For many years, until 2015, the Fallser served East Falls with its monthly publication.
East Falls Community Council currently publishes East Falls NOW monthly.
This page has a selection from East Falls NOW
Click here for Page 1 and Table of Contents.
East Falls Now, January 2021, by Patty Cheek
Everyone loves a good mystery. How about a little history with your mystery? This is the story of a very special quilt which was donated to the East Falls Historical Society by the Clayton family who were former residents of East Falls. It was in early spring that Tom Clayton contacted Ellen Sheehan regarding an old quilt which was found in an attic. At first it seemed like a plain old quilt, 6 ½ foot square, white with red embroidery. The center rectangle had the embroidered outline of a church, surrounded by 32 squares, each with a red daisy and names stitched within.
As we looked closer, it became clear that there was a mystery about this old blanket. The church on the quilt was an image of the Methodist Episcopal Church of East Falls. The pastor’s name, Reverend R.A. McIlwain and the words “Pearls of Price” were stitched around the outline of the church. “Pearls” appears to refer to the bible parable which describes the great value the Kingdom of Heaven places on believers. According to Wikipedia, The Methodist Episcopal Church became the Methodist Church in 1939. In 1968 it was renamed again as the United Methodist Church. At that time the building became the Falls United Methodist Church, which is located on Indian Queen Lane and Krail Street. It currently houses office space and boasts organ pipes as decoration.
When Ellen Sheehan and I began to examine the quilt, we saw that there were hundreds of family names embroidered within the daisy petals on the quilt, along with the dates 1894 to 1897. We began the fascinating task of transcribing the names as best we could decipher them onto paper. We could imagine the families that had lived and worshipped here in East Falls in the late 1890’s. As we compiled our lists, we noticed some interesting names in the center of each daisy. Sometimes it was a family name but other times it was a title such as “Royal Cadets”, “Willing Workers”, “Sunbeams”, “Earnest Workers”, or “ 8 Jewels”. What could these names represent? Then, longtime member of the EFHS reference committee, Joe Terry unearthed the information: these were the names of Sunday School classes. Curiouser and curiouser. Why did the church members create a quilt with names of Sunday School classes on it?
At last, we came upon the one square that gave us the key clue to the quilt’s existence. On one particular flower were embroidered the words, “Nearly three years was the quilt in making - by it, $200 was raised for the Church.” AHA! This quilt was lovingly stitched and put together as a fund raiser for the church. There are so many interesting aspects to it. It’s clear that the embroidery is not the hand of one stitcher. Therefore, each square was probably taken home by a church member as they worked on it, before the quilt assembly. Not only that, but the quilt reaches across state lines, as one square bears family sur-names from other states including Florida and California. Finally, the understanding of the words “Pearls of Price”. In the context of this quilt’s evolution, it may be the words “Pearls of Price” referred to the value of donating to the cause of the quilt itself, as well as a salvation parable. Mystery solved!
Click here for the Quilt Page - detailed images, list of names, and more.
Do you have questions about East Falls history, or want to know more? See our growing website at eastfallshistoricalsociety.org, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And join!
East Falls NOW, February 2021, by Steven Peitzman and Wendy Moody
The year 1809 saw the completion of the first bridge to span the Schuylkill at East Falls (known earlier as Falls Village or Falls of Schuylkill), an innovative chain suspension bridge. A novel wire suspension bridge followed: Fallser Josiah White had started a wire mill in the town. Innovative but not durable, both soon failed; and subsequent bridges yielded, one after another, to floods or wind. Finally, city engineer George Webster designed a heavy steel truss bridge capable of resisting water, wind, and fire. Completed in 1895, it reached 125 years of service in 2020. To mark this occasion, the East Falls Historical Society on December 9 hosted Justin Spivey, a preservation engineer and authority on the Schuylkill River bridges, to provide a (Zoomed) talk on the bridge. A video of the presentation can be found on our website, eastfallshistoricalsociety.org, under “events,”
Why was bridging the Schuylkill at the Falls important by the early and mid-nineteenth century? This was, of course, before Fairmount Park and the river drives, which the span now connects. Falls Village had become an important industrial site. And industry also flourished on the West bank, most notably Simpson’s Mills, a large complex centered on printing and dying textiles. South of it was a small village which may have had the name Coxsackie or Cocksockie. No visible trace of these exists. But beyond the local, the Falls of Schuylkill was where the Ridge Road from Philadelphia, and two lanes from Germantown, met. The bridge offered a route for goods and people not just to the west bank, but onward, to the western part of the Commonwealth, and nation.
