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By the Way: The village of Jerusalem

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The envelope, nearly 100 years old and browned with age, was given to me by my mother years ago. It contains four pages of onion skin paper, neatly typewritten and nearly as brown as the envelope.

Like many old documents, it paints a complex, dated picture of the past. but let me tell you about this one.

It’s a history of Jerusalem, a hamlet along the Neshaminy Creek in Cornwells Heights, written in 1922 by Michael J. Wheeler, my mother’s uncle. He called Jerusalem “a quaint village.”

The story was also certainly written in a quaint style, a bit old-fashioned, but it is, after all, nearly 100 years old, and a slice of Bucks history that would have been lost, or ignored, had he not recorded it.

Uncle Mike, my mother said, was a staff writer for a weekly newspaper, The Bucks County Gazette. He also held a job with Bucks County, an arrangement we would now consider a conflict of interest. He wrote this story of “a colored settlement near Bristol.” I don’t know if it was ever published, but I do suspect my great-uncle, and I share a journalist’s gene and a love of history.

Jerusalem, Uncle Mike wrote, was established by slaves who escaped from their Southern masters “about the year 1816, and arriving in Bensalem, found employment on the farms in that vicinity.”

1816? Forty-five years before the Civil War began. And they were safe in Cornwells Heights? This surprised me. Were they hidden or was it just that their abolitionist neighbors were close-mouthed?

According to Uncle Mike’s report, Quakers John and Sarah Paxton owned vast tracts of land near Bridgewater along the Neshaminy Creek. The settlers were not treated as slaves, but worked on the Paxton estate, he wrote, and the family “looked after the ills and wants of their colored dependents.”

By 1820, more runaway slaves had arrived and that year’s census showed 25 residents. They purchased an acre of land from the Paxtons and founded a church. Built later – Mike’s date and others don’t always agree – it came to be called the Little Jerusalem Church and is one of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal churches in Pennsylvania.

In 1922, Mike wrote. “The church still stands,” and I can say the same nearly a century later, because the community has sought to restore it. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.

I’ve known a bit of all this since my childhood. I’ve since discovered the Gazette was published in Bristol from 1873 to 1926, by Jesse O. Thomas, who doubled as editor. I’ve also discovered there’s a history of the church on the Internet, but it says little about the village itself or its inhabitants.

What really charmed me is this first-person tale from a man who spent his childhood in a Bucks County village founded by blacks but later shared by whites. Both apparently lived peacefully in this integrated community.

Among the early white settlers of Jerusalem were the families of Patrick Hogan, James Haney and William Wheeler.

Mike was the son of William Wheeler, my great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant, who owned a 38-acre farm. He, his wife, Catherine, and their children “resided in the house opposite the old church from the 1860s through the 1880s.” (I have an undated map that shows the owner of that farm as Michael Wheeler, but I presume Mike was right about his own father’s name. Maybe Mike inherited it.)

Mike wrote that around 1858, a shipbuilding company cleared woods across the road from Jerusalem and sold the 10 acres at $25 each to the former slaves. Seven houses later popped up and the village population increased to about 65.

The colored settlers apparently “were a law-abiding class,” Mike wrote. “However, he continued, as much could not be said of the young white men of that vicinity in ‘ante-bellum’ days, whose antipathy or perhaps sense of mischief often tempted them to drive their horses into the vestibule greatly to the annoyance of (those attending) the Sunday evening services.”

By 1922 Jerusalem’s population had dwindled to 25 with many of the younger people fleeing to town and city. Mike wrote “many of the original dwellings have been abandoned and are now crumbling to decay.” He mourned the loss of the school house, abandoned in 1878/1879, and of the old store “which changed hands many times” and “where the topics of the day were frequently discussed.”

Jerusalem’s last occupant, he wrote, was a white man named John Hawkins, who dealt in horses, cattle, junk, harnesses, and, in fact, everything that might be found in Dicken’s “Old Curiosity Shop.”

I never knew Michael Wheeler, journalist. I think he died before I was born, but I wish I could have talked to him. I wonder if he and my grandmother and their brothers went to that old school, and what it was like to live in Jerusalem.

kathrynfclark@verizon.net


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