To immerse oneself in history is to cultivate an appreciation for the past while broadening our perspective of the present. Travel allows us to explore the world in this unique way, and most of us don’t need to venture too far afield to do it.
Always up for a road trip, I planned this 3-day adventure for our homeschool coop. We were just finishing up a year-long study of the history of the Middle Ages, with castles top of mind. In an effort to connect our book knowledge with our experience, I found there was indeed a castle not too far from where we live. True it wasn’t built 600 years ago, but seeing it would be an exclamation point on the time period, while delving a little deeper into our own American history.
Before we get to the castle, I’ll share some of the other activities I shared with my 11-year-old daughter exploring Doylestown, Pennsylvania. There was certainly enough to keep us busy for a few days, also buffer of the 2.5 hour drive from our home. You can certainly do some of these things in one day, but not all of them. If you are able to stay even longer there’s much more within a short drive of Doylestown, including the larger metro areas of Philadelphia and New York City.
Although the main attraction was Fonthill Castle, I that we couldn’t pass up a visit to Pearl Buck’s house to learn about this remarkable woman and her awe-inspiring legacy. Author and passionate advocate, she was the first woman to receive both the Pulitzer and Nobel prize for literature, and she was the only woman for 55 years. Perhaps best known for her book The Good Earth, I knew of her as a child because this award-winning novel was one of my grandmother’s favorites.
Pearl S. Buck spent the first 40 years of her life in China and the remaining in Bucks County, PA, where she started the first biracial adoption agency in the US, was one of only two white women to become lifetime members of the NAACP, published over 1,000 works, adopted and bore 9 children and fostered even more. Makes me tired just thinking about it! Her legacy lives on today through the work of her foundation, Pearl S. Buck International.
The property is absolutely beautiful and incredibly peaceful. The museum is small and focuses on her life. We toured her house where it’s easy to envision her many children moving about while she cooks, writes, entertains and takes care of the affairs of the household. Just before we left, in the gift shop I bought my own copy of The Good Earth thinking it apropos to begin reading it in the very place it was born.
Time to check in to the Highland Farm B&B. I prefer to stay in small B&Bs and guest houses when I can. Since my daughter plays the piano and loves performing in musicals the history of this house intrigued me. Purchased in 1941 by Dorothy and Oscar Hammerstein II who were looking for retreat from their home in New York City. During the 20 years the Hammerstein Family lived in the mansion Oscar wrote some of his most famous works including South Pacific, The King and I and the iconic The Sound of Music. Imagine so many of his famous contemporaries gathering around his very piano!
For dinner head into town to M.O.M.’s, Maxwell’s on Main, for some great food and craft beer, 37 N. Main Street.
Even if you aren’t Polish, Catholic, or religious at all, the Polish-American Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochow is worth checking out. The church is run by the Pauline Order, originally the Order of St. Paul the Hermit, which thrived in Poland after its founding in Hungary in the 13th century. Wanting to spread the good news further afield, the shrine was built in 1953 and is home to a reproduction of the Black Madonna icon of Częstochowa, Poland. Still popular among pilgrims from all over the world today, the church sits on 170 acres on Beacon Hill with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.
By late morning we got to the main event, a tour of Fonthill Castle, originally the home of Henry Mercer, architect and collector, tile maker and entrepreneur, historian and author. Mercer built the castle from 1908-1912 as his home and to house his massive collection of tiles and prints. It is one of the most visually exciting interiors I have ever seen. It appears to leap off the pages of Harry Potter! Upon his death in 1930 Mercer willed his concrete home in trust as a museum for all to enjoy. You are not allowed to photograph the interior, so you must go to see it for yourself.
I’m glad we saw his home first because you really do get an idea of what sort of guy Henry Mercer must have been. It’s hard to imagine any one person being so productive. I remind myself he wasn’t married and didn’t have kids. Still, let me never say I’m too busy!
This museum, which he also built, houses his extensive collections of some 40,000 artifacts amassed in his lifetime. These objects document the craft and work of early Americans through their tools used in everyday life prior to the Industrial Revolution.
For dinner a short drive outside town is Quinoa Peruvian and Mexican Restaurant, 762 N. Easton Road.
We finished off our whirlwind tour of Doylestown with a visit to Henry Mercer’s Moravian Pottery and Tileworks, open daily and still in the business of making and selling his designs today. Mercer derived inspiration from early American stove plates, the Bible, literature, new world exploration, myths and fairytales, photographs and many aspects of early American life. You’ll see these tiles all over Doylestown and you can purchase one to remember your visit.
How wonderful to learn about all these aspects of our shared American history through the eyes of some truly extraordinary human beings.
History 101 AND 201 now complete.