The Falls Bridge is a Petit truss, a sub-type of the popular Pratt through-truss bridge. It comprises three spans for a total of 540 feet, and is 40 feet wide. Two piers and abutments of stone masonry, built on solid bedrock, form the substructure. These supports were started nearly 10 years prior to the bridge’s completion.
Many of the various components under tension or compression are joined by pins, an American technique. The bridge is steel, though the railings which we admire are of wrought iron. The bridge is on a slight incline, downward from west to east, as cyclists will recognize.
The original flamboyant paint colors of red, buff and light blue made the bridge a striking sight. The Falls Bridge was designed to support an upper deck – hence the top-heavy appearance – for connecting the high ground on both sides, and for a possible streetcar. Probably for reasons of budget, it was never completed.
The bridge has held up generally well for so long in part because it was never stressed by two levels of traffic, and has been mostly spared heavy trucks.
But even steel wears out, and our beloved Falls Bridge is in need of serious repair, particularly the heavy plate girders forming the floor beams. PennDot will carry out the work, with federal funding. Because it lies in an historic environment, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will monitor the developing plans. EFHS has engaged Justin Spivey as our consultant: we signed on as an interested organization, since we want to see the appearance unaltered and as much original fabric as possible preserved. It’s not clear yet when actual work will begin, but PennDot expects that the bridge will be out of service for two years! So enjoy it and study it, preferably by foot or bicycle, while you can.
East Falls NOW, March 2021, by Ellen Sheehan
A photograph of a gas street lamp on Penn Street in the snow was recently given to EFHS by Janet Colianni, a resident of Penn Street. Janet received it years ago from a teacher at Thomas Mifflin School. We are not sure who took the photo but Mrs. Rosberg was a long time first grade teacher at Mifflin School and lived on Penn Street. Mifflin School is possibly visible on the left side of the photo.
On February 8, 1836, forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit along Philadelphia’s 2nd Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. Gas lamps soon became an important part of establishing safe night travel in the city. Many were right here in East Falls well into the 1950s.
One I remember was in front of the last house on Arnold Street, home of “Jigs” Donahue. As his name implies, he was one of East Falls well known characters. Taking a short cut from the shops on Midvale Avenue to my home on Indian Queen Lane, I often observed the lamplighter at dusk. He unfolded a small wooden ladder that was slung over his shoulder, climbed up and by some magic unknown to me, “poof” – a flicker and then the faint light would grow as darkness descended. I always welcomed this as it was otherwise a dark route home through Dutch Hollow.
My research led me to Arthur King who remembers three gas lamps on Ainslie Street between Vaux and Conrad Streets. He comments that they disappeared sometime in the 1950’s along with the cobblestone streets. Susan Schmidt contributed that her great-great-grandfather, Antoine Hosephas, was a lamplighter on Ridge Avenue.
On April 15, 1959, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, wearing a 3 piece suit, mounted a ladder with a young boy in front of him (also wearing a 3 piece suit) to extinguish Philadelphia’s last gas streetlight. Located at 45th and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, the crowd reportedly cheered to see this vestige of the Victorian age gone.
If you have memories of the gas lamps in East Falls, or photographs of historic East Falls, please get in touch with us. Also let us know if you have questions about East Falls History. See our growing website at eastfallshistoricalsociety.org, or contact us at email@example.com. And join!
East Falls NOW, April 2021, by Rich Lampert
For most people in East Falls, the Abbottsford Homes are a clump of blocky brick buildings seen out of the corner of an eye while hurtling along the lower stretch of Henry Avenue. However, to hundreds of people living in 230 apartments, it’s home. Abbottsford reveals a history so fascinating that East Falls Historical Society is devoting two columns to the place.
If you can slow down and take a thoughtful look at the Abbottsford site, you’ll see that it’s high on a hill, with views across the Schuylkill and into downtown Philadelphia. This was such an attractive site that James Dobson, one of the brothers who created Dobson Mills, built a 50-room stone mansion there in the 1870’s. Until the outbreak of World War II, the mansion was the center of a 28-acre estate called Bella Vista that was famed for its landscaping, including some renowned sunken gardens (and, during the Great Depression, five acres of vegetable gardens for the surrounding community). Bessie Dobson Altemus, Dobson’s daughter, a prominent socialite and the president of Republican Women of America, inherited the estate. Although Philadelphia was controlled by notorious Republican machine run by William Vare, Mrs. Altemus favored the reform wing of the party and supported the Teddy Roosevelt admirer Gifford Pinchot. (What about Mr. Altemus? Lemuel and Bessie Altemus divorced in 1911 after just ten years of marriage. Bessie remarried, but her second husband died in 1935.)
