Interviewee: David McClenahan Interviewer: Lyda Doyle Date of interview: June 2, 2014 Transcriber: Wendy Moody
A lifetime resident of East Falls, Dave’s interview focuses on Falls Presbyterian Church and Mifflin School.
LD: So, we’ll start with when and where you were born.
DM: Well I was born in Philadelphia in Chestnut Hill Hospital. I lived at 3434 Midvale at the time with my parents. That’s just a block from here.
LD: Did you move directly from there to here?
DM: Directly from there to here (3805 Vaux Street in East Falls) around 1954.
LD: Where were your parents born?
DM: My parents – my mother was born in East Falls. I think she was born at home which was on New Queen Street, down near the railroad tracks. 5 or 6 houses up from Indian Queen Street (Cresson?). She was actually born at home, and my dad was born in Kensington and moved here when he was about… somewhere under 10 years old. I don’t know exactly when. He moved to East Falls and lived in several houses before he and my mom got married.
LD: Did you know where they met?
DM: Best of my knowledge, they met at the Falls Presbyterian Church. All four of my grandparents lived in East Falls and one of them was born in Philadelphia (Germantown).
LD: What were their names?
DM: Well, Annie Neely was my grandmother on my mother’s side. She was the one who was born in the United States, in Philadelphia. Robert Neely was my grandfather on my mother’s side. He was born in Ireland. And he lived on, I think, Calumet Street.
And then my grandmother on my father’s side was Sarah Archer. She was born in Ireland and she lived in several places in Philadelphia. The first in East Falls was on Mill Street. I’m not exactly sure where Mill Street was.
LD: Maybe we can look it up on an old map sometime.
DM: Yeah, I know we looked it up but I couldn’t find it this morning to see exactly where it was, but it was over there. And then very shortly after that they moved to 3608 Calumet Street and then for some reason moved to 3606, or maybe it was the other way around, but they moved from one house to the other.
And, let’s see, my grandfather McClenahan (William H McClenahan, Sr.) – he was born in Ireland and lived in various places in the Kensington area before he lived at Calumet Street.
I don’t know where – well, my grandmother and grandfather McClehanan met in Kensington somewhere, in Philadelphia, and got married in that area. And I don’t really know exactly what the story was. Sarah and William McClenahan were married in the year 1900 at the 5th Reformed Church, Front St above York St in Kensington.
I didn’t say that my grandmother Neely’s maiden name was Annie Cropper. Everybody came to East Falls basically because of textiles.
LD: Because there was employment – there were textile mills.
DM: So that’s the original reason why parts of the family started in Kensington, because that was the textile center in the United States at the time. And then they (my grandparents) found their way to East Falls– for some reason – I don’t know what happened – some of them – the Croppers, I know, were hired in Ireland and sent to East Falls by the company to Dobson Mills. I don’t know the reason why some of the other parts of the family came here – what mill it was – or what textile thing –but they were all basically involved with the mills here.
Except for my grandfather McClenahan and he was not a well man – and he was not a highly trained man – he was a grave digger and had other jobs. One of the jobs he had when he was in East Falls – which brought him to this area, I guess – was he was a shepherd for sheep in Fairmount Park.
LD: Were they privately owned, do you know?
DM: No, they were city-owned. It was a city job and they brought them to cut grass. They would release small herds of sheep and they would move them all over and they would cut the grass. So there’s actually an old barn that’s still over in Fairmount Park. An outdoor display is at the barn and it’s all the pictures and explanations as to that’s what occurred.
Bob and I came across that accidently in a walk and said “We know our grandfather was a shepherd – we knew he was over across the Schuylkill River (from East Falls) herding sheep.” The sign said they were there cutting grass and they were there in the 1920s era and then it closed. The barn is still there.
LD: Very interesting. Now when you were growing up here in the ‘50s, what were the houses like? Pretty much like they are now?
DM: Yeah, very little has changed. The houses that all the grandparents moved into first – starting all the way back in the very late 1800s when the Croppers came to East Falls – that house is still there. They house they lived in on Bowman Street and Calumet Street – those houses are all there – and Indian Queen Lane, Ainslie Street, Midvale with Bob and I, and then this house. This house was not…we’re the first occupants of this home.
LD: Did you show me a house that your ancestors probably were in that was where McMichael Park is today? The Morgan House?
DM: Yeah, the “Blue” book calls it the Morgan House. It has all sorts of fascinating possible ties. Even the property has been changed a lot with other houses so it’s hard to tell exactly what was going on there. But in the Neely family, which was my grandfather’s family, he married into the Cropper family. Our mother, Clara Neely McClenahan’s father’s mother was Isabella Morgan.
