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ENIAC, the first electronic general purpose computer

Historical Society – a great volunteer opportunity
East Falls NOW, January 2020, by Ellen Sheehan, Co-President, EFH

 Now that it’s January it’s time to consider a new decade and a new leaf. Are you searching for even more resolutions for the New Year — besides the usual more exercise and better diet?

Why not commit to something that helps our community and heritage and gives us purpose, meaning and fun?

The East Falls Historical Society (EFHS) offers some alternatives to your valuable free time. Our Grace Kelly Gallery, for instance, is moving in January for full time display at the New Courtland Seniors Center on Henry Ave. This exhibit will occupy a primary location at the entrance to the facility. You could be part of arranging the design.

The exhibit was on display at the Rotunda at Chestnut Hill College for the month of December. Between the student/ alumnae carol night, the Chestnut Hill Community House Tour and the faculty/staff/major donor’s cocktail party, more than 1,000 people viewed the Gallery.

Bringing it back to East Falls will enable even more people to appreciate this collection of Grace Kelly memorabilia. Parts of the collection, including Grace’s flower design, will be on loan to the Philadelphia Flower Show in February/March.

Another opportunity for volunteers is to consider conducting oral histories. We plan to interview the daughter of John Moxley and Kathleen McIntyre. They were part of the team that worked on ENIAC, the world’s first electronic general- purpose computer, built right here in East Falls by scientists and programmers at the University of Pennsylvania. We have many more interesting people to interview with your help.

Our Historic Preservation Committee needs your help to identify at-risk locations, bridges and buildings.

Research into the history, architecture and use of places identified as worthy is needed and rewarding. Writing applications to the Historic Commission are vital to protecting our community identification and preventing the unnecessary destruction of what makes us unique.

If you have donations that you believe are important to preserve, consider donating them to EFHS or being part of our Acquisition Committee. Examples of our inventory include military uniforms, original charter of the Italian Club, benches from Woodside Park, books, photos and memorabilia.

Our Archive Committee oversees the proper conservation of these acquisitions. Archival paper, boxes and albums will ensure that the holdings of the EFHS are protected from the elements that contribute to their wear and tear.

The Membership Committee requires computer skills to keep our members informed and current by notifying them of new information. The committee is vital to our revenue and support by annual solicitations for renewals.

Are you interested in providing programs of interest to EF residents and others? Our free and open to the public programs are usually presented at the Falls Library and can involve power point presentations and always great refreshments.

We have more than 150 historic photos in categories such as sports, buildings, businesses, churches, people, mansions, 1936 and 1990 collections. We would like to incorporate these into archival albums and make copies available to the public.

Reference questions are answered through referrals from the Falls Library. This involves research into census records or consulting our Chadwick Papers, a collection of extensive EF history indexed for easy research. We keep records of our reference questions and track of our volunteer hours for the convenience of our friends at the library.

If any of this appeals to your desire to “give back” to East Falls in a positive way and to use your talents to make a difference, please contact us and we will help you find the right fit.

Happy New Year from the EFHS.   

Midvale and Ridge Avenues

Growing up in EF – a neighborhood of small businesses
East Falls NOW, February 2020, by Ellen Sheehan

East Falls was a neighborhood of small, family-owned stores in the mid-century. It was a time when soldiers returning from WW II sought education through the GI Bill of Rights, enabling them to receive their college degrees and enter the work force earning good salaries. Women were busy raising a generation of baby boomers. Automobiles were not so prevalent; few families in EF owned a car. The corner store, owned and operated by our neighbors, had everything we needed. The Cursons owned the Hardware store at Ridge and Midvale Aves., site of Palestine Hall. (Their niece, Sophie, owned the fashionable dress store on Rittenhouse Square.) Joe Burns and Earl Verbeck owned the butcher store on Midvale Ave., presently Dr. Kim’s dentist office. Felix Herrera owned the barber shop on Ridge Ave., site of the present AM/PM. Ruth & Dave Grill, brother and sister, owned the corner grocery store at Krail St., now Fiorino’s Restaurant. Plenty of doctors and dentists operated their business from their homes. Conrad St. and Ridge Ave. were the thoroughfares for merchants. Visits to the grocer, the butcher, the pharmacy and Five & Dime were trips you made every day. They enjoyed daily deliveries of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. You always had the services of an expert you trusted. They were your neighbors and likewise customers of your family business.

