Historic Fallsington
Related Information
The King’s Highways
Fallsington’s Story
The Founding of Falls Meeting
Fallsington's History
About the Author
Helen Gemmill was a local author, historian, philanthropist, and active participant in Historic Fallsington and the Mercer Museum.

She chaired Historic Fallsington Day and other events. Her husband, Kenneth, was President of Historic Fallsington in the period 1967-68.

Researching and writing about local historic sites were her avocations.
The Story of Fallsington
by Helen Gemmill
1974

The village of Fallsington is one of the earliest settlements in Pennsylvania. It derives its name from a falls nearby on the Delaware River.  Although the falls are indicated on early maps, even in 1679 they were a disappointment. In that year, they were scornfully described as mere rapids by two Dutch travelers, who kept a diary, which has fortunately survived. Journeying south from Manhattan, they took the route known as the King's Path, the most import of the long-established Indian trails.  It had been used for many years, first by the Swedes, then by the Dutch, who had early recognized the desirability of the Delaware Valley.

The Dutch travelers' description of the houses of these early settlers tallies with the log building still standing in Fallsington.  "The houses of the English near the falls", the diary says, "being made according to the Swedish mode, are block houses built of logs; being nothing else then entire trees split through the middle, the ends of these timbers are let into each other without nail or spike. the ceiling and roof do not exhibit finer work, except the most careful people, who have the ceiling planked and a glass window.  These houses are quite tight and warm, but the chimney is placed in a corner. My comrade and myself had some deerskins spread upon the floor to lie on."

In 1682, William Penn arrived to see for the first time the territory Charles II had granted him in payment of a debt owed his father.  Although he established Philadelphia as the seat of government for his Holy Experiment in liberty and equality, he chose Bucks County for his residence. "The country life is to be preferred", he wrote, "for there we see the works of God, but in cities, little else but the works of man; and the one makes a better subject of contemplation than the other".

Pennsbury Manor, the "palace capital", as it was sometimes called, was built three miles from Fallsington, overlooking the Delaware.  Penn's descendants were not as fond of the country as he was, and allowed the original to tumble down after his death.

On the second day of the third month, 1683, to use the Quaker wording, the settlers met at the home of William Biles, near the falls, for the purpose of setting up a monthly meeting for worship. As was the custom of all Friends Meetings, minutes were kept.  These minutes constitute the first family records in Bucks County, noting the marriages and births in the young colony.

These Friends Meetings were initially held in members' houses. As their numbers grew, the need for a meetinghouse became acute.  A committee was appointed to hire the necessary workmen, and in 1690 the first meetinghouse was built on what was to become known as Meeting House Square in Fallsington.

William Penn attended the wedding of his steward and housekeeper there during his second trip to Pennsylvania in 1701.  The minutes say:  "The Governor was present, and being a member of this meeting, acquainted us of his intention to depart for England in a short time". He therefore, requested a special meeting be convened to grant clearance for the wedding so that he might attend before he sailed. A copy of the marriage certificate hangs in the tavern.  It was badly mutilated some years ago when it is said vandals tried to extract Penn's signature from the list of witnesses.

As the little colony grew, with the meetinghouse as its hub, new roads were built leading to mills, ferries, and wharves. The meetinghouse soon proved too small, and in 1728 a new one was built at the cost of 1,000 pounds. This one still stands, and is known as the Gambrel Roof House.

Two years after it was finished, a group of Friends petitioned the meeting for permission to establish a school in the abandoned first meetinghouse.  This was one of the earliest schools in Pennsylvania, demonstrating Quaker concern for education.

In 1758 the meeting decided to build a house for the schoolmaster. This little house boasts not one, but two date stones.  Like most early houses, it was a one story plus loft. In 1819 the second story was added and the house made tighter, a prudent move to attract a good teacher.

What happened to the first meetinghouse, which became a school, is not known, but by the mid-eighteenth century, a new school was built on the meetinghouse grounds.  By this time, the haphazard home sites had coalesced into a village. In a survey of Lots, dated 1768, the village is called Fallsintown.

