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By the Way: Nockamixon Top Rock camp from early 1930s remains an intriguing mystery

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Ninety years ago a group of unemployed, uprooted, but determined World War I veterans descended on a 105-acre property near Top Rock, high above the Delaware River in Nockamixon Township.

They set up a work camp hoping to turn it into a self-sufficient community for themselves and eventually their families.

Yet even in a history-proud county such as Bucks, their efforts seem to have disappeared into the mists.

Nockamixon officials and local historians I contacted said they knew nothing of the camp’s existence. I had hoped some residents had heard of the camp from their parents or grandparents, and I talked with a number of them. Apparently not.

I stumbled on this little-known bit of Bucks history when I was searching through an old trunk. On a yellowed copy of The Bristol Courier dated Sept. 16, 1932, a Page 1 headline jumped at me: “Bonus Veterans Located Near Ferndale Are Planning Village of Their Own.” The Courier had apparently picked up a report by Evelyn Shuler that had appeared in the old Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger.

Her story begins, “The bonus veterans struggling to get an economical toe-hold on the world in their newly-made camp along the steep banks of the Delaware, near Ferndale, Pa., have a courageous vision.

“They are looking beyond makeshift quarters in which they are now living to the future. In a not-too-far distant day they see a self-sufficient community with a farm, a power plant and modest homes in which they can live independent from the modern world which now has no place for them.”

The 38 men had been members of the so-called Bonus Army, comprising 43,000 protesters, including 17,000 veterans, that had demonstrated in Washington, D.C., the previous July. Out of work during the Great Depression, the vets, families and supporters set up camp near the Capitol and demanded the government hand over bonus payments promised to them after the war.

According to a number of sources, the veterans had been awarded certificates for bonuses including compound interest in 1924, but they could not be redeemed until 1945. President Hoover denied their demands and ordered the protesters and their families driven out by the Army and their shelters burned.

In May 1933, during the early days of the Roosevelt administration, the new president defused a second, smaller protest and Congress offered jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Many of the veterans accepted the CCC jobs; others, given government transportation, simply went home. Congress did not release the bonus payments until 1936. (CCC workers built our national parks. The program laid the foundation for the G.I. Bill of Rights.)

The timeline of the Ferndale activity is what I found intriguing. These veterans didn’t wait for the government; they took action themselves. Driven from Washington in July, they had already set up their Ferndale camp in September 1932, months before the second protest or the birth of the CCC.

According to Shuler, the men built a barracks with a brick fireplace and a mess hall. They were constructing a wood-working plant. The group included skilled ararpenters, all willing to train their unskilled buddies.

The camp was run with military-like discipline. The men were planning to make fishing tackle and weave rag rugs on hand looms. One of the men was a farmer and the group was planning to cultivate about two-thirds of the land under his direction, including 15 acres of wheat. They figured apple and peach trees on the land would provide fruit for a ton of jam.

Their long-range plan was to create Top Rock Park with rustic cabins, a swimming pool, a rock garden and cedar benches open to the public. All this, they believed, would provide a comfortable living.

I was touched by this story, amazed at the men’s ingenuity and vision, but I want to know what happened to that camp. Did that first riverside winter prove too severe? Did they just leave later to join the CCC? I asked Keith DeLuca, Nockamixon manager and Heather DiSario, township secretary; Neil Jesiolowski, chair of the Nockamixon Historic Commission; Roseann McCarty and Shirley Bonsall, commission members, and my neighbor Gary Bickel, whose Upper Bucks roots are deep. None of them had answers nor had ever even heard of the camp.

True, I could do further time-consuming research but first I’d like to know if any readers can provide further information about this tiny, unfinished utopia.

Shuler described its creators as men with “patches in their clothes and broad smiles on their faces.” I’d like to know what happened to these brave souls.

kathyclark817@gmail.com


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