The Gentleman and the Surgeon

We are now well into the dog days of summer, with the days having become hot and humid with temperatures occasionally exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  It can be hard to get things done outside under these conditions, particularly for a 55 year old heart attack survivor like myself. At much prompting by my caring family, I have slowed my renovation work down a bit. I’ll pick up the pace again once the temperatures and humidity drop back down.

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t accomplished any renovations over the past month. I finished the roof of the property’s old shed and have built new doors for the same shed. These doors still need to be painted and mounted, and I will need to replace the clapboard siding to fit the door frame, which needed to be squared to overcome a slight tilt in the 100 year old shed. I’ve also performed some modest electrical work, including replacing an old rusted outdoor flood light fixture and tackling a vexing indoor electrical problem that caused a limited power outage in the 2nd floor bathroom. This outage, which is still unresolved, also affected one wall of a second floor bedroom and the master bedroom that is located on the third floor. The wiring in the Neebor Lee remains a puzzle, with phantom switches, wiring that truncates without connecting to anything and four largely unlabeled circuit boxes. When an electrical issue arises, it becomes a nightmare to solve. Lastly, I had to make an emergency plumbing repair that including opening the wall behind the first floor bathroom shower in order to re-sweat a new pipe to connect a new shower head.

Another activity that my wife and have recently undertaken is to participate in the planning of my son’s wedding. After several failed attempts at finding a reasonably priced venue, my son and his fiancé, both young attorneys with significant law school debt, have decided save money by having their wedding at the Neebor Lee house. The wedding, which is scheduled for September 6th, will be a modest affair with only immediate family and close friends attending. The wedding and reception will be held in the rear yard under a party tent that I purchased for the affair. We’re now in the process of getting the yard into shape, with much pruning of bushes and trees and cleanup of all the debris I had laying around from my renovations.

The wedding itself will be a self-uniting wedding, which is conducted without a third-party officiant. This type of wedding is somewhat unique to Pennsylvania and originates from Quaker tradition when vows were exchanged between husband and wife with only friends and family members present as witnesses. In a Quaker marriage, the couple declares their intentions directly before God because of the belief that only God, not a priest or pastor, has the authority to perform a marriage.

My son and future daughter-in-law are not Quakers. For that matter, neither are religious, which made a self-uniting marriage attractive to both of them. No matter their reason for a having a self-unity wedding, I find the idea of a self-uniting marriage fitting considering the Quaker and Free Quaker heritage associated with the Neebor Lee house.

And that brings us back to the history of the Neebor Lee. Many Quakers have touched this property one way or another. The original European owners of the property were Quakers, going as far back as William Penn. In addition, the family that owned the Neebor Lee property from 1861 to 1977 were members of the Religious Society of Free Quakers. As noted in a prior post, the Gumbes family’s involvement with the Free Quaker movement goes back to its founding at the time of the American Revolution.

Among these Free Quakers was Rebecca Price Wetherill Gumbes, who was the first Gumbes owner of the Neebor Lee property. Yet, despite her membership in the Religious Society of Free Quakers, she was very charitable to the local Episcopal Church having donated a part of her land for a rectory and later a chapel. In 1867, having two years earlier lost her second and only remaining son, she gave the Neebor Lee house and the remainder of her lands in Upper Providence Township, along with $10,000 ($160,000 in 2015 dollars), to her grandson William Henry Gumbes.  William, who was at the time 28 years old, occupied the property but decided, like his grandmother, not to live in the Neebor Lee house, which at that time was still a small stone farmhouse. Rather, he used the money and land given to him by his grandmother to build a new home worthy of his higher financial stature. This new house was located approximately 650 feet southeast of the Neebor Lee house and across the road from Rebecca’s beloved St. Paul’s Episcopal  Church.

The home built by William was a three-story mansion of Italianate Victorian architecture.  It had a porch that wrapped around three sides of the house, a long parlor adorned with marble and a library, in addition to a dining room, a butler’s pantry and kitchen.  According to the 1870 census, William lived in that house, which he called “Rose Lawn”, with his wife, three children and four domestic servants. It is noteworthy that the 1870 census did not identify Henry’s occupation, and tax records and city directories of that period refer to his occupation as “Gentleman”, thereby suggesting that he was wealthy and did not work.  At this time, William was leasing the Neebor Lee house to a local farmer named William Dettra and his wife Mary.

Rose Lawn
The Rose Lawn mansion. This Italianate Victorian style home built in 1867 by William Henry Gumbes on the same property that was also occupied by the Neebor Lee house. It and the Neebor Lee house are the only remaining  of the four Gumbes mansions.

Much of William’s wealth came from his family, who were still operating a successful chemical and drug business in Philadelphia. A small portion of this wealth may later have also come from the railroad. One year after this grandmother transferred ownership of the Neebor Lee property to him the railroad arrived in Upper Providence Township. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad established its Perkiomen-Allentown Branch which included laying tracks right through the middle of the Neebor Lee property, bisecting the property in two such that track lay between Rose Lawn and the Neebor Lee house.  The train track was located only 400 feet from the Neebor Lee house. With the tracks came the construction of a train station near the southern edge of William Henry Gumbes’ property. That station was named Oaks Station by the railroad, and around it a hamlet soon emerged that was called Oaks.