As the portents of World War II darkened, the Federal Government took its own thoughtful look at Bella Vista. It beheld a location within a ten-minute walk of some 50,000 jobs, many of them critical to the war effort. The employers included the Atwater Kent radio company, Budd Wheel Company (as it was then known), Midvale Steel, Bendix Aviation, and the Army Signal Corps. And the workers at Tasty Baking were poised to provide treats in countless lunch boxes of workers in the war industries.
Seeing the need to house many of these workers, the Federal Government bought Bella Vista from Bessie Dobson Altemus using the power of eminent domain. In August 1941 she was evicted. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, she wasn’t sure where she would live. She said, “It doesn’t really matter. I have no home now.” (She didn’t take to the streets; she had a choice of homes owned by a daughter who had married into still greater wealth.)
Demolition crews immediately took over, tearing down the stone house and its numerous outbuildings. Where they could, they spared some of the mature trees and other landscaping features, and the project architects worked around them. You can still see some of the stone walls that were part of the Bella Vista layout. The government engaged well-known Philadelphia architect W. Pope Barney, a former pupil of Paul Cret; and Penn landscape professor James Bush-Brown. (Much later, the notable landscape and garden designer Harriet Pattison contributed to the Homes’ renewal.)
On May 20, 1942, just nine months after Mrs. Altemus lost her home, Abbottsford Homes opened, with 700 units. As planned, the residents were primarily workers at the nearby defense industries. On-site resident aides helped the community organize hobby clubs, Boy Scout troops, and a community newspaper, all operating out of a community center within the project.
Abbottsford Homes continued to house workers from nearby industries until 1953. Then, as part of a process that was taking place throughout the country, the Federal Government sold the entire project. The residents, aware this was coming, had formed a corporation to buy the project themselves, but the Philadelphia Housing Authority had already stepped up as the preferred purchaser. Residents of Abbottsford who did not qualify for public housing were given weeks to find new homes and leave, and their apartments were quickly occupied by PHA tenants.
These tenants, some of whom lived here for decades, built a community that interacted in some respects with the rest of East Falls, but also had its own internal dynamics. In next month’s column, several residents will describe life at the Abbottsford Homes.
*Photo: Drexel University Legacy Center
East Falls NOW, May 2021, by Rich Lampert and Wendy Moody
Last month’s column from East Falls Historical Society described the origins of Abbottsford Homes, built during World War II on what had been an estate owned by the family of James Dobson, one of the owners of Dobson Mills. This column explores what it was like to live at Abbottsford Homes, as seen through the eyes of two people who lived there during different eras. Lorraine Brown was interviewed in 2019 by Katy Hineline and Wendy Moody, our EFHS Oral History Chair. The telephone interview with Audrey Hood was conducted recently by Wendy, thanks to an introduction by Linda Norris.
Lorraine Brown lived at Abbottsford for about three years starting in 1953, moving there shortly after the federal government sold the complex to Philadelphia Housing Authority. PHA envisioned using it as housing for veterans. Ms. Brown, married and with her second child on the way, moved to an apartment on Defense Terrace, one of the streets named to honor veterans, and paid $50 per month. Ms. Brown recalls “there were very few people who were not white.”
The two-bedroom apartment was spartan. News reports stated that there were no doors on the closets – only a curtain rod on which a resident could put their own curtain. An open area called “the gully” was available for walking and sports. When Ms. Brown lived there, there was no playground, although one was built later. There was an onsite grocery store. Ms. Brown recalled, “It was no Giant, just one person waiting on you at a counter.”
Ms. Brown recalls a warm community, bonded by the shared experiences of the veterans. She said of the veterans: “[Abbottsford] gave me a new sense of what these people went through and what turmoil they must have lived. And I think this quieted them. They were patriots – on holidays with flags, they didn’t disappoint.”
Unfortunately for Ms. Brown and her family, pressure was building on PHA to restrict Abbottsford Homes to low-income renters. Ms. Brown moved before Abbottsford was formally designated for low-income people, but she recalls moving “in the middle of the transition – people were leaving and coming.”
