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Towanda's Historic Homes Tell Their Own Stories
Anne Sturzen stands in front of the place she called home as a child—now a seven-apartment building at 1 Bridge Street, Towanda. It has been in her family since 1887 and was built in the early 1800's—some time before the first covered wooden toll bridge was built across the river in 1832. The building, known as the American Hotel, is the oldest remaining hotel site in the county seat. She is hold-ing a picture of the old covered bridge which shows the building in a more rustic form.
If there was ever any doubt Towanda is brimming with history, all you have to do is look at some of its historic homes and buildings. A number of those buildings go back before America's Civil War, and those who have lived in them include the likes of Stephen Foster and David Wilmot, who went down in history for his accomplishments as a Congressman and Senator. His Wilmot Proviso, an 1846 amendment barring slavery from newly acquired lands, fanned the flames that led to the War Between the States.
It was known as the Canal House and also as "Foster Hall" because Stephen Foster's brother, William, an engineer for the North Branch Canal, lived here in 1850-52. The brick mansion style home located at 100 River Street was built sometime before 1840.
Wilmot called Towanda home from 1834 until he died in 1868 just a few years after a Union victory assured his high standing in history. Two of the houses he lived in still stand and serve as family residences—on 227 Poplar Street (1850-1867) and 207 York Avenue, where death claimed him after just a year but which, nonetheless, is a site of a historical marker proclaiming it as his home.
Perhaps hardest to believe in this political year in a borough populated by mostly Republicans is that Wilmot represented Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives as a Democrat. The freshman Congressman's amendment never got through the U.S. Senate and, a few years later, when he himself was in the Senate, and still calling Towanda home, he helped found the Republican Party and help propel the party's first presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln into office. It just goes to prove that politics, no matter how seemingly entrenched, tend to change more readily than a well-constructed home.
The Stephen Foster connection, of course, is a home where his older brother, William Foster, an engineer on the North Branch Canal, resided for two years. Located at 100 River Street and built a few years before David Wilmot moved to Towanda, it is fittingly known as both Foster Hall and the Canal House.
J.A. Decker was a wealthy lumberman and banker when he built this 30-room home in the Queen Anne Victorian style in 1897 featuring a wraparound porch and pedestaled columns. Located at 118 York Avenue, it is one of two historic houses built by Decker siblings in the late 1800's.
"I am just amazed at all the connections between our buildings and the names we know from history," says Anne Sturzen, who put in countless hours researching the history of these homes and the people who lived in them as an integral part of a walking tour of the Towanda Historic District.
These are not just homes, but churches, schools and buildings that housed businesses and factories. The project is the work of Sturzen and other members of a committee charged with the daunting task of researching a historic district containing 442 public and private buildings—only 41 of which were deemed as "non-contributing" to the historic character of the district. The committee, which also included Bob Veleker, executive director of the Endless Mountains Heritage Region, Susan Miller and Towanda Borough Manager Tom Fairchild came up with capsule histories of 50 Towanda buildings that are still standing and, for the most part, being used. The information will be inscribed on bronze plaques on or near these buildings, and there will also be several plaques denoting structures in the Historic District that are no longer there, including old bridges, factories and even sections of the downtown that were destroyed by fire and the buildings that sprang up in their stead.
George M. Decker, brother of J.A., built this mansion at 505 Third Street in 1880 and members of his family lived there for 90 years. He was a direct descendant of Rudolph Fox, first settler of the Tow-anda flats, and holder of a number of political offices, including county commissioner and burgess. He and his brother ran a successful clothing business downtown in the building now known as the Bern Furniture building.
Sturzen grew up in such a building, which still stands as the oldest remaining hotel site in Towanda. In the old days, when the river bridge was at the end of Bridge Street, it was the last house on the right at the hump before you entered the bridge bound for Wysox. It is an apartment building now, but locals still call it the American Hotel. Modern siding and features belie that it was built in the early 1800's when there was still a ferry operating there and years before the first covered wooden toll bridge was built in 1832. Now even the hump is gone and the building of Sturzen's childhood address, 1 Bridge Street, is the last building at the dead end where the hump used to be. The two columns at the front entrance and refurbished lights are genuine remnants of the old days.
Sturzen says that as fascinating as the histories of the buildings are, it is the people who lived in them who gave them live. The dreams and visions are often reflected in the architecture, and putting their stories into words will make for a fascinating tour of a place steeped in history.
The second oldest home in Towanda is at 28 Main Street and now owned by Gannon Associates. It was built in 1814 by Charles F. Welles, whose grandson, Frank, donated both the Towanda and Wy-alusing Public Libraries to their respective communities. The oldest house in Towanda, by the way, was built in 1812 and located at 1 York Avenue.
