Bucks community restores faded WWI memorial

Posted: September 29, 2011

When New Britain's World War I memorial was dedicated in 1931, Bruce Burkart was just a baby. But the pavilion, set in a shady grove behind one of central Bucks County's historic churches, is a special place to him nonetheless.

His grandparents were among its planners, and its bronze plaque listing the community's fighting men bears the name of his father, as well as that of an uncle wounded in France.

In 1957, with time taking a toll on the memorial, Burkart - by then an Army veteran himself - felt honor-bound to spruce it up.

And he still does.

Two weeks shy of 80, Burkart is back in work clothes at New Britain Baptist Church, leading a major restoration of the pavilion by the borough's historic preservation committee. More than an overseer of others' labors, he has hauled lumber in his crimson pickup, cut rafters, and raised a new roof to replace one blown away years ago by a hurricane.

By Nov. 12, Veterans Day weekend, the 20-by-36-inch plaque titled "Our Honor Roll" should be in place for the rededication ceremony.

"I'm probably one of the few living people in this community who still remember something about this," Burkart said of the memorial's provenance.

Through its decline, he also was one of the few who took much notice of the pavilion, which looked like a forgotten refreshment stand.

Why the town would rally now to save it - to raise $2,200, to donate materials and time - is a story in a box. Rather, three boxes, discovered on a shelf in the basement of the borough's administrative hall and labeled "historic."

When preservation committee members looked inside, they found photographic negatives from the 1931 dedication of the memorial, built in memory of H. Walter Harvey. Killed in France in 1918, he was believed to be New Britain's sole military casualty of World War I. He was originally buried in France, but his mother was intent on bringing him home, and in 1920 reburied him at nearby Beulah Cemetery.

As the bronze plaque attests, nine other borough residents served but survived, among them Burkart's father, Henry Parmalee Burkart, and his uncle, George E. Rowland.

One box also held a letter written in 1957 by Bruce Burkart's grandmother, Louise, then New Britain's historian. She described a pavilion that, in its heyday, was literally the town watering hole.

The village leaders who erected it had wanted a memorial that did more than honor veterans. They thought it should also benefit the community. So they added a public cistern.

The fresh water from the sunken tank nurtured the community, Louise Burkart wrote. Farmers brought milk cans in hay wagons to fetch water for their livestock during times of drought. The local fire company tapped it to douse fires. And, she added, neighbors and travelers alike stopped by "for a drink of fine spring water."

Finding the letter and the negatives spurred the committee to action, said member Donna von Lipsey. Bruce Burkart, also a member and a retired manager for a building materials manufacturer, was the obvious choice for project leader.

"This tapped into [his] passion," she said.

Along with residents' contributions of cash and labor, businesses donated materials, or provided them at a big discount. The fund soon will grow with the proceeds from a local bank's pumpkin contest.

Enough money has been raised already to restore the pavilion - though not the cistern - and to provide for some maintenance and landscaping. Burkhart hauled the new Douglas fir in his pickup.

Ruth Peters, a niece of H. Walter Harvey, said she remembers drinking water at the memorial after Sunday school. Now 84 and living in nearby Danboro, she will gather with other family members at the Nov. 12 rededication to pay homage to not only their uncle, but all veterans.

Burkart will be there, front and center, for the same reason. He is a descendant, his grandmother used to tell him, of military men, beginning with one in the tea party - the original Tea Party.

Now, Burkart is the only one of his family left in New Britain. Of the pavilion, he said, "I'm just so happy that I'm still around to take care of it."

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at elounsberry@phillynews.com.


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