Germantown had its origins nearly simultaneously with the beginnings of Penn's city when a group of Dutch Quakers from Krefeld and Kresheim in partnership with a group of Germans from Frankfurt purchased fifteen thousand acres in 1683 and brought their distinct culture and architecture to the region. The sale was conditional on their building thirty houses within a year, for which Francis Daniel Pastorius's Hoch-Teutsche (High-German) settlement would be treated, in Pastorius's phrase, as “a separate little province, in which they would be free from all oppression.” When Pehr Kalm visited the city in 1748, he reported in Travels in North America (1750) that their community, in what is present-day Germantown, extended for nearly two English miles and was still largely inhabited by Germans, “because they enjoy such privileges as they are not possessed of anywhere else.” Few of the tall-roofed houses that Kalm described as built of stone “mixed with glimmer,” the local Wissahickon schist, still stand today; however, many mid- to late-eighteenth-century English-styled houses, often masking German asymmetrical plans, can be found along the avenue. Some have been restored but many are sadly deteriorated, reflecting the post–World War II deindustrialization that has gutted the region.
It is still possible to get a sense of the scale and character of the early German settlement at Rittenhousetown, the cluster of buildings at the corner of Lincoln Drive south of Wissahickon Avenue on the banks of Wissahickon Creek. Here are the vestiges of the paper mill established by William Rittenhouse in 1690, the first to be built in the British colonies. The oldest dated building is the house built in 1707 for Rittenhouse, a rubble building of pronounced archaic character with a steep roof and narrow windows. It is the last important relic of the once intensive German presence along the Wissahickon, the chief conduit from Germantown to the Schuylkill River. Here, in its wild and romantic landscape, German mystic Johannes Kelpius formed his Society of the Woman in the Wilderness (1694), the first of a long series of millennial societies that would be attracted to Pennsylvania by William Penn's policy of tolerance. Something of the highly picturesque scenery that attracted Kelpius is still conveyed by Rittenhouse's quaint industrial village.
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