In a little patch of Gap designated as the Rising Sun Historic District, a steady breeze sent waves through a field of weedy blossoms alive with hundreds of moths and bees.
A squirrel rustling through some leaves was startled by a thudding walnut and took off toward an old, stone tavern.
For a fleeting moment it was easy to imagine how things might have sounded in the 1790s when that tavern was built.
Then a tractor-trailer barreled by.
The uncharacteristic pause in Route 30 traffic was over. It was back to modern reality for The Rising Sun Historic District — a collection of Salisbury Township buildings that may be slipping into the past.
“We have not lost our battle yet,” says Leona Baker, a longtime member of the township’s historical society. “But we think we have.”
Baker says the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission was talking about the Rising Sun Historic District of Gap as early as the 1960s and the district was formerly denoted in 1994.
Its significance took center stage in 2006 when PennDOT bypassed the Rising Sun buildings rather than run the road right through them, she says.
Some of those buildings that shaped the direction of a major modern roadway are now gone. A home known as Bellvue, built in 1817, and its barns were dismantled last year. All that remains standing on that farm property is a very nonhistoric silo.
Rutter’s has filed zoning requests that would allow them to build a convenience store there. Rutter’s originally asked to have gambling machines as well, but Salisbury Township closed the door on those. Rutter’s plan submissions also included the address for that stone tavern, which has had many lives over the years, most recently as Stone House Restaurant.
Once known as Sign of the Rising Sun Tavern and built by wealthy landowner James Kennedy, the building traces its history to about the time the Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike was completed in 1794. It was the first building constructed in a small village that grew up around it, according to a data sheet from preservationpa.org.
According to a 1976 Sunday News article, the tavern was visited by Gen. Lafayette, Gen. Winfield Scott, President Andrew Jackson and other historic figures.
The Stone House is closed and a sign out front still says “for sale.” The agent listed on the sign could not be reached for comment. Rutter’s also did not respond to requests for comment.
Les Houck, longtime member of the Salisbury Township Board of Supervisors, says he doesn’t believe any land has actually changed hands yet in the Rising Sun district but expects Rutter’s still has plans there as they haven’t notified the township otherwise.
Houk says Salisbury Township has worked hard to protect its agricultural character and has largely kept development concentrated along its major roadways.
When it comes to those busy roadways, it comes down to a matter of practicality, Houk says. Many people want to see old structures saved, he says. But it’s tough for any would-be investors to justify the expense of doing so, he adds.
A woman who answered the door at the private 1800s residence across from the old tavern declined to talk about that home — sometimes referred to as the Kennedy House. That’s also included in the historic district. So is a stucco-covered house circa 1801, which once belonged to a blacksmith whose shop is long gone. In later years it was used as a tenant house for the Bellvue farm.
The historical society bought that blacksmith’s house for $1. They’d hoped to fix it up but ran into some interior challenges that Baker says couldn’t be justified given what she says was an impractical parking situation. The society sold it to the Weaver family — of Shady Maple fame — a few years ago.
In late 2013, the Weavers announced they were the buyers of the Houston Run Development, a nearby project started by Auntie Anne’s founders Anne and Jonas Beiler. Lin Weaver says no definite plans have been decided for the former blacksmith house.
The Rising Sun District is one of two officially designated historic districts in Gap. The other is home to the clock tower. Ask just about anybody in Gap where the tower is and they’ll quickly tell you. But about a dozen people who work within about a mile of the former Rising Sun Tavern said they’d never heard of that.
“Rising Sun is in Maryland,” said one woman folding laundry in a business just a few doors up the road. There are lots of places called Rising Sun, says Baker, who isn’t sure why this one got its name.
“If you go up Gap hill, that’s a mile high. Think about those Conestoga wagons going west,” she says. “As they came to that crest, if the sun was in the right place, it shines down on that building. The whole valley lights up. It’s possible that’s why they gave it that name. But that’s a pure guess.”
David Abel, who with his wife, Tierney, runs the Star Barn at Stone Gables Estate in West Donegal Township, says the Martin family — who for years owned the Bellvue farm — reached out to him. Stones, molding, windows and more from the old home eventually will be incorporated into the Star Barn Manor House, Abel says. That’s a few years down the road.
Crews first will reassemble the tobacco barn and the main barn from Gap’s Rising Sun site. With their white pine and gables, they share similar style plus age as the Belmont Barn, which was dismantled in 2015 along Fruitville Pike.
They’ll all now be together at The Barns of Belmont, a new part of the Abels’ property that is slated to host weddings and corporate events and to house The National Christmas Center collection, which Abel bought last year.
Abel almost passed on the Rising Sun buildings. He says he saw a “for sale” sign in front of them while driving through Gap on the way to a family vacation.
“I said, ‘I’m not calling. I’m not going to do it. There’s no way. I don’t need another barn, I don’t need another project,’ ” he says.
Yet Abel added a quick prayer.
“I said, ‘Lord, if you want that to come to us, they’re going to have to call me.’ We got back, and the next day I look and there’s their email. You can call that a coincidence if you want. I don’t.”
Abel says he sees value in obtaining masterpieces that, because of the impact of roadways, end up otherwise falling into disrepair.
“Now they’re going to get second lives and they’re going to get seen by tens of thousands of people from around the world,” he says.
Baker is anxious to see the Abels’ project. Though she would rather have seen the buildings stay put.
She spends a lot of time keeping a watchful eye on older buildings throughout the township.
“It’s interesting that any old houses that have been sold recently in this township have been sold to Amish people who have restored them,” she says. “They’re fixing them up and (in most cases) not living in them.”
She says she’s pleased with work being done on about six houses on her watch list.
“There are about five more that we’re worried about,” she says. “In one case there are no living relatives so who knows what will happen to that.”
She is expecting an old residence on the Urban Outfitters property to go soon. The farmer renting that recently moved out after Urban Outfitters revealed plans for possible expansion there. Baker and other historic society members recently took several photos in an effort to document the home’s history.
Baker says there is a lot of interest in Salisbury Township when it comes to wanting to preserve the past. Resources, she says, are another story.
“There’s only so much this little town can handle,” Baker says. “We’re not New Holland. We’re not Lancaster. We don’t have heaps of money to do this.”