Lime Burning Industry, Its Rise and Decay in Bucks


(Doylestown Meeting, January 18, 1910.)

The history of the lime-burnnig industry in Bucks county, its rise and decay, as a commercial and domestic industry, is deserv ing of a much more careful consideration than can be given it in this brief paper.

The burning of lime for domestic use, quarried from the lime stone ledges in middle and upper Bucks county began with the first settlement of these respective sections by Europeans.

In a deed from Lawrence Pearson to his brother Enoch in 1703, for a tract of land part of which is included in the little village of Buckingham, the grantor reserves and excepts "the privilege to get limestone from the within granted premises, for the use of the said Lawrence and his children, their heirs and assigns forever."

This 200 acres of land included the site of the Buckingham hotel at the intersection of the York and Durham roads, and ex tended out the former road northeasterly, beyond "the pond" which has long since disappeared, near the site of the Bucking ham Valley creamery, and extended southeasterly to the top of Buckingham mountain. A long abandoned quarry hole still marks the spot from whence the stone was quarried, but the kilns have long since disappeared. The grant from which the privilege was reserved included the present Joseph Anderson farm, fifty acres of the Broadhurst farm and a lot of village properties in cluding the hotel and all the properties on the southeast side of the York road east of the Durham road.

This shows that at that early date when Buckingham was only sparsely settled and all north of that township was a primitive wilderness, still covered with virgin forests, the original settlers were already interested in the production of lime. But a few years had elapsed since this very land included in 1,000 acres conveyed to Richard Lundy, by Jacob Telner, was described in the deed as "back in the woods" and was exchanged for 200 acres on the Delaware below Tullytown.

For probably over a century, lime-burning was of very little importance as a commercial industry in Bucks county. The lim ited building operations requiring its use were far from extensive and the demand for it as a fertilizer was merely local and largely supplied by co-operation among the farmers or by individual pro duction. No long line of kilns, such as appeared in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, were then in existence. Iso lated kilns were erected on the farms, often far from the ledges where the limestone was quarried — sometimes miles away — and the stone hauled to the kiln, either by the owner of the kiln, or his neighbors, or both on the co-operative plan, at leisure times as the farm work permitted. The wood necessary for its burning was prepared in the same way ; the product above what was used on the farm being sold to the neighbors or divided among those who contributed in labor and material, the former being the chief outlay as neither the rock deposit nor the wood was then con sidered of much value.

Born and reared in a community where, in my childhood days, limestone-burning was a thriving and profitable industry, employ ing hundreds of men and a considerable outlay of capital, I re member distinctly my boyish inquiries of my elders how these isolated limekilns, then already crumbling ruins in an advanced stage of decay, came to be located miles away from any lime stone deposit. Cropping out of some hillside on land unavailable for cultivation, these limekilns were a familiar sight to many people now living, and the remnants of a number may yet be seen in middle and upper Bucks in rugged hillsides or woodland patches, where the demand for cultivation of the land has not called for their demolition. Personally, I have known of a num ber of these kilns located on farms where there was no limestone deposit, some of them miles distant. There was, however, a reason for this, for these kilns were either located close to heavily wooded districts or directly in them, and the immense amount of wood required incurred almost as much labor in hauling as the limestone did. Interesting reminiscences have been given by the old men of a generation now practically gone, of nights spent at the kiln mouth, it being necessary to feed the fire night and day until the whole kiln of stone was burned. A limekiln, long in use, was located on the northwestern border of our borough (Doylestown) and gave the name to the "Limekiln road," though the limestone had to be hauled from central Buck ingham. Another kiln was located a little over a mile east of the borough, and there were several in upper Buckingham and Sole bury where the limestone had to be hauled for miles over hilly roads.

Two or more important developments led to the building up of the lime-burning industry in Bucks county, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In the first place, farmers out side of the limestone belts were beginning to realize the benefits obtained by an application of lime on heavy soils and farms long fed by vegetable fertilizer alone, and scores of them came from Plumstead, Bedminster, and New Britain to the Buckingham and Solebury kilns for lime, making "frolics" as they were called in those days. From a dozen to twenty farmers joined in convey ing the lime from the kilns to a farm — enough for a field in a day (forty bushels per acre being the quantity usually used) only to have the compliment returned later, either in lime-haul ing or other enterprises. These frolics continued to a period within my recollection, and many a jovial crowd of farmers, often from New Jersey, have I seen drive up to the old limekilns, un hitch their horses and feed them from the wagon-bed, the load ing of the wagons continuing meanwhile, and too often the free circulation of "liquid refreshments" increased the joviality to a dangerous point, leaving the men unfit to guide their teams on the return trip over many miles of hilly and none too good roads.

