The Genius Belt: Bucks County’s History of Intellectual and Artistic Superstars

The Genius Belt: Bucks County’s History of Intellectual and Artistic Superstars

Quakerism, a Christian religion that dates back to England in the 1650s, was the legacy left to Bucks County by William Penn when, after founding Philadelphia, he established Newtown in 1684 and built Pennsbury Manor on the banks of the Delaware River. Penn was a Quaker convert, and the beauty and tranquility of Bucks County lent themselves perfectly to the expression of his religion. “The country life,” he once said, “is to be preferred, for there we see the works of God, but in cities little else but the works of men; the one makes a better subject for our contemplation than the other.” And as the county’s tiny towns grew in population, Penn’s Quaker legacy inspired the beginning of a cultural movement that would make a lasting impression on the region and beyond.

In June 1783, three-year-old Edward Hicks was brought from Newtown by his father to the nearby farm of David and Elizabeth Twining, where he was placed permanently in their care—a choice Edward’s father thought necessary as he was known publicly for being a Loyalist to the British crown. Hicks grew up with the Twinings, living carefree until young adulthood when he became an apprentice to coachmakers. And following an illness, Hicks converted to Quakerism; it was the combination of his trade, his newfound religion, and the beauty of his surroundings that inspired his landscape paintings—work that would elevate him to be Bucks County’s most famous artist.

Oscar Hammerstein II at his writing desk on his Bucks County farm. Courtesy of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

The artistic culture established by early painters like Hicks, Samuel DuBois, William Lathrop, and Martin Johnson Heade grew over the next few decades to inspire the first generation of the New Hope School. Painters like Edward Redfield, Henry Bayley Snell, Daniel Garber, John Folinsbee, and Fern I. Coppedge began trickling into the area around 1910, using Phillips’ Mill, an old 18th-century grist mill, as an informal meeting place and art gallery (the mill became the official art colony center in 1929, hosting two exhibitions a year as well as dances, plays, lectures, dinners, and concerts).

The writers followed the painters. The attractive distance of Bucks County from the bustle of New York and the charm of Philadelphia made the region a haven for the likes of New York City playwrights and lyricists like Oscar Hammerstein II, who moved to Doylestown during the Great Depression and wrote the Oscar-winning lyrics for Oklahoma! (as well as lyrics for numerous other musicals) during his time here; and decorated authors like Pearl S. Buck, who was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938, and James A. Michener, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for Tales of the South Pacific.

By 1920, Bucks County was in its “golden years,” establishing itself as a region with significant intellectual and artistic prowess. Dubbed the “Genius Belt,” Bucks County’s early artistic pioneers established a lasting legacy of creativity that holds true to this day.

2018-04-05T16:59:55+00:00