BUCKS COUNTY, PA. — Oscar Hammerstein II was in a slump. After co-authoring some of Broadway's biggest musicals of the 1920s, including "Showboat'', his work flopped in the 1930s. The lyricist and his wife, Dorothy, began to search for a country retreat so he could rest and refocus. As legend goes, when the Hammersteins approached Highland Farm, in Doylestown, Pa., a rainbow appeared. Dorothy saw that as a sign, and the Hammersteins bought the place.
"Everything turned around when Oscar moved here," said Christine Cole, who now owns Highland Farm and has fashioned it into a country inn. "The cattle, the air, the remote location inspired him. He wrote Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' from Oklahoma on this porch," she said, relaxing in a rocking chair overlooking a lush lawn shaded by towering pines.
Highland Farm — in the thick of Bucks County, Pa., about 80 miles southwest of Broadway lights —- was a balm for Hammerstein. He composed the lyrics to "South Pacific,'' "The King and I,'' and "The Sound of Music'' here and entertained guests, including Stephen Sondheim, James Michener, and Rodgers, in the spacious living room. These days, Cole's guests commune in that very room to play a Pranberry piano, stacked with Hammerstein hits, or curl up on a sofa once owned by the Hammersteins with a glass of wine and a themed coffee table book.
Each of Cole's four, large distraction-free (no phones or TVs) guestrooms has calming paint tones, 400-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and photographs of Hammerstein at work or play. Painted soft blue, the Carousel room features sketches of the costumes from the 1945 hit and a queen and trundle bed for accommodating a family. "The King and I' room has a private balcony where Hammerstein paced as he mulled over lyrics, and a queen bed with an Asian screen headboard. Playing tennis, swimming in an in-ground pool, and watching fireflies at dusk are a few of the farm's perennial pleasures. During breakfast, included in the lodging rate, Cole whips up tasty treats, such as cherry-stuffed French toast, served in a sand-and-sea-toned dining room with a crystal chandelier.
Hammerstein wasn't the only genius to flourish in Bucks County. Located 25 miles north of Philadelphia, the region of 31 townships and 23 boroughs has spawned many artists, musicians, and authors, from Pulitzer Prize winning author Pearl Buck to Alecia Moore, more commonly known as the singer Pink. When William Penn settled the area in 1682 and named it for his English home, Buckinghamshire, he noted an abundance of plums, grapes, peaches, strawberries and chestnuts. These days, country roads lined with crimson barns and produce-packed farm stands, covered bridges, and corn as high as an elephant's eye encourage visitors to fill the tank (gas costs considerably less in Pennsylvania) and savor a country drive. Rafting and tubing along the Delaware River, exploring castles and historic sites, chugging along in a vintage train, antiquing in tidy towns with photogenic stone houses, and savoring locally-made wine and beer are among the area's pastoral pastimes.
Buck's County's corollary to William Gillette, the Connecticut actor who built Gillette Castle in East Haddam between 1914 and 1919, is Henry Mercer. Both men crafted curiosity-filled, Medieval-style castles in country settings. There is no evidence the men knew one another, but one could easily imagine a kinship — or a competition — between these outsized personalities. Gillette Castle, completed in 1919, has a stone exterior and wood interior. Mercer fashioned 44-room Fonthill Castle, completed in 1910, of concrete because it was fireproof, malleable, cost-effective, and the ideal medium to display floor-to-ceiling ornamental tiles and mosaics crafted in his adjacent factory.
The highly-opinionated, Harvard-educated Mercer abhorred jazz, skyscrapers, and other hallmarks of modernity, furnishing Fonthill with hand-crafted treasures he acquired on international adventures. On a tour, visitors see the paw prints Mercer's beloved Chesapeake Bay dog, Rollo, left in fresh cement on a staircase and his 6,000-edition library, featuring the works of Edgar Allen Poe. He admired other authors far less. On the flyleaf of Ernest Hemingway's 1919 novel, A Farewell to Arms, Mercer wrote: "As charming as a bottle of dead flies."
Born to a wealthy Doylestown family in 1856, Mercer traveled abroad extensively, feeding his passion for archaeology and art collecting. Once his expeditions were behind him, he decided to produce hand-crafted decorative tiles in Doylestown, a venture which was met with immediate success; he quickly won commissions from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Pennsylvania State Capitol.
In keeping with the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900s, which emphasized handcraftsmanship over machine-produced goods, Mercer sought to create tiles and mosaics with a primitive, hand-hewn look. Today, his Moravian Pottery & Tile Works is a working museum, operated by the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation, where artisans craft tiles and mosaics using Mercer's original methods and designs.
Mercer worried that the Industrial Age would erode the value of handcraftsmanship. He committed himself to collecting "tools of the nation maker," and his astounding cache of 40,000 objects is housed in another concrete castle in Doylestown, the Mercer Museum (www.mercermuseum.org), a mile across town from Fonthill. Wandering into the museum's central court gives a visitor the feeling she has stumbled into a filled-to-the-rafters, everything-must-go barn sale. A fire engine, whale boat, and antique carriages hang off the balconies. Fifty-five exhibit rooms and alcoves feature fastidiously arranged collections of familiar and obscure tools from sixty American trades, such as wheelwright and wagon-making, laundering, watch-making and threshing. Navigating the concrete stairwells in the dimly-lit castle reveals several curiosities, including a historic hearse and gallows.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
Bucks County's defining geographical features is the Delaware River, which flows along its eastern towns and separates Pennsylvania from New Jersey. The river's relaxed speed of 1.5 miles per hour makes it popular for family rafting, tubing, canoeing and kayaking trips. On a hot day, folks gather at a local outfitter, Bucks County River Country, board a bus to the put-in site, place their preferred watercraft in the river, and enjoy gentle breezes, woodland scenery and wildlife sightings on the float back to base camp. In a season marked by abundant rain and high water, rafting trips that typically take up to four hours can be completed in less than two due to the swifter current (call for water advisories before you go).
Though river adventures typically run from May to October, one famous American completed a memorable crossing in December. On Christmas night 1776, General George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware in Durham boats, overcoming frozen toes, ice floes and fierce winds to defeat the Hessians at Trenton, N.J. Washington Crossing Historic Park is a testament to Washington's bravery, ingenuity and toughness; his storied crossing infused the Continental Army with new confidence and ultimately led to the defeat of the British in the American Revolution. At the park's new visitor center, open since March, travelers can view a video about the crossing and a reproduction of the allegorical 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze. Venturing outside and standing near the spot where Washington undertook his mission feels as all-American as, say, singing along to the soundtrack of Oscar and Hammerstein's Oklahoma.