Northwood resident Joe Menkevich has successfully submitted five nominations for historical designation.
Joe Menkevich has a theory about why the best stories go untold.
“It’s because of people like you,” he says, jabbing his finger at me across the restaurant table.
He’s referring to the “young generation,” or, more generally, people who don’t like reading other people’s handwriting. Over a beer, the former president of the Northwood Civic Association glows over how some of the history he’s read belongs in a Hollywood film studio.
In his late 60s, Menkevich, a Northwood resident, has long been retired. With his free time, he does a few things; enjoying brews at bars with friends, teaching himself Microsoft Word, and researching the extensive, almost-but-not-quite-forgotten history of Northeast Philadelphia.
So far, he’s successfully submitted five nominations for historical designation, meaning the Philadelphia Historical Commission has recognized the properties for their historical significance.
The nominations he’s written for each property average at about 80 pages (he asked me to read each of them before meeting him at Hop Angel Brauhaus to chat).
“I know they’re long,” he says. “But I need to find the whole story.”
Dead men tell tales
Joe Menkevich has a deal with the dead.
He would sometimes go hiking near Greenwood Cemetery. That was when he noticed the dead were asking something of him.
“It’s so overgrown you find yourself walking all over people’s graves,” he said. “I found myself apologizing to the dead people for walking all over them, and I said, someday I’m going to help you people.”
Right after making that promise, Menkevich scored big on the stock market.
He bought a house across the street from the cemetery shortly before it was scheduled to be “destroyed” by the city along with a house located on the property.
To Menkevich, this was no coincidence.
“Those people are calling on me,” he said. “They were calling me in. They wanted me to take care of the cemetery.”
He fought for 10 years to preserve the cemetery, gathering old records to prove the cemetery’s historical significance. It is believed to house some graves dating to the Revolutionary War.
In 2000, it was officially designated as a historic place.
“Once you make a deal with the dead,” he said, “ you better keep it.”
Decades of work
Joe Menkevich taught himself to use Microsoft Word.
When we first talked on the phone, he told me how he struggled to compile his 80-page nominations packed with tables and diagrams, something he likened to learning a new language.
That was the easy part.
Of the five nominations, he said some took him an entire decade to finalize. Each nomination is comprised of meticulously plotted coordinates, detailed architecture examination and a full history of the property.
Obviously, not all information can be included here. Here’s the rundown:
• Byberry Township African American burial ground
Where: 14700 Townsend Road
What it is: The only African-American cemetery established while at war with the British Empire. African-Americans were forced into being soldiers while their owners exercised the right not to support war due to conscience and religious belief.
• Wilmot Secondary School
Where: 1736 Meadow St.
What it is: One of the few remaining school buildings of its time period and architecture, the school opened as an African-American school in 1874. In 1867, the school had 69 students, with an average daily attendance of 33.
Interesting fact: The school was built on top of an unregulated graveyard. In 1895, while performing maintenance in response to a foul odor, 10 skeletons were discovered in the northwest corner of the building.
• The Garsed/Bromley Mansion
Where: 4704 Leiper St.
What it is: This mansion served as housing for elite mill owners, located in the same area as their labor force’s less elaborate housing.
Interesting fact: In 1994, the building became occupied by the Frankford YWCA. It ran until 2009.
• Lower Dublin Academy, aka Holme School
Where: 3322 Willits Road
What it is: A school building with a phenomenal lifespan from 1723 to 1938. As the first schoolhouse in Lower Dublin Township, it is likely the only schoolhouse of its type remaining in Philadelphia.
• Byberry Township Public Burial Ground
Where: 10752 Knights Road
What it is: The last remnant of the ancestral homestead of John Hart, who purchased 484 acres of land and established a Quaker meetinghouse and public burial ground.
Interesting fact: Menkevich was kicked off from photographing the property by a woman who claimed she owned the property. She was wrong.
Joe Menkevich is nocturnal.
When we met shortly after 7 p.m. for a beer and a talk, it was the first time he left the house that day. He had been up all night doing research.
“What you’re doing is unique,” he says, gesturing to my scribbles in a notebook trying to keep up with the knowledge he was supplying more quickly than I could write.
Right before I leave and he reconvenes with his companions at the bar, he retrieves some documents from his car. He unfolds the wrinkly and handwritten papers onto the restaurant table.
One is the deed to a farm owned by Stephen Decatur, a famous U.S. naval officer and commodore. He fought in the Barbary Wars in Africa, the Quasi-War in France and the War of 1812 with Britain before being laid to rest in Philadelphia.
Another document contains the personal signature of Samuel Meredith, one of the first treasurers of the United States.
He also has evidence of a widespread conspiracy theory involving a vanishing gunpowder mill and the Louisiana Purchase, but I’ll let him tell that one.
“These are the stories that people should be telling,” he said. “These are the stories that brought me into research.” ••
Logan Krum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org