That makes Isabella Morgan our Great-Grandmother. So we have that possible connection. We have pictures of the Cropper family sitting on the porch of the house, one of which identified it as being near the current Henry Avenue and Midvale. It was identified in the 1940’s by my aunt – my great-aunt Clara Cropper. And she’s in the picture and she identified it as being near there (near the current Henry and Midvale).
Some of the pictures in that East Falls Blue Book indicate there was a connection. I don’t have any real estate record yet to say they owned the house. Their regular house in that same period was over on Calumet Street, so it’s just possible it was a village house or something they went to visit. It was very rural back then. The pictures of it show it sitting all by itself on a little hillside with a stream going by it. And it’s possible they vacationed or just were visiting there.
My Aunt Clara Cropper – I overlapped with her – she died in the 1960s – we can remember her talking about it – in her handwriting is written on the picture that that picture was taken with our family on the front – all identified and recognizable. Somewhere on Henry and Midvale we later found out it may be Coulter and Henry. We don’t have any clue! (laughs)
LD: Well maybe someday…
DM: I hope. We’re going to try to figure out how to understand the real estate records a little bit better. That name Morgan is an old-time name in East Falls. We have no idea whether it’s connected except we know that our great grandparents were Morgans living in East Falls.
LD: Now, where did you go to school?
DM: I went to at Mifflin School.
LD: Did they have a kindergarten then or did you start in first grade?
DM: No, I started in kindergarten. I can remember Miss Murphy was my kindergarten teacher. The current building, without the extension they put on the back about 10 years ago or so, the kindergarten room is still in that building. I haven’t been in the school in years so I don’t know what they’ve done inside. But, yeah, a full year in kindergarten and then I went there for 7 years.
LD: And where did you go for high school?
DM: My parents had decided that they were going to send Bob and I to Friends Central High School out on City Line Avenue – a Quaker high school similar to Penn Charter but it was co-ed. And to insure that we would be ready for Friends Central, which was assumed to be a little ahead academically of Philadelphia (actually, I would have gone to Roxborough High School if I had stayed in the public school system), the school recommended we started a year early. Officially back then high school was 9 through 12 so they recommended that I take 8th grade at Friends Central, which was a kindergarten through 12th grade school.
LD: Now at Mifflin they had Shop and Home Ec classes for 7th and 8th grade. Did you take shop in 7th grade before you went…?
DM: 7th grade, yeah. The so-called cycle where you changed classes – very similar to what college ended up being, and high school. They had that too in 7th and 8th grade. Yeah, I had shop. Mr. Simon was my Shop teacher. Mrs. Terrill was my Home Ec teacher.
LD: Was she still there – although I think I’m older than you. I just turned 66.
DM: I’m a year older (laughs).
LD: Did you have Miss Heck in 6th grade?
DM: Yes I did! Ruth Heck, yes.
LD: And Miss Young for math?
DM: Miss Young, Mrs. Lyons….
LD: Mrs. Dunn?
DM: Mrs. Dunn.
LD: Mrs. Sypher?
DM: Mrs. Sypher. She conducted our Glee Club. I’d love to get back in there. I had a lot of fun at Mifflin. They had bazaars. They had poster contests for the bazaars. I can remember my mom – I made up a poster and she said “You can work on that a little bit more” and when it was done it was my mom’s poster! (laughs) I can actually remember that. It was lavender.
And the teachers were all very nice. My mother was very, very involved in the P.T.A. so she knew all the teachers. I couldn’t get away with a thing. And because I was following three years behind Bob – he was academically very good, and I wasn’t the best academically – so it was always “You’re not keeping up…”
LD: Are you Bob’s brother??
DM: Yeah! And Dr. Israel Galter – he was actually the Principal when they moved from Breck to Mifflin because there were various people that I met over the years – one was Irene Webster – she’s in her 80s now – and she remembers marching from the old Breck School to Mifflin. Sort of settling into the new school.
LD: A celebration.
DM: Yeah. And Dr. Galter was the Principal at that time and he was still principal when I was there. I don’t know when he left. When I left, he was still principal.
LD: Did you have Christmas shows when you were there?
DM: Christmas shows? Yeah, I can remember standing on the stage. They had a wonderful stage – well-equipped – a BIG stage with big curtains – I guess for little children it was even bigger, flood lights, headlights and everything, sound system.
I can remember I was dressed as Santa Claus in one of the Christmas pageants and they were playing – we didn’t sing – they were playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – and it started off “You know Dasher and Dancer…” and I stood on the stage and then the classmates jumped out and they were dressed in reindeer costumes and I would point to the part of the stage and out popped a reindeer – Dasher, Dancer – and then Rudolph came out with the red nose. I don’t know if it was electric or not!
