Durham: Off the beaten path, a 19th-century village


An exact replica of the famous Durham boat is a landmark on the village green.

Cover the asphalt road with a little sand or loose gravel and you’d not be surprised to see a horse and carriage passing the old mill and Victorian houses on Durham Road.

The Village of Durham, buried in a deep valley surrounded by hills, is one of those out-of-the-way places in Upper Bucks County that would be perfect for a movie set in the 1800s. The village is the centerpiece of Durham Township, which occupies about 10 square miles of northeastern Bucks County.

Although Durham’s roots are planted deep in the earliest days of this country, most of the surviving structures in the village proper date to the 19th century. A few earlier stone homes and a barn lie a little farther out from the village center.

Durham was settled in the early 1700s and some sources claim white men lived there as early as 1698. The discovery of iron ore deep in the Durham hills just outside the village led to the formation of the Durham Iron Works by James Logan, William Penn’s secretary, and a group of venture capitalists.

What was initially a tiny wilderness outpost became a thriving business center, turning out ammunition for first, the French and Indian War, and later, the Revolutionary War.

Some folks believe the furnace/iron works had a role in the production of the Great Chain stretched across the Hudson River at West Point in 1778 to stop the British from moving farther upriver. Although that may never be proved, the Durham furnace was as important to the infant nation as Bethlehem Steel was to our Navy in World War II.

The charcoal blast furnace was first fired in 1727 and Durham became the center of industry as well as an important social hub. A first post office was established in the village in 1723, probably to speed business information between the iron works and its wealthy benefactors in Philadelphia. Years later Benjamin Franklin started the U.S. Post Office.

The Old Durham Furnace School was established in 1727 when the furnace began operations. A small log house on the east side of Durham Road, it was the first school in eastern Upper Bucks. Classes were taught there for more than 60 years until it was demolished.

James Morgan was the first Durham ironmaster. His son, Daniel, born in 1736, ran away as a teenager and eventually right into the history books as a Revolutionary War general and hero of the Battle of Cowpens, S.C., in 1781.

George Taylor, who set sail from Northern Ireland as an indentured servant, served as ironmaster from 1753 to 1763 and again from 1774 to 1780 and made his fortune in Pennsylvania.

Taylor traveled from Durham to Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He was one of only nine Pennsylvanians and the only Bucks Countian to sign the document. His house, now privately owned, still stands on the edge of the village.

The furnace ceased operations in 1789, basically because it had run out of available fuel. It required about an acre of wood daily, and by then, workers had stripped all the trees from the surrounding land. (The enterprise was started again in 1848 but moved closer to the Delaware River where coal furnaces were built.)

All that remains of the original furnace is a stone arch rebuilt into a hillside just off the village green. When the old furnace closed, the village lay dormant until 1820 when William Long built a grist mill on its stone foundation.

Water from a mill race fed by Cooks Creek powered the mill, which ground grain for local farmers until 1967.

In his 1887 history of the township, Herbert C. Bell wrote, “While the first settlers arrived by way of the Delaware, the Germans who followed reached Durham valley through Springfield and from Williams and Allen townships on the north. And thus, while the agricultural pursuits of the township are almost exclusively in the hands of persons of Teutonic descent, the population at the furnace has always been made up mostly of English, Scotch and Irish.”

Durham Township owns the mill, the iconic village centerpiece, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Members of the Durham Historical Society hope to restore it for use as a community center. It now houses the tiny Durham post office, which serves about 160 customers. A satellite of the Riegelsville Post Office, it does not deliver mail but customers may pick up their mail on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. The township offices are in an adjacent building.

Displayed prominently on the Village Green in a pavilion is a replica of a Durham boat, the type said to have been used by Gen. George Washington when his troops crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night 1776, surprised Hessian mercenaries hired by the British and won the Battle of Trenton. The boats were first made by Robert Durham where Cooks Creek empties into the Delaware River.

Several village buildings have been handsomely restored. One. a country store for years, is owned by John Matczak and is now a residence. Historians believe the first talks of the Treaty of 1737 that led to the infamous Walking Purchase were begun that year in a field behind the property.

David Oleksa, president of the Durham Historical Society, and his wife, Lois, restored their stone farmhouse, which Oleksa said was built in the early 19th century. He said it had once been a tailor shop owned by a Robert Long but he also noted it had been a truck farm owned by a Frankenfeld family who used only a horse in the fields up until the 1950s.

A descendant of the original Long family, Clarice De Limantour, lives in the Long homestead, another stone house nearby. A pioneering food scientist, she developed Cool Whip. Just up the hill stands the old Durham School that closed in 1981 after a century of educating Durham children. It is now a print shop and a private residence.

On the crest of that hill overlooking the Durham valley is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Durham.

The classic red brick Victorian across the road from the mill has been called the miller’s house but also the Bachman House.

Owned and restored by David Cook, it was built for U.S. Rep. Reuben Knecht Bachman, a Democratic congressman who served from 1879 to 1881 during the Hayes administration.

Bachman and various partners operated the grist mill as well as a lumber business. His brother, George Washington Bachman, ran the store, said to be the county’s best at the time.

Just outside the village stands a huge barn that has been converted into a home. It was built before the Revolutionary War during a period when the King of England had demanded a tax be paid on all structures longer than 100 feet. It measures exactly 99 feet, 11 inches, and once housed slaves and mules used in the mines.

2017 © Bucks County Herald