In April 1867, some prominent citizens of Newtown and Wrightstown were granted a charter to establish a turnpike road from the Anchor Tavern in Wrightstown to the “new town” founded by William Penn in 1682.
Two years later, the toll road opened, the keeper of the thoroughfare residing in a wooden clapboard home, which sat at the corner of Sycamore Street and Durham Road for more than eight and a half decades, that is until local dairy farmer Ray Goodnoe had the toll house moved up the street to its current location at the southeast corner of Durham and South Eagle roads.
But time and again, new development threatened to erase the building known as the Durham Road Toll House and with it, another piece of Newtown’s history.
To this day, older Newtonians still talk about the 1962 razing of headquarters George Washington used during the Battle of Trenton to make way for a gas station erected at the corner of Washington Avenue and Sycamore Street.
Earlier this year, officials in the borough narrowly averted a piece of its history – known as the Bird-In-Hand, said to be the scene of the only Revolutionary War action in the area located at the corner of State and Mercer streets – falling into the same scenario as Washington’s headquarters.
Thirty years ago, the toll house was saved from the wrecking ball by a joint effort of the Newtown Joint Historic Commission and the Newtown Historical Association, founded in 1964 in the wake of the razing of Washington’s headquarters.
In the late 1980s, preservationists convinced William Meritz – who worked for Terracon, the developer that built the Village at Newtown shopping center – of the building’s historic value to the community.
Back then, Newtown was a far cry from what it is today. The toll house had fallen into disrepair until 1989 when a group headed by Dave Callahan, Helen Randle and the late Elizabeth “Dolly” Gish convinced Meritz to refurbish the old building instead of tearing it down.
Work to renovate the toll house included replacing a deteriorating roof with a new one made of cedar shakes consistent with its 1870s origin. The builders also removed aluminum siding, which revealed the original wood clapboards, said to be in surprisingly good condition.
It didn’t end there. Workers rebuilt the shed attached to the rear of the building, replaced missing shutters, repaired the windows and doors and refinished the interior of the first floor.
They also made some additions to the property, which included reproducing the original picket fence and installing a replica of the toll gate.
Sadly, and despite the best efforts of the preservationists, the property once again fell into a state of neglect.
“The toll house has long been on our radar as it has sat empty for many years,” said Lorraine Pentz, vice chair of the Newtown Joint Historic Commission. “Over the years, we would report to whoever was the current property manager if we noticed something that needed attention. At one time, the main beam in the house was shifting and was of great concern to us. We had discussions with the developer and the township supervisors concerning the condition of the house and possible uses for it, but there didn’t seem to be a solution.”
Fast forward to 2018 and the Durham Road Toll House is saved from the wrecking ball, once again by a retail shopping developer. This time, it’s Brixmor Property Group.
Currently in the process of pouring more than $40 million in renovations into the shopping center, Brixmor did a total rehab of the toll house, installing new plumbing, a new kitchen, new bathrooms, making the building ADA compliant.
Brixmor worked with the Newtown Joint Historic Commission for a year on a renovation plan that respected the historical design of the Toll House while adapting it for re-use as a business. It took another year to refurbish and adapt the structure. The total cost for was $600,000.
It’s now home to Nina’s Waffles & Ice Cream, a dessert eatery with locations in Doylestown, New Hope and Peddler’s Village.
A ceremony was held Sept. 21, dedicating historic markers placed both at the original site of the toll house and at its present location. It’s now part of the Newtown Heritage Walk, a self-guided historical tour with 34 points located in both the borough and the township.
“We see here today an example of how preservationists and developers can work in partnership to honor our past while moving forward into our future,” said Nancy Freudenthal, a member of the Newtown Joint Historic Commission.
“I think it’s great that it’s being used for a business,” said Callahan, a past president of the commission who helped preserve the building in the ‘80s. “You can’t leave a building just sit empty; it just deteriorates.
“It wasn’t a good thing that, from the mid-1980s until 2018, it sat empty. I think it’s great that’s it’s finally been put to use.”
The tolls provided a modest living for the toll keeper and his family and they lived in the building that came to be known as the Durham Road Toll House.
Around 1920, the toll keepers ceased to exist and the house they lived in became a private residence. It stayed that way until 1955 when Goodnoe decided he wanted to put an ice cream bar on the corner. That’s when he moved the toll house.
Tales of the Newtown Toll House
If you know anything of the history of the toll house, you’d know why preservationists tried so hard to save it. Henry Mercer himself was said to have had an extensive argument with the wife of the toll taker over a penny he felt she overcharged him.
Dr. William Erdman of Buckingham recalled the toll keeper chasing a pair of George School students on bicycles who failed to pay the toll from the northern end of the turnpike all the way to Newtown.
Henry Gross, of Doylestown, told a story of a man who was in the habit of passing through the gate without stopping. However, he found time to stop at the hotel nearby.
When confronted by the toll keeper, the traveler announced he was not in the habit of paying tolls in cash. He’d offer to treat the gatekeeper to a drink, instead.
“If I want whiskey, I will pay for it myself and you must pay your toll,” retorted the toll keeper.
The contract to build the toll road was awarded to Isaac Hillborn at $3,990 per mile. Laborors were paid 62 and 1/2 cents to a dollar a day to break stones with hand-held hammers.
It was a penny to walk through the toll, double that if you were on horseback and when cars came along, it cost a nickel to ride the Newtown-Wrightstown Turnpike.
It’s said that a man by the name of Harrison Ettinger was the toll taker from 1899 to 1905. Charles and Emma Huber were a couple collecting the money in 1915.