And one other thing – they had assembly every morning in the auditorium. They played music as the students were coming in and it was always classical music. They didn’t have many records – maybe 10 or 20 songs and one of my jobs, for a few years, was to play the records. So I got to go – when I went in, I would go up the side stairs onto the stage and through a little door and there was room back there and in it was this big old record player with an amplifier
And we’d turn it on and set it all up and then, whoever was doing it, and I was just one of the people who did it, we’d come out and stand on the stage and say “Today you will hear….and it was like….Clair de Lune by….I probably said Debussy or something (laughs)….and Clair de Lune was one of them – I can distinctly remember that.
And you’d announce it – I had a little weak child’s voice, but and then you’d play it, and when it was over, or you were signaled to end and turn the needle off, you turned everything down, and came down and sat in your seat.
LD: Do you remember singing in assembly? I don’t know if it was for special occasions?
DM: Yeah, I can remember singing.
LD: I can remember Jacob’s Ladder and Battle Hymn of the Republic.
DM: Yeah, I’m sure of that. I can remember playing – I played the trumpet when I was at Mifflin because Philadelphia School System had a program where they would give you free music lessons if you supplied your own instrument.
So, Bob came first, so the word went out in the family – no one had any musical instruments – and somebody came up with a clarinet, so Bob played the clarinet. He was taught how to play the clarinet in his music lessons. Mine was – the word went out – and the only response was from the Neely family on New Queen Street (my mother’s family) – somebody had a cornet – a trumpet, and that’s what I got. And that’s what I learned to play.
But what I was thinking of was – I remember another classmate – Jacqueline MCCullough – she played the violin. And she and I, under the direction of Miss Heck, we learned This is My Father’s World, a hymn, and we played it as a duet. A very odd trumpet/violin duet (laughs) with her on the piano, I think.
So there was no – the whole religious thing – it was clearly a Christian-oriented education. And prayer, of course was there at the time.
LD: And Pledge of Allegiance?
DM: And Pledge of Allegiance. Yeah, every day. Even days when we weren’t in the auditorium. And that’s why I don’t remember if assembly was a couple days a week, because I can remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom.
LD: And a prayer.
DM: And a prayer. Yeah, I’m sure we sang hymns. And I know there was the glee club. I don’t know what occasions they sang; I know it wasn’t every day.
LD: The glee club…the Gotwols had something to do with the glee club.
DM: All I sorta remember about that was that Miss Sypher led it and she had these big flowing arms (laughs) Very different from Miss Dunn.
LD: Did Miss Heck ask you to play the bells or autoharp?
DM: Autoharp. What’s the song – I don’t want to sing on the tape – I can remember the song I learned on the autoharp. Strum with the right hand, over the left – yeah, I remember that.
The rooms I remember and, oh, the desks – the desktop was attached to the chair in front of you. So if that person moved the chair, the desktop moved.
LD: They had inkwells in them.
DM: They had inkwells in them. Now my father told me stories – my parents and aunts and uncles would tell me stories about dipping the girls’ hair in the inkwells. There was no ink in them by the time I came along! (laughs)
LD: Was there a girl in front of you?
DM: Yeah! Because I was all trained and ready to do that.
LD: There wasn’t much interaction among the schools, right? Mifflin didn’t play St. Bridget in sports…
DM: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think in those days the separation between Catholic and Protestant groups was stronger, and I don’t mean that in a negative way but there was a greater separation. I came from an Irish family – from a Northern Ireland town (Protestant). Many other Irish came from the south of Ireland. Whatever the differences were was very important to them, then they are now.
LD: And I think there were a lot of sandlot sports.
DM: There was. I was not a sports person so even on that form you gave me. I had nothing I could fill that I had played sports.
LD: But you were involved in music a lot, and church.
DM: Church and music. They were the big things. We did a lot of things then through the church – I didn’t do as many things through the school – as far as sports were concerned. I do remember recesses and organized games in the schoolyard. I was never on any of the East Falls’ sports teams, or Little League.
LD: Where would your family shop for food, clothes, housewares?
DM: Basically Germantown. Germantown had department stores – Allens, Rowell’s, and they had Penn Fruit Market over on Wayne and Chelten, a Food Fair market…
LD: Did your parents drive over or did you take the trolley?
DM: Both. For shopping, then you’d drive. We also went to the YMCA at Greene and Chelten – we walked to that on Saturday mornings – plus the 52 trolley went right by. Sometimes we’d walk over to the Y and then take the trolley home. 7 cents or something.(laughs)
Yeah, so Germantown supplied most of the stores we went to – but Roxborough was just as close, maybe even closer but, I don’t know why, but Germantown seemed to be where we went.
LD: And there were some grocery stores in East Falls where you could get something during the week.