She said that buildings and people often come together to form an entirely new entity. For example, there is the story of two very successful brothers, George and J.A. Decker, both of whom were leading Towanda citizens in the last few decades of the 19th Century. J.A., a wealthy banker and lumber baron, built his dream house, boasting a Queen Anne Victorian architecture, at 118 York Avenue in 1897. His brother, George, had already built his Italian villa style mansion with a tower standing five stories high on the hill at 505 Third Street. George, a county commissioner, borough councilman and burgess, is remembered more as a civic leader and politico, but he and J.A. has made their early fortune when they were younger as owners and operators of a downtown clothing business.
The Means House was originally located on Main Street when it was built in 1816, but this home in the Greek Revival style is now located at 110 Bridge Street. This house was built for William Means, who is regarded as the town's founder. In fact, Towanda's original name was Meansville.
Direct descendants of one of Towanda's most notable pioneers, Rudolph Fox, the brothers leave both of their homes behind, as well as the building which once housed their business. That building would later contain a dry goods emporium and department store, but is now known as the Bern Furniture building at 416 Main Street.
Sometimes a historic home isn't where it used to be. That's the case with the Means House, a Greek Revival columned mansion once owned by the borough's first settler, William Means, who married Elizabeth Fox, daughter of the previously mentioned Rudolph Fox, who settled on the Towanda Flats in 1770. Means moved into the newly built House on Main Street in 1816, with he and his descendants continually occupying it for 129 years. That home was moved at some point to its current location at 110 Bridge Street.
Most people familiar with Towanda history know that the borough's oldest house is located at 1 York Avenue, at the bend with Main Street. An example of Federal architecture, it was built in 1812 and was originally built as a combination tavern and home by Col. Harry Spalding. It was a stagecoach stop when York Avenue was known as Post Road and once even contained a ballroom for dancing during one phase of its 192 years of service. As is the case with most of these homes, it still serves as a home and retains its historic look.
This Greek Revival home was built in 1835 by Mahlon Mercur, the mastermind behind the PA & NY Railroad. He is known as the "Father of Towanda" because he was instrumental in developing the downtown commercial area and a successful banker. The Mercur House is at 14 Second Street.
The second oldest house in Towanda, erected in 1814, is only two years younger and is known as the Charles F. Welles House at 28 Main Street. It now serves as a business, not a home, but it was the residence of the first Prothonotary of Bradford County, Charles F. Welles, whose family was also instrumental to the history of the Wyalusing Valley. Like the Means House, this building was also moved— but not very far. Dr. Thomas and Caroline Barstow Johnson had it moved from nearby Maple Street and turned so it fronts Main Street one door up from the Towanda Public Library. The latter was built and donated to Towanda by Frank Welles, grandson of Charles, who is also responsible for giving Wyalusing its public library.
Stanley W. Little was a builder of homes and was responsible for several that sit on York Avenue today. His own home, built in 1874, is at 311 York Avenue. Little was also a distinguished attorney in Towanda, and a few decades after he died, the Second Empire style home was known for its "Tea Room." That was during prohibition, when its owner was Harry Bull, and the tea being served there was known to be stronger than the traditional blend.
Elijah A. Parsons, a founder of the Bradford Argus, a weekly newspaper published in Towanda, was known to live in this house at 304 York Avenue in 1867. Its architecture is Italian villa style and fea-tures the glass-encircled cupola.
That is just a sampling of some of the homes and their stories that will be highlighted when the bronze plaques are in place. There are plenty of stories behind a number of Towanda's public buildings. The Keystone Theatre at 601 Main Street, which has undergone its own revival, was built to entertain in 1886 and originally known as the Hale Opera House. It took on the name Keystone Theatre when they started showing movies there in 1913. The theatre today is a showplace for both films and live entertainment.
Of course, the most prominent building in Towanda is the seat of its county government, the Bradford County Courthouse. Two other courthouses preceded it, one at another location, but the one we know at 301 Main Street was built in 1896, with its sandstone quarried on Barclay Mountain and the finished white oak of its interior all from Bradford County trees. The building is an example of Beaux Arts Classical architecture.
The Towanda Walking Tour and the bronze plaques, 20-inches square, will tell the stories of these buildings. The plaques have been purchased and, thanks to Sturzen and her associates, the research done for the project. Only the final step, installing the plaques, has to be done.
"It is hard to say how many hours I put into this," says Sturzen, "but it was an education for me."
It will certainly be an education to anyone who wants to learn about Towanda. It will be like a living history book, with the buildings there to look at while you absorb their respective stories. Grant assistance for the project was provided by the Endless Mountains Heritage Region.