My good fortune was to be part of a family of florists. We always knew who was getting married, had a baby or died. Flowers were a part of all major events of life. It was a seven-day-a-week business. Weddings on Saturday and funeral viewings on Sunday or any other day of the week. What I remember most were the smells. To walk into the shop and inhale the sweet mix of roses, carnations, gardenias and violets. All the colors were in no particular order, but somehow they blended as in a Monet painting. But this was a business. Phone ringing, customers selecting, and my father loading the truck for deliveries to hospitals, churches, funeral parlors and homes.

One wall of shelving was lined with vases, all sizes and colors. Planters with baby spelled out in pink or blue, here a piano shaped planter or a lady’s hat. Pop a plant in, add a fancy ribbon and send to say “congratulations,” “thank you” or “happy birthday.” A long bar the length of the wall held spools of ribbons in every color and width, spiraling down, begging to be picked.

Holidays such as Thanksgiving, Easter, Valentine’s Day and most of all Mother’s Day meant round the clock work for days before the holiday. We kids wired stems for my father to grab and arrange in beautiful containers. Or, we made bows to be placed on each arrangement. Pretty little cards appropriately selected were signed to accompany the deliveries.

February is the month for lovers. If you love someone, why not say it with flowers? 

The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania ca. 1930

March: Women’s History Month
East Falls NOW, March 2020  

March is Women’s History Month, and many Fallsers will think first of Grace Kelly, native daughter who became a renowned actress and European princess.

But important to the careers of thousands of women was the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), which moved to Henry Ave. in East Falls in 1930. WMCP was opened in 1850 in Center City by a group of progressive Quaker physicians. It was the first medical school in the world established to train women in medicine and chartered to award the M.D. A graduate of the first class, Ann Preston, went on to become the college’s first woman dean and helped found Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

By the 1920s the school was outgrowing its 1875 building and hospital near Girard College, and that region had become blighted; an element of racism also drove the move. The East Falls site, the former Abbottsford estate, offered height, light, and air.

For educational needs, the area promised “clinical material,” meaning persons of lower incomes for the wards, the middle class of East Falls and some wealthy Germantowners for the private rooms, along with workers at Dobsons’ Mills, Budd, Midvale Steel and other factories for the emergency department.

The president of the board in the 1920s, in effect the CEO, was Sarah Logan Wister Starr, owner of the Belfield farm and house in Germantown. She knew the northwest part of the city and chose the site.

The College leadership selected a prominent architectural firm, Ritter and Shay, known for its Art Deco Drake Hotel and Market Street National Bank. The style of the WMCP building, however, might be called classical or Colonial revival. A colossal four-story portico dominates the façade.

The building steps down from five levels in the central block to four laterally, with some sections projecting forward. This gives the structure considerable eye interest. Originally, the hospital occupied the northwest) section, the medical school the southeast. Many additions followed with growth of the school and its hospital. Men were admitted to the MD classes for the first time in 1970, and WMCP became simply MCP.

Its later mergers, and eventual closing, form a sad and complicated story for another time. To some extent, Drexel University College of Medicine continues MCP’s programs.

As Falls Center, the complex still houses some health care facilities. We even have a return to Grace Kelly, as her mother, Margaret, was head of the WMCP board and helped save the school from absorption by Jefferson Medical College in 1946.

Remembering Gene London in East Falls
East Falls NOW, April 2020, by Ellen Sheehan

 Gene London, children’s TV star of the ’60’s and ‘70’s and curator of fashions from the movies, died January 19 in Reading, Pa. Gene was known in Philadelphia for hosting “Cartoon Corners” and “The Wonderful World of Gene London” on WCAU TV from 1959-1977. Later he became a fashion designer for shows, films and TV productions in NYC. Gene was known throughout the world for exhibits of his collection of over 60,000 movie star’s costumes and accessories. An extra outfit is made for each movie in case the original is damaged during filming. Gene would acquire one of these or at auction.

I met Gene London at Old Academy Playhouse in 2003 at the party to celebrate the 80th Anniversary of the theater. He was there by invitation of Lizanne Kelly LeVine, sister of Grace Kelly, who was a life member and actress at OA. Gene was the keynote speaker and brought his collection of Grace Kelly dresses and memorabilia.  

Among the memorabilia were letters Grace had written to family and friends, baby clothes of Grace and of course, pairs of her gloves. He had six dresses Grace wore either in a movie or for a fashion shoot. At the end of the evening I helped to dismantle the display and repack the items because Gene was surrounded by members wanting to speak with him and have a photo taken with him. In 2012 I emailed him about coming to our dedication of the Kelly Historical marker. He replied he was hosting a show in Florence, Italy about Marilyn Monroe and sent a video of same. One time he was in China another time Baltimore, always exhibiting his popular shows around the world.