The next decade brought the Revolutionary War. On Christmas 1776 it swirled so close to the little village, its inhabitants must have heard the guns at the battle of Trenton. When the war was over, Fallsington continued to expand. Once again the meetinghouse was too small. In 1789 a third one was built, almost a century after the first, and once again, the old one was converted into a school. this time, a girl's boarding school.

As the farmers and tradesmen grew more prosperous, they expanded their simple log and stone homes, often with additions that in many cases dwarfed the original structures.  By the end of the 18th century, the houses around Meeting House Square looked almost exactly as they do today. Of the three charming stone houses on the east side, two were owned by John Merrick, one of Fallsington's most prosperous citizens.  He was a tanner, producing the leather for the essential saddles, harnesses, and shoes. One bears the date stone 1788 high on the chimney.

Next-door is the Burges-Lippincott House, c. 1780 [correction: built 1807-1808], which has long been admired for having one of the most beautiful doorways in Bucks County. The small wing at the right was added in the 1840's by Dr. Henry Lippincott for his office [correction: the wing was added in 1819-1820 by Allen Lippincott]. The well-loved family doctor hung two skeletons from the rafters in the loft. one of a man, and one of a monkey. For many years they were the delight of the village children.

 For a brief moment, at the end of the 18th century, it looked as though Fallsington might leap out of obscurity.  Congress considered the area at the falls a promising site for the national capitol, in which case Fallsington would have fallen within the Federal District.  But the first president favored the Potomac over the Delaware, so the village retained its identity.

By 1798 traffic through Fallsington was such that a petition to operate a public house of entertainment was sent to the Court of Quarter Sessions. The license was granted, and still another house that had belonged to the tanner, John Merrick, was rented for use as a tavern, because it was so commodious. 

Situated on a point at the intersection of five roads leading into Meeting House Square, the tavern served not only travelers, but also the farmers who were taking their products to market in Philadelphia.  And it remained a lively spot throughout the 19th century. 

Here the stagecoach stopped with a blast of the horn that brought the children running.  For a while the Fallsington Library, which had been founded in 1802, was housed in the tavern. After the Civil War, a large frame addition was built onto the front and its name changed to The National Hotel.  The bar was moved to the basement, which also served as a place for prisoners to be detained until they could be transported to the jail in Doylestown.  Adding to the gaiety of the scene, traveling circuses set up their animal cages in the back yard among the outbuildings. 

In the 1820s and '30s, the Federal style of architecture added a new look to the townscape.  In some cases the symmetrical style was used to enlarge an older structure.  Three outstanding examples in a row on Yardley Avenue were probably built by the same master builder; they have similar fan-lights over the door. Toward the end of the century, front porches were added.  And in the mid-nineteenth century, the Classic and Gothic Revival styles made their appearance.

In 1841 the fourth and last meetinghouse was built, adjacent to the third one. There had been a doctrinal split between the Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers, so the latter moved next door into a new building that abutted the 18th century Friends School.  The breach was subsequently healed, and this last Meetinghouse is today still in active use.  The 1789 building is now a community center.

The Victorian era brought its own special flavor to Fallsington, when the front porch made its ubiquitous appearance, along with turrets, bay windows and gingerbread.  Several inhabitants of log houses, who had added a Federal wing in the thirties, tore down the original log sections and built a fashionable Victorian wing on its foundations. However, the excesses of the high Victorian style never made their appearance here, perhaps because of the overriding Quaker sense of simplicity.

However, by the 1860s, other influences began to be felt.  A Methodist Church was built, and in 1876 an Episcopalian one went up a block away.  It was financed by Miss Mary Williamson, a devout lady who lived on Pine Street in Philadelphia, but came to Fallsington to spend the summers.  She was a direct descendant of Dunck Williams, one of the earliest settlers, who had operated a ferry to New Jersey in the 1670s.

