Doylestown: Rolling hills, quaint villages and fertile farmland


The James A. Michener Art Museum.

Editor’s note: The information in this story was gathered from Stu Abramson of the Doylestown Historical Society, the Doylestown Borough and Doylestown Township websites, and Doylestown Township.

The land destined to become Doylestown and Bucks County was originally the province of the Lenni Lenape tribe of Delaware Indians prior to colonization by European settlers.

William Penn, a Quaker, was granted the land of Bucks County in 1682 from the king of England as a debt payment. Doylestown was built on the tract Penn conveyed to the Free Society of Traders in 1682, originally containing 20,000 acres.

Doylestown’s origins date to 1745 when William Doyle obtained a license to build a tavern on what is now the northwest corner of Main and State streets. Known for years as William Doyle’s Tavern, its strategic location — at the intersection of the road linking Swede’s Ford (Norristown) and Coryell’s Ferry (New Hope) and the road linking Philadelphia and Easton — allowed the hamlet to blossom into a village.

A mural on the wall of the Doylestown Post Office, painted in 1934 by Charles Child, is the only surviving depiction of the Doyle family. By 1750, the country hamlet consisted of no more than a half-dozen families living in log houses. There was a blacksmith, a tavern and a store selling pioneer gear. From its earliest days as an unnamed Colonial wilderness, Doylestown grew into a quiet country town. A stagecoach route sprang up along the Philadelphia-Easton Road (now Main Street) in 1792, and Doylestown remained a stopover along the route.

The first church was erected in 1815, followed by a succession of congregations throughout the 19th century. The Fountain House, at the corner of State and Main streets, was built in 1758 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The county seat moved north from Newtown to the more centrally located Doylestown in 1813. An outgrowth of Doylestown’s new courthouse was the development of “lawyers row,” a collection of Federal-style offices. In 1838, the Borough of Doylestown was incorporated.

An electric telegraph station was built in 1846, and in 1856, the North Pennsylvania Railroad completed a branch to Doylestown. The first gas lights were introduced in 1854. Because of the town’s relatively high elevation and a lack of strong water power, substantial industrial development never occurred and Doylestown evolved to have a professional and residential character.

During the mid-19th century, several large tracts east of the courthouse area were subdivided into neighborhoods. After the Civil War, the 30-acre Magill property to the southwest of the town’s core was subdivided for residential lots.

Doylestown established a water works in 1869. The first telephone line arrived in 1878, the same year a new courthouse was erected. The first of several trolley lines connecting Doylestown with Willow Grove, Newtown and Easton arrived in 1897.
In the early 20th century, Doylestown became best known through the “Tools of the Nation-Maker” museum of the Bucks County Historical Society. Henry Chapman Mercer constructed the reinforced concrete building in 1916 to house his collection of mechanical tools and utensils. Upon his death in 1930, Mercer left his similarly constructed home Fonthill and adjacent Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, to be operated as a museum. The home was left on the condition that his housekeeper be allowed to live there for the rest of her life. She lived there and gave tours until the mid-1970s.

By 1931, the advent of the automobile and improved highway service had put the last trolley line out of business, and Doylestonians were forced to embrace the automobile as the primary means of travel within the region. The Great Depression took its toll, as many grand old houses constructed a century earlier fell into disrepair. During the 1930s, the borough also expanded its land area to the north by admission of the tract known as the Doylestown Annex.

By the end of the 1980s, the downtown business district was again showing the toll of massive new competition from the latest wave of suburban shopping centers, as well as the recession that hit hardest in the northeastern states. In response, the borough council established a volunteer group of civic-minded representatives from business organizations, government and the residential community to begin formulating plans for the downtown area in 1992. This effort resulted in streetscape improvements composed of cast iron street lamps and brick pavers, facade improvements and other beautification efforts, and the establishment of a Main Street Manager Program.

As the 1990s progressed, the downtown area rebuilt itself largely by turning to an out-of-town audience. Doylestown had long been respected as a bucolic tourist destination. The gentry of Philadelphia and New York, including figures of the Manhattan theater and literary scenes, maintained country estates in the area and often summered there.

The Mercer Museum, Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, and the local National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa brought a regular stream of short-term visitors through the area, as well. With charitable support, the art deco County Theater was restored and reopened showing art-house fare, and a new main library and art museum were built around the ruins of the old stone jail, across the street from Mercer’s castle.

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