A Scenic Locale with a Vivid Past
Willow Grove's history dates back almost 300 years, giving it a heritage that's among the richest in the nation.
Willow Grove is located in Upper Moreland Township, approximately 15 miles north of downtown Philadelphia, in the northeastern corner of Montgomery County in Pennsylvania. Bucks County lies to the north of Montgomery County; Willow Grove's surrounding communities include Abington, Hatboro, Upper Dublin, Bryn Athyn and Horsham.
Willow Grove's close proximity to Philadelphia enables area residents to experience the most attractive aspects of life in a small community while enjoying the benefits and convenience of a metropolitan area. This aspect of Willow Grove living is enhanced by the transportation system that serves the area, including the Willow Grove Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Route 611, linking the region to such places as Philadelphia and Doylestown. The area also maintains a series of commuter rail and bus lines provided by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
In 1681, King Charles II of England granted a charter to William Penn for a sizeable tract of land in the New World that was promptly named Pennsylvania (Penn's Woods). Penn himself moved to Pennsylvania in 1682 to found a colony that would become a haven of religious tolerance marked by its inhabitants' freedom of conscience.
Nicolas More was an English friend and associate of Penn's and shared Penn's interest, both personal and financial, in establishing a colony in Pennsylvania. More purchased 10,000 acres of Pennsylvania land from Penn in 1681; in 1682, More and his family arrived in the New World, and More gave the land the name "the Manor of Moreland."
After More's death in 1689, the Manor was divided among More's children, with the Manor of Moreland becoming the Township of Moreland in 1718. It was divided again in 1784 with the formation of Montgomery County, and the lower portion was merged into Philadelphia in 1854. In 1916, the Township was again divided to form the Upper and Lower Moreland Townships, with land areas of 7.58 square miles and 6.77 square miles, respectively.
The Willow Grove area went by several names throughout the years. It was first referred to as Round Meadow, due to the large S-curve on the Old York Road between a large meadow and a 150-acre swamp. During the American Revolution, when the Red Lion Inn was a prominent and popular feature of the community, the area was known as Red Lion.
The late 1700s brought an incident wherein livestock enclosures built for overnight stays on the way to markets in Philadelphia gave way, resulting in pigs rampaging through the area and trampling gardens. A lawsuit was filed to deal with the swine-related damages, and as news of this spread, the area became known as Pigtown or Pig's Alley, a name that endured for nearly a century.
The first mention of the name "Willow Grove" can be found on a map of Pennsylvania townships created by Reading Howell in 1792. The story goes that Howell saw a farmer planting willow trees in the area, and when he asked the farmer what the area should be called on the map, the farmer - no doubt influenced by his work - suggested Willow Grove, which would eventually become the area's official name.
The first settlers in the area immediately began the arduous process of clearing and cultivating the land for homes and for agriculture. The 150-acre swamp covering the area that is now War Memorial Park was one of the first obstacles to overcome, but through the planting of willow trees - which require immense amounts of water to survive - the swamp was eventually drained and converted to fertile farmland; by 1882, only 20 acres of swamp remained. Some of the early prominent settlers in the area included James Cooper, great-great-grandfather of famous early American a Sampson Davis; James and Jacob Dubree; and the Reverend Joshua Potts.
The establishment of York Road in 1711 resulted in the first major influx of people and supplies, as it provided a transportation connection to Philadelphia. The first homes in the area were nearly all log dwellings, until access to lime for mortar made building with stone a viable option. By 1776, sturdy stone homes constituted the majority of those being built; many of these homes are still standing today.
Agriculture and the exporting of crops has been a key industry in Pennsylvania from the time it was founded, and the Willow Grove area was one of the state's most prosperous and prolific farming areas. Leading crops in the 1750s included buckwheat and Indian corn, with oats, hemp, rye and flax also being grown. Wheat was also a prominent money crop, and dairy farms later became a viable and important part of the Willow Grove economy in the mid to late 1900s.
With wheat and other grain crops fast becoming staples of the area, it is not surprising that Willow Grove's first industries were related to agriculture. The area's first businesses included the manufacturing of scythes at the Dubree Scythe Factory, established in 1732 by James and Jacob Dubree, and the Davis, Parry, Morgan Grist Mill, established by Sampson Davis in 1727. In the 1800s, the area was home to numerous other industries, including the J.L. Rush Wagon & Carriage Shop, Schiffendecker's Hydropathic Institute, Triebels Creamery, and Newport Phosphate Works.
