History of Willow Grove
Like many of our southeastern Pennsylvania neighbors, the Willow Grove region owes its humble beginnings to the relationship between King Charles of England and William Penn.
Dr. Nicholas More, an English friend and business associate of William Penn, was granted 9,815 acres of land at an annual rent of a silver shilling for every 100 acres. Originally known as “the Manor of Moreland”, it became the Township of Moreland in 1718. The name officially became Willow Grove about 1792 when it appeared on a map of Pennsylvania townships. The planting of willow trees to absorb the surrounding swampland strengthened the decision to give Willow Grove its name.
The Willow Grove area enjoys its place in Revolutionary War history, as well. Washington’s troops marched through Willow Grove in 1777 on their way to the Battle of Brandywine, and the famous Battle of Crooked Billet took place in the vicinity of Hatboro. The Willow Grove area was also a major player in the efforts of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Old York Road was a primary route through Pennsylvania, leading slaves to freedom in Canada.
As with many early communities, Willow Grove experienced rapid growth and development, thanks to railroad and trolley expansion toward the end of the 19th, and early 20th centuries. Less than a day’s trip away from Philadelphia and attracted by the country, more and more inns and restaurants sprang up. The economy enjoyed a growth spurt and the Willow Grove area blossomed.
“Life is a lark in Willow Grove Park”
With travel and accommodations readily available and to stimulate travel on the increasingly popular trolleys, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company decided to build an amusement park in Willow Grove, at the end of the line. Thus was born Willow Grove Park in 1896, the prototype for numerous parks that followed across the country.
The Park also enjoyed its reputation as the “Music Capital of America” with orchestras and bands, especially John Philip Sousa, who was a regular in the band shell starting in 1901. In 1926, more than 100,000 people attended Sousa’s last annual concert in the park, after twenty-five years of making music in the area. In 1976, Willow Grove Park gave way to innovation andprogress once again, when it was razed to make way for a new retail concept – the mall. Thus Willow Grove Park Mall was born. As they had since the early days, the residents of Willow Grove were ready once again to innovate and grow.
Celebrating over Sixty Years of Tradition, Service and Safety
The Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base at Willow Grove offers a unique window on history that is a source of local and national pride, as well as a strong and economic presence in the region. One wonders if aviation pioneer, Harold Pitcairn, could have envisioned the base’s future when, in 1926, he built the first hangar and landing strip. Pitcairn was honored by President Hoover for his achievements to develop safe aircraft and, in 1929, his Autogiro made the first successful rotary-wing flight in America over Willow Grove Field, resulting in the helicopter. WGF was also the testing ground for Pitcairn’s Mailwing, bringing faster, more efficient mail delivery to the country.
With the onset of the Second World War, Pitcairn sold his field to the US Navy, and in 1943, the field was officially commissioned as the US Naval Air Station Willow Grove. Following World War II, NAS Willow Grove was designated a Naval Air Reserve Training Station. In 1958, the Air Force Reserve obtained ownership of 162 acres adjacent to NAS Willow Grove, now called Willow Grove Air Reserve Station (ARS). The ARS is home to the US Air Force Reserve and Pennsylvania Air National Guard. Since 1944, the NAS and ARS have been known as the US Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base at Willow Grove.
The base serves as a joint military operation for the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps and Pennsylvania Air National Guard, sharing resources and continuing to play a critical role in our Nation’s safety.
Save Our Base… The Fight to Preserve NAS JRB Willow Grove
On May 13, 2005, the Department of Defense released a list of US military facilities that included a recommendation that NAS JRB Willow Grove be closed as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) process. Following the tradition of community efforts, the Suburban Chamber of Commerce created the Regional Military Affairs Committee to rally a coalition of local businesses and residents to try to save the base from closure. The coalition actively urged the BRAC, the White House and Federal and State lawmakers to reconsider the impact on our National security and regional economy and reverse the recommendation and keep the base alive and growing. Despite efforts, the face of NAS JRB will change and the Chamber looks forward to being a part of the process.
Willow Grove Celebrated 300 Years!
In 2011, Willow Grove celebrated its tri-centennial. It was 300 years ago that yearwhen our township was born.