Bucks County, Pennsylvania sits among the rolling hills of Philadelphia’s countryside, bordered to the east by the Delaware River one of three original counties (with Philadelphia and Chester) in the colony. William Penn named the county after Buckinghamshire, his home county in England. While in the colonies, Penn called Bucks County home. His mansion on the Delaware River, Pennsbury Manor, has been reconstructed and is now a National Historic Site offering a glimpse at colonial life.
Before European settlers began immigrating to Pennsylvania in the 17th Century, the Lenape Indians called Bucks County home. The Lenape tribes populated the banks of the Hudson and Delaware Rivers for hundreds of years. Visitors to the Churchville Nature Center can experience pre-colonial life at the Lenape Indian Village, a living history exhibit on the park grounds.
Originally, the county was much larger, extending further north into what is now Lehigh and Northampton Counties, but the border was redrawn to its current position in 1752. Bristol served as county seat from 1705 until it was moved to Newtown in 1726. In 1813, the seat was moved to Doylestown, where it has remained for 200 years.
The most critical moment of the Revolutionary War began in Bucks County. On Christmas Day, 1776, General George Washington and 2,400 soldiers crossed the icy Delaware River under cover of darkness and launched a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison in Trenton the next day. After suffering a string of defeats, the surprise attack turned the tide of war in favor of the Americans, and ultimately paved the way to independence.
Today, Washington Crossing Historic Park occupies the ground where Washington launched his boats that night. The McKonkey Ferry Inn – the tavern where Washington and his aides planned the attack – sits in the park along with several other early American homes and buildings.
Nearly a year later, The British Army was preparing for an attack on Philadelphia. Colonel Thomas Polk and his men decided to take the Liberty Bell – the symbol of American Freedom – north for safekeeping. During the journey, the Liberty Bell passed through Bucks County, and on September 18, 1777, the Liberty Bell spent a night hidden in the home of Evan Foulke, now known as Liberty Hall, in Quakertown.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Bucks County became known for its thriving art scene. Henry Chapman Mercer, one of the pioneers of the American Arts and Crafts movement, set up his Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in Doylestown. Workers in the factory created handmade decorative tiles that were used in buildings around the world, including the casino in Monte Carlo, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg. Today, the Tile Works operates as a living history museum by the Bucks County parks department. Artisans still make tiles using Mercer’s original molds and techniques.
Mercer’s true legacy is in what he left behind. The Tile Works is one of three concrete buildings he built within a mile radius, now called the Mercer Mile. Next door to the tile works is the Fonthill Museum, Mercer’s former home. This concrete castle now houses a collection of Mercer’s tiles and prints, and offers a glimpse into his life.
As a historian and archaeologist, Henry Mercer amassed an eclectic collection of Americana, and in 1916 Mercer built a second castle to house his artifacts. The building now operates as the Mercer Museum and is a work of art in itself. The museum opens into a six-floor atrium, and the collection’s largest items – including a whaling boat, stagecoach and horse-drawn carriages – are suspended from the upper floors, while smaller items – like his collections of musical instruments and redware pottery – are housed in small alcoves on every level.
Across the street from the Mercer Museum is the James A. Michener Art Museum, which houses a large collection of artwork by local and regional artists. Among the museum’s treasures is a large collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist art which is on permanent display.
The Pennsylvania Impressionists were led by Edward Redfield and William Lathrop. The two men settled in New Hope and encouraged other artists to join them. New Hope’s art colony thrived in the early 20th century, and the town still maintains its artistic heritage. In the 1950s, New Hope became known as a popular gay resort. The town still has an active gay community and celebrates its diversity every spring with its annual Pride Week and Parade.
Today, tourism is one of Bucks County’s leading industries, accounting for $865 million in local economic impact. The southern portion of the county, known to locals as Lower Bucks, is home to Sesame Place, America’s only theme park based on the popular children’s show Sesame Street. The northern part of the county is a rural getaway, offering secluded bed and breakfasts. Central Bucks is home to the museums of Doylestown, the art community in New Hope, and Peddler’s Village, an outdoor shopping destination in Lahaska.
Header image courtesy of Friends of Washington Crossing Historic Park
Photo courtesy of Pennsbury Manor
Photo courtesy of Friends of Washington Crossing Historic Park
Photo of Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, courtesy of Anthony Sinagoga Photography
Photo courtesy of James A. Michener Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Sesame Place