A Circular Romp Through Bucks County, Pennsylvania
By Margaret Montet
Remember when George Washington crossed the Delaware River (December 25, 1776) to sneak up on the Hessians in Trenton and turn the tide of the Revolutionary War? Neither do I, I’m much too young, but I crossed the river in precisely the same spot going the opposite direction for a glorious trek through Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Parts of Bucks County are familiar to me because I work here at its community college. Other parts are a mystery, and beckoning me to explore. Ringing Rocks, Nockamixon State Park and Tyler State Park are three parks that characterize bucolic Bucks County.
Bucks has a good share of history with Washington Crossing State Park and Pennsbury Manor (begun in 1683), and some notable cultural sites (Pearl S. Buck House, Moravian Tile Works and Michener Museum).
I live in a neighboring county, but played the tourist for a circular romp through this scenic territory, ignoring, for a change, the popular commercial tourist attractions. The following destinations are described in the order one would encounter them on a similar circular route through the county.
To see everything would ideally require two or three days, but a sampling of a couple museums or parks and a handful of covered bridges could easily fit into a day trip.
A right turn at the foot of the Washington Crossing Bridge puts one on the River Road or Route 32. This is a gorgeous drive, hugging the river and canal and passing through some quaint towns. Bowman’s Hill Tower, still in Washington Crossing Park, was built from 1929 to 1931 from local fieldstone.
It was meant to mark Washington’s most likely vantage point just before his famous crossing and the subsequent Battle of Trenton. Today, visitors ride up in an elevator and then climb the twenty-three circular steps to the observation platform. Pre-1980 visitors had to climb a huge spiral staircase up the 125-foot tower. It is a breathtaking view anytime, but especially popular for fall foliage.
Continuing north, the River Road passes through New Hope, a quirky town that is at the same time historical and cultural. Funky thrift shops thrive among fine antique shops and high-end restaurants. Connected by a pedestrian-friendly bridge to Lambertville, New Jersey, the two towns offer unique shopping, dining, and people-watching experiences.
North of New Hope, just off the River Road, the covered-bridge lover can find six of Bucks County’s twelve covered bridges. They were all built in the nineteenth century from local pine, oak and hemlock. Although two of the bridges elsewhere in the county are replicas, these six in close proximity — Uhlerstown, Edwinna, Frankenfeld, Cabin Run, Loux, and Van Sant — are all original. The Bucks County Covered Bridge Society has developed an auto tour of all twelve bridges.
At almost the northern edge of Bucks County, a left turn brings the motorist to Ringing Rocks Park. Down a wooded trail, one comes upon the strangest-looking field of rocks. Even stranger, many of the rocks ring out like bells when hit with an ordinary hammer.
No one, not even scientists, is really sure how these rocks got here or why only some sound like bells. Meteor? Glacier dump? It is a place in nature like no other. If you go, bring your own hammer and be prepared for a somewhat arduous walk across the boulders.
Nockamixon State Park is about twenty minutes from Ringing Rocks. This park, named for its enormous lake, is a great place for a picnic. The lake is a popular spot for boating and fishing, but swimming is forbidden. The Lake Nockamixon Marina has room for 648 slips.
The name Nockamixon comes from the language of the Lenni Lenape Indians and means “at the place of soft soil.”
Will Rogers said this about Pearl S. Buck’s novel, The Good Earth: “It’s not only the greatest book about a people ever written, but the best book of a generation.” Pearl Buck wrote this celebrated novel about ten miles from Lake Nockamixon at her estate called Green Hills Farm in Perkasie.
Visitors can tour the house and garden and see the desk at which she wrote The Good Earth, her office, library, and greenhouses. One of these greenhouses was devoted to red camellias, her special darling.
Pearl Buck entertained world leaders here (Nehru and the Dalai Lama) and Bucks County celebrities, too: composer Oscar Hammerstein, writer James Michener, and the Burpees of seed fame. The family’s mundane possessions are displayed with Buck’s Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and her treasures from China.
The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, she spent half her life in China and the other half in the United States. She protected children of mixed races and formed a foundation to help them in their own countries and another to facilitate adoptions. Today these foundations are combined into Pearl S. Buck International and housed in a reconditioned barn adjacent to her farmhouse.
The picturesque gardens here are maintained by volunteers along with Buck’s oldest adopted daughter Janice, now in her eighties.
The South Perkasie Covered Bridge is a fieldstone’s throw away from the Pearl S. Buck House. This 93-foot bridge was built of pine and oak in 1832. It is the only Bucks County covered bridge not crossing water. It is now located in Perkasie’s Lenape Park, but used to connect the banks of Pleasant Spring Creek.
The Pine Valley Covered Bridge crosses Pine Run Creek about 15 miles south of Perkasie. It was built in 1842 of pine and hemlock. Unlike the South Perkasie bridge which was moved to a park, the Pine Valley bridge had a little park built next to it. It contains a wooded trail to the creek, restrooms, and children will be relieved to find a playground here.
Doylestown is the county seat of Bucks County and also the center of culture. Pearl Buck’s friend, novelist James Michener, helped support the creation of an art museum built in 1988 from the old county prison. It now bears his name and features a permanent exhibit called, “James A. Michener, A Living Legacy” and Michener’s Bucks County office.
The museum opened a second site in New Hope in 2002 to establish more display space for the museum’s growing collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings.
Across the street from the Michener Museum sits the Mercer Museum. The mastermind of this museum, Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was born, lived, worked, and died in Bucks County. He trained for the law but chose to be an archeologist, historian, and tile maker.
To house himself and his passions, he built three huge hand-mixed concrete buildings in early twentieth-century Doylestown: Fonthill (his dream house/castle), the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, and the Mercer Museum for his collection of artifacts.
The Pottery, a short distance from the other buildings, mimics the style of a medieval Spanish monastery. Made of concrete like his other two buildings, this one has a tile roof and a variety of whimsical brick chimneys.
The footprints of Mercer’s Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rollo, are preserved in the concrete steps. Mercer was influenced by the red-clay tiles he had seen made by the Moravians in nearby Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and figured out how to make them. (The clay is red because of the large amount of iron present.)
He modified the Moravians’ techniques and tiles were produced from his methods from 1912 to 1964. Mercer championed the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and his individually crafted tiles came to represent it.
New tiles crafted with Mercer’s method have been made since 1974 and are available in the Tile Works store. The site is now classified as a working museum and is owned by the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation.
One last covered bridge on our tour, the Schofield Ford Bridge, sits in Tyler State Park in Newtown Township. The bridge was originally built in 1873, and burned in 1991. Immediately, townspeople and neighbors set about a plan to rebuild it exactly as it had been. It is made of hemlock and oak, and at 170 feet it is the longest covered bridge in Bucks County.
The late-day sun illuminated the Schofield Ford Bridge and the Neshaminy Creek under it as I stood in the mud to shoot some photos. Bucks County is simply loaded with scenes like this and I imagined how life would have been in 1873 when the bridge was built.
How strange that my work desk, phone, thousands of students and work life are less than a mile from this idyllic spot. Suddenly, I heard the clippety-clop of an American Paint horse crossing the wooden bridge: Bucks County is a place of serene escapist beauty, even a mile away from my daily grind, if I take the time to look for it.
Washington Crossing Historic Park (Washington Crossing, PA 18977, 215-493-4076)
Ringing Rocks Park (Ringing Rocks Road, Upper Black Eddy, PA 18972)
Nockamixon State Park (1542 Mountain View Drive, Quakertown, PA 18951-5732, 215-529-7300)
Tyler State Park (101 Swamp Rd.Newtown, PA 18940-1151, 215-968-2021)
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