What Was Life Like Long Ago? Evansburg It Still Looks Like Its Pre-industrial Revolution Days.

Posted: December 22, 1994

EVANSBURG — "A northern, rural Williamsburg . . . whose historical tradition . . . has been one of quiet, moderate independence from the mainstream of American life."

That's how Anthony N.B. Garvaw of the University of Pennsylvania described this section of Lower Providence Township in a 1970 report authorized by the Montgomery County commissioners.

Evansburg, Garvaw wrote, has "an ecological balance of running water, natural slopes, standing timber, arable and grazing farm land, plus local buildings and historic sites that date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries."

Though almost 2 1/2 decades have passed since Garvaw offered his views, Evansburg still serves as a sort of time capsule of the era before the Industrial Revolution.

"It's been 24 years . . . and there has been very little outside development that has impacted the area, just a little family housing that has intruded on farm holdings," said Ed Owen, 60, president of the Skippack Valley Historical Society.

However, a proposal by A.J. Catagnus Co. of Norristown to build a paper- recycling plant on 47 acres in Evansburg has prompted a neighborhood outcry and led to a controversial rezoning of the property from industrial to residential. Catagnus is appealing the rezoning.

A complete history of Evansburg has yet to be written, said Owen, a local businessman. But there are enough bits and pieces to put together a general picture of the district's origins.

In the last decade of the 17th century, according to information in the Skippack Valley Historical Society's files, Skippack Creek lay at the end of an Indian footpath that stretched to Philadelphia. That footpath is Germantown Pike today. But then, land on the Skippack was at the outer edge of territory granted to William Penn by the British crown.

Penn's agents bought the land from a Delaware Indian tribe in 1684, in exchange for blankets, coats and kettles, records of the Historical Society of Montgomery County state.

Around the turn of the 18th century, armed with a land grant, the Rev. Evan Evans arrived in the area and built a log-cabin Anglican church that he called St. James'. Several years later, the wooden church burned down, and a stone structure was built in 1721.

A village was established and attracted German Mennonites, Welsh Quakers and Baptist groups to the area, in keeping with Penn's "Holy Experiment," in which religious groups coexisted peacefully.

"The village of Evansburg was a planned community," said Ed Wagner, 57, a consulting engineer who is a director of the Skippack Valley Historical Society. "The chief planners were the leaders of St. James' Church, who owned the land."

The church sold or rented lots for homes, mills and small farms along what are now Germantown Pike and Evansburg Road.

After American forces were defeated in September 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine, Washington's troops moved northward and, according to local lore, held a council of war at the rectory of St. James' Church, called Glebe House, which still stands on Germantown Pike.

St. James' itself served, as did many area churches, as a hospital for wounded Continental soldiers from the Battle of Germantown in October 1777. More than 100 soldiers who died of their wounds are buried in a mass grave in the church's cemetery.

In 1777, Evansburg's Mennonites, who were pacifists, debated their position on support of the American cause. Minister Christian Funk advocated the payment of the Revolutionary War tax on the ground that if the British won, freedom of worship might be jeopardized.

He and his followers, known as Funkites, were turned out and formed their own church. Their sanctuary long ago disappeared, but the Funkite Cemetery, which dates to 1815, is on Germantown Pike. The last of the Funkites had died out by 1850.

At the end of the Revolution and into the early 19th century, Evansburg underwent important economic developments, according to the files of the Skippack Valley Historical Society.

Germantown Pike developed into a good wagon turnpike, with easy access to Philadelphia. To make that access even easier, a local committee raised money

from a community lottery to design and build an eight-arch bridge over the Skippack Creek in 1792. The span is described on the National Register of Historic Places as "the oldest bridge of its size in continuous heavy service in America."

At the same time, the milling industry became well-established in Evansburg and elsewhere in the Skippack Valley. Roads were altered to create access to the mills, and water flows were diverted into mill pools.

The Keyser Mill, a four-story structure with an internal water wheel built in 1835, is a prime example of a gristmill of the period. Located at Skippack Creek Road and Germantown Pike, the mill operated for 95 years until it was

closed in 1930.

To accommodate the expanding milling business, larger barns were built to store more grain. Still in good condition from that time is a barn on Evansburg Road near the St. James' Cemetery that was part of the Casselberry family farm and was built around the turn of the 19th century, Wagner said.

Booming business along Germantown Pike also gave rise to a number of inns within the village.

Among the first was the Peter Williams Tavern on Germantown Pike at Skippack Creek, built in 1790. The Evansburg Inn was built between 1803 and 1806, and the Stephen Rush House was built in 1803.

During this period, Evansburg felt the impact of the public education movement. The Gospel School, built in 1792 to educate young members of St. James' Church, was turned over to the local school board as a public school in 1837. The school still stands on the grounds of the church's cemetery and serves as the village's public library.

By the mid-19th century, Evansburg had seen the height of its success as an agricultural and milling community. Railroads bypassed Evansburg, undercutting the economic base.

Yet that meant that the area was spared from heavy industry and maintained its 18th- and 19th-century character well into the 20th century.

Today, within the confines of what is known as the Evansburg Historic District - from Cross Keys Road to Grange Avenue, then from Mill Road to Ridge Pike - is a small part of Evansburg State Park. Wagner said the park contains about 38 historic structures, about 20 of which are in the historic district.

"The park earns about $50,000 per month from rentals of these historic homes," said John Gribosh, park manager. The money goes into a fund to pay for the renovation of the homes, he said.

Many of the historic homes in the park are abandoned and have been vandalized. "We feel the way to combat this situation is to fix up the homes and get them occupied," Gribosh said.

But there is no program to restore the buildings and then maintain them, he said. "Our renovation project is being done in ways that will not destroy any future opportunity to restore and preserve these homes," he said.

Gribosh cited renovations being done at the Mertz House, built in 1798 on Germantown Pike near the bridge.

Said the historical society's Owen: "We'd certainly like to see all the homes, both in the park and in the historic district, put on a program of restoration and continued preservation."

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