Miss Williamson brought with her underprivileged girls from the city installing them for two weeks at a time in a large house on the edge of the village. These girls became the nucleus of the "Girls Friendly Society."  No one quite understood why, since she owned several houses here, she chose the oldest least fashionable to live in  an early log building now known as the Moon-Williamson House. The property had been owned for many years by Samuel Moon, a joiner and chair maker.  It is said it was the custom to give a pair of Moon chairs to a bridal couple for wedding presents.  A sample of his work may be seen in the Burges-Lippincott House.

When Miss Williamson lived here, Fallsington had a population of 340.  It had two general stores, one or the other of which contained the post office, depending on the political party in power. It also boasted three blacksmith shops, three wheelwrights, three shoemaking shops, a shoe store, a carriage trimming and harness making shop, a tinsmith, a paint shop, two doctors and, of course, the hotel.

Another descendant of Dunck, the ferryman, was Isaiah V. Williamson, who also gave Fallsington a building, the library. The books had spent most of the century in housewives' spare rooms, the tavern, and finally, a large sunny room in the Gambrel Roof House.  In 1878 Isaiah Williamson gave $5,000 towards a new building provided the townspeople could match it.

Born on a farm near Fallsington, Isaiah Williamson went to Friends School. According to a biography, written by his friend, John Wanamaker, school sessions as early as 1815 were held six days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. During November and January, the girls were kept at home to work; in April and May, the boys stayed home to give the girls a chance.

When he was fifteen, young Isaiah was apprenticed to Harvey Gillingham, who kept the general store in the lower end of town. Seven years later, with $2,000 in savings, he moved to Philadelphia. There he amassed a fortune in merchandising, and spent the rest of his life in philanthropic pursuits which benefited many a hospital, college, and charity in Philadelphia.  His living memorial remains The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, in Media, PA.  When he was an old man, he told John Wanamaker he owed his success in life to the principles of thrift and integrity, which he had absorbed in Fallsington.

The 20th century brought remarkably few changes in the face of the village.  Fallsington had its own railroad station for a brief period, but service dwindled then ceased altogether.  In 1910 the store where young Williamson had been apprenticed burned down, and was replaced by a two-story structure, which today houses the office and gift shop of Historic Fallsington.

At the end of World War I, the proprietress of the tavern, attired in a Red Cross uniform, welcomed back the hometown veterans with a gala dinner.  After the tavern was forced to close because of Prohibition, the building became a lodge hall, then a hardware store. At the center of town, the cobbler's shop, which was the polling place at election time, was moved a couple of miles out of town and a statue of a Doughboy erected in its place. In 1940 the Friends School, which had moved into the Gambrel Roof House, closed and the building was converted into apartments.

In 1953, it was rumored that the Burges-Lippincott House was for sale . a likely spot for a gas station. A group of aroused citizens formed Historic Fallsington, Inc., purchased the property, and set about restoring it.  Through donations both large and small, the house was gradually furnished and the doctor's office became the first headquarters for the group.

In 1960 the tavern property became available, and was acquired.  Its wooden wing was removed and for the first time in nearly a century, its stone facade was visible.  Next came the log, or Moon-Williamson House; the Gambrel Roof House; the store; and the Schoolmaster's House, which is on a long-term lease from the Friends' Meeting.

 All this has been accomplished entirely through the generosity of more and more interested people, plus the proceeds of two annual events; a Candlelight Dinner in May, and Historic Fallsington Day in October.

The townspeople, given impetus and encouragement by the organization, have been restoring their homes, painstakingly and lovingly. Of course the village does not look as it really did at any one point in time.  Nevertheless, it demonstrates the evolution of 300 years of American Life styles and American architecture.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Fallsington is important, not because it was the site of any world-shaking events or the home of any famous people. but because it has survived to tell its quiet story.  Within the space of a short walk, one can see unique capsule of the history of the ordinary American village, remarkably untouched by time.