Audrey Hood moved to Abbottsford in 1958, and still lives there. She applied to move there after noticing the homes when taking her children to the Woman’s Medical College pediatric clinic on the opposite side of Henry Avenue. By then, the apartments did have closet doors and cabinets, but tenants had to purchase their own washing machines. She recalls that most of the families in 1958 were white, although the proportion of white families declined steadily. “When we moved there it seemed like a summer resort….,” Ms. Hood remembered. “There were white picket fences, a playground, a basketball court, a little grocery store, and a community center with a big room for monthly resident meetings. There used to be a lot going on here – Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, an Abbottsford parade, a Miss Abbottsford contest.”
Did Abbottsford residents consider themselves part of East Falls? Ms. Hood said: “My children used the Falls Library and went to Mifflin School, where I served as President of the Home & School Association. But if you asked me where I lived, I would tend to say Abbottsford, not East Falls.”
Ms. Hood has seen changes over the 63 years she has lived at Abbottsford. “Families started breaking up and women moved in with their boyfriends. There were some cases of domestic abuse and some drugs. Gradually, over five or six years, most of the white families left.”
While the erstwhile Schuylkill Falls project near the river was undergoing its radical and contentious makeover into Falls Ridge, Abbottsford underwent its own significant physical change, most obviously the reduction in total units from 700 to 236. Ms. Hood recalls, “My house was one of [those that were demolished], and I moved to another unit. In my new unit there is no room to store anything. The Housing Authority made promises they didn’t keep, saying they would rebuild the houses that were torn down, but this still hasn’t happened. I miss my old house, and I’m disenchanted.”
Still, Ms. Hood says, “I feel safe at Abbottsford – everybody knows everybody and we look out for each other.”
And Abbottsford continues to be an integral neighborhood within the larger East Falls community.
East Falls NOW, June 2021, by Rich Lampert
June is traditionally the favorite month for weddings, and with the easing of the pandemic, there’s no telling how many will take place this month. My fellow East Falls Historical Society member Wendy Moody and I found abundant allusions to weddings on the EFHS website (eastfallshistoricalsociety.org), and they provide a window into how our East Falls predecessors lived.
For a slice of early 20th-Century life, here are excerpts from a wedding announcement in The Weekly Forecast, a now-defunct community newspaper, about a wedding that took place on June 9, 1915, in the (old) St. Bridget’s Church. The bride, Anna Maloney, lived at 4314 Dobson Street. The groom, Joseph E. Maher, lived “in Germantown” – no address given, because what did an address mean if it wasn’t in East Falls?
“The bride wore a pretty gown of French net over white satin, and carried a shower bouquet of bride roses and lilies of the valley. The bridesmaid, Miss May Maloney, sister of the bride, wore a gown of white lace with blue satin and a picturesque hat to match, and carried a bouquet of pink roses…Shortly after [the wedding breakfast] the couple left for a trip to Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Toronto.”
Not all weddings happen in June, of course. Two East Falls-related weddings that happened at other times of the year pop up frequently in our archives. The first of these was the wedding between Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, two entertainment icons. EHFS founder Ellen Sheehan collected a vivid account in an oral history. The wedding, which took place on November 7, 1951, was planned to be performed at the mansion now called White Corners at the corner of Henry Avenue and School House Lane. It was then the home of Leon Levy, the founder of WCAU radio and a legendary host to a legion of entertainers who visited Philadelphia. The wedding was supposed to be quiet, but the press got wind of it. To throw off the reporters, Levy’s son Bob dressed the butler in a tuxedo and put a wig on the maid and seated them in the back of Sinatra’s limousine. A family friend drove to the bottom of School House Lane where reporters could see them, and led the reporters on a chase back to the Levy mansion. On arrival, the butler and the maid emerged from the limousine, presumably to the outrage of the reporters. By then, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, and the rest of the wedding party had escaped to the home of Levy’s friend Manny Saks, across the Walnut Lane Bridge in Germantown, and the entertainment press never did get its wedding pictures.
The most famous East Falls bride remains Grace Kelly. Unfortunately for our place in history, her wedding to Prince Rainier took place in Monaco in April, 1956. However, Rainier proposed to Grace at her parent’s home on Henry Avenue during the Christmas holidays of 1955 – so this was a marriage made in East Falls, if not consecrated here.
Back in June, 1981, Wendy Moody and gerontologist Cherie Snyder facilitated a conversation among East Falls seniors about weddings. Some of these are gems:
Memories of the wedding of Elizabeth (Bessie) Dobson to Lemuel Altemus at St. James the Less in 1901. This is the same Bessie Dobson who lived in Bella Vista, the mansion that was demolished in 1942 to create a site for the Abbotsford Homes.
