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East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview

Interviewee: Thomas Horne (TH)

Interviewers: Thomas Edwards (TE) and Cory Hauptman (CH) Students at Philadelphia University

Date of Interview: April 19, 2005

Abstract: This interview was conducted in anticipation of the closing of the Falls United Methodist Church. A long-time anchor in the East Falls community, the church was built in the Greek Revival and Italianate architectural styles circa 1819. The church is scheduled for a deconsecration ceremony and closing on June 19, 2005. This interview was conducted in order to preserve some of the personal, social and neighborhood history affiliated with the church.

TE: Let me start by asking, how long you’ve been a part of the church?

TH: Well, I was born into it. I was baptized there. Born in 1929. And when I was old enough I went to Sunday school at the Methodist Church. My mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins were all members. They were originally members of Church of England. Immigrated into the states in 1909/1910 and started going to the Methodist Church. Normally, they would have went to the Episcopalian Church, but they started going to the Methodist Episcopal which later changed its name to just Methodist.

TE: And how about your wife?

TH: She started when she was 15. They came down from upstate, Mt. Carmel during the War in 1942. Started going to their youth group.  That’s how she started to go there. She originally went to the Presbyterian Church Sunday school.

TE: So when you first went to the church, what do you remember of the community?

        (note: Mary Horne, Tom’s wife, was asked the question )

MH: Presbyterians had 15 to 20 youth in their youth group. They were involved in a lot of things that drew me into Sunday school, then the church.  The fellowship, everyone was friendly; it was a place to feel welcome. The Methodists had a larger group that I went to and that where I met Tom.

TE: Most memorable experiences?

TH: Well, I got married there! (Laughter) We had our six children baptized there. They grew up in the church.

TE: From what I’ve come to understand, there were a lot of groups that started out of the church, could you elaborate? The impression I got from my teacher was that the church generated a lots of activities, and programs.

TH: We’ve always been active in the community. We had a Drum and Bugle Corps. Are you familiar with the Old Academy Players? Grace Kelly and her family. Built in 1812. One of the first theaters….built on top of the hill originally to take care of young Protestant men. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church (St. Bridget) had many things. Pool table, shuffleboard, football team.  We would play each other. All the churches got involved. It (Old Academy) was a crude library before there was a free library (on Warden Drive). Community groups met there.

     The reason the Methodists got into this was that the Methodists every Christmas put on a play in the church, and it got really involved and people said ”Let’s get together somewhere and put this on in (a different) space.” They were all hams and wanted to be on stage. ..1923. Grace got into it, her sister, that’s where they got the touch of the stage. The applause. That building is still there. The beams that hold it up are all from trees… some of the bark of the trees is still on it and it’s been there since 1812. I thought that was interesting, you can still see it.

TE: Probably. How do you think that…let me get your opinions of the closing of the church, I mean we know that it’s a very sad time…..

TH: Well we just don’t have the people to come. People today don’t need churches. We’re not the only ones in the community hurting,

I mean the Baptists down the street, they have less attendance than we do, but they have a daycare that financially supports them; we don’t have anything like that. We had looked into that, but when the city told us all the renovations we had to do, we couldn’t afford to do it.

We just don’t have the money.  The people that come on Sundays – we just survive now on the people who come Sundays and put in the collection plate, and that’s how we pay our bills.

TE: How many members would you say that are active now? About 50? 30?

TH: About 30. At one time, the highlight of the Methodist Church biggest enrollment, I would say was right after World War II – 1945-46.

       I just saw a photograph where they used to put on a bulletin board in front of the Sunday school ….. Attendance for the day was 358!  In the Sunday school, that’s the men’s and women’s Bible Class plus all the Sunday school classes on the second floor and the basement. That’s a lot!

     And from that day forward the war was over – young men and women came back from the war. And of course got married, had a family, where you going to live? Then the big move to the suburbs… with Levittown where you could get a place for $12-14,000.  If you stayed in East Falls… you’d have to take public education if you weren’t wealthy enough to go to a private school…so most of them went on to greener pastures.

     They moved out, eventually all the businesses moved out too. Well, you can imagine.., it was downhill from there. Over the thirty years we had visitations, we’d go out and advertise…and try to get more people to come, but we, of course, had more strikes against us – no parking… you know the automobile.

      As a child we’d sled down these streets like Bowman Street or Sunnyside and, if even one person parked their cars, the kids got indignant, and wanted to know if they’d please move their car…”We’re sledding down the street.” And you go down Indian Queen Lane both sides …some of the houses on the street down by the church have three apartments in them – there must be five cars just for one house.

      We tried until we got in touch with Alcoholics Anonymous – well they got in touch with us. When they saw that we weren’t that close to public transportation…the bus stop was about three or four blocks away, they decided to go to another church that was better located. Idea to have parking and the bus.

TE: What about relocation?

TH: We don’t have the money. We could merge with another Methodist church if we wanted to, but because …the few that are left… Irene (Webster)…. don’t live in East Falls, and merge with another church – we have close relationships with other Methodists churches. We wanted to control the process. You don’t have enough money, so we decided on our own to close when we can’t pay our bills. Right now we’re paying them.

