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Why Does the Doylestown Agricultural Works Include Former Houses?

The History Guy explores the origin of today's retail and office complex.

The Doylestown Agricultural Works property includes both former factory buildings and former houses. I'd like to know if the houses were built for the factory workers, or if they predated the factory? - L.M., Doylestown.

 

The 2.5-acre property--bounded by South Main, Bridge, South Clinton and West Ashland streets--was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, under the name Francis B. Shaw Block Historic District.

In 1830, Francis B. Shaw purchased Underhill Farm at the south end of the then-unincorporated village of Doylestown. He subdivided a portion of the farm along the Philadelphia-Easton Road (now South Main Street) into building lots, but died in 1831 before any lots were sold, according to the National Register nomination form.

The executors of his estate--his father, Josiah Y. Shaw; and George Campbell--sold the lots in the spring of 1832. Over the following decades, houses were built by different owners.

Former houses remaining today are: Abraham Bryan House (c.1832), 120 S. Main St.; Jacob Clemens House (pre-1874), 130 S. Main St.; William Goodman House (c.1835), 140 S. Main St.; Moses Kulp House (c. 1849), 150 S. Main St.; and the Rhoades House (c. 1858; rebuilt 1891), South Clinton and West Ashland streets. All now are used for commercial purposes.

The railroad line from Philadelphia reached Doylestown in 1856, and the station was built on South Clinton Street. With the railroad just across the street, the character of the Shaw Block changed from predominantly residential to commercial.

The Railroad House Hotel was erected opposite the station on Clinton Street above Bridge Street. It closed sometime in the 1920s and was razed in 1941 (its former location is now part of the parking lot for the complex).

A wooden livery stable was built behind the Rhoades House between 1863 and 1868, but burned in 1871. It was replaced by a larger brick stable, which itself burned in 1913 and was rebuilt.

Twining Hall, once at the corner of Main and Ashland streets, was built by H. Twining in the mid-1800s as a pork and sausage factory with a second-floor meeting room for the Good Templars and other organizations. It later became Barrett's Hardware, which remained in business until the 1960s and then was torn down.

The biggest change began in 1867, when Daniel Hulshizer erected a two-story frame building along West Ashland Street and established the Doylestown Agricultural Works.

Hulshizer and a partner had come to Doylestown in 1849 from Hunterdon County, N.J. and opened a small shop on Oyster Shell Alley off West State Street. They made threshers (a machine for removing husks from crops) and horsepowers (a type of engine powered by horses moving on a treadmill). Martin V. Wetherill bought the business in 1859 and resold it six years later to Hulshizer.

At his new location, Hulshizer manufactured wooden, horse-powered machinery for farming. The most notable product was the Doylestown Thresher, which could thresh wheat, straw, beans, peas, peanuts and other crops. Most of the threshers were sold in Pennsylvania, but the specially modified peanut thresher was a big seller in the South. The Doylestown Thresher won first prize in its category at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

As the business grew, a 3 1/2-story stone factory was erected in 1882 along Ashland Street between Main and Clinton. Henry D. Ruos, proprietor of the Lenape Bicycle Works in Doylestown, purchased the agricultural plant in 1899 from W. Sharp Hulshizer, Daniel's son.

An April 1899 advertisement in the Doylestown Daily Intelligencer described the products made and sold by the factory. "We have a variety in the following lines: Seed sowers, plows, disc, lever-spring, spike and Acme harrows, field rollers, potato and corn planters, corn markers, fertilizer and grain drills, riding and walking cultivators, potato sprayers, lawn mowers, mowing, reaping and binding machines, hay tedders [spreaders], hay rakes, hay loaders, hay track, forks and pulleys. Extras and repairs for all standard implements used on the farm."

In 1900, a Philadelphia entrepreneur started building automobiles in the agricultural works under the name Winslow Motor Carriage Co.

"The proprietors have no doubt that the industry will be a great success, as the demand for the 'autos' at the present time is greatly in excess of the output and the vehicles are said to be of a greatly superior class to those now manufactured," stated an Intelligencer article on March 9, 1900. However, like many early automakers, the Winslow Motor Carriage Co. eventually went out of business because its cars were too expensive for the average person.