Another incentive to the development of the lime-burning in dustry, was the discovery of anthracite coal and its adaptation to lime-burning, doing away with the night vigils at the kilns and stopping the rapid depletion of the forests which had become somewhat appalling to the land owners in the limestone districts at that period. The man who is given the credit for introducing the use of anthracite coal in lime-burning was James Jamison, of Buckingham, a farmer residing south of the mountain. He was a man of much energy and enterprise and rented the kilns of Aaron Ely just below Holicong on the present Paxson farm, and altered them for the use of coal. He built up a large busi ness but was killed by a premature blast in his quarry ; his son, Robert, and Mark Wismer, a workman, were severely injured.

Another prosperous and popular lime-burning establishment was on the Street road below Lahaska, many years owned by John Walker, whose widow is still a resident of Doylestown. The lime burned there was considered the best in the township and farmers came from Plumstead, Bedminster and New Britain, as well as from townships lower down the county. Henry L. Courson succeeded Walker and made a fortune, for that day, in burning lime.

The greatest stimulant, however, to the industry in Bucks county was the opening of the Delaware Division of the Pennsyl vania canal in 1832. It brought the coal direct from the mines to the limestone region lying along the Delaware from Easton to New Hope, at small cost, and also furnished cheap transporta tion for the lime to points further south in Bucks county and New Jersey. Extensive lines of kilns were at once erected all along the river front in these limestone ridges.

In upper Bucks, in Springfield and Durham, from the time of their settlement, conditions had been much the same as in Buckingham and Solebury. Isolated kilns were located all over this section for the purpose of supplying the local demand. They were somewhat more numerous along the river where the demand from New Jersey required an increased output. At Durham, where the extensive deposits of limestone were largely used at the furnace for the smelting of iron ore, kilns were also erected for the burning of lime before the advent of coal or the canal. A limekiln stood for many years in what is now the center of Riegelsville, where the News office now stands ; and in Spring field, the ruins of ancient kilns may yet be seen scattered over a wide area.

With the coming of the canal and coal, however, all was changed; plants were greatly enlarged and new lines of kilns erected contiguous to the canal with wharfage for loading direct into the boats for shipment. Extensive kilns were erected near the mouth of Durham cave and the limestone, quarried directly from the cave itself. An extensive lime business was also carried on at Springtown on into the '8o's, supplying the farmers in the adjoining parts of Northampton county, and the section of Bucks county lying westward in Milford and Rockhill, and south ward in Richland, Hilltown and Haycock. A large lime business was carried on by Michael Uhler, of Uhlertown, in later years, but the kilns and quarries from which his supplies were drawn were in Northampton county, in fact they were located within the present limits of the city of Easton.

In my native township of Solebury, an extensive business was done at what was long known as Limeport, between Centre Bridge and Phillips' Mill on the River road, where there were two extensive plants, one of them on the Eastburn farm (still in the name) where Phineas Kelly was the tenant in the late '30's and until about 1850, doing a large business in supplying neigh boring parts of New Jersey, and shipping large quantities by boat to South Jersey. The late George A. Cook, of New Hope, was a clerk for Kelly, and about 1850, in partnership with Jacob East burn, the owner of the property, took charge of the plant, the firm did a large and profitable business, and at the death of Jacob Eastburn in 1863, his son, Robert, who died at Yardley within the past two years, succeeded to his father's interest, and was also a partner of Mr. Cook for several years, the firm having an office and agency at Yardley, and doing a large business.

Practically no business is done at either of the Limeport plants at this time. In the limestone valley extending westward from the Delaware above New Hope to the Buckingham line at La haska, a large amount of lime-burning was carried on until about thirty years ago. Probably the most extensive business was done at the kilns about the present village of Aquetong, and at the later Stavely kilns near Canada hill, but a considerable business was done on the Ely and Pownall tracts nearer the river. During my boyhood days large quantities of cement were manufactured in the latter named locality.

The advent of manufactured commercial fertilizers and the general use of cement for building purposes, have aided in de stroying the lime-burning industry in Bucks county, and where a thriving business was done a half century ago, giving employment to a great number of men and bringing in a large revenue, most of the kilns and quarries are entirely abandoned, and others are burning a few kilns a year where they formerly burned hundreds.

The wisdom of farmers in entirely abandoning the use of lime as a fertilizer is very questionable ; for a time it was probably used to an extent beyond its real efficiency, but as an adjunct in the decomposition of certain salts in vegetable matter, forming the basis of plant food, it cannot be surpassed. Its effect as a base to neutralize the acid condition on overfed or neglected land, in which a vegetable matter has accumulated, is extremely ben eficial in producing crops.


Typical of all early lime kilns in Bucks county and eastern Pennsylvania.

(Photograph by John A. Anderson 1909)