The fortunes of “Gentleman” William Henry Gumbes did not last, however. In 1872, while plagued by debt, he sold a significant portion of the Neebor Lee property to his younger brother, Charles Wetherill Gumbes. Charles, unlike his older brother, had pursued a vocation; he received an education in medicine and became a physician. During the Civil War, he served the Union Army as a Captain and as an Acting Assistant Surgeon in General Gustavus De Russy’s Division, 22nd Army Corps, 1st Brigade. He remained largely out of harms way, performing his medical duties in and around Washington D.C.  at U.S. General Hospital,  Fort Emergency, Fort Albany and Fort Woodbury (all of which were part of the city’s southern defenses). He served the Union Army until the termination of his appointment in May 1865.

When Dr. Charles W. Gumbes assumed ownership of the Neebor Lee he, like his grandmother and brother before him, chose not to reside in the stone farmhouse that was then the Neebor Lee house. Rather, he opted for greater comfort and amenities.  Since his brother William was continuing to live in Rose Lawn, the good doctor constructed a new mansion approximately 1,000 feet south of the Neebor Lee house. This new mansion was constructed of hand cut and fitted stone and was, like Rose Lawn, three stories in height. It had 20 rooms, a mansard slate roof, a porch that was similar to Rose Lawn in that it wrapped around the house on three sides, and gas pipes, which in the 1870s was uncommon. Access to gas provided the home with hot and cold water. The architecture of the house was said to be of french influence.

The new mansion also had a several outbuildings including a stone stable that accommodated a carriage house, a tack room, stalls for four horses with a bedroom for the groomsman, a greenhouse, and a kennel. The mansion also had a recreation building called the “Den”, which was later moved in 1903 to the Neebor Lee house, where we now call it the “Mason Lodge”. Dr. Gumbes named his new mansion “Broadview.” The 1880 census indicates that Dr. Gumbes lived there with his wife, three children and four servants. One additional servant may have been living in the Neebor Lee house at the time. The 1880 census indicates that a John Conner, a gardener, and his wife Anne, both of whom were Irish immigrants, were living in a house between Broadview and Rose Lawn which I presume was the Neebor Lee house.

The Neebor Lee house (left) in 1872, which is the year that Dr. Charles W. Gumbes assumed ownership.  The appearance of the house at that time is likely how it appeared when it was built in 1785 by Peter Horning with the possible exception of the porch. The carriage house on the right was eventually moved to make way for the placement of the “Den”, which we now call the Mason Lodge. This carriage house still stands today, on a neighbor’s property west of the Neebor Lee property.

After moving into Broadview, Dr. Charles Gumbes served as the local physician to the people of Oaks. He continued to live a good and prosperous life in Oaks over the next 30 years. The Census indicated that he was still living in Broadview in 1900 with this two sons and their spouses and one granddaughter. Residing with them were five servants , including a housekeeper, a cook, a waitress, a nurse and a coachman.  Dr. Charles Gumbes died of a heart attack on January 31, 1903 and was buried in the cemetery of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. His death would result in a transformation of the Neebor Lee house.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Mogel says:

    I grew up in Oaks in the 1960s’ – 1970’s. It was a small village then — though with major factories on its perimeter — all gone now — where Lowes, a major theater chain, and many other businesses now exist. Our Boy Scout troop was hosted by St. Paul’s. There was no 422. One of the things every kid in Oaks did was to explore the ruins of what I see here in your posts was probably Broadview. At the time, there was little to imagine that it had ever been a three-story mansion. It had been a mansion to be sure, but by that time (60’s-70s) it had been reduced to rubble. Trees were growing from inside the house. The walls were only a few feet high. How and why did that happen? This is a question that every kid from Oaks in that era has wanted know the answer. Here’s the other thing that caught my attention from your posts — that a William Dettra leased the Neebor Lee house. Is it possible that William Dettra had something to do with Dettra Flag which was a major employer in Oaks and the premier manufacturer of flags until it was bought out by another company in 1998 (Annin)? Love your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark: Thank you so very much for commenting and I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. Oaks, in the 1960s and 1970s, must have been a wonderful place to grow up. From what I understand (despite being only a 2-year newbie in town), much has changed over the past 10 years. and its still changing. It’s certainly not a small village anymore.

      Regarding Broadview, I point you to my latest post, “Tranformation”. In that post I describe what happened the the Broadview Mansion. Why the owner of that home allowed it to deteriorate after 1941, I can reasonably speculate based on Gumbes family history. What I know is that the owner of the Broadview Mansion, Francis Macomb Gumbes, passed away in 1945. His wife, Rebecca, would pass away one year later. Their only child, a daughter also named Rebecca, having married a naval officer, was away on the west coast throughout the 1940s. Francis’ brother, Charles Wetherill Gumbes, Jr., who lived next door at the Neebor Lee house, was of ill health himself at the time and had his hands full with maintaining the Neebor Lee house. The net result of all of this was that the Broadview Mansion, which was only being used as a vacation home by Francis Gumbes, was neglected through the 1940s and taxes fell in arrears. By the time Rebecca and her naval officer husband returned to Pennsylvania in 1950 (to help Rebecca’s Uncle Charles with the Neebor Lee house), it was too late for Broadview Mansion. By the time of her arrival, Broadview had already become dilapidated through neglect, looting and vandalism, and foreclosure was inevitable. Rebecca and her naval husband, who settled into the Neebor Lee house, eventually filed suit and won the return of Broadview property. By that time, however, the building was too far gone to have it restored and they thus allowed the local fire department to burn it down as practice for their firefighting skills. The only reminder that a Gumbes home ever existed in that location today is the naming of the road that now passes through the residential subdivision that was built on the former Broadview property. The name of that road is Gumbes Road.

      Regarding Willam Dettra, I could find no connection to John C. Dettra, who was the founder of the Dettra Flag Company. It is possible, however, that they could have been very distant relatives.


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