The Doylestown Agricultural Co. thrived in the early 1900s, developing its own designs for farm machinery, including an ensilate cutter and elevator, a riding cultivator and a corn sheller. About 50 men worked there and made about 15 threshers every two weeks.

The works also produced iron specialty items such as park benches and wrought iron grill work for customers in New York, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and other cities. The company's export office in New York City handled overseas sales to places as far away as Peru and Jerusalem.

A fire on Dec. 24, 1913 destroyed the factory buildings, leaving only the stone foundations. David Nyce rebuilt the plant in 1914, putting up brick walls while keeping the stone foundations, which are still visible today.

Henry Ruos' son, Joseph, started working in the factory as a boy during school vacations. As an adult, he helped his father run the plant and later became owner for 50 years.

Joseph Ruos, then 89, recalled his involvement in a 1987 interview with The Daily Intelligencer. He said the workers used ordinary machinery to manufacture the agricultural equipment.

"They had rip saws and circular saws and planers and joiners. In the machine shop it was lathes and drill presses and things like that," he said. The largest machine was a punch press about 7 feet high and weighing 4 or 5 tons.

In the early years of the 20th century, the men worked 55 hours a week for 40 to 50 cents an hour, which Ruos said was a good wage at the time.

"We paid them in cash, and for every man that earned over $20 a week, I used to give them a $20 gold piece," Ruos recalled.

While the original threshers were wooden, later models were made of sheet metal and had improvements such as self-feeders for loading. But threshers became obsolete with the invention of the combine, which harvests and threshes crops at the same time.

Seeking to compete with the Ford Motor Co. in the agricultural machinery market, General Motors bought 90 percent of the Doylestown Agricultural Co. stock in 1920. The Doylestown works and two other companies were placed under the Samson Tractors division. However, tractor production was unprofitable.

The Doylestown Agricultural Co. bought back its stock in 1921 and continued to manufacture agricultural machinery and specialty iron work. The foundry shut down in 1937 due to the Depression. Machinery was assembled from excess parts for a time, but the company dealt primarily in sales and repairs of farm vehicles and equipment.

For example, the firm sponsored a public demonstration on Aug. 3, 1949 of the new International Harvester field forage harvester at a farm on Cold Spring Creamery Road in Buckingham. "Come and bring your friends to inspect the new machine and see it in operation--harvesting the modern way," read an ad in the Doylestown Daily Intelligencer.

After the Ag Works closed in 1968, the vacant buildings deteriorated and became an eyesore. Claude J. Schlanger, owner of the Budco movie theater chain, and Clifford L. Orbaker, a Doylestown real estate appraiser, bought the property and put it on the market in the 1970s.

Various proposals were made for reuse of the site, including a shopping center, a county library, a new borough hall and police station, subsidized housing and a community arts center called Artworks, but none of them became a reality.

In 1982, developer Ronald S. Gross and partners James Ginsberg and Marc Rodstein bought the property and spent $2 million to renovate the historic buildings into a complex of offices, shops and a restaurant. The rehabilitated Doylestown Agricultural Works was dedicated in 1985.

Besides the former factory buildings, the Ag Works comprises the three former houses on South Main Street, the Rhoades House and the Rhoades Livery Stable.

The lobby of the main building displays some small agricultural machines, including the "Doylestown Junior Thresher & Cleaner" and the "Monitor Hay & Fodder Cutter," and enlargements from a 19th-century catalog of farm equipment made here.

In recognition of the historical signficance of the Doylestown Agricultural Works, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission highway marker, sponsored by the Doylestown Historical Society, was placed along Ashland Street in 2003.

Jeff Lugar April 28, 2012 at 01:49 PM
In the late 80s there was a comic store in the Ag Works complex. I'm not sure what became of it, as I have vague (though possibly incorrect) recollections of there being two comic stores in town at the time, possibly one around where Aestitiks is now. That may be one and the same after a move, and it may even have been Cyborg One.
Michael Evangelista April 30, 2012 at 12:17 PM
Growing up in the 50's I remember when the Ag Works,as we called it,was surrounded with old steel wheeled tractors. How someone saved some of them. Mike Evangelista Dillwyn,Va.

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