TE: So do you think that one of the things that we were looking at is the trend of young people today?

TH: I can’t say that they are not as religious; I think they are too busy with other things. I think sports for children. I mean our kids had to go to church and Sunday school.

     East Falls is more commuter than family oriented.., people rent apartments for a few years while they are in school. ..Or get a place while they have a job for three or four years. They don’t have ownership in the community or a priority of going to church.

     Small groups of us would walk and do surveys as to why they didn’t come to church.  And, you know, we heard everything from A to Z. “I’m too busy, “We do this, we do that.” “We have different activities.”

      No one seems to have any idea that back then how we compiled it all but we did.

      We had “Bring a Friend Sunday.Aerobics” classes and teenage dancing in the Methodist Church…it was earth-shaking! (Laugh)

TE: What do you mean by earth shaking?

TH: We were the younger group who allowed dances for teenagers. What would happen was that the older generation wouldn’t want us to have the dances and shake the foundation. 140 people would come. This was in the 1970s.

       East Falls and other communities, they still have a 4th of July parade. East Falls used to have the same thing. 25-30 people. Bring in new kids, Drum and Bugle Corps, we used to go to Penn Charter. We’d go down Timber Lane, School House Lane.  There were just old woods there – we used to play baseball where the Philadelphia University campus is now. Even long before I was born. Now folks get in their cars and go to Maryland or to the shore. We didn’t have a car – we’d go to the church picnic – homemade lemonade and ham sandwiches. 

TE: Where were the Fourth of July picnics? 

TH: Lutherans – right off where their church was (Conrad and Midvale), Catholics – McMichael Park.  The Baptists went to what we called Dobson’s Field.  Back of the Old Academy – McDevitt’s Playground. Extensions from the Boulevard came through and that cut the playground right in half. But they used to picnic there, on holidays like the 4th of July.  Everybody would go there. The Methodists originally went to Dobson’s, which is now Abbottsford Project on Fox Street. 

      Roxborough still manages to do this, but they hire bands, string bands. That’s how it has changes. TV, of course, also changed things.

TE:  Are there a lot of other noticeable changes in East Falls? Has the feeling of East Falls changed since you’ve been here, which is quite a while.

TH: I think for me, what I’ve noticed is that when I was growing up in East Falls – I grew up on Conrad at Division  Street – it was a very – your grandparents lived a block away. You don’t have that today…not only did you know the kids you went to school with, their parents went to school with your parents – grandparents too  – everybody knew everybody.  You didn’t do anything bad because someone three blocks away would call your mother …all the neighbors were watching you. Now, you don’t know the people across the street.  People who were “new” on the street lived here 30 years.

     It used to be, your parents bought a house. Your grandparents lived a block away. Everyone knew everybody. Now people buy houses for real estate investments. They live here three to five years, sell it, and then move.

     We had two (public housing) projects that were built here that defined the shape of the neighborhood. Abbottsford Homes – up there by the reservoir. Abbottsford was the estate of James and John Dobson who owned all the mills along the river. That’s why my parents came over. Cause they used to weave rugs and work in the dye house and dye the rugs. These two English men came over and started the mills.  They had wagons and went all through Philadelphia and bought rags off people. They tore the rags apart and made stuff out of these. Their real success was in making blankets for the Union Army, and that’s how they made them. They made enough to build a great big Victorian house up on the hill. What’s that one with Dracula?  It was gloomy looking.

     The schools are another thing that changed. I went to Mifflin. You went to Mifflin – you all went to Mifflin. I think we had about 1000 kids in there. Now there about 400. I am amazed. One class per grade.

     Private schools. I could never…Germantown Friends, Germantown Academy, these have become so affluent. I think now, it’s how can you afford to live there?

     We’re good people. What I am saying is that we are not the kind of people you see moving into East Falls now. A Senator, Governor, quite a few judges around; it’s a good location.  You can hop on I-76 and be downtown in 15 minutes, King of Prussia….

       Primarily Mifflin was one of the top city schools – we moved in when it was new…1936, 1937.  It was racial.  People came in that didn’t have the homes that some of the kids had.  The quality of education went down.  I didn’t want to put my kids in private school – even St. Bridget’s you had to pay. I didn’t want to pay for my kids to go to school. 

        My wife and I took our kids out of school. I tell you it was when the teachers’ unionized. The kids were behaving like idiots. Some kid threw a rock – it hit my daughter in the head.  Nobody was out on the playground supervising. Pulled them out, put them in a private school. It was run by two Episcopalian teachers, one for the lower school one for the upper school. 60-80 kids in there, all the kids went to college.  They never had any problems; there weren’t fights. My kids were always good in English. The teachers taught the basics.

TE: Do you think a lot of public institutions in East Falls have suffered over the years?  Are there are a lot of other churches hurting?

TH: No, the other churches, the Presbyterian Church, is going. 35-40 year olds are moving in and they are getting quite a few of them to join, so they are starting to grow.

