by Lou Bernard
November 4th is a special day in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. It’s as close as we come to a founding date. This year, Lock Haven is 183 years old.
Our community was founded by Jerry Church, who came to the area to visit his brother in the fall of 1833. He loved the look of the place, and decided to create a community, which was pretty ambitious as he had no money to speak of. With the help of an investor from Williamsport, he spent twenty thousand dollars and purchased the land from Doctor John Henderson. Then he created his new town.
He held the public auction of land on November 4th. He sold lots to people, and they began building homes on them.
And Jerry himself began building his tree house.
The locals called it “Church’s Folly,” a name that Jerry, with his usual amusement, embraced. Our town founder doesn’t have much in the way of monuments around here—His gravestone is in Carlisle, Iowa, the next town he founded. Church Street is named after him, there’s the small canal monument at Canal Park, and a mural of Jerry painted on the side of the Simon Building. But nothing that really stands out. And Jerry himself expected that—He says in his journal that he didn’t see much chance for him to ever have a monument, so he built the tree house.
When I say “tree house,” I don’t mean the sort you see Bart Simpson sitting in. I also don’t mean the kind I built when I was a kid, which consisted of, essentially, one board nailed badly to a branch.
No, Jerry’s tree house was a work of art.
It was built in a grove of black walnut trees, roughly where the playground of Robb Elementary School now stands. In his journal (available for $1.75 at the Ross Library) Jerry describes it as being twenty-five feet in the air, forty feet long, and seven feet wide. (The metric system hadn’t been invented yet.) It had a banister, with a sort of couch running along the interior, and could only be accessed by a spiral staircase that wound up along one of the trees.
“I must say,” said Jerry,”When I went up on to the upper seat I felt like a bird.”
Jerry hired a painter from Germany to paint it, but made the mistake of not having an interpreter, so that the actual instructions came out somewhat garbled. Jerry had requested that the tree house be painted to appear like an imitation marble, but the German painter instead created what Jerry called “Dutch Marble,” which he describes as “all full of black and white spots.” Which sounds to me sort of like a cow pattern, but Jerry loved it and left it that way.
“I had a summer seat built in the first place, at Lock Haven,” he wrote,”So that if I got tired, I could go up and take a rest.” This was about typical of Jerry Church, too—The entire reason he created Clinton County in the first place was so he wouldn’t have a very long walk to the courthouse, in case he decided to sue someone.
Jerry Church had a unique sense of style; when architects asked him what order his structure was, he replied that he never did anything according to order. When people commented on the expense of an elaborate tree house, he said,”I sat far more comfortable on that seat than I could on a bag of dollars.”
Tragically, Church’s Folly no longer exists. Jerry left town in the mid-1840s to go exploring and creating new communities, and in 1872, the next owner of the land called it an abomination and had it torn down. And no, there aren’t any photos—The only picture I’ve ever seen shows it from a distance of maybe a mile away, and doesn’t capture the thing in its full glory.
But we remember Church’s Folly. And even though I’m not capable of creating a reconstruction—It would look something like one cow-painted board nailed to a tree—Lock Haven still captures the spirit of Jerry Church and his resting place. In his journal, he wrote that even though people made fun of his tree house,”All were willing to take a seat with me now and then.”