Photos document how history lives on in river town of Lumberville

Listen 5:26

The book “River Town Portraits 1973-1983” is a visual love poem to Lumberville, Pennsylvania, and the people who have lived in the small village along the Delaware River in Bucks County.  Photographer Bruce Katsiff has lived there for almost 40 years.

The book starts with a photo of Katsiff, and his pregnant wife, Joane, carrying big bags and toys for their young son.  They were moving from Philadelphia to a new town with a population of about 160 that was already home to artists, mechanics, builders and assorted musicians. Katsiff was going to teach at Bucks County Community College, while Joane, a teacher, was going to raise their two children for a while.

Photographer Bruce Katsiff stands on the front porch of the Lumberville General Store. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It was a revolutionary time,” said longtime resident Judy Sigfin-Glasso. “A time free thinking, free speech and free love.”

 So she and her then-husband agreed to let Katsiff photograph them naked.  Actually, one photo has them undressed, another shows them clothed.

 “I don’t remember how the picture came about. We were, I think, a little stoned, and it just came about. If you notice, the kids are in the other room playing,” she said.

Many of the people in the photos have remained in the area, and they all seem to hold fond memories of the early years.

The book features portraits of old-timers sitting in their porches or at church. There are young families letting their kids roam freely in the garden, hunters dressing a dead deer. Writers plunged in their libraries, painters, mechanics and many more individuals are carefully caught in character, in their homes or workplace.  The photographs offer a sense of life of this small river town.

Lumberville has not changed much — mainly because there isn’t much space to grow between the river and the nearby hills, Katsiff said.

“In Lumberville, I believe there’s not one house built this century in the town. So most of the properties are 19th-century properties.  There are no developments, no high rises,” Katsiff said. “There are no sewers, and, actually, it’s the lack of sewers and public water that tends to restrict development in a significant way.

“And also the river towns are in the floodplain.”

The Delaware River and its parallel waterway, the Delaware Canal, are an ever-present reality.

Joane Katsiff has never relinquished her love of the river and its many seasons.

“The river was our life. Watching the river flow in the summer, watching the people boating, swimming, dogs,” she said. “Then, in the winter, it would ice over sometimes. It was rare, but we would have the actual river ice over, and we went ice skating.”

Other residents also speak of the beauty of the river and the Delaware Canal.

“When I got there, I thought I was in heaven. Never lived along the river, in those days the canal was full, it was very lush, beautiful,” said Carla Van Dyk.

Carla Van Dyk and Pussy (© Bruce Katsiff)
Carla Van Dyk recreates a pose she held for a Bruce Katsiff photograph, sans cat. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The area attracted visitors and tourists for years; now, weekenders have bought some of the old houses.

There have been a few changes over the years, but the quiet pace of the village continues into the 21st century. And that’s meant a lot to the residents captured in Katsiff’s photos; they have thrived on the sense of community and continuity.

“The general store was the center of town because it was also the post office. Everyone would stop to pick up mail. It was great because the owner was a gracious fellow.  The cover of the book is a picture of Gerald Gordon, who grew up in Brooklyn and was a mailman, and decided to leave the city and run the general store,” said Katsiff.  “The store had been in operation for a very long time, it was one of the oldest continuously operated general stores in America and it was clearly a sense of community.

“It was also a place where you’d encounter and talk with people with different points of view.”

Today the general store has become a cafe. The Black Bass Hotel is still there, and a small bookstore remains. But the old post office sign is just a decoration to amuse the tourists.

Meanwhile, Katsiff’s book is a reminder of what time has done with the place and to the people of Lumberville.

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