DM: Yeah, there was an American Store down on Ridge and Midvale. And there was the Tilden Market, which is still there, that was the store closest to here and you could get whatever anybody had forgotten. Plus they had a really terrific meat…they had a real butcher and they did cut up carcasses. Then they’d cut it and hand it and show it to you – “Is that what you’re looking for?” wrapped it in paper instead of wrapped up in plastic…
LD: Did you get deliveries from the milk man or bread man?
DM: Bond Bread. Milk – I’m not sure who it was. And there was a laundry man for my father’s white shirts with starched collars. There was a huckster who came up the street – there was a tailor shop on Sunnyside and Vaux. Dry cleaning and things like that. Yeah, there were a lot more little stores and businesses – barber shops.
LD: Were there any candy stores?
DM: Candy stores? There was one just past the school on Conrad Street. And you’d go in there with your nickel and buy pieces of candy – wax lips – do you remember wax lips? And a little paper like a cash register tape with little candy dots pasted on it. That was a good business when you think it was so close to the school. I went home for lunch when I went to school. I never ate lunch at the school because I was only a block away.
LD: So then your mother wasn’t working. In those days most of the mothers were stay-at-home moms.
DM: Yeah. She apparently worked up until Bob was born and then stopped. She was a stenographer, typist. My mom always told everybody I was a typewriter (laughs). My dad worked in Philadelphia for the first part. I’m not sure when, but his company then, which was Merck, moved out to the suburbs so he commuted for a number of years to Lansdale.
LD: Did he take the train?
DM: No, he drove (to Lansdale).
LD: Did he drive in town or take the train?
He took the train in town. The Norristown Local. He’d take it to Spring Garden Street Station and then walked about 4 blocks to Broad and Wallace.
LD: Do you remember what make car he had?
DM: Hmm. Basically Chevys that somewhere along the line turned into Oldsmobiles. And I think for the rest of his life – he and my mom had Oldsmobiles. He used to be one of these people who bought a new car every few years whether he needed it or not. He didn’t pass that on his son! I just got a new car after having the other one for 11 years and that’s about my average – 11 years.
When he was – as I said, he was working at Lansdale, it was about a 25 mile commute – it was a reverse commute so he was going out of the city when most people were coming into the city. Bob and I ended up also working out in the suburbs in the same relative area. I in Warminster and Bob in another part of Lansdale/North Wales.
LD: So did you keep the same jobs for your whole careers?
DM: Always. Bob and I did, yeah. I worked for 27 years – we both retired early – and Bob worked for 30 years in the same place. When my parents were first thinking of moving from Midvale Avenue – I looked that up – so it was 1994….no, 1954!
LD: I was going to question that but you caught it yourself! (laughs)
DM: Apparently, they debated – they discussed as to whether they should live out where he was working. And as I understand it, my mother was strongly, strongly an East Fallser – never leaving East Falls and never leaving the church. So dad accepted that -as was his approach to marriage – and he commuted.
And I basically came to the same thing. When I was working – 22 miles to get to Warminster – commuting in traffic and in snow and everything, and keep thinking “Why aren’t I living out here?” I never wanted to.
LD: Your mother had a very strong sense of community and church and evidently that became part of your life. Falls Presbyterian is one of the two churches left in East Falls.
DM: Yeah. Well, we’ve always been associated with that church. My dad was involved quite a bit and at one time they had a number of people in charge of building – we call it the new church, but it opened in 1945. So he was head of the building committee for that. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about that involving getting money – the Dobsons were involved. He could remember having to go to the Dobson estate and knocking on the door as a representative of the church, with a couple other people and basically he always used to beg the Dobsons to give more money.
LD: Do you know how the site was selected?
DM: The original church was down on Kelly Drive (Ridge Avenue) and was getting old. This church building is actually just as old now. But apparently that one wasn’t built quite as well so was having some constructual problems.
Plus, East Falls generally grew – when East Falls started, I would say, most of the activity of East Falls was from the railroad on down the hill. Most of the houses were there. I’m talking now – the church started the process to move in the 1920’s, even though they didn’t accomplish it until 1945. But part of that process – the first thing they did was to decide on where – and they all decided that East Falls was moving up the hill. Eventually. And with the church you’re chasing the people, not the business so they – I don’t know the details of why this parcel of virgin land became available, but it was the size that they wanted. Some of the homes that are up in this area now were there. We’re talking about the 1920s. So a lot of the homes – like some of homes on Midvale – the ones where we lived in – they appeared in the 1930’s somehow. It was still sort of an open area. It was their vision to be there and they bought the property. It was
vacant for years – they didn’t start building until the 1940’s.
LD: Didn’t the war interrupt things?