     Our church was always active – we took care of Mifflin, we supplied books, pens – they used to fall over (with gratitude)… our congregants would go and tutor, and go into nursing homes to visit and take little packages and bags of toiletries – things that they could use. Wish list. Tried to keep active that way all the time.

     With the few people we have, I thought we had a great outreach that way. 80-90 years ago.  We had a young dynamic minister.  A new couple that came, we even got together and did the Sunday school basement. Minister changed; one couple moved away. Disheartening. Didn’t work out that way. The church relies on 3, 4, 5, 6 people – everyone is too old – they don’t want to come out at nights. We felt that we weren’t getting out of worship what we wanted. The choir – now the organist got sick, got a substitute. Daughter moved to Warminster. My daughter played the organ when organist became ill.  Our church has a beautiful organ. Andrew Carnegie, that old Scotsman who made all that money, didn’t believe in giving all that money to his kids .He built the Falls Methodist Organ. …1905 – I believe that was when they got the organ.  He built libraries and churches all over.

You will find the houses in this area have gone ridiculous. Skyrocketed to extremes I can’t believe. On Barkley Street – 2 bedroom – I call them row houses – new people call them townhouses, is selling for $199,000.

TE: Do you think that the closing of the church… it can be avoided?

TH: The Presbyterian Church – we always did everything together – we heard others saying that they are sad that we are closing. I never thought that we’d be the first to close. No, there was the Congregational Church just one block from here closed about 30 years ago. But I never thought that with all the activities that we had, that the other churches didn’t have…. I am sure that in time, time heals all wounds, but it’s quite a…

TE: Do you know what will happen to the building itself?

TH: No we are waiting for the Conference. As of June, the Methodist Conference will really own it. When it changes from ME to United Methodist. All the property. The complete rule over how to use that property. Basically turning it over to the Conference.  They’ll take over the control.

TE: Gothic…turned into condos?

TH: They probably could do something like that. I have no idea what they’ll do. What I’d like to see myself is for the stained glass windows to go to a church. I’d like to see the inside stay a church. Not throw everything out. I don’t know if we’ll have any say.

     On the corner of Conrad and Midvale – the library, the church (Lutheran), a public school – the all American corner. Private house with a white picket fence. The only actual corner like that in this Country!

TE: Well did we answer your questions, anything else you think is really important. The church? The history?

TH: I know people say why don’t you move out? But this has like always been home to us. Even though it has changed.  It’s become transient – there are people we don’t know and new people have moved in. Why don’t you move out to the suburbs? It’s our home.

We just like it here.  We’ve seen quite a few changes. We never had television, cars, we didn’t have a telephone.

       Wow, and now they have computers, laptops.  We like it here. I don’t know if we’ll leave. I really will stay here unless our taxes keep going up. I just heard that the house on the corner of Netherfield and Coulter – $375,000. Houses around the corner for $525,000.

We raised six kids.  Do you know what it’s like to raise six kids and clothe them?

       Another unique thing that use to happen in East Falls was the Christmas caroling to greet Christmas morning to. Years ago we sang right through the night hours until 6 am, we didn’t start until 11PM though.  We waited till night time – we also woke some people up.

We’d pass through the neighborhood singing, if the people liked it they’d give money – the money would go to the music fund at the Methodist Church.  That’s really how we got musically inclined.

      Joseph Smith, the Choir Director, trained in music. When he came to Philadelphia the choirs would compete – the ones who had the best choirs were the Welsh. And Joseph Smith – he won it in1913 – Male Chorus – from every religion all these men sang downtown.

Our church always musically inclined.

      The people are coming back – let’s get the music going again. With the windows open on a Sunday morning, the people outside could hear the Methodist Choir. When I graduated Mifflin, the teacher told me to move to the back of the chorus – I was monotone. What did she mean by that? I could carry a tune. Then I became a big soloist.  When you hear that sound… it… moves you – Oh well, I guess we’ll never hear the large choir singing on Christmas Eve again.

TE: Have your experiences got you into something because of the church?  Has the church started some interest you have?

TH: Starting the choir, being in the choir. It stimulated our children – they’d get together and sing and sing. Women’s circles. My daughter – she started in – she sang at West Chester University and still sings. If our organist was out sick, who would get up and play, a half dozen could get up and play on the spot.  If the choir didn’t show up anyone would just get up and play the piano.

    This is my own opinion, St Bridget’s they have the cathedral church, and when the organ plays there, it’s a cathedral, but they never had much of a choir when I was growing up.   

      Our church went there and sang there a few times and some of the people I know who still live here said “Well we should have choir.”

I have to give them a lot of credit – the guys I knew who were Roman Catholic. But they have a good musical program there they’ve gotten pretty good.

      The Mr. & Mrs. Club put on shows and things like that to raise money for one thing or another. The idea was to get these programs on for the guys coming home from the war – to get them involved in the church. They had art classes, there was an exercise class, a woman used to teach theater and history – first year it was great, but the next year people didn’t sign up for these. It’s nice to have a lot, but you need children, the church will not survive if you don’t have children.