning film at the town’s movie theater, various locations of tree lightings, a controversial decision to stop the tree event, and a debate over which town had the first local tree: Perkasie or its neighbor, Sellersville Borough.

Of course, the 5,000 folks gathered at the tree lighting site that day didn’t all live in Perkasie Borough. Some were former residents back home for the event, while others were from neighboring townships that share Perkasie’s zip code. A cluster of modest Victorian-Era buildings near the site framed the tree lighting, another reminder of Perkasie’s origins as a working-class town. To some longer-term residents, the older buildings missing from that scene lost to fire and urban renewal somewhat diminished the event’s charm. But to most other tree gazers and holiday guests, it was Perkasie Borough’s attractiveness as an American hometown that drew them to the ceremony.

“An American Hometown” looks at the ways how Perkasie survived many challenges that affected other towns in Pennsylvania through the World War II period. Perkasie’s story is divided by two eras, with the postwar Baby Boom year of 1946 as the bright line marking the difference between them. This book mostly concentrates on the era between 1871 and 1945, which defined a big part of Perkasie’s culture.

Starting in the Victorian age, people from other parts of Bucks County and Philadelphia came to Perkasie searching for jobs, and it soon became their own adopted hometown. Between 1890 and 1910, Perkasie’s population grew by 507 percent, the fifth-highest rate in Pennsylvania and the largest of any cigar town in the state.1 To get to the post-World War II era, Perkasie had to survive several trials going back to its earliest days. In 1856, a local real estate investor, Samuel M. Hager, tried to start a new village at the location of current-day Perkasie, but he failed within a few years. Hager sought to capitalize on a new train tunnel built by the North Pennsylvania Railroad, which also had financial problems.


 Figure 1. Perkasie Borough in 1887. Credit: Feaster Family Collection.

Just before 1871, Joseph A. Hendricks and a few friends bought Hager’s former property and divided the land into building lots sold at attractive prices. The United States Postmaster General named Hendricks as the village postmaster of Perkasie on July 25, 1871.2 The town took off that year when regular train service became available. Perkasie grew from 68 residents in the 1870s to 300 residents by 1880, just after Bucks County recognized Perkasie as a borough in May 1879. By 1900, more than 1,800 people lived in the borough as the cigar-making trade dominated the town.3 The village of Bridgetown also had joined Perkasie in 1899, increasing the borough’s population and boundaries.

Many people made their way to Perkasie from neighboring townships or Sellersville. Perkasie was attractive to the cigar trade, which had been nomadic in nature until many Philadelphia-based companies set up factories in railroad towns. Some people had learned to make cigars on the farm, while others had no experience but were willing to learn.

 

Figure 2. Perkasie's Trolley Depot, 1929.

During the Victorian Era, the North Pennsylvania Railroad and later the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad provided freight and passenger service to Perkasie, with its depot functioning as a regional hub for various products and manufactured goods. The Lehigh Valley Traction Company’s addition to Perkasie in 1900 brought cheaper trolley transportation to the area, along with much-needed workers to town.

The collapse of the cigar-making business after 1918 presented Perkasie with its next great challenge. In 1910, 46 percent of Perkasie residents with jobs worked in some part of the cigar business; by 1920, that number fell to 31 percent, and in 1930, it was 7 percent. Perkasie survived this economic blow by becoming a regional retail destination with a downtown area featuring clothing stores, grocery stores, three hotels, gas stations, and shops within walking distance of the train and trolley stations. The former cigar workers switched to clothing, textile, and manufacturing jobs or joined retail businesses.

The Great Depression presented Perkasie with its second great challenge. Perkasie’s retail job base helped residents survive part of the depression. In 1933, the American Business Census listed Perkasie with 103 retailers for its 3,463 residents. In comparison, nearby Quakertown had 78 retailers for its 4,883 residents, while Souderton had 64 retailers for its 3,657 residents. However, Perkasie suffered after 1925 when the last cigar factories closed (with one exception), and the depression finally hit home in the early 1930s. Several prominent businesses filed for bankruptcy, and local leaders responded by forming their own Relief Committee to provide food, clothing, and work to people in need before unemployment compensation and Social Security were established in the mid-1930s. In Perkasie, physically able people worked on public works projects.

In 1940, Perkasie had recovered from the Great Depression and had its best financial year since 1925, boosted by military contracts for its manufacturers. However, World War II would present another major challenge to Perkasie and have a significant long-term effect on it. Sacrifice was a part of everyday life, with much of its population fighting in the war or involved in the war effort. A sense of bonding developed, marked by the loss of 41 men and women in the service of their country from Perkasie, Sellersville, and the rural townships. In August 1945, community leaders knew changes were coming after the war, including a need for new housing.

