In 1861, just as the American Civil War was beginning, the Neebor Lee House and property were purchased from Abraham Hendricks by Rebecca Price Wetherill Gumbes. Rebecca was the daughter and granddaughter of early American industrialists. Her grandfather, Samuel Wetherill Sr. (1736-1816), was a Quaker, a member of the Common Council of Philadelphia and a textile manufacturer. After the passage of the Townshend Act by the British government in 1768, which placed a tax on imports of glass, paint, oil, lead, paper, and tea, her grandfather turned his attention to the manufacture of paints and varnishes. Whereas the citizens of Boston dressed as Native Americans and were dumping tea into Boston Harbor to protest the Act, Samuel Wetherill exploited the new law by producing the taxable goods in Philadelphia thereby allowing the colonists to avoid the import tax on paints.
Rebecca’s grandfather later became an active supporter of the rebels during the American Revolution but paid a price for his actions by being expelled by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for violating the Peace Testimony, which is the unspoken pledge that Quakers take to remain peaceful even during times of war. After being expelled from the Society of Friends, Samuel and other expelled members of the Quaker faith formed the Religious Society of Free Quakers, of which Rebecca Price Gumbes was a member years later. Among the financial supporters of the Free Quaker’s first meetinghouse were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Samuel Wetherill’s chemical and paint manufacturing business continued to thrive in Philadelphia after the American Revolution. As his sons matured into adulthood, they joined their father in his chemical and paint business, which eventually was called Wetherill & Sons. Among the sons joining the business was his oldest, Samuel Wetherill Jr. (1764-1829), who was Rebecca’s father. As the Wetherill business grew, so too did the wealth of Samuel Jr. So much so that in 1813 Samuel Jr. purchased land outside the city of Philadelphia in rural Montgomery County which he and his family would use as a country retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the growing Philadelphia metropolis. The land purchased included Mill Grove, which was the early home of John James Audubon. It was on this land, now located in the village called Audubon, that the young Audubon discovered his love of birds, and it was at Mill Grove that Audubon first learned to use wires to pose dead birds for his paintings. The Wetherill family owned Mill Grove until 1951, at which time it was sold to Montgomery County. The County has since preserved Mill Grove and the surrounding land in honor of John James Audubon. The land is now known as the Audubon Shrine and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Rebecca Price Wetherill married William Henry Gumbes in Philadelphia in 1809. The marriage lasted only five years, until William’s death in 1814. Alone with a one-year old son, one can imagine a grieving Rebecca finding solace in the sanctuary of Mill Grove. She would never remarry.
Samuel’s acquisitions in Montgomery County continued to grow after his purchase of Mill Grove, eventually extending south from Mill Grove to the Schuylkill River and westward beyond Perkiomen Creek. Upon Samuel’s death in 1829, the land acquisitions were split between his children. Rebecca, his oldest child, would inherit that portion of the land acquisitions that were made west of Perkiomen Creek. It was on this land in 1834 that Rebecca commissioned the construction of the first of four mansions that the Gumbes family would eventually build. That first mansion was named Oakland Hall by Rebecca. In 1857, she would expand her land holdings even further west by purchasing 1.5 acres from Abraham Hendricks. Four years later, in 1861, she would purchase Abraham’s remaining 61.8 acres, thereby acquiring the Neebor Lee house.
Rebecca never lived in the Neebor Lee house, and it remains unclear as to whether that house remained vacant or was leased to tenant farmers during her short period of ownership. She did leave a significant mark on the nearby community, however. This included philanthropic contributions to the local Episcopal church. The area’s first Episcopal church was founded by her mother, Rachel Price Wetherill, on Wetherill property in 1828 near the location where Rebecca Gumbes would later build Oakland Hall. After she assumed ownership of the property following the death of her father, Rebecca continued the family’s generous support of the church by making financial contributions needed for church repairs. Rebecca also constructed a chapel on the lawn of Oakland Hall which was designated for use by the church.
In 1857, Rebecca donated a house on the 1.5 acres that she had purchased that same year from Abraham Hendricks for use as parsonage by the church’s pastor. She later bequeathed this house to the church in her will. In addition, before her death, she donated lands adjacent to the parsonage for use as the site of a new Episcopal church. To assist in the construction of that church, she also donated $5,000 ($90,000 in today’s dollars). In addition, she commissioned the movement of the chapel, stone by stone, from Oakland Hall to its new location on the donated church property.
Rebecca Price Wetherill Gumbes never saw the construction of this new church. She died on December 2, 1869, at age 80, two years before construction began. The new St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was completed in 1872. Her generosity to the church may very well have been related to the tragedies that she experienced during her long life; she was pre-deceased by her husband and both of her two sons, leaving her alone later in life with no direct heirs.
This new St. Paul’s Episcopal Church still stands today, as a beautiful stone building with a large bell within and a stone cross on top of a stone steeple. It is located less than two-tenths of a mile east of the Neebor Lee House and serves as the Neebor Lee’s next-door neighbor. On Sunday mornings, you can hear its church bell toll as it calls out to its parishioners, notifying them that services are about to begin.