Did you know that York Road (Rt 202) originally ran behind Buckingham Friends Meeting? This map originally published for the meeting’s 200th anniversary in 1968 shows the original route.
Check out this interactive map I put together of Doylestown from 1886. You zoom in to find familiar buildings or see places that have long since been destroyed. Some details I enjoyed were the old fair grounds on the top right, where CB West is now, the fact that the jail (now the Michener Museum) was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the road leading out of town called “Lumberville Road”, which I’m guessing is now Cold Spring Creamery. I also wonder what sort of booze they were cooking up at the fruit distillery.
Sugan Road is one of the oldest roads in Solebury Township. It was first laid out to allow farmers as far north as Plumstead to bring their grain to be ground into flour at the Heath gristmill, which was the first to be built in the area in 1707. The ruins of the old Heath mill are still visible where Sugan Road crosses the Aquetong Creek:
According to my grandfather, the road gets its name from the sugan sacks that farmers used to transport their grain to the mill. I had a hard time finding the definition for the word “sugan” online, so I opened up my thirteen volume Oxford English Dictionary (formerly the property of Bryn Athyn College), and looked it up:
Sugan is a hand-braided rope made of straw, usually used for seat covers or cheap saddles. In this case, the resourceful early farmers of Solebury harvested their grain and then used the remaining stalks of straw to weave their grain sacks.
I had a film professor named Adolphus Mekas who grew up in rural Lithuania before World War II. When telling us about his childhood, he would always bring up the hours upon hours his family spent braiding rope in the evening. I imagine the early settlers of Solebury had a similar experience, forced by their remote location to manufacture any materials they required.
We now pronounce Sugan as “soogan,” but my grandfather tells me it used to be pronounced “soogun.” The change occurred when they installed the first phone lines. To place a call at that time, you had to speak to the operator and ask them to patch you through on their switchboard by street and number (ex. “Sugan Road 55”). A few houses shared the same phone line, and a call to one house would ring in all of them. To distinguish between houses, the operator could employ a pattern of short and long rings. Because they shared the same line, however, the telephone was not considered a private means of communication. Any snooping neighbors could pick up their own telephone and listen in.
Due to the poor audio quality of the phone lines, the operators at the telephone exchange in Doylestown found it easier to enunciate the second syllable of Sugan as “gan” instead of “gun,” and eventually their incorrect pronunciation replaced the original.
In this way Sugan Road, originally constructed to accommodate Solebury’s agricultural infrastructure, was re-named to accommodate its communications infrastructure.
A little after 8pm on April 12th, 1989, Michael Waldron peered through the window of the cinder block turkey coop he rented to Abbie Hoffman off Sugan Road in Solebury. Abbie’s girlfriend Johanna hadn’t been able to reach him all day, so she’d asked Waldron to check on him. He saw Abbie in bed and rapped his hand against the glass to wake him up. When Abbie didn’t respond, Waldron used his key to open the door.
“Abbie, Abbie. Come on. Johanna’s on the phone. She wants to speak to you. Get up.”
He found Abbie curled up under his quilt, fully clothed in a red plaid flannel shirt and corduroy pants, his hands above his head. He looked comfortable, as if taking a nap. His body was cold.
Sometime the night before he canceled a speaking engagement at Loyola College, sent in his taxes, and dissolved 150 pills of phenobarbital into a glass of Glenlivet. He followed it with four or five more glasses, and tucked himself into bed. He may have put on his favorite movie, The Godfather (found in his VCR) while he slipped into a coma and died in his sleep at the age of 52. In the hours and years that followed, his friends, his family, and the generation he inspired have struggled to make sense of his death.
Was it an accident? Or was it a message, one last act of political theater whose meaning we struggled to grasp?
The newspapers that eulogized him followed a nearly identical narrative: While his old friends had turned from Yippies to yuppies, Abbie Hoffman struggled to remain the wild-eyed activist that helped organize the riotous protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and once disrupted trading at the New York Stock Exchange by throwing fistfuls of fake dollar bills from the gallery onto the trading floor. He was getting old and losing steam. The years he spent living underground had taken their toll, and he had been diagnosed with manic depression in 1980. Without fail, the papers rattled off the normal marks of age he experienced as a 52-year-old man (a bald spot, a paunch, an injured foot that just wouldn’t heal) as if for Abbie Hoffman middle age was a particularly terrible affliction.
But how did this all this add up in a way that led to suicide? He had been taking lithium to manage his manic depression, but his brother said Abbie had been experimenting with alternative treatments. He was also writing a book about it, chronicling his changing moods (200 pages of the manuscript were found in his apartment). He had told people he was upset about his elderly mother’s diagnosis with late stage lymphoma, but was that enough to drive him to take his own life?