Some years later Gene brought his collection of fashions to the Philadelphia Flower Show when the theme was “The Movies.” I was amazed to see the variety of “Golden Age of Movie Star Fashions” represented in his collection: Easter William’s swim suits, Audrey Hepburn’s black dress, Marilyn Monroe’s white pleated blow up dress, Debbie Reynold’s Molly Brown gown and so much more. He exhibited six of Grace Kelly’s dresses. I made arrangements with him to bring the Grace Kelly dresses to the opening of the Grace Kelly Gallery at the Falls Center in 2013.  

Gene’s willingness to share his professional experience as a stage designer was helpful in the arrangement of the Gallery.  He brought with him six of Grace’s dresses: the gold gown and pink/white dress from “To Catch a Thief,” a copy of her bridal gown, the fur trimmed red dress, the Academy Award Oscar acceptance blue gown and the black and white dress from “Rear Window.”  

He was gracious at the event going from table to table and posing for photos with everyone. People were happy to meet him and share memories of watching him on TV and what he meant to them growing up. His kindness and charm were genuine. At the end of the event, Gene asked Patty and me “What’s next? What’s next was the acquisition of the Kelly house back to the family. This was important to the East Falls community who petitioned EFHS to return the house someday to the Kelly family. Gene actually knew the owner of the house and approached her about the possibility of selling the house to Prince Albert. With Gene’s help this became a reality.”

Former KenCrest building at Midvale Ave. and McMichael St.

History of “Ken-Crest” Site Revealed
East Falls NOW, May 2020, by Nancy Pontone

 The complex of one-story buildings at 3625 Michael Street on the corner of Midvale Avenue was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places by the Philadelphia Historic Commission on Friday, February 14, 2020 based on its architectural style and contribution to the social history of the neighborhood. The chapel section was built on this site in 1916 for the Manor Sunday School Association previously formed by neighborhood men in the newly developing Queen Lane Manor neighborhood bounded by Henry Avenue, Queen Lane, Coulter Street (then called Mill Street) and Stokely Street.  

The Reverend James Mitchell of Calvary Episcopal Church on Manheim Street in Germantown officiated at the first Sunday School service on March 1, 1914 in a small farmhouse behind houses on the block formed by Midvale Avenue, Queen Lane, Stokely and Fox Streets. Subsequently neighbors were required to take over the mission of the Sunday School after Mitchell grew ill and resigned. After the mission outgrew the farmhouse and subsequently a real estate office, architect Lawrence Visscher Boyd (1873-1941) designed the chapel in the Arts and Crafts style to accommodate the Sunday School children.   

Boyd lived across the street at 3130 W. Penn Street and designed houses in the Queen Lane Manor neighborhood for the Queen Lane Land Company formed by the family or estate of William G. Warden. One of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia and a trustee of Standard Oil, Warden by the time of his death in 1895 had bought up most of the available estates and farms where he lived east of Henry Avenue in present-day East Falls. Developers Wendell and Smith, known for the creation of Overbrook Farms and Pelham, marketed properties in the new neighborhood.  

Homes in Queen Lane Manor, mostly single and twin houses of two and a half stories, were advertised as situated in a bucolic suburb with access to the city via the Queen Lane train station. Several architects designed houses primarily in the colonial revival or Tudor revival style with the latter showing Arts and Crafts details. Many of the new residents were upper middle-class families with children under the age of ten, according to Census records. The neighbors formed the Queen Lane Manor Civic Association and the Queen Lane Manor Women’s Club, but the first thing that the new neighbors actually built was the Sunday School for their children.

The original 1916 frame chapel represents an appealing application of c. 1900 Arts and Crafts features on a chapel form dating back to medieval times. The bell-cote, slanting buttresses, circular window with leaded glass and half-timbered battered porch define this unique building. The chapel built as a temporary structure has survived for over 100 years.  

As the Association grew, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd was formed and it became an Episcopal Church in 1921. A gift from the sons of Henry W. Brown provided for a new, much larger, church on The Oak Road, becoming the Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd. The chapel was sold to the Park Congregational Church in 1926. Subsequent one-story additions complemented the original chapel with leaded glass windows, stucco and slate roofs. The Church dissolved in 1981 but had conveyed the property to a Lutheran family services non-profit and ultimately to Ken-Crest Services that until recently used the complex for social services.  

