From Sandy Ridge and Pine Run to Main Street and Cross Keys: The Photography of William Histand of Doylestown
Written by Joel Alderfer on January 20, 2023
For decades, we’ve known about some of the unusual photography of the late William L. Histand (1911-1994) of Doylestown, PA. In fact, over the years we’ve used several of his classic images of local Mennonite life from the 1930s and 1940s in various exhibits. I became acquainted with Bill in his later years when he visited at the Mennonite Heritage Center in the early 1990s and donated just a sampling of his photos to us. In the years since Bill died, I’ve been in touch with a couple of his sons to try to learn more about the extent and location of his photography. In the last year these efforts have borne some fruit.
Last May, Bill’s son, Leonard Histand, contacted me and revealed that he had scanned many negatives, prints, and slides that he had inherited after his father died. Leonard sent me a flash drive with about 2500 scans of his Dad’s photos, which soon captured my attention. What a treasure of images of life in the Mennonite and neighboring community around Doylestown! With Leonard’s awareness, I sifted these 2500 scans down to about 1000 images that I felt have long-term cultural, genealogical, historical, and even artistic value. Leonard agreed that I could save these images to our server and use them appropriately for research, exhibit work, and publication.
In this article, I’ll feature some of what I think is Bill’s earlier, finest, and most interesting photography. But first I’ll give a short biography of the photographer.
William L. Histand (1911-1994) was born in Doylestown Township, Bucks County, on the farm of parents Samuel S. and Susan Landis Histand, next to the Doylestown Mennonite Meetinghouse. He was the twelfth of the couple’s sixteen children, fourteen of whom lived to adulthood. The family attended the Doylestown Mennonite congregation and most of the children were baptized there as teenagers or young adults. William was baptized there by Bishop A. O. Histand (his uncle) in 1926 at age fifteen. Two of his younger siblings were in the membership class with him. During these years, Doylestown was considered a progressive congregation in Franconia Conference and had begun hosting occasional Bible instruction meetings, evangelistic meetings, and regular “Young People’s Meetings” by 1915. Plain dressing and devout evangelist-preachers were brought in from other (Old) Mennonite congregations and conferences to conduct these services. Bill Histand and his siblings were certainly influenced by this religious activity and fervor.
By all indications, Bill enjoyed growing up in a busy Mennonite farm family, participating in the activities of church and farm life. Son Leonard says that Bill contracted rheumatic fever in his teenage years and for a time was limited in the amount of physical work he could do. In the 1930 U.S. Census, William was listed as living at home, aged 18, and working “on own account” as a “metal cast toy maker.” Leonard remembers some metal toy molds and hand-painted cast-lead figurines in their home as he was growing up.
In the early 1930s, with his father’s encouragement and perhaps financial help, Bill attended barber school in Philadelphia and opened his own shop on Main St., Doylestown in 1931, next to his brother Samuel’s grocery store. After working at this location for about twenty years, he built a new shop at Cross Keys (on the northern edge of Doylestown) in 1951 and continued as a barber there for several decades until his retirement.
Surviving Histand family photographs indicate that Bill started wearing a Mennonite-style plain coat by 1930, at least on Sundays and other formal occasions. In formal photos, he appears in a plain coat until about 1935-36.
Around 1933, Bill started courting Mary S. Bergey (1911-1997), also a member of the Doylestown congregation. She had been baptized several months after Bill, in early 1927. Mary was the daughter of Levi R. and Elizabeth Strouse Bergey, members of the Doylestown congregation who lived on a farm along the Pine Run Creek, just north of Doylestown. In January 1934, Mary had the likely formative experience of attending a “Special Bible Term” at the conservative Eastern Mennonite School (EMS) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It must have been a meaningful time for her. By this time, she was also “dressing plain,” with a cape dress, prayer covering, and bonnet (when in public). As a female student at EMS in those years, there would have been considerable pressure to wear a cape dress and covering, especially if one was a baptized member of the Mennonite Church.
