This last installment in the King and book history series will examine the King Library in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, an institution founded by Rufus King’s grandson, Dr. Charles Ray King in 1888. As I noted in my previous post, Charles inherited the books of his father and grandfather.
Charles was born on March 16, 1813, the second son of John Alsop King and Mary Ray King. He grew up in Jamaica, Long Island, near Rufus King’s home and no doubt was exposed to the library at an early age. He attended grammar school in Jamaica, graduated from Columbia in 1831, and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1834. He then spent two years studying in Paris before returning to New York and working as a physician. He later moved to Philadelphia and continued to
practice medicine until he retired in 1848 when he purchased the Chelwood estate from Edward Biddle, the son of Nicholas Biddle, in the Andalusia neighborhood of Bensalem. At some point after this (the reference materials I need to find the exact date are now in storage — sorry!) he moved to the adjacent estate called Devon, which he purchased from the daughter of Alexander J. Dallas. His daughter Mary then took over Chelwood. Devon burned five years after he moved in, but Charles rebuilt a Victorian-style home on the property the same year (this home would burn in 1980). He was a farmer and immersed himself in neighborhood improvement, Episcopal Church affairs, and public schooling. He headed the Bensalem Public Schools for fifteen years, but otherwise, “[h]e was never engaged in public life, though like his ancestors he was ever earnestly opposed to the extension of slavery and an advocate of the principles which characerized the old federal and whig party.” He married Hannah Fisher in 1839, had two children by her (Mary King Lenning and John Alsop King), but she died in 1870. Charles then married Hannah’s sister Nancy in 1872. He later died a “short illness” in his home and was buried at All Saints Church in Bensalem. (Quote and biographical details taken from J. H. Battle, ed., History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA: A. Warner & Publishers, 1887), p. 760).
Charles brought the King library from Jamaica, Long Island to Devon in 1874, after adding building a new library wing. But King’s literary vision and love education led him to
donate the funds to build what would become the King Library. Begun in 1882 and based on the design of the Stone Library on the Adams family property in Massachusetts, it became the first public library in Bensalem when it opened in 1888. Charles donated many of his own books to the collection.
Wondering if Charles had put some of Rufus’s books in this public library, I made a trip to the institution in 2009. My timing was good — the King Library Restoration Inc., a volunteer non-profit dedicated to preserving the building and its
collections, had been doing good work for five years. When I started making inquiries about the library, I was told to talk to Shirley Lehr, the indefatigable president of the restoration committee. She generously picked me up from the train station and opened up the doors to the library and let me rummage around for as long as I wanted. After decades of neglect, the building had some issues, but they were slowly being addressed when I was there and money was being raised through requests for public funds and privately through an antique shop that operated out of the basement. This is local, grassroots work at its best and I’m glad to see that their Web site notes they now have central air and a modern heating system in the library.
Begun in 1882 and completed in 1888, the King Library is situated next to the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer on Bristol Pike, or “King’s Highway.” In 1914, an addition called King Hall was added where local youths could have social gatherings. Eventually, the library became less of a community focal point and sat largely unused. I was told local teenagers would occasional sneak in and that is why there are now dart holes in the painting of Charles Ray King in the library.
Unfortunately, I did not find any of Rufus’s books there, but I did find a few of John Alsop King’s books in the stacks. I found the second volume of his copy of Thomas Macaulay’s History of England (1849). I found a few other John Alsop King books, but my notes on them are also in storage. But the library is immense and contains around 12,000 volumes dating from the early nineteenth to the
mid-twentieth century. The library is a monument to the King family commitment to the improvement, education, and common good of the community.
The King family’s efforts to get the King Papers and the King books to the New-York Historical Society were a continuation of the legacy begun by Rufus King and exemplified by his descendants.