RTR Realty Associates bought the property in May 2019 and are converting it into two residences. Historic designation will ensure that defining features of the property are maintained with complementary adjustments to accommodate its reuse. Additions at the rear of the complex are considered “non-contributory” to the historic designation.

Powers & Weightman: A Vanished East Falls Industry
East Falls NOW, June 2020, by Richard Lampert  

 Do you know where this [street sign] photograph was taken? Do you know how long Powers Street is?   Answer at the end of the story.  

Powers Street is named after one of the founders of Powers & Weightman, a chemical manufacturing company whose plant in East Falls made a vast variety of pharmaceuticals during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. One of their most profitable products was quinine, and during the Civil War Powers & Weightman quinine may have saved countless Union soldiers from severe malaria as they fought through the mosquito-ridden Southern swamps. Powers & Weightman prospered mightily because it had a de facto monopoly on quinine. At the time of the Civil War, manufacturing quinine, as opposed to refining it from the bark of the cinchona tree, was advanced technology; the first practical chemical method was developed by French chemists in 1854, just six years before the Civil War began. The development of quinine was, in fact, a major landmark in pharmaceutical chemistry. A special issue of the trade journal Chemical and Engineering News published in 2005 listed quinine as one of 46 pharmaceuticals that changed the world.  

John Powers and William Weightman were employees of the chemical firm Farr & Kunzi – John Farr was Weightman’s uncle – and they became co-owners of the company upon Farr’s death in 1847. The new owners moved the bulk of the company’s manufacturing from its original location at 9th and Parrish to East Falls, and they located their new plant on the hill that is the current site of Falls Ridge.  

John Powers died in 1878. The historical record isn’t clear, but we assume that Weightman bought out his interest in Powers & Weightman from the estate. In 1903, William Weightman brought his daughter Ann Weightman Walker into his firm as a partner, and just one year later, he died, leaving Ann as the sole owner of this prosperous firm. Perhaps this was more than Ann had bargained for, because in 1905 she merged her company with Rosengarten & Sons, another Philadelphia chemical company that made many of the same chemicals as Powers & Weightman. Rosengarten had a general plant at 17th and Fitzwater, as well as a plant dedicated just to the valuable quinine at 35th and Moore., The merged firm was called Powers-Weightman-Rosengarten.

In 1927, Powers-Weightman-Rosengarten was sold to Merck and Company. The East Falls plants stood abandoned until construction started on the Schuylkill Falls public housing project in 1953. Today, there are few physical manifestations of this major company. For Fallsers, the most prominent physical remnant is Ravenhill, the mansion which William Weightman had bought and substantially renovated in the mid-1870’s. His daughter Ann sold it in 1910, and by now it is one building – a spectacular one, to be sure – among dozens on the Jefferson campus. Also, Weightman Street in the “new houses” runs for one short block between Cresson Street and Gypsy Lane. Weightman Hall on the Penn campus, which houses Penn’s sports medicine practice, is named after William Weightman. The one-time home of the Rosengarten family is now Chanticleer, the public garden near Wayne.

What about John Powers? Although he was known as a wealthy and generous man in his day, that street sign is the only manifestation we can find.  

The answer: You’ll find the sign for Powers Street by walking up Calumet Street from Warden Drive. The sign is on the left-hand side of the street as you walk up, about 50 yards before you reach Dobson Street. Powers Street goes to your right but ends after no more than 25 yards! Interested in East Falls History? Join the East Falls Historical Society!  

Map by Lydia Doyle

East Falls in the 50s: A summer day’s reminiscence
East Falls NOW, July 2020, by Lydia Doyle

 Lyda Doyle grew up in East Falls and recalls how she and her friends spent their summer days.

Today it’s Boy’s Day at the Bathey, the public swimming pool located where the Trolley Car Café now stands.

The boys would be waiting in line for their one-hour swim time before getting back in line again. My girlfriends and I decide it’s too hot to fish from the large stepped wall along the east side of the Schuylkill River, or the rocky outcropping on the west side just below the Falls bridge, or even from the large rocks under the twin bridges.

On a cooler day, we would choose one of those locations and patiently wait with our homemade fishing poles to try to catch catfish, sun fish or carp. In addition, we would have to cook the cornmeal, stirring in the molasses, and rolling it into small balls to use for bait. But today it’s just too hot.

On a nicer day in Mifflin School Yard, we could roller skate, play hopscotch or jump rope, Red Rover, or Giant Steps. We decide against those activities, as well as riding our bikes down to the Art Museum. We choose, instead, to cut through the Chamounix Woods and Fields to go to the pond where the boat rides used to run at Woodside Park, and where we have fished before.