Weddings during World War II: They were small, and brides had difficulty getting dresses that fit properly.
Single ring ceremonies, back when men didn’t have to wear a symbol of marriage.
Newlyweds buying a new house on Ainslie Street for just $2000, during the Depression.
Wedding cakes from Rosie’s Bakery on Ainslie Street near Conrad, and wedding photos by “Mucky” Brownsworth, whose studio was in the Odd Fellow’s Hall (Palestine Hall) on Midvale Avenue.
Honeymoons in Atlantic City or New York.
East Falls NOW, August 2021, by Wendy Moody
In May 2020, during the darkest days of the pandemic, a unique acquisition came our way via the Friends of Falls of Schuylkill Library.
North Carolina resident Tommy Taylor contacted Margaret Sadler, then President of the Friends, offering a penned chronicle of the Sorber family, beginning with Mr. Taylor’s second great-grandfather, Falls resident Joseph Sorber. Although the document’s author is unknown, it is possibly Bernard Dowdall, whose history of the Falls included research on the Sorbers. Why donate this to the Friends? The journal contained some old library records.
The library board, with Mr. Taylor’s approval, decided a more appropriate recipient was the East Falls Historical Society which can keep the journal archivally protected and accessible to researchers. The EFHS thanks the Friends for this decision as we add this special document to our collection. The transfer marks a fine example of cooperation between two Falls organizations.
Mr. Taylor explained the journal had been found among his aunt’s papers. And how lucky it wasn’t overlooked - it measures just 3"x5"! Penned in calligraphy, it has loose pages, perhaps some missing ones, but absorbing content.
It contained two sections:
1) A Financial Log from the Schuylkill Falls Library Association, instituted Feb. 22nd 1844, and handwritten by Joseph Sorber, its treasurer. Why is this intriguing? The first lending library in East Falls opened, as we know, on June 1, 1901 as a Deposit Station on the second floor of the Old Academy. This journal indicates a precursor – perhaps an earlier subscription library. As former librarian at the Falls Branch for 25 years, I found this news fascinating.
The entries are brief. Examples:
- “Rec’d March 25th 1848 of Jos. Evans, Sec. - Three dollars and 9 cents. Dues collected for the Schuylkill Falls Library Association. $3.09.”
- “Rec’d April 29th 1848 of Jos Evans, Sec. Five dollars and 25 cents money collected for dues & fine due to the Schuylkill Falls Library Association $5.25.
Each entry was signed “Joseph Sorber, Treas.”
2) A Chronology of the Sorber Family.
As librarian, I had heard the Sorber name frequently – this generational East Falls/Germantown family was often mentioned in East Falls’ histories. The Sorbers were fishermen, carpenters, and pharmacists (see entry about Joseph Sorber in East Falls: 300 Years of History).
- The Sorbers date their ancestors among the first settlers of Germantown. In 1732, two brothers came from Sweden. One brother tried his fortune in Canada, but Jacob, the original of the Sorber family in this vicinity (Falls), remained in Germantown and followed his trade as carpenter, building the first cupola on the old School House Academy. (i.e. Germantown Academy).
- Jos. E. Sorber came to the Falls in 1803, occupying a house on the Ridge south of Queen Lane (now Indian Queen Lane). Joseph built an addition - the first grocery store in the Falls. Besides the store, Jos. E. also operated fisheries on the west side of the river, which remained in the family many years. He also manufactured carriages.
- When Joseph E. died (1827), his sons Jacob and William continued the carriage building, with William’s two sons assuming control in 1854 (a "coach" or carriage factory shows up on atlases at Ridge near Indian Queen Lane as late as 1895).
- The wife of Jos. E. Sorber was a midwife and was widely known for her kindness to the poor. An incident is mentioned relating to a call from the Mifflin family to attend the wife of the Governor – the carriage was sent and waiting at the door, but, as she had promised to attend to a poor woman, the carriage returned to the mansion empty.
- The journal also reveals that Joseph E. Sorber “built on his property, shortly after his coming, the first building used for school purposes in the Falls. It was a small stone building and was located on… Queen Lane, just above the junction with Ridge.”
As yet, we have not been able to verify the new information about the early history of Falls of Schuylkill found in this remarkable document, nor date it. But it is evident that generations of Sorbers added to the quality of life in East Falls. Visit them at Laurel Hill Cemetery or online (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/31919346/joseph-e.-sorber)
- In the near future, the journal, in its calligraphied entirety, along with a printed transcription, will be available on the EFHS website: www.eastfallshistoricalsociety.org