East Falls: Ellen Sheehan Works to Preserve Local History

The East Falls Historical Society is a nonprofit organization founded in 2004. Its mission states the organization is “dedicated to discovering, preserving and promoting historic interest in the East Falls community of Northwest Philadelphia.” For years, the EFHS has managed the neighborhood’s archives, organized events and collected oral histories of longtime residents.

Ellen Sheehan is one of the founders and co-president of the EFHS. A resident of East Falls her entire life, she worked with historic photos for the Friends of the Philadelphia Free Library before the historical society existed. When the longtime librarian was about to retire, Sheehan helped found the EFHS so that historic archives wouldn’t get lost. Since then, she has been working to record and preserve the neighborhood’s history.

How long have you been living in East Falls?

I’ve lived here all my life. My great grandparents came here in the 1860s, and they lived in the lower end, over there by Allegheny. They lived on 35th Street. My great-grandfather started a flower business, and that was passed down to my grandfather and my father. And my uncle also had a flower business. We’ve been in business here in the community for a long time, so I’ve just always grown up and always lived here.

Can you explain your title at the East Falls Historical Society and how long you’ve been a part of it?

Before there was a historical society, people in East Falls would give their historic findings and treasures to the library. And they said, “We don’t want to see this disappear from East Falls. We think it’s part of the community.” So, they were giving things to the library.

The longtime librarian there was about to retire and she said, “We have to find a historical organization so that this stuff doesn’t just disappear.” So, Wendy Moody and myself and Katy Hineline, we were all involved in the Friends of the Library at the time. I did the historic photos there, and Katie, she’s a social studies teacher at Germantown Friends, so we were involved in the history anyway, which was at the library. We decided to found a historical society. That was in 2004, and so we’ve been muscling along ever since.

Explain a little what the East Falls Historical Society does and what services do you offer?

We have about 11 committees. We have, say, the acquisition committee. If you have something you want to donate to the history of the community, you get in touch with us and we will archive that. And we have an archive committee. When you give something, we archive it. We have special boxes, and properly archive things so they don’t deteriorate. We have a catalog committee that keeps track of where our things are. We have an oral history committee and we do oral histories of longtime residents, of owners of businesses, of people who start community organizations. You can view all of those on our website.

We have a historic sites committee that looks out for people who want to destroy our buildings and our architecture. They kind of keep track of putting things in the historic register so that these things don’t disappear. That’s been very active lately because we’ve had to do that. We have a number of committees, we have a membership committee and internal committees who are responsible for the upkeep of our organization.

We digitize all of our old files like the Chadwick Papers. The Chadwick Papers are the foundation of our research and we answer questions to people who are interested. We have a reference committee and a research committee. People like you will come to us and say, “I’m interested in something about the history and learning about it,” and so we meet with them and try to help.

The EFHS keeps a collection of important local history documents.

What are some goals of the historical society?

The goals are to maintain our history here. That’s primarily an ongoing important part of what we do is to make sure that people are aware of our history. People in East Falls love their history, and even new people who are just recently here are interested in what was the history of our neighborhood and how did we start. So we try to maintain our buildings and our historic sites. We try to make sure that our history is ongoing. It’s not just what happened in the past, but we’re collecting history at the present time for future generations. It’s important for us to document what we have here now and make sure we have the historic photos and those kinds of things that will keep our history alive.

Before founding the East Falls Historical Society, Sheehan volunteered in the historical photographs department of the Free Library.

What kind of businesses can you find in the neighborhood?

You know, we have, our business district has mainly been in the Ridge Avenue-Midvale Avenue corridor. You’ll find a lot of businesses along Ridge connected to Midvale and along Midvale.

So there have always been businesses up there, but then they kind of went out of favor, and now they’re coming back again. You have this business district along Conrad Street, where there’s new restaurants, there’s hairdressers, various businesses. But mostly down here along Ridge and Midvale, you have a couple restaurants, you have stores, you have a bar, you have the new Le Bus that opened on the corner there. People in East Falls are not wanting to see another Manayunk, so to speak, where it’s a lot of businesses and where it’s a big draw, because it’s a residential neighborhood, and people want their parking. They want a walkable community. They don’t like the idea of a lot of bars and people drinking and that kind of thing, so they’re very protective of what kind of businesses move here.

What  are the benefits of the new business coming into the area?

Well, new businesses, people are looking for walkable places now. There was a time when that wasn’t important, but now people are like, “I like to walk to a restaurant. I want a restaurant I can walk to. I want to walk to business and stroll around.” And these are young people who are more interested in a neighborhood that feels more like a neighborhood, where everybody knows each other.

One thing we have now at Dobson Mills, a dog park. A lot of people in East Falls own dogs, they wanna walk their dogs, so they’re looking for businesses that are nearby to where they live, so I think that has changed.

Can you speak on the historic Dobson Mills smokestack?

Well, the Historic Society is a little apprehensive of the removal of old buildings, and sometimes when these larger organizations come in, they think it’s their prerogative to take things down that we consider historic. And we don’t want to see our culture and our community be destroyed, and you know, it’s taking place all over the city.

We’re apprehensive because we’ve seen what’s happened in different communities nearby where if there’s two square inches of space, they put up new buildings. They’ve taken down beautiful historic architecture, and that’s disturbing to us. We don’t want to see all this just be taken down and all these developers taking advantage of the city’s lax taxes for them, and leaving us with a community that no longer looks the same and feels the same. So we are pretty intense about trying to save our historic culture here.

Sheehan displays a historic photograph of Dobson Mills.

How do you feel about all the new development and redevelopment?

Well that depends on how they’re using it. We’re welcoming, of course, to anything that furthers the neighborhood and the community. We want to see businesses thrive here; we want to see good restaurants, things that will help the community. But, we’re cautious about things that are not going to improve the community, things that are going to take up space or destroy what’s already here. We want to maintain what we have in the history.

Right now we’re working on the maintenance of the Falls Bridge. The Falls Bridge is going to be 125 years old next year. This is a great part of our community and a great pride to us. And bridges in Philadelphia have not been properly maintained, so we have been in touch with the city, and they are going to begin, well they have already begun, plans to improve the bridge. In 2022 they are going to do a serious rehab on the bridge, but we want to make sure that they maintain the beauty of the bridge, the structure of the bridge, and just keep things as they are but improve the structure.

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