His friends and family told a different story. Despite his occasional boughts of depression he was always full of energy, only sleeping a few hours a night. He was making plans for the future, was still writing and lecturing, and his fighting spirit hadn’t waned. It was inconceivable that Abbie, a prolific writer and expert media manipulator, would have killed himself without leaving the note.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that radical lawyer William Kunstler, who defended Hoffman during the Chicago Seven trial, compared Hoffman’s death to the self-immolation of Bhuddist monks during the Vietnam War. “If he did [commit suicide], it was probably a personal protest of his own.”
Abbie Hoffman: Jewish Road Warrior
Older news articles from before his death depict Hoffman’s struggles with middle age, still fighting the good fight with great determination, refusing to relent to the forces of commercialism that tempted him to cash out and retire. A 1986 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:
The forces of commercialism are pursuing him, apparently in vain. The Disney people called him last spring about doing an ad on MTV for the film Ruthless People, but he said no. Friends have told him that he’d be a hot item if he did an anti-drug ad. No way, he says. Hollywood has even sent screenwriters to live with him, in the hope of doing a flick on his life. Another washout.
He wouldn’t mind a movie – as long as it hewed to his left-wing line. The problem is, Hollywood keeps messing with his story. “The last time the writers tried,” he moans, “they had me as a gay dope-dealing comedian. This was maybe four years ago. They gave me a male literary agent and put us in bed. Now, I got nothing against gays, but that ain’t me, and when I asked them about it, they said there was a ‘big gay constituency’ out there. Give me a break. If I played the game, I could be a millionaire.”
Hoffman refused to sell off his principles. He made about $60,000 each year from the college lecture circuit, but he gave most of it away to the causes he supported. When he died his estate consisted of an $8,000 checking account, a motor boat, and a %15 share of a property his father left him. According to his lawyer Gerald Lefcourt, Hoffman had “turned over hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in his life – maybe millions – and he gave it all away.”
He did experience what he described as a mid-life crisis, but he tried to work through it. While many of his old activist companions went yuppie (Jerry Rubin got rich as a business man, Tom Hayden got elected to the California State Assembly), Hoffman never gave up the cause. In 1986 he told Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“Know that flick, The Road Warrior, where the character Mad Max is fighting alone for justice in a postnuclear world? Trying to hold on to his can of gasoline so he can keep going? That’s me, man. I’m the Jewish Road Warrior, and it’s lonely out there with just a can of gasoline. I’m the Jewish Road Warrior, and I don’t fit in.”
Hoffman stuck with it, protesting against the CIA, the involvement of the US military in South America, and campaigning for environmental issues. In February, 1987, he told the New York Times, ”I have the fire in the belly. But I’m in it for the long haul. I’ll be doing for the next 25 years what I’ve done for the last 25”. Little more than two years later, however, he was dead.
Save the River – Dump the Pump
In Bucks County, Abbie Hoffman is most remembered for his involvement in the campaign prevent the construction of a pump that would draw millions of gallons of water from the Delaware River for the Philadelphia Electric Company’s Limerick nuclear power plant. He joined a local group, Del-AWARE Unlimited, and worked with them to mobilize against the project. With his help, the residents of Bucks County passed a non-binding resolution to stop the pump project in 1983. The pump activists later played a pivotal role in the election for County Commissioners, voting out the Republicans in power and replacing them with a Democratic majority that opposed the pump. The new commissioners fought a three-year legal battle to stop the project, but lost in court when a judge ruled that Bucks County was bound by their previous contract with Philadelphia Electric to proceed with the project.
The activists responded to this ruling by picketing the construction site and attempting to physically prevent construction of the site. Dozens were arrested and hauled away in buses. The New York Times describes the ongoing protests in June, 1987:
“Each day the trucks and crane and trailer have been met by picketing protesters chanting, ”Save the river, dump the pump,” and carrying signs reading, ”No need, just greed.” Some sat down and blocked the vehicles. One protester climbed up on the mobile crane. Another handcuffed herself to a truck. In all, 66 protesters have submitted to peaceful arrest by helmeted sheriff’s deputies.”
I’ve been told that the activists even set up round-the-clock surveillance of the construction site, watching for any sort of building violation they could report to slow down construction.
Ultimately, the protesters couldn’t bring a halt to the project without the intervention of Governor Casey, who had publicly stated his opposition for the project during his campaign, but didn’t live up to his promise. The pump was built, and you can find it south of Point Pleasant, disguised as a fake historic barn:
Bucks County Legacy
True to his nature, Abbie Hoffman continued to stir controversy even after his death. When Del-AWARE asked to use Washington Crossing Park to hold a memorial service for Hoffman, the request was denied by park commission chairwoman Ann Hawkes Hutton. She thought they shouldn’t be allowed to use the park to honor a drug using former fugitive, at one point saying with regard to his memorial service, “I think we stretch the whole business of free speech a little far.” The group had to bring their request to the full board, who voted to allow it under pressure from the governor’s office of General Counsel.