We can sit on the wooden walkways dangling our feet in the cool water and splash it all over to cool off. However, we will need to keep a look out for snapping turtles.

To get there we cross over the Falls Bridge and walk up the small incline on the other side of the West River Dr., now Martin Luther King Dr., to the top of the little water falls there. Above the falls, we cut through the water tunnel that runs under the Reading railroad tracks, feeling the coolness of the shade and the little stream of water. Crossing the short distance from the other side of this tunnel, we enter the much longer tunnel under the Schuylkill Expressway We stay close to the sides to avoid the shallow but swift moving stream of water in the middle. I try not to drop the empty, clean glass milk bottle I am carrying. In the cool, semi-darkness, large, round openings on the sides gape at us from time to time as we edge past. These openings allow water to enter from other directions.

Finally, we reach the other side and scramble up the small embankment to the open fields where we have picnics on cooler days. Crossing into the tree line we stop at the Chamounix Spring and fill the milk bottle so we can each get a drink. We continue along the path and enjoy our time at the pond, returning home after another stop at the spring. We will use milk bottles tonight to gather mulberries from the tree on Plush Hill, or use them for containers for the fireflies we will catch there. We will wait for dark, and the fireworks show from the roof of the fort we built in the Spring. The fireworks will be launched from the former Woodside Park grounds, where we spent a good part of our afternoon.

East Falls NOW and the EFHS urge readers to NOT attempt to replicate Lyda’s childhood excursion.

The Bathey was the Public Swimming Pool located where the Trolley Car Cafe now stands. There were so many children in the neighborhood at the time that they had to rotate boys’ days and girls’ days to avoid overcrowding. Plush Hill was located at the original end of Haywood Street where only a pedestrian gate led to a private drive down to Indian Queen Lane. 

Dobson Field and the “grandstand.” Old Academy is circled.

Baseball in East Falls, Then and Now
 East Falls NOW, August 2020, by Richard Lampert

One of the joys of being involved with East Falls Historical Society is fielding questions we receive about East Falls history – often, elements we hadn’t thought about in a long while, if ever.

One such question came in this Spring, and it landed on the desk of our member Joe Terry, a retired librarian and a crack researcher. With baseball season finally underway, this is a good time to share the fun.

In answer to the query, Joe rediscovered the John and James Dobson Field, a local baseball stadium that once existed near Indian Queen Lane and Cresson Street, bounded by Indian Queen Lane, what is now the Manayunk/Norristown Line, Scotts Lane, and the Dobson Mills complex. This was more or less behind the Old Academy building. Having trouble picturing the location? You should – much of it was excavated for the Roosevelt Expressway. In the photo, we’ve circled the Old Academy building, in the upper part of the image toward the right.

In the book East Falls: Three Hundred Years of History, Dobson Field is described as “a beautiful field surrounded by a high wooden fence, a large grandstand back of home plate and grey bleachers along the first and third base lines.” The aerial photo shows a structure of some kind centered behind home plate and extending a little way down the first and third base lines, but seeing it as a “large” grandstand requires imagination.

Who played at Dobson Field? For starters, our longstanding East Falls Athletic Association. More likely, the field was built for Dobson’s own amateur team, which played there from 1918 to the late 1920’s. In this regard, Dobson Mills wasn’t at all unusual. Early in the 20th century, every community, factory, and church had its own team, and many companies built their own diamonds.

Joe Terry found a bit of evidence that, in the long era of segregated baseball, it’s possible that Dobson Field might have been the site of a handful of games played by the Wilmington Potomacs of the Eastern Colored League during the 1925 season. It wasn’t unusual for African American teams to lease white-owned ballparks, so this certainly seems possible. Even Connie Mack, the owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, leased out his home stadiums (early in the century, Columbia Park, then Shibe Park) to Negro League teams – the Philadelphia Giants early in the 20th Century, and the Philadelphia Stars in the years following World War II.

Squinting closely at a subsequent aerial view of Dobson Mills, this time from 1938, Joe Terry was able to deduce that the field was gone, although it’s hard to tell from that one available resource exactly what succeeded it.