The war interrupted for funds – people were in the war and weren’t coming – the church suffered an attendance decline and there were also restrictions on building materials – like steel. They started the building and had to stop because they didn’t have the steel to finish it. There are papers that I’ve seen where they applied for a special compensation on the embargo – not the embargo – the rationing of steel. They got permission to buy the steel that they needed to finish and close the building up. And then they ran out of money again. Even well before the war, as I said, the whole plan was to build this thing in the 1920s.
LD: Well, the Great Depression came in there.
DM: The Depression, and that was probably the biggest reason why it got a big delay. And then when you restart a project like that, like anything, it suddenly costs so much more than it was supposed to cost, let alone the regular things that may cost more when you’re actually building. And then the time, ten years, everything costs so much more. They didn’t run out of money – they had had the money to build it ten years ago.
So they finally – it was a combination of one of the Dobson daughters – I should know the name – I think it was the one named Spencer -it wasn’t Bessie.
James Dobson was dead by then and he had not left a huge amount of money to the church. He was the benefactor and very helpful while he was alive – very helpful – he enabled the church to do all sorts of things they wouldn’t have done. According to my dad, he would at times they would go to him – he was on the Board of Trustees of the church so he’d either know, or they’d go to him, and they’d say “More bills than we have money to pay!” and he’d pay up all the bills.
Bring them all up to date. He wouldn’t do that regularly, or he wouldn’t do that because – I guess he felt he wasn’t going to hold the church up (artificially). It needed to support itself. And I agree with that.
In this case – this Spencer daughter – I apologize I don’t remember the name; I’ll look it up – I have it. (note: Her name was Florence Dobson Spencer). She was killed in an automobile accident somewhere up near Ridge and Butler Pike – I know that (laughs)… but I can’t remember her name, but… This is all stories…and there was a sum of some tens of thousands of dollars in her will to the church and there’s a plaque (in the vestibule of the church to the honor of her parents, James and Mary Dobson) – well, so that enabled them to get enough money to finish off the church in the time frame of the early 40’s and it was finished up in ‘45. But they also had to get a mortgage. So they finished, but there was a mortgage involved.
…. Her dad left enough money to the church to pay off some bills, hire the contractors they needed to finish, and to get a mortgage. The church had been denied the mortgage because they didn’t have enough money behind it. No money in the bank and a half-finished church building.
And so the building is actually – when you go in the church building – it’s called Dobson Memorial Building. And they wanted to name the church the Dobson Church and the people in the church said “No, we don’t want that.” In this day and age of corporate naming and everything, it seems odd that people would turn that down.
They apparently agreed that the Dobson family – that they had done enough – and make it possible to have a church, even though (?) helped – the (?) came at the end. But the people didn’t want to be called the Dobson Presbyterian Church, so they agreed the official name would be the First Presbyterian Church of the Falls of Schuylkill. But they agreed then to call it the Dobson Memorial Building. So there’s a big bronze plaque inside the front door church building.
LD: That was a nice compromise.
DM: Yeah, the Dobson Memorial Building.
LD: So were there any special people you remember that contributed to the local community.
DM: No question – the Dobsons.
LD: How about the Pastors?
DM: I’ve only known Pastor Harvey – Robert Harvey – was at the church when I was born. He left around 1952. It’s funny, I can remember him preaching and at the end of the sermon announcing to the church that he’d be leaving. I think the Powers that be knew it but the people didn’t. I was very young, so I’m surprised that I can remember but I actually have a picture of that in my memory.
LD: So you were born in 1947?’
LD: What was the date?
DM: July 3.
LD: July 3, 1947 – I think I should have done that at the beginning. They’ll pick it up….
DM: I had to be born Caesarian, so my mother was given the option of when she wanted her son to be born – her child – she didn’t know it was a son. And she said ‘I don’t want it to be July 4 on the holiday because his birthday should be his birthday so they did it on July 3.
Oh, there are a lot of people I remember – the shop owners. The McDermott’s. Do you remember McDermott’s Store? Actually, Dr. McDermott was a dentist on Henry Avenue. The store owner was his father. Everything that you ever wanted to have was in this little store – a row house size store. And the Webster family. Dave Webster. I called him Mr. Methodist. He was very dedicated to the Methodist Church here in East Falls which I think follows the dedication that I usually am very impressed with in our own church – people that dedicated their lives. To some extent, I’m doing that and Bob’s doing that. But then he was a more of a Methodist theologically than I am a Presbyterian theologically (laughs). It was never about Presbyterianism to me.
LD: It was more Christianity.
DM: It was about this church, neighborhood, community. All that’s going on. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Nonetheless, it is an extended family and like all families you’ve got good and bad (laughs).
It’s amazing when I think back of all the people that I knew. The Hecks. You mentioned Ruth Heck, who was a teacher at Mifflin School.