Veteran’s groups protested the event. Some of them wore fatigues, and they held signs that read “This Land is Red, White and Blue. No Place for Yellow Pinkos” and “Thank You Abbie’s Pharmacist.” The Philadelphia Inquirer described the events as “Sign wavers and stilt walkers, graying hippies and angry war veterans gathered at the banks of the Delaware River yesterday to praise and scorn the controversial life of Abbie Hoffman.” American flags were ubiquitous on both sides. Allen Ginsberg, William Kunstler, Bernardine Dohrn, Richie Havens, and Bobby Seale were all in attendance.
These contrasting opinions extended to other members of the community. At Apple Jack’s in Point Pleasant, where Hoffman organized protests with the members of Del-AWARE, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the following exchange two days after his death:
Abbie Hoffman In Black And White In A Bucks County Tavern, Polar Opinions
April 14, 1989|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Inquirer Staff Writer
Mention Abbie Hoffman’s name in the Apple Jack Bar and Hotel in Point Pleasant and beer pitchers halt at half-pour.
Some eyes squint hard, others open warm. Twenty years ago, Hoffman helped divide a nation. But it was only six years ago that his brand of Peck’s bad boy radicalism raised hostilities and parted friends along the quiet banks of the Delaware River.
Hoffman is dead. What he did in Bucks County is not.
“You talking about that idiot ass Abbie Gabby?” asked Rocco, clad in blue jeans and denim jacket, his ponytailed hair tucked underneath a yellow construction hat.
“Well, you don’t want to talk to me. I’m a Vietnam vet. If Hoffman had heart and honor, I sure didn’t see it. I just didn’t love the cat.”
Dale Stauffer, owner of Apple Jack, glared at Rocco from under his straw hat.
“If you’re of one viewpoint that’s fine, but you gotta listen to the other side,” said Stauffer, a big man whose beard and bright eyes make him seem younger than his 53 years.
“For me, personally, he fought for the rights of the little person. Sure he did it in crude ways, but sometimes you gotta be crude.
“Abbie was more American than most people,” said Stauffer.
Rocco – he did not want his last name used – bit his lip.
“Dale, you and me we go back a long ways, but we just disagree on this one,” he said. “He called the families of soldiers killed in ‘Nam and said he was glad they were killed. And now they want to make this guy a martyr.”
Rocco was referring to one of Hoffman’s tactics designed to trigger outrage at the war.
During Hoffman’s unsuccessful fight against the Point Pleasant pumping station, he spent many evenings at Apple Jack. He played a lot of pool. Threw some darts.
“He wasn’t a big drinker,” said Stauffer. “Tap beer mostly. He was pretty conservative when it came to drinking and eating.”
Hoffman, usually surrounded by friends, would sit by a window across from the rectangular pinewood bar, at a table that unfolds below an American flag. Today, less than a half-mile from that window, construction workers are building the pump station.
When he wasn’t sipping beers in the dim, basement-level bar, Hoffman and other protesters would gather upstairs in larger rooms of the 300-year-old hotel.
“He was always meeting, always thinking of strategy,” said Stauffer, a founding member of Del-AWARE Unlimited Inc., the main anti-pump group.
When Del-AWARE members were late for a meeting, Hoffman, who lived in Solebury Township and had an apartment in New York, had a special saying. ”He’d say, “Well, this is Bucks time,’ ” said Stauffer. “Bucks time is one or two hours late.”
Del-AWARE was founded in 1981, but until Hoffman joined two years later, it lacked recognition.
“We were climbing mud walls,” said Stauffer, “but then Abbie came and we got the push we needed.”
As far as Rocco was concerned, Hoffman exploited the pump issue for his own gain.
“He was good at gaining national attention and he was intelligent. I’ll give him that,” he said. “But he had no respect for the people who fought in the war.”
Stauffer’s passions for the Vietnam era are less intense.
“During the 1960s, I worked day and night in a foam rubber plant. I barely stuck my head out the door,” he said.
Stauffer, struggling with the contradiction Hoffman had become, said, “He knew when to step on people and he knew when to be easy. He could be nice to you and treat you like dirt. One time he told a girl she had a face like crap.
“The good story is he worked damn hard for the cause of the underdog. We need those kinds of people in this country.”
A couple years ago I went to Apple Jack’s with a friend of mine whose father was involved with the Dump the Pump movement. We saw a Dump the Pump sticker on the wall of the bar, and we got to talking about it with Dale. I asked him about Abbie Hoffman’s involvement, and he told us some interesting things. I learned, for example, that Hoffman insisted that people show up sober to their protest meetings. I asked Dale if he thought Abbie actually killed himself and he responded without hesitation.
