Preserving East Falls voices for posterity

During the 1920s, East Falls resident Ruth Emerit and her husband flouted Prohibition by hosting bathtub gin parties at their home on Ainsley Street. A deliveryman dropped off bottles of illicit liquor to their house.

Yet the street was known as “Methodist Row,” populated with pious residents who voted dry and frowned on such activities.

One day, the runner delivered the liquor to the wrong house, scandalizing the entire block.

The Emerits’ daughter acted in plays at the Old Academy Playhouse, sharing the stage with an aspiring actress named Grace Kelly. Yet again, for the Emerits’ neighbors on “Methodist Row,” any form of entertainment on Sunday was a “mortal sin.”

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Ruth Emerit is just one of many now-vanished voices that students from Philadelphia University are preserving for posterity.

This project is part of a community outreach initiative started by Philadelphia University Stephen Spinelli three years ago.

For students wanting to opt out of its physical education requirement, Philadelphia University offers Public Service 101. One of the beneficiaries of this program is the East Falls Historical Society, which is dedicated to “discovering, preserving and promoting historic interest in the East Falls community.”

The historical society had plenty of work for these students.

In the 1980s, a student at the University of Pennsylvania interviewed many elderly East Falls residents. There were stories about war, economic hardship, marriage, childbirth, working in the mills, and encounters with the legendary Kelly family. But until recently, these accounts of East Falls in the early twentieth century remained on tape, un-transcribed and inaccessible to researchers.

Although absorbed by Philadelphia in the 1854 consolidation, East Falls remained largely self-sufficient through the early twentieth century, with its own schools, industries, and class structure.

“East Falls had incredible diversity,” said Ellen Sheehan of the East Falls Historical Society, “Philadelphia was a center for the clothing industry, and the mills were here in East Falls because of the river.”

The mighty Dobson Mills, once located on the Schuylkill banks, made carpets, blankets, and other goods shipped around the world. Roman Catholic girls attended Ravenhill Academy, while Protestant children went to Penn Charter.

Its housing stock is ranged from the tiny rowhomes of Irish millworkers on Midvale Avenue to the grand mansions of brick tycoon Jack Kelly and chemist William Weightman off Henry Avenue.

Keisha Rigby, a marketing major at Philadelphia University from Baltimore, MD., transcribed an interview of Edna Wooley, who described the perils of pregnancy in the 1940s.

Instead of going to the hospital, most East Falls women relied on a midwife named Miss Don who lived on Henry Avenue. When Edna went into labor in the middle of the night, there was no doctor on duty. Miss Don’s house was packed and chaotic – one woman gave birth to twins and another had a miscarriage.

Samantha Kibler, a graphic design student from South Jersey, transcribed an interview of two sisters named Grace Davies and Hazel Stamm. Their family had deep roots in Philadelphia – their Sorber ancestors had built the first brick house in Germantown.

Hazel was a weaver at Dobson Mills, East Falls’ biggest employer, and was determined to rise further up in the company. “Hazel was a bit of a firecracker!” Kibler recalled.

When asked about their transcribing experience with Public Service 101, both students were enthusiastic.

“It was rewarding,” Rigby said. “I would definitely do it again next year.”

“I really enjoyed it,” added Kibler, “as I got to know the community where I’m going to be studying in for the next three years.”

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