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Kathryn Finegan Clark: By the Way

By the Way: Henry Mercer speaks


A love of tools—especially antique devices used to build this country—provides the common link between Henry Chapman Mercer and Jamison Bradley.
Bradley, a cabinet maker and actor who appears regularly in local community theater productions, and lives in Haycock Township, portrayed Mercer, Doylestown’s archaeology shaman, during a program presented for the Haycock Historical Society.
The mustachioed reenactor often portrays the famed collector and tile-maker. Dressed as Mercer would have, wing-tipped collar and vest, natty suit, head topped with a fedora, Bradley greeted people as they arrived at the township’s community center.
A bit later, after the society’s brief business meeting, Bradley burst into the room. He displayed the kind of exuberance and enthusiasm Mercer must have shown as he roamed farming communities and the remnants of Lenni Lenape villages in Bucks County searching for artifacts.
Mercer knew those tools were in danger of disappearing from the American landscape and he collected, catalogued and saved them from extinction.
“The Hammer,” Bradley roared as he held one aloft and proceeded to list the many kinds of hammers and their evolution as they were developed to handle varying needs—ball-peen, claw, roofing—and on and on. “I love tools,” he proclaimed.
Then, surprisingly, he produced a linen pouch and explained how some brainy ancient person had decided to split a seam on his clothes, insert the pouch and turn it into a pocket to carry tools and free the hands. “The pocket is a wonderful tool,” he shouted.
Bradley started his story at the beginning—the birth of Mercer at what is now Doylestown’s James-Lorah Home. The reenactor said Mercer, as a child, explored the farms and steams around Doylestown, collecting arrowheads and other childhood treasures from tilled fields.
Then came what he said was a defining moment in Mercer’s life. When he was only 14, Mercer’s wealthy aunt, Elizabeth Lawrence, took him to Europe. The teenager was transfixed during a boat ride down the Rhine River where he saw castle after castle and visited German villages where he watched old craftsmen plying their ancient arts and using centuries-old tools.

That trip, Bradley said, inspired the building of Mercer’s own castle in the middle of Doylestown, “As his tool collection grew and grew, he needed a place to put it, so why not a castle?” asked Bradley. But the prospect of a towering castle in the middle of town was not readily welcomed by the townspeople.
But, speaking as Mercer, he said, “They called me pig-headed, stubborn, even a little eccentric, but I knew I was doing the right thing.”
The museum, built of reinforced concrete, was actually designed around Mercer’s tool collection. It was as eccentric and fascinating as its creator, featuring little alcoves to display tools, a whaleboat hanging from the ceiling, a gallows, a stage coach. Bradley said Mercer wanted visitors “to look up, to get a new perspective.”
Mercer also was fascinated by clay, German pottery and tiles, particularly those that were “strong, enduring, something that would tell a story” such as those he saw when he visited Moravians in Bethlehem. He actually apprenticed himself to a tile maker and turned that experience into a local industry at the Moravian Pottery, according to Bradley.
He built Fonthill, his castle-like home, to display his tiles which were sold all over the world, He also used his magical home to entertain important friends, such as Henry Ford. Fonthill as well as the Moravian Pottery were also constructed of reinforced concrete and the three buildings now occupy the Mercer Mile.
Finally, speaking as Mercer, Bradley said, “I believe a step forward only works when you have one foot firmly in the past. You need something to push off from.”