LD: Was there a Jane Heck?
DM: Jane was Bud Heck’s wife. She was actually a Linton. One thing about East Falls, and you know this well (laughs) that there are families, spreading families, and one of the things I can remember my mother telling me – I don’t remember the exact occasion – she told us at various times: “Don’t ever say something bad about somebody because, almost assuredly, you’re talking to a relative of somebody – it either would be the Furmans, the Staretts….
LD: The Murphys – they said you couldn’t throw a stone in East Falls without hitting a Murphy.
DM: Yeah (laughs). So, yeah, Dr. Heck lived at the corner of Henry Avenue and Midvale. He was a great guy and a real role model. My father always said have a role model…. If I lived the rest of my life modeling him, I’d be very happy.
LD: Your Dad.
DM: My dad.
LD: There’s something to be said for the quiet, behind-the-scenes, get up and go-to-work-every-day, do the right thing by their job, by the family. They’re not in the news, but they’re the everyday pillar of the community and the family.
DM: I know that just part of his accomplishments at the church were to cajole people. I know it was a hard sell. He couldn’t do that. He was so sincere. So believable. He was very successful.
I don’t know if I mentioned, but there is a church organ that’s now 96 years old – 86 years old – I take that back – it’s 106 years old. So that was built and then donated by the Carnegie Foundation.
Carnegie did three things with his money later in his life – I read this – that maybe he hadn’t done for others with all the money he got. So he built libraries – he built the library in East Falls – it was donated by the Carnegie Foundation and he donated pipe organs to churches all over the country. The Methodist organ was obtained that way and the Falls Presbyterian organ was obtained that way, largely donated by Carnegie. This was in 1906 so it was in the old church – the organ was in the church on Ridge Avenue.
LD: They had to move it?
DM: They basically dismantled it and rebuilt it into the new church so it would fit… (indecipherable). It’s still a pipe organ and still has no electronics in it. It has electricity in it but it’s not computer-driven.
LD: You and Bob were not only in the church choir but in other community choirs?
DM: Yeah, a few years ago I joined the Roxborough Male Chorus. It’s a chorus dedicated to male music – men’s music, and it was quite a large chorus, apparently – it’s 75 years old – it’s existed for that long. At one time, it was maybe 100 people – 100 men.
LD: You have men and women in the church choir.
DM: Yes, men and women. I love music – I love singing. I said I played the trumpet but I don’t play the trumpet any more. I haven’t played it in 20 years.
LD: But you said you started out singing with the church – as a child?
DM: Well, as a child yes. I actually sang a song as a boy soprano in church, all dressed up in a bright red sport coat for Christmas. I stood up there and sang. But then I wasn’t in any of the choirs for a while because I’ve never been all that comfortable with my voice as a solo voice. I never want to hear my voice. So I thought you had to audition – and I think at one time you did have to audition to be in the choir in the Presbyterian Church – so I didn’t do it.
It was the year my dad died in 1982 and the old choir director left also. It’s not connected with my dad’s death in any way, other than that’s the year it was. This new choir director came – he was a young guy right out of college and he was looking for more singers – and slightly younger singers than some of the ones 70 and 80 year olds that were in the choir at that time.
And so he – I said “I’m not auditioning” and he said “You don’t have to audition. Come and sing.” “Oh really?” And I joined the choir that year and I’ve been in it ever since.
The church, since it is something that’s near and dear to my heart, it’s been though all the ups and downs, I guess, of life in East Falls and life in the city, at least.
We were very near the end in the late 1990’s. We were making our plans of how many more years we could keep it open and then how we would disband, what we would do with the building. The (officially stated) membership never dropped as low as it really was. There was something spiritual about not saying we had 25 members. But in essence we had 25 people.
LD: Was that before or after the anniversary?
DM: Oh that was before. And, as I said, we really had decided we can’t go on. We had been getting subsidies from the denomination. So we had to make all sorts of plans. And then we said, well let’s try to keep it going. And, one thing, we gotta cut costs. So we had to let our minister go, which was the biggest cost of the church – heating and the minister. We used the building hardly ever, except for Sunday mornings, we’d keep the building cold.
LD: And then just enough so the pipes wouldn’t freeze.
DM: Absolutely. Absolutely. We got ourselves down to where our costs were about what we could bring in, and then these two people walked up to our door. We were looking for somebody to take this job. When I say we got a new minister, we didn’t actually pull it off until we found somebody who was willing to work for just a few hours a week that we were able to pay. And these two people came up and applied for the job.
To make a long story short, they were very dynamic, engaging – the attendance started to go way back up. The word got out and people would come to hear them. They both sang so they joined the choir and they were good singers. And the whole thing – they were there 4 or 5 months and suddenly the attendance was up.
We were only paying them about 15 hours a week and we got it up to about 40 hours a week. And then we said “We think we can hire a full time minister.” They said “That’s not what we do. The church has turned around, and we send it on its way, so we don’t want the full time job.”
So then we went out looking and got the current pastor, who is Katherine Rick-Miller. We hired her as full time. She was a brand-new pastor so she’s grown with the church.
LD: And you sold the manse.
DM: We sold the manse which had become a tremendous burden – maintenance, taxes – it was the only thing we had for tax time was the manse – we paid taxes on it. Real estate tax. That manse was built in 1962. We put that money in the bank, invested it, and we had a couple bequests – far more money than the Dobson bequest. And the church is about up to 80 – 90 people.
As somebody who has sorta dedicated his life to the church, it’s pretty satisfying. And it’s even more so, you said it earlier, that’s there’s only just…. (indecipherable)
– far more money than the Dobson bequest. And the church is about up to 80 – 90 people.
LD: Did you go on summer vacations?
DM: Yeah. Ever since I was born my parents went to Stone Harbor, New Jersey.
LD: For a week or two or did they have a place?
No they never had a place. I think way earlier when we were infants, they would go for a couple of weeks. But the time I can remember being there as a 5 or 6 year old, we were four weeks. My college years I had gone for six weeks from the 15th of June to the end of July. Renting a house – a small house – for about $250 a month. (laughs)
LD: Amazing. It’s that much a day now!
DM: Yeah! So when I told people used to go to the shore for 6 weeks, but the whole thing was on a different scale. Even with inflation – we go to a condo place – we continue the tradition, Bob and I. We go down for a week every year to Stone Harbor – it’s actually in Avalon – and it costs $310 a day. And that’s just a condo – one bedroom, kitchenette, and living room. It’s a nice place – very nice. So that’s what we did.
And then in 1959 my father took us on our first trip. It was a car trip, basically to Yellowstone.
LD: Oh, you drove all the way out?
DM: All the way out. With a bug screen on the front of the car, staying at motels. It made an impression on us because I love travel – I always have. We didn’t go right the next year, but sure enough the shore trips tapered off and travel increased.
And then when Bob and I got to school and making some money and headed off to our own trips. Mom and dad were still taking trips. Dad got a little older and we joined the trips again.
Just a couple of stories I’ll tell you about the memories that I can think of:
One, when we lived on Midvale Avenue from 1947 to 1954, I can remember there was a bay window in the front with the little panes of glass. There was a radiator along the front window. And I can remember I used to love as a child to stand there with my elbows in the top of the radiator – it wasn’t hot, it was really nice and warm, and look out and watch Midvale.
LD: The cars going by, the trolleys….
DM: Especially the trolleys. I’ve always been intrigued by railroads and trolley cars. The 52 trolley went up Midvale Avenue and I have memories of leaning there and just watching for a lot of time, apparently.
LD: Did you go to the Alden movies once a week?
DM: Yeah! We used to go there on Monday – Sunday – Saturday! – I’ll get it right! Saturday matinee. It was about a quarter and we saw a few serials, Flash Gordon, we saw some Lone Ranger episodes, newsreels – I don’t remember any movies! (laughs) but we were occupied for a long time. I don’t remember the inside of it that well.
I also remember – another memory I have – there were no buildings where the house is here on Vaux. There’s three houses – Wendy’s, this house, and the one on the corner.
LD: It used to be the Lupinacci’s.
DM: Now it’s Heather Ritch. Very nice. And those three houses were built at the same time. But prior to them being built there was nothing here. This was one of the few vacant lots. The other vacant lot was where the manse was built – which wasn’t built until 1962. However that was graded. They had graded it back in the ‘20’s getting ready for the church which never happened for so many years. So they graded it flat where the manse is. And then there was a steep bank and they graded it where the church is sitting. And there was another steep bank that they had graded. So we used to play there.
And behind the houses on Midvale Avenue – the 3400 block of Midvale – there were two story tudor houses – there were almost woods behind them. So we played a lot as children in those woods. We didn’t have to go all the way to Wissahickon Park – we had our own woods here in East Falls!
I do remember playing on this lot. It was not graded and was very rough and rustic. There were some holes in it about half the size of this livingroom. I don’t know what they were.
And when we were living on Midvale, we had the back alley. And all of our playing on Midvale was in the back alley. There was really not much of a front yard on those houses. We’d just go out the basement door and in the back and see who was out in the back alley and play with them. Those were some of my schoolmates.
The lady that lives in the house at 3434 Midvale is the lady who bought the house from my parents. She’s still living there.
LD: You get a sense that there are a lot of houses in East Falls that are generational. The people live in them a long time and their children buy them or a friend of a friend.
DM: Yeah, I think that was. I’m not so sure that it is as much now. One thing that we’ve noticed at church, just by knowing the people that come out to the church, almost like a sampling of the neighborhood – the time that they spend in East Falls is generally short compared to me, who’s 67 years, or other families that we’ve talked about that are here or were here. One of the challenges that we talk about in church – it’s a reality – is that we get new members and it used to be “Oh, we got a new member; they’ll be here for 50 years” but now they’re here for 4 or 5 years.
LD: You still have to keep recruiting new members.
DM: Yeah, we lose about 8 and add about 10, a gain of 2 or something like that. It’s that kind of thing. And didn’t used to be. It’s true that people throughout my life were going to the suburbs – the flight to the suburbs – but not quite as much as now. The school system is a problem, so when young families have school age kids they tend to pick up and leave for another school district.
LD: That’s a city-wide problem.
DM: Yes, probably the single biggest thing that takes families out of the church is that they start their families, and having jobs in another place and the idea that you work in the same place for years just isn’t true anymore.
I sit in church on Sunday and I look and there’s at least two other classmates from Mifflin still there. So there’s three of us all from the one class. Bob’s generation is about four that went to school together – Charlotte Dobson, who’s probably not related to the Dobson family, she’s still living in East Falls.
LD: Are there any events in East Falls that stand out in your mind? Parades?
DM: Well, yeah, Memorial Day there was a parade. It was led by the Methodist Drum and Bugle Corps. They used to parade – it started with a ceremony at the park, at the memorial in McMichael Park and then they would march down Midvale and go to the river and have a ceremony and throw a wreath in the river and watch it go down the river. I remember that. And then all the churches had their 4th of July picnics.
LD: At separate locations.
DM: At separate locations – separate picnics, separate parades. Almost all of the churches paraded to their picnic grounds. St. Bridget had their picnic in McMichael Park, Falls Pres, in my era, had theirs at Penn Charter. Prior to that, the picnic for Falls Pres was at their church along the river.
And I can remember the Lutheran Church had their picnic right next door to the church. They had this wooden slide that they put together. You’d come down the hill right beside the church. I’m not sure I remember all the others.
The Methodists – I’m not sure where they had their picnic for a long time, and then as both of our churches were getting smaller, but still going back at least to the ‘80’s, we joined and we did have our picnics together. For a while they were both at Penn Charter – for a while they were on one side of the big football field and we were on the other side covered by the trees. And then somewhere along the line someone said “This is silly. Let’s get together and have our picnic together. We all like each other.” So we did that.
And the Drum and Bugle Corps always paraded up from the church to Penn Charter. And when we combined the picnic, I joined that Drum and Bugle Corps and played the trumpet. Bob played the drums. Helped to complete us in practice and we would go up there. Until we dissolved that picnic in the 1990’s the Drum and Bugle Corps was in business. The Methodist Church unfortunately closed in 2006.
In 2006 Falls Pres had its 150th anniversary, just a couple of years after St. Bridget’s 150th. And they decided – we had been having the picnic next to the church – a few blocks from the church just like the old days. We did it like that. And we put out the word, we put out letters and everything to people– come on back!
We invited everybody from the Methodist that we knew. There were about 70 people. And we used the park – Penn Charter was no longer available for that kind of thing.
LD: So you used McMichael?
DM: So we used McMichael Park. And we have done that now every year since 2006 so that’s 8 years now. It gets a few more people every year. I have to be very careful because, officially, we’re not allowed to use the park if we have over a certain number of people due to permits. This year we’re not having a picnic because we have a mission trip and 28 of our people are traveling that week, including the pastor and a lot of the people that help with the picnic so…..
LD: Where are you going?
DM: We’re going to North Dakota to help at an Indian Reservation.
LD: Anything we didn’t cover in the questions that you remember?
DM: I’m sure I’ll think of things, but, no, the things that I just added were the things that were going in my mind about traditions…
LD: So you had a definite sense of community growing up here…
DM: You did. And my family had a strong sense of East Falls. When I think all four grandparents were born – my mom and dad – all East Falls – it’s like a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania somewhere
LD: So it was a small town within a large city – it still has a sense of being its own little small town.
DM: And the people still meet in the church. As recently as 15 years ago, we had a couple that met in the church and got married, later in life. It was very common.
LD: And you still have members that have been members for a long time that come back for Sunday service, like the Harrisons.
DM: They just celebrated their 62nd anniversary.
LD: We can wrap it up and if there’s anything else that you think of, you can write an addendum and we can write it in.
LD: Are you comfortable with everything that we covered?
LD: Ok. Thank you so much for your time.
DM: A pleasure.