History of the Academy Farm & BATS
In 1681, King Charles II of England handed over a large piece of his American land holdings to William Penn to satisfy a debt the king owed to Penn's father. In 1684, William Penn granted a tract of 9,000 acres of land North of Philadelphia to his friend and supporter, Dr. Nicholas More. This land grant was known as the Manor of Moreland, later divided into Lower and Upper Moreland. After More’s death, his family sold off pieces of this property. Originally part of the great Manor of Moreland, the Academy Farm dates back to colonial times. By 1800 it was part of Lower Moreland Township. In 1916 the land was incorporated into the Borough of Bryn Athyn, where it is situated today.
The BATS barn, more than 150 years old, has old fashioned and nostalgic charm. Under the many items offered for sale at BATS one can still find vestiges of its history in the old barn structure. Originally, an older barn had been located on the opposite side of the driveway, but burned down some time prior to the building of the “new” barn, the current home of BATS.
In 1904 the Academy of the New Church purchased the property which became known as the Academy Farm from William Stephan for $13,000. The tract was highly desirable because it was adjacent to the existing school buildings, and could be used for future expansion of the campus.
In 1914, much of the countryside was still open farmland when Arthur Powell and his family came to the Academy Farm from St. Mary’s County, Maryland. The Powells, a New Church family, moved to Bryn Athyn to work the farm for the Academy so the children could go to the religious school. Through the years, all eight of the Powell children attended the Academy schools, and the three oldest boys attended some years in the college.
In the spring of 1914, Arthur Powell’s father, Sylvanus Alonzo Powell, an orchardist from Ohio, began to plant peach and apple trees. Eventually the Powells would change what had been a small-scale farming operation into a fruit orchard. The farm grew a variety of crops: sweet corn and field corn, wheat, potatoes, asparagus, melons, tomatoes, strawberries, as well as hay to feed the livestock. Some of the produce was used in the dining hall of the Academy Schools, some was sold door to door in Bryn Athyn. There were horses, a cow (often with a calf), pigs, ducks and chickens.
During the Great Depression the Academy began to lose money on the farm. They asked the Powells to either leave the farm, or to take it over on their own. In 1929 David, the eldest son, became a partner in operating the farm with his father. The family stayed on the farm and David planted more fruit trees. By 1940, most of the land was covered in bearing orchards, and the old farm became known as the Academy Orchards. The barn was no longer used for animals and hay, but for storing and selling apples and peaches.
The 67+ acre farm continued intact until the Academy Schools began to expand after World War II. The first use of the land was for a new athletic facility and a football field, which replaced the peach orchards along Buck Road. In 1961 a portion of the farm was purchased for the building of the Bryn Athyn Church School (the elementary school). Later a parcel became the Bryn Athyn Swim Club.
In 1974, David Powell retired from the orchard business. For about 10 years after that, Solly Brothers (from Bucks County) took care of the trees and harvested the fruit. When the Sollys left, the barn stood mostly empty (except for the bats). In the fall of 1993, several enterprising women from the community turned the barn into a thrift shop to benefit the Bryn Athyn Church.
In 1996 and 1997 renovations were made to make the barn more serviceable for the Bryn Athyn Thrift Shop (nicknamed BATS, because the upper level had been home to thriving colonies of bats). It was given new stripping, and a new coat of red paint to preserve the structure and spruce up its appearance. Big, sliding barn doors were replaced with smaller entrances and storage sheds and sorting areas were added.
David Powell continued to live in the farmhouse until his death on September 21st, 1999. It had been his home for 85 years. By 2001 the old farmhouse had been partially restored. It is presently used as a place to help BATS process inventory during the COVID times.
In 2000 George Betz, a local builder and restorer of old houses, said the farmhouse was more than 200 years old, and he believed the older part of the structure may have been built before the Revolutionary war. Jeff Marshall, an expert in old barns with the Bucks County Conservancy, said part of the existing barn may have been built as early as 1860. Along with the barn, outbuildings on the Academy Farm included an old smokehouse, a springhouse, a tool/woodshed and a carriage shed.
The Bryn Athyn Thrift Shop, lovingly known as BATS, continues to thrive in its location nestled in the old barn. These days in the old barn, there is new fruit!