Back in the heyday of the Dobson Mills team, baseball was indeed the American pastime. You couldn’t go far in East Falls without finding a baseball diamond used by organized adult teams. Joe Terry found that at Henry Avenue and Bowman street, another amateur diamond was the home of the Clover Athletic Association. Whatever the exact location or orientation of the field, it’s obviously been covered over by houses. Another diamond, this one called Nunny’s Field, was located at 35th and Ridge and was the home field of the Clearfield and the Rosewood Athletic Associations. Now, that’s a run-down industrial area. As of today, there are still plenty of baseball diamonds in East Falls – three in McDevitt Recreation Center, a lavish new stadium and auxiliary diamonds at Penn Charter, and a couple of baseball/softball diamonds on the Jefferson University campus. In a couple of generations, will our descendants wonder whatever happened to them?

Dobson Mills in 1901, seen from across the Schuylkill River

From Civil War Blankets to Apartments: The Saga of Dobson Mills
East Falls NOW, September 2020, by Richard Lampert

Last month’s issue of East Falls NOW carried an article from East Falls Historical Society about Dobson Field, the home park of the Dobson Mills baseball team in the early 20th Century. This month, it seems appropriate to remind Fallsers old and new just how impressive Dobson Mills was – and still is.

Today’s landscape of East Falls is dominated by a complex of 19-Century industrial buildings. Aside from the Twin Bridges, the view of the complex from across the Schuylkill has changed little from the early 20thCentury, as can be seen from the illustration with this article. Dobson Mills, which has been listed since 1988 on the National Register of Historic Places, is the largest landmark in East Falls, by far.

This major industry was owned by the brothers John and James Dobson, immigrants who had worked in the English textile industry. Their first mill was in Manayunk and, after both brothers married into the Schofield family, an important Manayunk milling family, they apparently had the capital and influence to dream big.

Today, the complex includes developments called Dobson Mills and, along the south side of Scotts Lane, Sherman Mills. Both of these developments, each a mix of residential and commercial spaces, consist of renovated buildings from the industrial complex called Dobson Mills, founded in 1855.

In its early decades, buildings at Dobson Mills were powered by a fast-flowing stream that became known as Dobson’s Run. Today, the stream runs through a culvert, roughly located under modern-day Scotts Lane. The first two buildings in the Dobson Mills complex were situated on opposite sides of Scotts Lane. The so-called Mill 1, built in the 1850’s, produced woolen materials for clothing and blankets as well as yarn. When the Civil War cut off the North – especially the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts — from the cotton crop grown in the rebel Southern states, the Dobson Mills became a major source of woolen uniforms for Union armies. In 1864, the company added a new complex called Mill 2 to produce blankets for the troops.

By the 1870’s Dobson Mills was the largest privately owned woolen mill in the United States. The Dobsons continued to add buildings through the the 19thCentury and into the 20th. They built an enormous carpet mill, roughly in the center of complex, in the 1870’s. Once steam replaced water power, the complex expanded farther from Dobson’s Run; the plush mill, built in the 1880’s, lies along Crawford Street, the westernmost portion of the site. By the early 20th Century, Dobson Mills employed 11,000 people, most of them residents of the Falls of Schuylkill (East Falls), in over 500,000 square feet of buildings. John Dobson died in 1911 and James in 1925; and sometime in the 1930’s the business shut down.

Fortunately, the buildings – mostly constructed from stone quarried on-site – were built to last, and most are now in use – as residences, offices, and retail businesses. Unfortunately, the towering smokestack that dominated the center of the modern-day Dobson Mills was less durable, and last year it had to come down, a major loss to the landscape.

The physical remnants of Dobson Mills are more than the two restored complexes. Many of the 11,000 workers lived in the lower Falls, so many contemporary Fallsers are living houses built for Dobson Mills workers. The modest Dobson Street, just two blocks long, recalls the brothers who were leaders in an important industry. Literally and figuratively, John and James Dobson built the fabric of East Falls.

Anti-child labor poster

The Workers Remember Dobson Mills
East Falls NOW, October 2020, by Wendy Moody

Last month’s column focused on the history of Dobson Mills, but what of its working conditions and social dynamics?  We needn’t guess – the EFHS archives contain oral history interviews with Fallsers who worked there as children. This rich primary source offers colorful descriptions and unique insights into mill life, painfully condensed for this column. Read them in their entirety at
Hazel Stamm: I was 15 when I went to Dobson’s in 1909 and left when it closed in 1929. I worked in the velvet-finishing room 6 am – 6 pm for $4.25 weekly. Because I was tall, my boss put me on the big warping machine for $8 a week. I transferred to Plush because that paid $12. Finally I learned to weave and was weaving the rest of my life.

