In rural Chester County, at the end of a long residential road dotted with modest suburban homes and signs of life — an idling car, the slam of a screen door — lies a ghost town.
Doors and windows are boarded up. Gray paint is splotched on empty homes to cover graffiti. Weeds thrive. The main road is no longer soft and dusty with dirt, but paved over with bumpy asphalt. A sign — big, shiny, and clearly out of place in a village dating to the 1740s — announces that this is the private property of Exelon Generation. Trespassers, beware.
Welcome to Fricks Locks.
Imagine, though, what this once prosperous waterside settlement looked like long ago, volunteer tour guides say, urging visitors to picture how the lock tender's house appeared in the 1800s before vandals burned it down, leaving nothing but four rocky walls. Imagine how busy Fricks Locks was when boats came through constantly, before better railroads, roads, and trolleys effectively put the Schuylkill River navigation canal out of business.
And imagine when it wasn't just a business hub or the neighbor to a nuclear power plant, but home for a handful of kids decades ago.
In 1959, on the day 9-year-old Penny Elliott and her family moved out of their modest childhood home in Fricks Locks village, she literally kissed the walls goodbye.
She had a lot to part with from her East Coventry home: The rooms that housed her, her seven brothers and sisters, and their parents. The flourishing backyard garden that produced red raspberries, rose bushes, zinnias, sweet corn, string beans, and tomatoes. The dirt path, an arterial roadway that neighborhood kids spent hours running on during the day and trudging back on, tired and hungry, in the evenings. The canal that she and her siblings skated on in the winter.
"We had full run of that Fricks Locks," said Nancy Fisher, the second-oldest sibling of the Elliott family.
Drawn in by memory, several of the Elliott kids have returned to the village, not as residents this time, but as learned experts of Fricks Locks history.
Siblings Donna, Nancy, Penny, Rebekah, and Priscilla, plus two of the family's grandchildren, Bode and Evie, return to their village twice a month from summer through early fall, working with the East Coventry Historical Commission as tour guides to teach the curious about Fricks Locks and its history. They do it for free — and they've been at it for six years. The family is half of the 14-member volunteer group.
For the Elliott sisters, though, it's more than just a tour. It's a commitment to the neighborhood where they first lived, ate, and played — and it's a return to a home that is a shell of what it was in their childhood after time, neglect, and vandalism took its toll on buildings that date to 1757.
It was a place where their mother, Ruth, made wineberry jelly, sewed dolls, curtains, and clothes, raised 10 kids, and planted fruits, vegetables, and flowers, said Fisher, Donna Mellott, and Morton, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at Fisher's house.
Their father, Frank, a maintenance mechanic at Firestone and a part-time minister, shot small game — pheasant, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon — for food. Everyone was always mindful that a stray bullet could be in their cooked meat. (If that happened, Morton said, you just calmly picked out the bullet and put it on the side of your plate.)
Money was tight, the siblings said, meaning that the Elliott kids had to get creative to stave off boredom.
"What we had there wasn't material things," Mellott, who was 13 when her family moved from Fricks Locks, said recently, sitting on a sofa at Fisher's Oley home. "It was just relationships, it was the chance to develop ingenuity. We had to make our own fun."
The Elliott children did just that for years. Then in 1959, parents Frank and Ruth moved the swelling family to a 17-room farmhouse in North Coventry. There, two more kids were born. Everyone grew up, went off to college, and had families of their own.
Meanwhile, back in Fricks Locks, Peco now owned the village. The Elliotts were long gone, their childhood home faded into a patchwork of memories of riding bikes barefoot on summer days, eating mulberries and wineberries that grew on wild fruit bushes and trees, sledding on a slope called Belly Bumper Hill, and wading with cows in a shallow creek.
But then one day, years ago, Morton came back to Fricks Lock, curious about what her first home now looked like.
It badly needed repairs, and Morton was retired.
"I loved the village," said Morton, who is now the secretary for the East Coventry Historical Commission. "And they hadn't started the rehab, and I wanted to get involved. I love my village."
Although Fricks Locks is abandoned, it avoided the possibility of demolition when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. The village is co-owned by East Coventry Township and Exelon Generation, a subsidiary of Exelon, a power company that was formed when Peco merged in 2000 with Chicago-based Unicom Corp.
In 2012, contractors specializing in historical properties renovated Fricks Locks within months, Morton said. The village hosted an invite-only grand opening in 2013, and that year, the township's Historical Commission began operating free tours for part of the year.
Immediately, Morton roped her sisters into becoming tour guides.
And for six years, the siblings have met up at Fricks Locks every second and fourth Saturday, from June to October.
Clutching laminated scripts, the tour guides read their lines. They guide visitors along, cheerfully answer questions, and patiently wait as tourists jostle to take pictures. And every now and then, the siblings on the tour will go off script and inject some of their own memories of growing up on Fricks Locks.
"Now we look back at it, and it's like, 'What a treasure we had,' " Fisher said. "People in East Coventry don't even know it's there. It was our Garden of Eden. It really, truly was."