A red shouldered hawk spread wing and took reluctant flight from her perch on an aged, ivied oak as I skied underneath. The towpath snow had fallen smooth and powdery. The ice in the canal was solid enough to support the feet of deer and man whose prints marked it everywhere.
Just a few weeks ago I used skis to make my way to the one square-mile borough of Yardley, PA, just a mile from Interstate 95’s Scudders Falls bridge and 14 miles from Carnegie Center in Princeton. This week or next it could be runnig shoes and shorts. With the exception of a little more hilliness to the towpath, I might have been traversing the Jersey side, taking the Delaware Raritan Canal up from Princeton.
Like the D&R canal spanning the Jersey side, Pennsylvania’s Delaware & Lehigh Valley Canal’s 150 miles were built to haul the hard anthracite coal from the Carbon County seam southeast to Philadelphia and New York. The mules, tenders, and canal boats served this purpose from from 1832 until the last coal boat plied its waters on October 17, 1931. Railroads, realizing they could not compete with one mule, one driver, and one boat carrying three freight cars worth of coal, simply bought up the canals and laid their rails there.
Now the rails have gone and the 60 miles of D&L canal that parallel the Delaware serve as idyllic outdoor playground for bikers, paddlers, strollers, and more. (Visit www.delawareandlehigh.org).
Welcome to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which exhaustively lauds its own rural heritage, its home-grown arts, and its wines (which, though good, don’t hold candle to south Jersey’s Outer Coastal Plains vintages). Bucks’ self-styled gentility produces such fascinating excursions as the spring Elephant Eye Tour, where folks visit with artists in their studios. It is a riverside haven, kept intriguing by its residents, and filled with countless one-day explorations by bike or auto. (Visit www.visitbuckscounty.com).
Previous visits had led me to believe that it might be akin to my own town of Cranbury, where the high level of intellect feels less driven than in neighboring Princeton, and where all children walk to school. Or maybe I was just being lured by similar size and architecture.
Along the towpath lifelong Yardley resident Bill Radner and I paused to chat. Bill makes the daily trek to Trenton where he sells advertising for WCBC 1490 AM radio. Now in his 60s, he says, “Yes, I suppose you can say that Yardley folks are a little more down to earth — lower key than a lot of the towns around. But, of course that’s only a general tone of the place.” Radner grew up in the small borough and never left, and like every resident, he holds several good flood stories at the ready. “I remember Hurricane Carol in ‘55, and looking out toward the river from my front window as the entire Delaware River Bridge came sweeping by in the flood.” Everyone who selects an idyllic location as residence seems to pay some price.
Closer to town, I stare at the uncertain, shifting surface of the slate-gray Delaware River. “You do not want to be in the way of this river when she is angry,” one resident warned me later that day. Beside it stands a home, surrounded by a litter of construction beams, whose owners, like so many, have opted to raise it up on stilts, rather than to move to higher ground. In the last three years, “300-year floods” have washed over Yardley’s Main Street and other bank-side roads. Thrice the towpath disappeared as the canal and Delaware waters joined. Most residents chose to stay on.
Within a mile from I-95, the towpath transforms into Edgewater Avenue, marking the northern edge of Yardley borough’s 1,170 homes. Her 2,511 population (92.6 Caucasian, according to last U.S. Census) has altered little since 1980. Generally, it is a town where residents settle and remain.
I cut over a block to parallel Main Street, passing the small clusters of small colonial or Federal-style homes. Federal is the fancy word for 18th century structures held together lovingly by generations of owners laboring increasingly since the Revolution. R&R (reconstruction and repair) is a prime Yardley hobby.
Toward the center of town, buildings grow larger and more fun. These are the much touted “Gothic Revival” homes and shops whose gingerbreaded, steep gables, spires, and jutting appendages represent the first experimental beginnings of Victorian architecture. Those Yardleyites who first tasted wealth in the post-Civil War boom and in 1876 when the Reading Railroad came through the town, could afford to take on the eccentric ostentation of the times. Gratefully, both the Reading line and the Gothic aura remain.
Taking Main Street as it parallels the Delaware, I quickly come to the town center and turn right on Afton Avenue, away from the river, and head for LakeAfton. It is a Currier and Ives print brought to life.
Just behind the library stands the timeless stone form of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, surrounded by its enjoyably explorable cemetery. The sense of history is overwhelming.
Strolling down Afton toward the river, I stare at the bank, at the Delaware on its course to Philadelphia, 40 miles downstream. It demands very little to envision William Yardley landing here in 1682 to view the 500 acres he had purchased blind from William Penn two years prior, when both men were still in London. Claiming his new land as “Prospect Farm,” Yardley and his family had prospered until their deaths from smallpox in 1693. Nephew Thomas Yardley came, 11 years later and put Yardley on the colonial map by creating a Delaware ferry at what is now Lechworth Avenue. The Yardleys stayed on for the next 150 years, flourishing with the creation of sawmills, wheel spoke factories, and gristmills.
