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March 7, 2000
Subdivision plan meets unusual foe: Quakers Toll Bros. wants to build 87 homes in Bucks County. But houses from the 1700s mark a community.

By Evan Halper

INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF

PLUMSTEAD - The farmland around Twin Silo Road is typical of the countryside north of Doylestown, with signature old stone houses, gently rolling hills, tree-lined country roads - and a dense Toll Bros. development about to sprout in the middle of it all.

But the proposed 87-home subdivision on the 140-acre McGinnis dairy farm has led to a not-so-typical discovery: The neighborhood is one of the region's oldest remaining English Quaker settlements - a serene set of historic farmhouses and outbuildings entirely untouched, so far, by the area's ubiquitous columns of modern suburban houses.

The area's significance came to light by chance, thanks to Michael May, a historic-preservation planner who lives in a 1744 stone house next door to the proposed development. May was so curious about what was in danger of being paved over that he spent two years plunging into musty land deeds, antiquated tax maps and fading old wills.

May learned that he and housemate Housely Carr were living on land settled by an unusual branch of Quakers: They fought in the Revolutionary War in violation of the church's pacifist stricture. They also drafted Pennsylvania's first statewide abolitionist legislation, and they traveled to religious meetings 230 years ago along the same narrow path that is now Twin Silo Road.

May's findings emphasize how quickly Bucks County's visual history is vanishing. Developers had plans for homes on this landscape even before historians were aware that the old neighborhood existed.

Now, however, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has written Plumstead's supervisors, urging them to "ensure that the development proposed by Toll Bros. does not compromise this very significant historic landscape." Surprised local preservationists said the esteemed national group had never before made a request in Bucks County that an entire landscape be saved.

Dan Marriott, director of the trust's rural heritage program, said that did not mean Toll Bros. should not develop the acreage that was settled in the early 1700s by Quaker and Mennonite farmers. Instead, the trust said the nation's huge luxury-home builder could avoid wrecking the historic vistas by carefully choosing where to place the homes.

Toll Bros. officials said they were not yet ready to commit to saying where the homes would go.

"What is important about a resource like this is recognition of it as a landscape, not just as buildings," Marriott said. "There is a wonderful convergence of a historic transportation system, field patterns and roads."

Not many like it are left. And it does not take a professional historian to notice.

David Smith is the caretaker of the Plumstead Friends Meeting House, less than two miles across fields and woods from the McGinnis farm. When he moved into the 1752 stone house adjoining the walled Quaker cemetery seven years ago, Smith could see nothing but trees and fields through his windows.

"Now it's a sea of houses," he said.

Near the meetinghouse stands the home of Thomas Brown, a pioneer settler whose 500-acre land grant came from William Penn in 1717. The Brown family settlement is now separated by subdivisions.

So the Twin Silo Road community, May said, "really is the only intact 18th-century community left in Plumstead."

Also significant is the settlement's role in a small band of communities, including Doylestown, where English Quakers and German Mennonites coexisted.

"Evidence of architectural and agricultural remnants of the early English is unique," said Jeffrey Marshall, a vice president of the Heritage Conservancy in Doylestown. He said such agricultural landscapes sometimes got overlooked in area historical surveys that often focus on architectural landmarks.

"We often don't have the time and the budget to go into a general area and search for a historic thread that might bind it all together," Marshall said.

All eight families who lived in the Twin Silo Road area at the end of the 18th century had members who fought in the Revolutionary War, which surely caused problems among the pacifist Quakers, according to Pat O'Donnell, an archivist at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.

"They were probably disowned by the church," O'Donnell said.

Other residents included Matthew Hughes, a lawmaker who drafted the state's first bill to outlaw slavery, and William Marshall, whose brother, Edward, "walked" 65 miles in 18 hours in the notorious 1737 "walking purchase" - in which settlers made a deal with American Indians to buy as much land as could be walked in a day. Marshall ran.

Three of the area's stone houses built between 1740 and 1760 remain intact, with others added by 1800.

The oldest homes still bear the marks of early home craftsmanship: ceiling rafters with chamfered, or beveled, edges; high fireplace mantels; deep windowsills; and center doorways.

May and Carr's home also has a giant communal beehive oven. "When the oven was built in the 1790s, two of the families had intermarried, and a brother and a son were living in nearby houses," May explained, "so it would make sense that they baked together." He said remains of the community smokehouse could be found beneath their home.

Down the street is a home that was a schoolhouse until 1827. "It's hard to tell because it was stuccoed over, probably in the '50s or '60s."

May also unearthed two "single-pile" stone buildings - now used as homes - constructed side by side as cobbler shops at the start of the 19th century by a father and son.

And he found that many of today's fences mark boundary lines that are more than a century old.

The months of tedious research started with land deeds at the courthouse, then moved to the Bucks County Historical Society at the Mercer Museum's Spruance Library. May found sketch biographies, real-estate advertisements, Orphan's Court filings, wills and land grants - all dating from the mid-1700s.

"It's amazing what they turned up," said Louis Cardi, a neighbor who also wants the area to remain rural around his own early stone home and 24 acres.

May and Carr have given the township an alternative plan that would save 70 acres of the McGinnis tract as open space, along with a walking path winding over the area's highest points to allow residents a bird's-eye view of their heritage.

Toll Bros.' cluster plan would provide the open space, but it calls for a road that would cut through the old settlement, breaking up the cohesion of the oldest stone homes and destroying late 19th-century farm buildings that May and Carr believe should be preserved, perhaps as meeting halls.

Eric Tobin, an attorney for Toll Bros., said the company had not yet decided what parts of the property would be preserved.

"All we're doing now is trying to get permission for a use," Tobin said.

Along with the cluster plan, Toll Bros. has submitted a plan that would dice up the site like a checkerboard, leaving no open space and saving none of the historic buildings.

Preservationists said they obviously preferred the cluster plan. Township supervisors are declining to comment for now, but a move is afoot to inventory local historic resources for use in preservation planning.

Marshall, of the Heritage Conservancy, said he was not surprised that the historically rich Quaker settlement had gone unnoticed for so long.

"In any area that is becoming suburbanized, most people don't understand the cultural landscape they live in," he said. "To many people, land is just a commodity."