When Rocks Talk: “The Boys of Mount Airy” and a Woman from Germantown

Mute Memorial Boulder at Germantown Avenue and Sedgwick Street. (Ken Finkel)

Bare rock makes a mute memorial. When a boulder loses a plaque once carried, it instantly loses voice, power, and a good measure of its dignity.

What to make of the boulder at Germantown Avenue and Sedgwick Street in front of the Lovett Memorial Library? It’s been missing two plaques for forty years. There it stands, mouth open, as it were, ready to say something that must be important, but no words come. They are long gone, stolen, sold for scrap and melted down.

Thank goodness for archives, where images of bronze have no scrap value whatever. A photograph “restores” the words from both missing plaques and gives the boulder back something of its long-lost voice.  We learn it was brought from Valley Forge and suddenly the situation has an extra dose of authority—or is it pretense? Whichever, the Valley Forge connection offers meaning to the main event: a list of local World War I casualties. The patriotic rock suggests the sacrifice of “THE BOYS OF MOUNT AIRY WHO FELL IN HEROIC SERVICE FOR THEIR COUNTRY AND HUMANITY” may indeed have been part of greater things.

With the singing of “America” and a prayer, this boulder with its plaque bearing 35 names, in a park of red oaks and dogwoods, was unveiled on Memorial Day weekend, 1924. No American neighborhood was without its own list to mourn and honor. This “Great War,” the first one to offer all the benefits of industrialization, would be the nation’s second bloodiest: 16 million deaths, an estimated 10 million of which were men in service. The numbers are staggering. Germany lost nearly 1.8 million soldiers; Russia 1.7; France 1.3; the British Empire lost more than 900,000. The list of American “boys” is 116,516 names long.

From one count, 1,448 were from the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Of these, 34 called Mount Airy home. Each left behind family, and memories that faded over time, and faster after the plaques disappeared. But again, archives tells us more than we knew.

Listed sixth is Mortimer P. Crane, baptized on July 1, 1894 at the church on McCallum and Tulpehocken Streets. The Cranes lived at 6440 Greene Street. Mortimer struggled to get into Yale, later found work at one of his father’s mining companies and when war and the rush of patriotic fervor came, Crane enlisted.

World War I Monument at Lovett Park, Mount Airy. Germantown Avenue and Sedgwick Street – March 11, 1927 (PhillyHistory.org)

While flying in formation during a maneuver on May 15, 1918, Crane’s airplane crashed near Amesbury, Wiltshire, not far from Stonehenge. He died instantly of a fractured neck. If we know it, so did those who dedicated this monument six years later: a Court of Inquiry found that Crane’s own “error in judgment” caused the accident. He turned, clipped another plane, tore away a part of his own wing, and crashed.

We know about Crane because he was an officer, and from a rich family. But each of these men had families, memories and stories. We don’t know much, but now we know their names:

Stanley H. Berry; Albert R. Bolay; John Breidenfield; George M. Brooks; Anthony Cimino; George A. Dawson; Herbert K. Dewees; James Duffy; Thomas B. Durrick; Frank C. Erb; George William Esher; Jacques A. Fiechter; Edward Fisher; William Fleming, Jr.; Earl S. Horsey; Charles Joseph Houston; Clement Cresson Kite; Harrison Knox; Harry Linaka; Edward Joseph Malone; Robert Joseph McCamman; William J. Merkle; Ralph Thurman Mills; Clark B. Nichol; John Potts; Alfred L. Quintaro; Herman P. Saylor; George P. Shepherdson; Harold J. Sheppard; William Sibel; Gerald G. Speck; George G. Whitson; and Jacob Zaun III.

The blank boulder echoes the spirit of their sacrifice.

From Evening Public Ledger, September 20, 1918. (The Library of Congress)

And the archival photograph tells us more. The long-gone plaque also spoke of “MARCIA MAXWELL BARTLE, U.S.M.C., FIRST WOMAN TO ENLIST IN PHILADELPHIA.” Bartle’s skills as an experienced switchboard operator were needed at the Philadelphia Marine Quartermaster’s Depot.

Good thing the planners for the renovated Lovett Park won’t be casting away this historic stone.

Or will they?

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