The Baby Boom Era starting in 1946 redefined Perkasie within the next decade. The families that had moved to Perkasie Borough in the Victorian Era were now joined by newcomers seeking Perkasie’s sense of community, with its new housing financed by the GI Bill with affordable VA-loan mortgages.

The Pennridge school district’s emergence in 1953 brought a new regional identity. New highway systems in the 1960s and 1970s would transform Perkasie Borough into a combination of a suburban bedroom community with elements of its commercial downtown still in place. The transition starting in 1946 took several decades. By 1958, Perkasie only had 50 retail businesses in the borough, compared with 118 for Quakertown and 88 for Souderton, two neighboring boroughs. What was different about Perkasie Borough was the high percentage of people who still worked in the same town where they lived.3 Perkasie’s transition to a bedroom community was completed in the 1980s when developers built more homes, and Perkasie’s population grew by 50 percent. Many residents now worked outside of the borough.

Despite those changes, Perkasie today reflects elements that give it a hometown feel from the pre-Baby Boom era. A surprising number of Perkasie’s historic buildings are intact, despite a devastating fire in 1988 and urban renewal efforts in the 1960s. Today, the borough’s central district has a mix of older Victorian, Gothic, and American Foursquare buildings near its commercial district. South Perkasie has the borough’s oldest buildings on its border. Lake Lenape Park, built with public labor in the 1930s, remains a focal point for community activities.

To understand Perkasie is to know its origin story, as a community that came from nowhere to thrive and survive despite two World Wars, the Great Depression, and losing its leading employers. Perkasie became an adopted hometown for 1,800 people by the year 1900 because of a common work ethic, a desire to succeed, and strong religious, social, and fraternal institutions.

This book includes examples of survival and growth on a personal level during that era, of people who came to Perkasie looking for a better future. Cornelius F. Hendricks arrived in South Perkasie from Norristown to make cigars at a young age, went blind from glaucoma in his twenties, and then became a town leader. Katie Smith, another young cigar maker who came from Sellersville, lost most of her body movement at the age of 28. Still, she became Perkasie’s most-famous resident during her lifetime because Smith didn’t let her illness define her. Charles W. Baum also came to Perkasie from Sellersville in his early twenties. He became a successful cigar factory supervisor, but Baum’s doctor told him to change careers because of his health. He took over Perkasie’s newspaper with no publishing experience and made it a trusted institution.

There also are stories of struggle from the same era. Irish immigrant Marie Brown, orphaned at two years of age, worked her way up in Philadelphia’s clothing industry to become the first woman to own a Perkasie manufacturing business. In fact, Brown owned three factories for a brief time in the North Penn area, until she declared bankruptcy in 1912 and returned to Philadelphia. Abraham Housekeeper led a similar difficult life and held several jobs until he became Perkasie’s first photographer in 1880. Personal tragedies led to Housekeeper leaving town by the decade’s end, but not before leaving behind several rare photographs of Perkasie. Gilbert Thompson came from Lansdale to set up a hardware store in 1901 that did well until the Great Depression put him out of business in 1930. Thompson’s son-in-law, Leon M. Schwenk, took over Marie Brown’s factory after her bankruptcy filing in 1912, but he was forced to file bankruptcy in 1930 for his own business as the Great Depression hit Perkasie.

Also among that group of newcomers was Samuel R. Kramer, who came from Lansdale in 1881 to work for the Perkasie Central News as a typesetter. Kramer soon became the newspaper’s co-owner, a partner in the Menlo Amusement Park, and the owner of a successful printing and ticket company. Kramer’s lasting contribution to Perkasie was the community Christmas tree ceremony, which he created along with the Perkasie Owls Club “to provide for any family that was actually in need or distress.”5

Kramer and other community leaders played a big part in creating a culture that exists today in Perkasie. Although today’s community tree ceremony is not what Kramer exactly intended, he would surely approve of what it has become. To generations of people, the tree ceremony symbolizes Perkasie as their American hometown—in good times and bad—an enduring symbol of hope and survival without losing respect for the past. This book is the story of the women and men who made that possible, from Perkasie’s founding in 1871 to the end of World War II.

Notes

1 Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910: Statistics of Pennsylvania, Washington: Department of Commerce and Labor, 1913.

2 National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C.; Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-Sept. 30, 1971; Roll #: 108; Archive Publication #: M841.

3 John Price Jackson, "Second Industrial Directory of Pennsylvania," Harrisburg, PA: Department of Labor and Industry, 1916, 745; U. S. Federal Population Census, 1880; Washington, D. C.; United States of America, Bureau of the Census.

Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1900. T623, 1854 rolls.

4 George A. Schnell, "Population Growth and Employment Trends in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 1950 to 1960," Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science 37 (1963), 266-74, 271.

5 Perkasie Central News, December 14, 1934.