Preserving history in Holme Circle

  • Brenda Exon (left) of Partners for Civic Pride explains the city motto “Philadelphia Maneto” or “Let brotherly love endure.” PHOTO COURTESY OF ELSIE STEVENS

  • Philly love: Community leaders raise the American, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia flags over the newly restored Holme-Crispin Cemetery. PHOTO COURTESY OF ALAN TRACHTENBERG

In the be­gin­ning, all that Elsie Stevens wanted to do was to clean things up a bit.

But what began as a small neigh­bor­hood beau­ti­fic­a­tion pro­ject evolved in­to a siz­able his­tor­ic­al pre­ser­va­tion cam­paign for Stevens and the com­munity group she leads, the Holme Circle Civic As­so­ci­ation. On Nov. 3, civic lead­ers joined des­cend­ants of two of Pennsylvania’s earli­est col­on­ists in cel­eb­rat­ing months of labor at the Holme-Crispin Cemetery.

The long-neg­lected buri­al ground is the fi­nal rest­ing place of Thomas Holme, who as Wil­li­am Penn’s sur­vey­or-gen­er­al laid out the now-fa­mil­i­ar grid of Phil­adelphia streets. In the late 17th cen­tury, Holme main­tained an es­tate, the Well Spring Plant­a­tion, in Lower Dub­lin Town­ship near Pennypack Creek (called Dub­lin Creek at the time), not far from its con­flu­ence with the Delaware River.

Today, the site is part of the Holme Circle neigh­bor­hood. Holme’s fam­ily buri­al ground has sur­vived the cen­tur­ies and oc­cu­pies a quarter-acre par­cel of land along Holme Av­en­ue just west of Con­vent Av­en­ue, in the shad­ow of Pennypack Park and next to the Crispin Gar­dens Ath­let­ic As­so­ci­ation fields.

“I only wanted to erect a flag­pole,” Stevens said dur­ing the re-ded­ic­a­tion. “But my good friend Fred Moore said, ‘You have to have a ce­re­mony.’ ”

Ac­cord­ing to Stevens, the cemetery was hardly dis­tin­guish­able from the sur­round­ing growth of wild grasses and park fo­liage last fall. Tall weeds ob­scured all but the tallest grave mark­ers, such as Holme’s cent­rally po­si­tioned ob­elisk. Thou­sands of cars would pass the site daily with nary a clue about the his­tory bur­ied there.

His­tor­i­ans have coun­ted 92 graves, al­though iden­tit­ies of many of the dead re­main un­known. They in­clude Holme’s daugh­ter, Hester, and her hus­band, Silas Crispin, who was the son of Penn’s first cous­in, Wil­li­am Crispin.

Silas and his fath­er first sailed for Amer­ica in Novem­ber 1681 after Penn had named the eld­er as a com­mis­sion­er of the new colony. Wil­li­am Crispin was Penn’s first choice as sur­vey­or, but he died dur­ing the voy­age.

Penn next chose Holme, a fel­low Quaker, to sur­vey the colony. Holme and his daugh­ter ar­rived in Amer­ica in Au­gust 1682. Hester mar­ried Silas Crispin the fol­low­ing year. They settled in Lower Dub­lin.

Thomas Holme died in 1695. As ex­ecut­or of his will, Silas Crispin sold much of his fath­er-in-law’s plant­a­tion, but di­vided about 1,200 acres among the Crispin chil­dren, while re­serving one acre to es­tab­lish the fam­ily buri­al ground. Hester was bur­ied there in 1696, fol­lowed by Silas in 1711. The rest of the graves are oc­cu­pied by the des­cend­ants of Silas’ and Hester’s son, Thomas, and his wife Jane Ashton Crispin.

The fi­nal buri­al there took place in 1863, the same year that the Trust­ees of the Lower Dub­lin Academy erec­ted the eight-foot monu­ment to Thomas Holme, re­pla­cing the simple field­stone that had marked his grave for the pre­vi­ous 168 years.

“Who would have thought we have all this his­tory in North­east Phil­adelphia?” said state Rep. John Sabat­ina. “I want to thank the Holme Circle Civic As­so­ci­ation and Elsie for their pride, ded­ic­a­tion and com­mit­ment to mak­ing this place what it is today.”

After clear­ing the brush and branches and mow­ing the grass last fall, Stevens and her co­horts began so­li­cit­ing for private and pub­lic con­trib­ut­ors to the re­hab pro­ject. W.W. Grainger Inc. donated a flag­pole. Sabat­ina donated U.S. and Pennsylvania flags, while Brenda Exon of Part­ners for Civic Pride gave a Phil­adelphia city flag.

Home De­pot and Lowes each con­trib­uted shrubs for plant­ing and oth­er ma­ter­i­als. The city, par­tic­u­larly Deputy May­or Mi­chael DiB­er­ardinis and the De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation, sup­plied park benches along with trees for plant­ing. The Trust­ees of Lower Dub­lin Academy donated light­ing and se­cur­ity equip­ment.

The pro­ject hasn’t been without set­backs. On two oc­ca­sions, van­dals ripped re­cently planted trees from the ground. Some of the new shrubs died in the ground. Nat­ur­al threats in­clud­ing snakes and pois­on sumac made things dif­fi­cult for vo­lun­teers.

But they got the job done in time for the Nov. 3 ce­re­mony, which co­in­cided with the 389th an­niversary of Thomas Holme’s birth. Pearl Har­bor vet­er­an Alex Hor­anzy presen­ted the U.S. flag. Sabat­ina’s aide, Mi­chael Fagan, presen­ted the state flag. Kath­leen Simpson, wid­ow of slain Phil­adelphia po­lice Sgt. Timothy Simpson, presen­ted the city flag. All are Holme Circle res­id­ents.

Exon, who co-foun­ded Part­ners for Civic Pride in 1998 to pro­mote Phil­adelphia’s found­ing prin­ciples and its motto through edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams, dis­cussed the sym­bol­ism and mean­ing of the civic flag.

George Crispin, a des­cend­ant of Silas Crispin and un­of­fi­cial fam­ily his­tor­i­an, said that many Cris­pins still live in South­ern New Jer­sey and would be thrilled by the hard work and care shown by vo­lun­teers.

Stevens said that the com­munity hopes to pro­tect the cemetery while mak­ing it ac­cess­ible to loc­al folks who are in­ter­ested in its his­tory.

“We feel like it’s on our watch,” Stevens said. ••

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