Mary probably influenced her boyfriend William to continue “dressing plain” during this time. There is no evidence that Bill attended a Bible Term at EMS, but photographic evidence indicates that he visited Mary while she was there. They were married in February 1935 and first lived in Doylestown, close to the barber shop that Bill had opened in 1931. Their first child, born August 1937, lived only a few hours. Within a year or two they took in a foster child, Thomas Blake, whom they raised as part of their family. They later had three more sons of their own—Timothy, Leonard, and Lowell.
Back to Bill’s photography interests. Photographic evidence indicates he bought his first camera in 1933 or early 1934—probably a folding Kodak that used roll-film—and began recording scenes from his own life and that of his family and neighborhood. Before long, he bought a Korona View camera with a tripod, which produced 5×7 negatives and some very sharp images. One of his Kodaks used 2.5×4.25 format film and produced sharp, well-composed photos. In late 1938, he bought a Leica camera which used 35mm film and could produce black & white negatives or 35mm color slides. These were the early years of Kodak color transparencies. It seems Bill didn’t produce many color slides the first couple years, but those that survive are some of the earliest we know of from local Mennonite families and communities. A few of his slides must be from 1939 or 1940. Several color slides are dated 1941.
Around 1940, Bill became interested in aerial photography and built his own large aerial camera, which survives. There are a couple of photos of Bill holding that camera, seated in or standing next to a small plane. The Doylestown airport was nearby and Bill apparently made connections with small-craft pilots there. Before long, he was flying over the Doylestown and Central Bucks area, recording then familiar farms and landscapes—many now long-gone. A couple years later, Bill and his younger brother James (also an amateur photographer) bought a large military-style camera designed for aerial photography. This produced many good quality photos taken above the Bucks County landscape.
From the mid-1930s through the 1950s, alongside his career as a barber, Bill continued to document life in the Cross Keys, Pine Run, and Doylestown neighborhoods where he lived and worked. He recorded family groups and reunions of the larger Histand and Landis families of his parents, as well as the Bergey and Strouse families of his wife Mary’s parents. A significant project he undertook from 1939 to 1942 was a photographic survey of the families of, and the businesses and shops in and around the village of Blooming Glen in Bucks County. This resulted in about 50 copies of a completely hand-produced, wooden-covered photo album of life in the village, entitled “Mementos of Blooming Glen.” Bill donated two copies to the Mennonite Heritage Center collection before he died.
About 1945, Bill and Mary Histand moved their growing family from Lacey Street, Doylestown, to the Bergey farm where Mary grew up, along the Pine Run and Old Dublin Pike just north of Doylestown. Before long, they bought the farm, lived here for 22 years, then moved to near Fountainville. Bill took many photos of their family and neighborhood as their boys were growing up on the farm.
Bill’s relationship to his home congregation, Doylestown Mennonite, was strained during these years. According to the church’s membership records in the archives at the MHC, Bill was excommunicated in 1944. The reason for the church discipline is not recorded, but son Leonard thinks it may have had something to do with the news stand at his father’s barber shop where he sold cigarettes, tobacco and secular magazines. Son Timothy says his father was not afraid to express his thoughts to church leadership, even in writing! Their Dad continued to attend church even though he was disciplined. A later note in the church membership record states that Bill “was reinstated Oct. 1970.” Beyond his barber shop, which eventually grew to a five-chair enterprise, and his photography, Bill had other interests. He loved to travel, camp and hunt, built a wooden pull-behind trailer and took his family on camping trips. Later in life, Bill made plexiglass signs for local businesses for a few years. Beekeeping was also a hobby.
Instead of telling the story of Bill Histand’s later years, I’ll close by showing a selection of what I think are some of his finest and more interesting photographs, mainly from the 1930s and 1940s.
-Ruth Histand Mosemann, Family Directory of Samuel Swartz Histand and Susan Overholt Landis (Goshen, IN, 1969), pp.19-31.
-Phil Johnson Ruth, A North Penn Pictorial (Lansdale, PA, 1988), pp.120-122.
-Conversations with Leonard B. Histand, of Doylestown, PA, January 10 and 13, 2023.
-Church membership records in the Doylestown Mennonite Church Collection, Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville, PA.
-1930 U.S. Federal Census, Doylestown Township, Bucks County, PA. Accessed at www.ancestry.com.
-Levi R. Bergey family and Samuel S. Histand family memorials on www.findagrave.com.