Eight years ago, my husband and I decided to move to Oaklyn.
We were attracted to the area by the “character” and “charm” of the old suburbs: a town developed as a walkable community before the advent of sprawl.
Since the area was largely developed in the early 1900s, and my specific neighborhood was developed in the 1920s, I had given very little thought to what was here prior to that time. The history of this area seemed to be evident; I lived in one of its houses.
Until recently, I had a vague notion that there were previously horses and maybe a race track where my neighborhood now stand (and that we all used to be part of Haddon Township). However, I ignored the deeper history of this area, which is one of the oldest-settled regions of our country.
My family enjoys learning about the history of a place. Pretty much so every vacation we take includes a visit to a run-down historical society, museum or government-preserved place of historical significance.
While not traveling, we have our favorite places in the Philadelphia region to experience the history of a certain era. Many of these day trip destinations are an hour or two away, and we tend to combine our historical sightseeing with hiking and overnight camping.
Yet I admit we have spent very little time exploring our local history! This fall, we came across a couple of key opportunities to do so.
On a weekday morning in October, my children and I joined a wonderful historical bus tour of some sites in Oaklyn, Haddon Township, and Collingswood. Led by Oaklyn Councilman and Historian Chuck Lehman, the bus tour was for senior citizens. (I learned about it through volunteer work I do, and they were gracious enough to let us come along.)
It provided a bit of an awakening for me and my children. OF COURSE this area had an interesting history prior to its suburbanization. It was a history not just of horses, but also of farmers and Quakers, of soldiers deserting their pacifist upbringings, and of entrepreneurs and wealthy sugar cane factory owners.
A few sites might possibly inspire you to also take a deeper look at your surroundings.
The first is a Revolutionary War-era burial ground near the old train station in West Collingswood. Many of the area’s original Quaker settlers are interred there, and the tension between pacifist Quakers and those locals who took up arms in the Revolutionary War is evident in its planning: soldiers were relegated to one section of the grounds. My children tried to read the names and dates on the headstones, many of which were too eroded by a couple hundred years of exposure to the elements.
We briefly stopped by the Collings Knight House on Collings Ave, but our tour concluded at a 19th century healing well that is still visible next to Newton Lake Park.
Apparently, a resident had been healed of a long-term arthritic illness by drinking the mineral-rich water from this special well. He then started bottling and selling this healing water to people throughout the region, and planned to make his large house on the hill into a resort where others could come to experience the healing waters. Those plans never panned out, but the well and house still stand.
The other key event occurred on the Saturday before Thanksgiving at the Griffifth Morgan House in Pennsauken. There was a Harvest Celebration event, and we decided to check it out.
Getting there was an adventure. Piloting the car through a vast industrial wasteland in Pennsauken, I wondered where on earth this site was. After we maneuvered around a stopped freight truck, we finally saw the cheery, red house. It stood next to a large warehouse, its front facing the region’s original highway: the Delaware River.
The brightly painted house had clearly been restored. Upon entering the main room, a woman was cooking a traditional meal over the open hearth—turnips, apples, and chard were being chopped and boiled into aromatic stews. Musicians performed in the parlor, and a kind docent on the second floor discussed toys, beds, and sleep in the 1700s.
We explored the house, including its third-floor museum, and talked to passionate volunteers working there. In brief conversations, we learned about efforts to preserve the home, as well as about other sites maintained by local historical societies we may want to check out.
Of course, this has started us on a new series of adventures. Our next stop may be Pomona Hall for their Holiday Open House on Sunday, December 16 at 2 p.m. We’re looking for other local historical places to explore, so let me know if you have any suggestions.