Louise Halstead: Both my parents worked at Dobsons. The boss weaver next door got me a job there at age 13 as a burler, removing knots from yarn and cutting selvages. From thin air, we made rolls of carpet! My job wasn’t pretentious. Using cord, I sewed numbers on cloth – a simple business, but it made the Dobsons’ millionaires. I received $3 a week. You did your bit without thinking about it. You couldn’t talk to your boss like you can now because there was always somebody waiting for your job.

My mom had 10 kids. We rented a house from the Dobsons on Dobson Street between Allegheny and the railroad. Everybody got water from a pump in the middle of the street.

Rose Whitty:  My father, at age 9, stood on a little stool to reach the spinning room machine. I was Dobson’s bookkeeper for 21 years (1916 – 1937) because I graduated business college – the girls who didn’t finish school went into the mill. I had a nice position taking James Dobson’s dictation every morning. He was older but could always crack a joke. If anybody got hurt it was their own fault. People didn’t sue – they were afraid of losing their jobs. After 1929 business slacked and liquidating began – selling machinery and buildings.

Mary Webster:  I began working at age 14, sewing numbers on material with a big bolt of string around my waist. Then I burled – extracting flaws with tweezers, load after load. Men wound the thread on the machines. I didn’t get much salary but my sisters and I had fun in the mill with the other girls. If you were sick, you didn’t get paid.

Ella Boyd McGynn:  At noon we’d wait for the gate to open to deliver my father’s dinner at Dobson’s Lot in the field – it was great fun. He was a boss in the picker house where they separated the wool to make yarn.

Girls worked at any age making cloth from rags. Elderly women removed buttons so they wouldn’t go into the machinery that ground them into new cloth. We bought remnants for coats and pants.

Charles Flanagan: The Dobsons recruited the best weavers from Britain, including my grandfather. We were the intelligentsia of the working class. James Dobson managed carpets; John did velvets and blankets. They were hard taskmasters but with a benevolent attitude. My grandfather cut his thumb and finger off reaching in a loom – without them he couldn’t weave. There was no compensation, but he maintained good relations with the Dobsons. If you punched a foreman, which happened, you – and your relatives – got fired for a week. My father’s arm was caught in a machine and taken off partway. No safety devices! If you had accident, you were told not to bleed on the cloth!

East Falls Street Names – Where did they come from?
East Falls NOW, November 2020, by Wendy Moody

Bromley Atlas, 1910

Curious about the origins of street names in East Falls? Many of them, as you might know, are the surnames of former Philadelphia mayors: Barclay, Conrad, Vaux, Henry, McMichael, Fox, and Stokley. From Street Names of Philadelphia by Robert Alotta, we learn the origins of others:

Wissahickon Drivewas built in1826 along the banks of the creek from which it takes its name. The name “Wissahickon” is a corruption of the Indian name wisameckham, meaning “catfish stream.”

School House Lane, originally an Indian trail which led from the Wingohocking Creek to the Ridge Road, at the mouth of the Wissahickon, was known as the “Cross Street to Schuylkill.” First called Bensell’s Lane, it was laid out and confirmed by the Quarter   Sessions Court in 1760. Germantown to Ridge Road and the Schuylkill River, and thus to Philadelphia. In 1758 a resolution to erect an “English and High Dutch or German School” along this roadw resulted in the building of the Germantown Union School-House in 1761; it later became Germantown Academy. At this point, Bensell’s Lane became known as School Lane, then School House Lane in 1893. By good chance, other schools and colleges, such as Penn Charter, Ravenhill Academy, and the Philadelphia Textile School grew up along the once country-like “lane.”

Warden Drive was named for William G. Warden, one of the co-founders of Standard Oil. Warden owned many parcels of land in East Falls. He donated the land on which the Falls of Schuylkill Library now stands.

Weightman St. takes it name from William Weightman, the senior partner of Powers& Weightman Chemical Co., once located near Ridge Avenue. Weightman built his huge fortune himself, partly from the sale of quinine during the Civil War and also through wise real estate investments. His home was Ravenhill Mansion on School House Lane.

Ridge Avenue, another old Indian trail, was named for the ridge of high ground between the Schuylkill and Wissahickon valleys, which the avenue follows. The first settlers referred to it as the Manatawny or Plymouth Road, because it led toward the Manatawny Creek and to Plymouth Meeting. In 1803, citizens petitioned the legislature for a turnpike road along the ridge but it was refused because the Germantown Pike ran parallel to it. In 1811 an act was passed “to enable the government to incorporate a company for making an artificial road beginning at the intersection of Vine and 10th Street” and running on to the Perkiomen Creek. The route was to be “as near as may be consistent with economy and utility” built on the existing route “to Wissahickon creek, thence to Barren Hill. The Ridge Avenue Turnpike Company must have acted swiftly because the Ridge Road is listed in the street directories beginning in 1813. The turnpike was freed from toll prior to 1873.

