The bucolic fields of Newtown have long been a place for farming, horse breeding and stables. In keeping with this deep agrarian past, it was commonplace at the turn of the century to see working farm horses from Kansas being unloaded from rail cars at Newtown Station and sold at The Brick Hotel. However, a little known — and very popular — use for horses in Newtown was horse racing.
Horses were the livelihood of this farming community, but they also provided entertainment. Fairs were organized each summer in Newtown, and horse racing was a main attraction. Locals would bring their fastest horse just as they brought their prize livestock or produce for judging.
It was not a place for the faint of heart, however. A unattributed quote from the turn of the century stated: “these fairs, a great feature of social life of that day, were attended by all classes, the great majority bent on having a frolic. Horse-racing, drinking, gambling and stealing prevailed to an alarming extent.”
There are also stories of horse races on State Street around the same time. According to the Newtown Railroad Reel, J.W. Wynkoop, one of the early members of the Bucks County Agricultural Society, enjoyed a good horse and a good race, and was a very capable driver. He would often take his horse and buggy to Newtown to race all comers down State Street. He often won.
Meanwhile on South State Street, the Excelsior Bobbin and Spool Works — later known as The Stocking Works — began operations. Founded in 1884 by John B. Mawson in Yardley, it moved, in 1889, to 301 S. State St. in Newtown after fire destroyed the Yardley plant.
In 1904, the Excelsior Bobbin and Spool Company expanded with new buildings and updated equipment. After the stocking manufacturer, the building was used by a stained-glass company and as a bobbin factory.
During World War II, the building was used by the Lavelle Aircraft Corporation, a leading manufacturer of precision metal and electronic parts for many landmark aerospace achievements.
The firm produced parts for many U.S. military aircraft, including the huge tail fin for the famous C-46 Curtiss Commando cargo airplane. It also made parts for the Martin Marauder, the Brewster Dive-Bomber, and the Grumman Hellcat, along with radio, engine and radar parts.
When World War II started, there was a tremendous demand for aircraft. Lavelle expanded to meet demand, increasing from under 10 employees to over 400 employees, when various plants around Newtown were established to produce parts for planes.
The company was awarded the Army-Navy “E” for excellence in production. After the war, aircraft contracts were canceled, and the added employees were discharged. Many were later rehired when the company invented and produced farm equipment, such as conveyors, wagon unloaders and power hoists.
Early in 1950, the company shifted to stainless steel production for jet engines, missiles and satellites, which made up about 90% of the plant’s capacity.
Starting in 1960, the Lavelle Aircraft Company, under contract from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), built all six versions of TIROS — the Television Infrared Observation Satellite. TIROS was the first experimental and operational meteorological satellite and was overseen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Army Signal Research and Development Laboratory at Fort Monmouth, NJ. The TIROS models captured and transmitted 178,000 pictures over a total of 1,397 days.
Around this time, Lavelle Aircraft also helped build the Telstar satellite for Bell Telephone Laboratories — the first telecommunications satellite.
After the war, Lavelle played a major role in the free world’s first nuclear ICBM system when it built the internal structure of the RVX series of Air Force ICBM re-entry vehicles on behalf of General Electric. Lavelle also manufactured the Talos anti-aircraft missile for the U.S. Navy. In 1964, the firm built the RCA Ranger VII Spacecraft that surveyed (via television pictures) the lunar surface in preparation for the U.S. Manned Lunar Landing Program. During the Apollo program, Lavelle built the antenna head yoke assembly for the Lunar Excursion Module, as well as the lithium hydroxide cartridges which were used to remove excess carbon dioxide from the air. These cartridges were originally designed for the life support system carried in the backpacks of the astronauts during their exploration walks on the moon surface.
Lavelle made air purification filters for every Apollo mission. During the Apollo 13 crisis, with the command module’s environmental control system dead from lack of power, the lunar module system supported both cabins. However, the available air purification cartridges did not have enough life to get the astronauts back to Earth safely, so the Lavelle cartridges were jury-rigged together in order to provide enough fresh air to save the astronauts of Apollo 13 from death by carbon monoxide poisoning.
In 1976, the original founders sold the company to other investors and, in 1987, Lavelle Aircraft was moved to Northeast Philadelphia. In 1994, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and was dissolved in 1999.
The Newtown factory site on South State Street was restored as the present Stocking Works office complex.
Walking by this site on South State Street, it is hard to believe that it once served as the finish line of horse races over a century ago, and it was also the place where the space race was launched, saving the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts and transmitting the first weather satellite images back to Earth.
Yes, Newtown is truly a special place.
Brian Rounsavill is first vice president of the Newtown Historic Association.
“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.