Today, the corner bakery is more than 100 years old. The red and fieldstone building near town center still announces “The Yardley Gristmill 1769” with its interior now updated to house “YogaLove” studios. I begin to wonder if I have stumbled on some sort of stressless, striveless oasis which, if not exactly petrified, is settled happily into its established state.
As I munch on a good old-fashioned steak at the Yardley Inn, soaking in the wood warmth and gazing at the Delaware, my fantasy is reinforced. Originally founded as the White Swan in 1832, the Inn thrived until swept away by the flood of 1955, then was rebuilt and renamed. I told you — everyone in Yardley has a flood story.
However, I and my reveries are soon given a hard reality check by the town’s longtime residents. Stopping in at Bucks Ship & Print, I chat with native Glen Lowe. Barely out of community college, Lowe has just opened his new business, which provides all the shipping, tracking, binding, laminating, faxing, and copying services any business could want (www.shipandprint.com).
Energetic and entrepreneurial, he says the business atmosphere is very much alive and competitive. It is also highly professional. The Yardley Business Association’s directory (www.yardleybusiness.com) is rife with attorneys, realtors, bankers, landscapers, restaurateurs, insurers, and asset managers. Not surprising that the average household income of nearly $75,000 stands one and a half times wealthier than the rest of the state.
Any changeless visions I held for Yardley were soon shattered when I heard the announcement of the pending Cold Springs Beverage sale. Landmark purveyor of such favorites as Killer Penguin and Brew Dog beers and Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, its home has long stood on the hill of 85 Main Street.
But the company has now entered into a deal to sell the property to an upscale condo group that will bring in untold numbers of families. With the average free-standing home price in today’s Yardley running at $370,000, the rumored $500,000 condos would totally change the makeup of the town.
Residents fear that growing numbers of Philadelphia and New York commuters will snap them up.
Before I leave, Lowe relates his family’s recent flood story in which his mother’s home was inundated right up to the top of the first floor. After cleaning out, salvaging, and an expensive rebuild, the floods came again, nine months later. “My mom was simply heartbroken,” he recalls. “It really put her in a deep depression for a while.”
Out in the street, I bump into some old Yardley friends, Newt Richards and Ann Paice. Technically and politically residents of Morrisville, like so many others from surrounding towns they often refer to their home as Yardley. Having recently left their New Jersey government jobs, they now frenetically pursue an exhaustive list of activities. It whirls between choral singing, paddling their own canoe, Scottish dancing, music playing, and arranging which European castle their fiddling group will rent this year. They will trek to any historic exhibit from Neolithic onwards, and most art, with a strong impressionist tropism. They represent a large and growing portion of the area.
Richards takes me by the arm and points to Main Street with a shake of the head. When he first came to Yardley in 1965 each of those lovely Victorian houses was a family home, held for generations in a name everyone knew. “Now look at it,” he says. “Law, accounting, real estate, almost all of them have been bought up by some professional group and the families are gone.” I am beginning to think that perhaps, like my Cranbury, it is only Yardley’s architecture that is hanging on.
My friends had come to explore Yardley’s annual antiques show at the Main Street Community Center. Inside splays a wonderland of tools and toys from a more physical age. Coal shovels hand-hewn from a single piece of maple, planing adzes, decoys once employed as real duck lures, and of course the laborious artistry of intricate quilts. Like so many of my discoveries in this town it provides an alluring atmosphere. But they are, after all, only antiques. No one today will buy that sled with the wood runners for anything but a Rosebud-like memory.
Mixed with all these emotions, I begin to ponder my way down Main Street and encounter Yardley native Don Vliefsten. For the last 30 years he has worked in the jewelry business and we chat outside his current workplace, T. Foster & Co. Fine Jewelers on Main Street. He volunteers a warm welcome to this stranger and launches into many fascinating facts about the town and its businesses. “The atmosphere of this town creates the warmth,” he notes.
Stopping in at the Continental Tavern, I join the others at the bar who seem more involved in conversation than anything else. Like so much else in Yardley, the Continental boasts a more-than-150-year history, and came into particular note as an Underground Railway stop prior to and during the Civil War. Now undergoing a vast refurbishing, the Contential hosts many of the resident regulars nightly. A similar crowd, I suspect, hangs out at the popular Mil-Lee’s Breakfast & Lunch on Main Street.
Yardley is no Shangri-La. It provides no haven for those seeking some sort of Amish regression into imagined simpler days. And antiques are just antiques. But thank heavens for a few Yardleys with their Lake Aftons and homes designed more to please the eye than impress or cut cost.