Abbottsford Ave. Charles Frederick Abbott (1821-97), an affluent admirer of novelist Sir Walter Scott, came to Falls to purchase a home. He bought a mansion, built in 1752, which reminded him of the novelist’s Scottish home, Abbottsford. The community which grew up around the mansion, near the current Falls Center, formerly the Woman’s Medical College/MCP, assumed the name of the mansion. Abbott served as a member of the PA. Legislature from 1858 to 1862 and on the city’s Board of Education.

Mayor Robert T. Conrad

What’s in a name? Our East Falls streets know!
East Falls NOW, December 2020, by Rich Lampert

Question:  “Where is McMichael Park located?”

Answer: “Along Midvale Avenue, between 32nd and 33rd Streets.” 

That’s a bit of dialog that has never taken place, thanks to a decision made back in 1854.

In 1854, after about a decade of pressure by citizens of the original City of Philadelphia (Delaware River to the Schuylkill River and Vine Street to South Street), the Act of Consolidation had brought all of Philadelphia County under control of the city government. What had been Roxborough Township (basically, from the current Hunting Park Avenue to Northwestern Avenue and Wissahickon Avenue to the Schuylkill River, an area that also contained a separate Manayunk Township) was now part of the City of Philadelphia.

While the townships closer to the original City maintained the street grid with the same numbering system, Roxborough Township was less developed and less systematic. Rather than force the numbered streets into Roxborough Township, the consolidation commissioners decreed that the north-south streets would be named after mayors.

The street closest to the Schuylkill River, approximately continuous with 35thStreet, came first, and it was named after Robert T. Conrad, the first mayor of the consolidated city, who served from 1854 to 1856. After that, the mayors were Richard Vaux (1856-1858) renaming 34th Street, Alexander Henry (1858-1865) for 33rd Street, Morton McMichael (1866-1869) for 32ndStreet, Daniel M. Fox (1869-1872) for 31st Street, and William S. Stokley (1872-1881) for 30th Street.

Joe Terry, the most indefatigable of the research mavens in East Falls Historical Society, believes that King Street – currently a short diagonal that runs less than a block starting on the eastern side of Wissahickon Avenue, from Queen Lane to Penn Street alongside the Queen Lane SEPTA station – is named after the next mayor, Samuel G. King (1881-1884.) This is in the old Germantown Township and doesn’t align as neatly with north-south streets. If this street was indeed part of the mayor-oriented naming process, it was almost certainly the last. There is no street in Philadelphia named after King’s successor William B. Smith, and a street that may have been named after the next mayor, Edwin H. Fitler, is in far Northeast Philadelphia.

These mayors were a diverse lot. For instance, Mayor Conrad was nominated by both the Whig Party and the No-Nothing Party and ran on a nativist platform. Outside of politics, he was a playwright and poet; his play, a tragedy called Aylmere, was purchased by the legendary actor Edwin Forrest (the namesake of the theater in downtown Philadelphia) as a star turn for himself. Mayor Vaux, a Democrat, was a devoted member of the egalitarian Fraternal Order of Masons and was prominent enough to have laid the cornerstone for the Masonic Temple in downtown Philadelphia in 1868. Mayor Henry, who aligned with the Republican Party once it became a national force, mobilized a 700-strong Home Guard to fortify the defenses around Philadelphia in 1863, during the most serious Confederate thrust into the North. Mayor Fox established the Philadelphia Fire Department, which forced the well-established volunteer companies out of business and engendered some seriously hard feelings.

Mayor Stokley was in a class by himself and may well have been the mayor who set Philadelphia on the path to becoming known as “corrupt and contented.” As a member of the Public Buildings Commission before he became mayor, he pressed to build a City Hall worthy of the consolidated city on Penn Square. During his term as mayor, the construction company gave a no-bid contract of $5.3 million for marble (in 1870’s dollars!) to a favored company, and by the time the dust cleared, Stokley was the owner of a handsome new house.

It’s not entirely clear when these names were formally applied to our streets. By custom, streets were named only after deceased people. With former Mayors Vaux and King living into the 1890’s, our best guess that the name changes were a process took until roughly the turn of the 20th century. When and if we turn up more antique maps, perhaps that answer will become clearer.

Except for Fox, all of these mayors are still “residents” of East Falls, with their remains interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery.