Horace Trumbauer, Whitemarsh Hall (Wyndmoor, PA: under construction, 1917.02.19).
History of Olney
The Olney community which is served by the Greater Olney Branch of the Free Library derives its name from the home of Alexander Wilson which stood from 1840 to 1924 east of Rising Sun Avenue overlooking Tacony Creek. Wilson chose the name because he was an admirer of the poet Cowper of Olney, England, composer of the famous Olney Hymns of the Methodist Church. The village that grew in The Hollows along Tacony Creek perpetuated the name of Olney. City maps of 1847 show the town of Olney consisting of three main roads and a community of farms. The main highways were the Kensington-Oxford Turnpike (now called Rising Sun Avenue), Olney Road (now called Tabor Road), and Clinton Street (now called Mascher Street). The first local street to appear on a city map was Green Lane (located just south of Cardinal Dougherty High School) and is found on a map of 1799.
The backbone of Old Olney was Tabor Road. It was put through in 1776 under King George II so that the Church of England members living in Germantown could get to Trinity Church at Disston Street and Oxford Avenue. Olney was born in a baronial atmosphere. Hamlets grew around big estates. Landlords controlled employment and took responsibility for the education and spiritual welfare of those on their land. They started churches and schools. The early families of the Tacony Creek region bought their land from old Trinity Church. The English set up cotton and woolen mills along the Tacony Creek for its water power. They were escapees from high taxes and the English spinning and weaving monopoly.
The Olney area had little active connection with the Revolutionary war, but Washington's troops maintained an observation tower at what is St. Helena's Church today. From the tower Washington's scouts kept an eye on General Howe's British Army in Philadelphia. Detachments of Washington's Army passed through this area on their way to the Battle of Trenton.
The Delaware and Lenape Indian tribes occupied the Olney area and maintained several campsites along Tacony Creek near the Roosevelt Boulevard. The Indians were peaceful and would rather farm than fight.
The name Olney became attached to the village at Old 2nd Street and Tabor Road (then known as Olney Road or Olney Lane), and later was extended to the section around Olney station at Mascher Street and Tabor Road, and finally to the shopping center around 5th Street and Olney Avenue, the modern straight-line thoroughfare. The modern name for the original crocked Olney Road is Tabor Road for the station Tabor, opened in 1873 to serve the Jewish Hospital. Much of the land in Olney was occupied by the George Wentz Pleasant Valley Farm. One of the streets in Olney is Wentz Street named for this farm. The Champlost mansion, near 2nd Street and Olney Avenue, was bought by a George Fox in 1743 and named in honor of the French count who saved his life by first-aid treatment.
On Mount Pleasant the Fisher Family owned a large estate which later became New Central Park (now the home of Cardinal Dougherty High School). Another Fisher property was later donated to the city and is now the home of Fisher Park. Olney High School is also located on a former estate--the Hunsicker Estate. Farming was the main business of the early Olneyites, and the center of cultural activities were the taverns that greeted stagecoach travelers at Rising Sun and Tabor and at Rising Sun and Roosevelt Boulevard. The coming of the Reading Railroad, first on the street level at Tabor Road and Clinton Avenue (now Mascher Street), moved the center of the town to that area. The Olney Station is still located there, and is a busy stop on the Fox Chase line.
First School. The community started around the Olney Public School opened Sept. 29, 1849 at Tabor Road and Water Street. It is still in operation. There were about 2,200 people in the area at that time. The first Olney Public School was a two-story stucco building with an enrollment of 85 boys and 62 girls. It is interesting to note that John Kenworthy, the first principle, received a salary of $400 per year.
First Church. Four women and three men met in the Feltonville School in 1816 to form the first religious congregation in the Olney District. Two years later, Olney's first church, the St. James Methodist Church, was built on ground donated by George Wentz, one of the early English settlers, at Tabor and Water Streets across from the first school. The church is still active in the community. The Rev. Samuel Harvey was the first preacher. The second St. James church was completed in 1869. The present St. James was erected in 1912 on the same site. There is an old burial ground next to the church with many of the early settlers, including the Wentz family, buried there. The church itself has published an extensive history.
First Stores. Two country stores served the early settlers--Jacob Felton's store and William Fetter's, both at Tabor and Rising Sun Avenue. These stores featured everything including buggy whips, harnesses kerosene and lanterns. The first Olney Post Office was located in these stores, depending upon which political party was in power at Washington. The present post office is at 4th and Olney. The wagon from Fetter's general store was seen on every street in the Olney area rain or shine. The store opened every morning at 6 a.m. so that the men on the open trolleys could stop and buy cigars to smoke on the long ride to town. The year 1869 brought the trolleys up Rising Sun Avenue and with them came many gay trolley parties with their gorgeously illuminated cars.
Whitaker Mills. One business that was associated with Olney history for many years was Whitaker Mills. This mill was started in America in the early 1800s and for many years (through the 1960s) was the oldest family business in the United States operating in some of the original buildings. Henry Whitaker purchased a piece of land on the peaceful Tacony Creek. A dam was built to supply water power. Stone was quarried out of the stream bank, local timber was used for the construction, and Whitaker was in business. The mill produced ticking and other heavy cotton cloth through all stages of the industrial revolution here--first by hand, then water power, then by steam, then by electricity. During the Civil War, the mill turned out blankets for the Union Army. For more than a century before World War II the staple product was common bluestriped mattress ticking. When the war began, the company began to make duck and canvas for the Armed Forces. However, when the war ended, the Whitakers had lost their ticking customers. A big asset during a difficult period was the ample supply of skilled workers in the community, experienced weavers and spinners. Another asset was the firm's size--it was small enough to produce a large variety of custom-made fabrics in relatively small quantities.
The Whitaker Mill maintained houses for some of its workers across the road from the mill. One outside pump supplied the water for these 18 houses. There was a covered bridge over Tacony Creek. People skated on the creek in winter and swam in it in the summer. The mill itself burnt down during the 1970s, but the houses still remain and are still occupied, although Fairmount Park now owns them.
Olney before the turn of the century was a quiet town centered around the vicinity of Rising Sun and Tabor. Vegetable farms surrounded it. Cows grazed at 5th and Olney. There were so few persons in the area that Postmaster William Fetter who ran the general store could carry the mail in his hat. By the time William Fetter died in 1937 he would have needed a size 99 and 7/8 hat to carry the mail of the Olney residents.
The Germans. German settlers came after the English settlers, and they became a substantial addition to Olney. The first German families moved to Olney at least a century ago. The Philadelphia Rifle Club was a German club. It was known as the Schuetzen Verein, or Shooter's Club. It was founded in 1845 and contributed many a sharpshooter to the Union Army in the Civil War. It moved to its "suburban" retreat at Olney on 7th Street and Tabor Road in 1895. The German food was excellent there and essen has replaced schuetzen as the principal club activity. The Rifle Club sold its property in the 1980s to a Korean-American group, a sign of the changing ethnic face of old Olney. Another stronghold of German cookery is the Schwarzwald Inn at 2nd & Olney where the local German-American businessmen are still fond of devouring unskinned knockwurst at lunch. This is the favorite restaurant of the local business association and other civic groups for their monthly meetings.
After World War II. The more recent history of Olney began after World War I. Until 1920 it was still a predominantly farming area. In the 20s and 30s Olney grew rapidly as the city expanded to the north. Almost any older Olney resident can recall when there were cow pastures, woods, and vast tilled acres just north of Olney Avenue. Farms gradually gave way to row and rows of neat, pleasant homes. New stores moved into the business area along 5th Street. Factories moved into the area giving work to the new community. Some of the factories which contributed to the development of this area were the Germantown Toll Works, the Olney Foundry, Whitaker Mills, Heintz Manufacturing Company, and Proctor and Schwartz. All are gone in 1985. The last one to leave was Heintz manufacturing which moved further north. The area it covered (33 acres) will be converted into a shopping mall. With the growth of the area new schools were needed. The Finletter School was founded in 1930, Lowell in 1913, Morrison in 1924, St. Helena in 1926, and Olney High in 1931.
In the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s a large number of Ukrainians and Poles moved into the Olney area. They, like the Germans, were good property owners, frugal managers and tenacious in their desire to "mind their own business" and keep their obligations paid up.
Parks. There are two park areas in Olney. On the east is Tacony Creek Park wedges along the banks of the stream which is called Tacony Creek, Tookany Creek in areas to the north, and Frankford Creek after it turns east out of the neighborhood. Fisher Park is a beautiful natural woodland area just north of the library. It is a patch of trees worthy of the name forest except for its city location. On warm afternoons gentlemen of the neighborhood gather at wooden tables in its center to feed the squirrels and to take part in bitterly-contested card games. Tennis is the second most popular game in Fisher Park. It is the site of the annual 4th of July festivities sponsored by the Olney Civic Association and the site of the Fisher Park Day Camp every summer.
Cardinal Dougherty High School, the largest Catholic high school in the world, opened in 1956 on the once beautiful Fisher estate just north of 2nd Street and Godfrey Avenue. Two large Roman Catholic churches lie within the Greater Olney area, Incarnation and St. Helena. Incarnation got its start in a store on Rising Sun Avenue.
In the 50s the Greater Olney Community Council (an umbrella organization for many Olney organizations) obtained a first class library (Greater Olney), four new playgrounds, and adult evening school, the Golden Age Club of Olney, and the Youth Athletic program. Olney was a good substantial middle class neighborhood. No rich class and no extreme poverty. The typical citizen owned his home and an automobile and paid his bills promptly. Olney residents had a good credit standing. This was recognized throughout the city. About half of the citizens were white collar workers and the other half industrial employees. Four large concerns in the Olney area provided a high level of industrial employment. The real distinguishing factor in Olney was the great community interest. This spirit appeared in the numerous clubs and the willingness of the majority of the people to contribute time and effort to worthy civic enterprises. In the 1980s with the changing ethnic face of Olney (Asian, Spanish and Black) this community spirit is changing. The older residents still participate and there are still a great many organizations still in the Olney area, but they are losing their membership little by little. Many of the Korean businessmen are not joining the other businessmen in their organizations but are forming their own. The Civic Association finds it harder each year to collect funds for the local 4th of July festivities.
--from four typewritten pages found at the librarian's desk at the Greater Olney branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 2002.02.19.