As the area grew, its proximity to Philadelphia became more and more important. During the days of horse-drawn wagon and stagecoach travel, Willow Grove was no more than a day's travel from the city, making it the perfect site for an overnight stop for travelers. Several inns and restaurants in the area were famous for quality both in accommodations and in food, including the Fountain House Inn, which was established in 1717 and stood for more than 250 years; the Red Lion Inn, established first as the Wagon in 1762 and then changing its name in 1776; and the Mineral Springs Inn, a famous spa and summer resort established in 1803.
Religion has been an integral part of the Willow Grove area since its beginning - a heritage that is inevitable considering the values on which the state of Pennsylvania was founded. The Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, became a major religious element in the area as early as 1683, and 1888 saw the establishment of the Willow Grove United Methodist Church, the first church in the area. Formal education in Willow Grove got its start in a log cabin that was reportedly used as a school before 1776.
The first post office was formed in 1811 at the Red Lion Inn, and it wasn't until the 1800s that the first newspaper was printed in the area: the "Literary Chronicle and Buck and Montgomery Advertiser," which was first printed in 1840. The telephone came to Montgomery County in the late 1800s, and 700 telephones were installed in the Willow Grove area by 1925. The Upper Moreland Free Public Library was first established by the Willow Grove Civic Club in 1928; after a series of expansions and location changes, the library still serves the community today.
The Willow Grove area experienced much during the Revolutionary War, with one of General George Washington's army encampments located just a few miles north, near Hartsville. Washington himself led troops through Willow Grove in 1777 en route to an engagement with the British army at Brandywine. The Battle of Crooked Billet, wherein 14 British companies of light and heavy infantry led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby routed Brigadier General John Lacey, Jr.'s Pennsylvania Militia, also took place nearby.
During the Civil War, the Willow Grove area was a major part of the Underground Railroad, due in large part to the prominent Quaker population and the anti-slavery sentiment espoused by many in the state. Montomery County was a vital part of the Railroad, with Old York Road as one of its primary routes through Pennsylvania on the way to Canada. At least two known refuges for runaway slaves were located in Willow Grove itself.
Willow Grove's reputation as a resort town, fueled by its attractive country setting, popular inns and boarding houses, and mineral springs, became even more prominent during the latter half of the 1800s with the introduction of the railroad in the 1870s, the later establishment of the trolley system and the opening of Willow Grove Park in the 1890s.
Once the trolley system was in place, linking Philadelphia to several places in the Willow Grove area, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company conceived the idea to build a park at the end of the trolley line as an enticement for customers. Thus the world-famous Willow Grove Park was born, opening on May 30, 1896, and soon after becoming a trend-setting inspiration for the creation of countless similar parks across the country.
Willow Grove Park offered numerous concerts, which drew such famous orchestras and conductors as John Phillip Sousa; Victor Herbert; the New York Symphony, led by Walter Damrosch; the Russian Symphony; Frederick Stock; Nahan Franko; Wassali Leps; and Theodore Thomas. The concerts at the park were so successful that it soon became known as "The Music Capital of America"; in 1926, 100,000 people were in attendance for John Philip Sousa's final concert at the park.
As an amusement park, Willow Grove Park contained a staggering array of attractions, which in its early days included kinetoscopes, mutoscopes and X-rays at the Biograph; the Mystic Moorish Maze; the Mountain Scenic Railway, later called "the Alps"; a Ferris wheel; two carousels; Tours of the World, a movie shown to give the illusion of movement while visitors sat in train coaches; the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster; Bluebeard's Palace; and countless other rides and exhibits. The cafés and eateries at the park were also legion. As its slogan proclaimed, life truly was "a Lark at Willow Grove Park."
In the latter half of the 20th century, however, the Park was beginning to show its age. After a series of owners and renovations, the Park was finally demolished on April 14, 1976, to become the site for a giant mall, which was named the Willow Grove Park Mall.
Some of the famous residents of and visitors to the Willow Grove area over the years include William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State to President Woodrow Wilson and prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial; Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams; James Gordon Bennett, Jr., managing editor of the New York Herald Tribune in 1866; conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein; aviator Amelia Earhart, who attended school in Abington and tested the Autogiro plane at Pitcairn Field; cellist, conductor and composer Victor Herbert; Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener; "March King" John Phillip Sousa, novelist Christopher Morley and U.S. President William McKinley.