“The CIA got him,” he told me, and cracked a smile.
A number of years ago I was walking around the woods next to my family’s farm, now owned by the Audubon Society, and I found something odd. The upper part of the creek was full of metal plates, long strips of rusted metal jutting out of the ground, some lining its banks. There was also a raised square block of cement with a manhole access point on top.
I asked my father about their origin, and he told me that the embezzler that owned the property had rerouted the creek to operate his mill.
I didn’t think much more of it until this year, when I moved into the property’s carriage house, a stone’s throw from old water wheel. I began to wonder, who was the man who commissioned this project?
Robert “Honest Bob” Boltz
Robert Joseph Boltz was born in 1886 to a wealthy and highly respected family from the Germantown area of Philadelphia. His first ambition as a young man was to attend West Point, but he was denied entry due to color blindness. He then dabbled in a series of career paths that he never quite took to. He studied engineering at MIT, ran his family’s Cuban cigar business into the ground, and studied law for a couple of years before getting into the business of real estate law. In the late 20’s he started playing the stock market and discovered his true calling: the Ponzi scheme.
He opened up shop as an investment counselor in downtown Philadelphia and easily found investors among his friends in Philadelphia high society, eventually swindling 160 “clients” out of more than $2,500,000. At first they seemed to be making out okay. When the stock market crashed, he was still able to make payments to his investors out of their initial capital. Eventually the SEC got wind of his activities and, knowing his game was up, Honest Bob withdrew a few grand, drove his wife to Philadelphia, and fled. He was eventually found in Rochester, NY, and arrested. The government was only able to prove their case for $832,000 of the $2,500,000 he stole, and he went to jail until 1956.
Between 1934 and 1939 Boltz used his stolen money to purchase 260 acres in Solebury Township, becoming one of the early “gentlemen” to play farm in the township. He once joked to a client that he’d just spent his $1,000 “investment” on a tractor for his farm, and now it was worth only $500. This seems to be how he actually disposed of large amount of his ill-gotten gains; when he went bust, the authorities had a hard time identifying any assets other than the farm. He truly spared no expense on his elaborate estate.
[Sources: Time Magazine and Solebury Historian Ned Harrignton’s Swindlers’ Gulch (2005)]
The elaborate farm Boltz cobbled together from smaller properties has long since been divided back into smaller parcels. His old house has recently been restored, and the Audubon Society inhabits one of his barns, but perhaps his ambitious project is now in ruins.
Walking around the ruined mill I found the remains of the mill race buried in briars, now only recognizable as two stone platforms and some rotten boards. Inside the mill house, I found the old machinery in remarkably good shape after decades of neglect. My more mechanically-inclined brother immediately identified the block of cast iron as a pump.
The internal parts are remarkably well preserved thanks to a healthy coating of motor oil:
The mill was built by famous millwright John Campbell, whose clients include Henry Ford. A 1941 essay on Campbell describes the Boltz project:
Boltz was spending fabulous sums of his 260-acre estate overlooking the Delaware River at Solebury, Pennsylvania – he built one corn crib, metal-sheathed against rats, costing $10,000, and there were twenty-two telephone wires connecting his farmhouse, stables and barns. He insisted on an old-fashioned wooden wheel, instead of the more permanent steel, and told Campbell to spare no expense. Campbell first located a stand of Pennsylvania white oak with three-foot trunks and had the trees cut and dressed: water-wheel timber must never be green and always seasoned. The finished wheel was fifteen feet high and thirty inches broad, with a solid white oak shaft twenty inches though the core. The bearing casings, usually made of iron, were of lignum vitae… Soon after this job was completed, but only partly paid for, “Honest Bob” Boltz was arrested on charges of defrauding his customers of more than $2,000,0000 and is now serving a twenty-year jail sentence. Boltz’s water wheel – which cost $2,500 by itself – plus some $35,000 worth of fancy mill races, stone spring houses, antique wooden water troughs, locks, stream moving, and conduit laying that Campbell did for him, were probably financed in the same way. All of his completely bewilders Campbell, who doesn’t see how a man with such taste in water wheels could be a crook. ” I just cain’t understand it,” he says, shaking his head sadly.
Since no one else seems much interested now, Campbell sometimes drives forty miles from his office in downtown Philadelphia just to look at his Boltz masterpiece. It is still working steadily at its job, filling a concealed hilltop reservoir with 30,000 gallons of fresh spring water each day.
Ultimately, Campbell lost $4,000 on the project due to non-payment after Boltz went to prison. The mill certainly was well made. My grandfather says it was running well until the 70’s, when the pond that fed the mill race burst. After it stopped running, it quickly began to rot.