Chapter Eleven: New Interpretations at Valley Forge

The biggest change at Valley Forge within the last twenty-five years has not been the administrative transfer of Valley Forge State Park to the National Park Service, but rather the change in how Valley Forge was being interpreted by all those associated with it. Despite some events that were merely glitzy crowd-pleasers, the general trend has been toward the use of new techniques and sources to uncover new information that tends to enrich the traditional Valley Forge story and broaden its appeal.

It was evident that things were changing in 1971, when a reader queried the question-and-answer column of the Valley Forge Historical Society's journal: "Were all the troops at Valley Forge of the Caucasian race?" No, the editor replied, African Americans had served in several regiments, and so had some native Americans. [1] By the end of the 1970s, the contribution of other ethnic groups was being actively chronicled.

In the same decade, it was also acknowledged that significant numbers of women had spent the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. In years gone by, visitors might have gotten the impression that the only women in the camp were the wives of important men, such as Martha Washington, to whom many secondary sources had assigned roles really more typical of upper-middle-class women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his 1905 drama, Dr. Burk created a scene at Washington's Headquarters in which Martha organizes other ladies in sewing and knitting for the troops. She advises a local woman, "Give your daughters such honest accomplishments as will make them capable housekeepers." [2] A 1950 newspaper article portrayed Martha and the wives of other officers as genteel, Victorian angels of mercy, describing how they patched uniforms, knit scarves, darned stockings, and prepared baskets of food and medicine for the soldiers. [3] Pinkowsky's collection of Valley Forge traditions reinforced this homey image. [4] In 1976, the historical society's journal again broke ground with some new interpretive material on female "camp followers"— ordinary wives and paramours who accompanied soldiers, hauling along the necessary pots, pans, and bedding. Camp followers, it explained, washed and cooked, nursed the sick, spied on the enemy, sometimes stole essential food and supplies, and occasionally followed their men into battle. [5]

As the bicentennial drew closer, major changes were made to the park's key historic houses to ensure that they were proper settings for interpretation and reflected the most current knowledge of the past. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission drove these projects; park commission minutes suggest that the commissioners were not really involved in the details and were primarily concerned that work be done in time for the bicentennial summer of 1976. The changes were based on research by the National Heritage Corporation, but the sketchy report produced, plus the lack of a completion report, makes it difficult to determine today exactly why certain changes were made.

At Varnum's Quarters, several window openings were changed, floors were replaced, and a stairway was completely reconstructed, some of this work reversing changes that had been made in the 1930s. The project made Varnum's Quarters look the way scholars then believed that an eighteenth-century house in the area might have looked, but over the years so much work had been done on this structure that there was no way to tell whether Varnum's Quarters looked like this particular house had looked in the eighteenth century. When this project was later evaluated for the National Park Service, the authors of its historical structure report, John Bruce and Cherry Dodd, wrote: "The result is that, although Varnum's today may exhibit all the characteristics of a small house of the early eighteenth century, virtually all clues indicative of its own unique design have vanished." [6] Tom McGimsey, formerly the historic architect at the park, seconds this opinion, adding that in his mind Varnum's Quarters had been made somehow "sterile" in that it now lacks the quirky details that would make it seem like real people built the place and lived there. [7]

After the National Park Service approved a grant, changes were also made at Washington's Headquarters. Here too work done in the 1930s was reversed: the kitchen wing roof was once again lowered, and the dogtrot between the kitchen and the main building was rebuilt. Hardware was replaced with pieces that were more in keeping with the period, and the entrance to the root cellar was closed—an unfortunate move in that it kept visitors from understanding the origin of the secret-tunnel legend. [8] The Dodds proclaimed this latest restoration of Washington's Headquarters "the most sophisticated to date" [9] and deemed the updated kitchen wing "historically justifiable." [10] Tom McGimsey agrees—his only significant complaint being that the grade around the building was made too low. [11]

In conjunction with the architectural changes, a sophisticated new furnishing plan encouraging the interpretation of the activities of the occupants of Washington's Headquarters during the winter encampment was developed. It stipulated that furniture be arranged to make the building seem cramped and crowded. Country-style and high-style furniture from various periods would be scattered about to suggest that Washington's belongings were interspersed with those of the house's previous occupant. Visitors were to get the impression that they had arrived at the Headquarters at the busiest time of the day—while Washington was receiving his generals, and his secretaries were hurriedly copying his correspondence. Little details would add to the overall impression, such as a nail in the wall near a shadow line, suggesting that a picture had been taken down when Washington moved in. [12] The plan was used for only a short time, but once the National Park Service was manning Washington's Headquarters they also stressed the various activities and hectic pace of a military command center in their interpretation of this building to visitors. [13]

Some thought was also given to the accuracy of the landscaping around the park's historic houses. After the nineteenth-century dam had been removed from Valley Creek in 1920, none of those responsible for the park had shown any concern that the park itself did not really evoke the winter encampment. Boy scouts had been allowed to plant rose gardens, and various groups and individuals had introduced nonnative memorial trees. When one visitor raised the issue in 1963, park commissioners replied: "Beauty has not ruined Valley Forge. It has given a background against which the story can be told." [14] In 1975, inconclusive research among primary-source materials was done in an attempt to understand how Washington's Headquarters would have been landscaped in the eighteenth century. No immediate changes were executed, however, and when the Dodds evaluated the area in their study of Washington's Headquarters published in 1981, they remarked that the landscaping then "resemble[d] a city park with walks designed for young women with baby carriages and Sunday strollers rather than the rural setting that would have been produced by the orchard, barnyard and gardens of two houses in a small forge community." [15]

In the 1970s, Valley Forge was following the lead of many other institutions by adopting the "Williamsburg Formula," which utilized costumed guides stationed in historic structures to act as interpreters and to demonstrate arts and crafts and other activities. In the summer of 1970, a high school teacher dressed as a Continental soldier stationed himself outside the park's auditorium, where he interpreted the role of a soldier in the Continental line. [16] Many women volunteers costumed as colonial ladies later participated in a program called "Host 76." Between 1974 and 1976, they worked at the park's information desk and in the park's historic houses. Annamaria Malloy supported the project, but the volunteers themselves sometimes felt that the paid park staff resented their efforts. One remarked on the number of visitors who had commented that the volunteers "were distinguishable from the Staff by their degree of enthusiasm and courtesy to visitors." [17]

Despite the new interpretations being made at Valley Forge, the celebration of the bicentennial reflected not scholarship but a desire for spectacle and pageantry. The dissension and demonstrations of the late 1960s and early 1970s had upset many traditionalist Americans, who reacted with nostalgia and expressions of national pride. The summer of 1976 was a kind of holiday at Valley Forge.

The earliest bicentennial plans called for something big, impressive, and costly. In 1971 a suburban coalition suggested that Valley Forge become the focal point for bicentennial celebrations in the entire Delaware Valley. They envisioned the development of a regional recreation center and a performing arts center. A monorail would be built in the park, and a grand pageant would be staged there on July 4. [18] Charles Mather, then chairman of the park commission, publicly replied, "The commission will be open to any and all suggestions for its Bicentennial celebration, but it will insist on an orderly, dignified program in keeping with the hallowed grounds of the park." [19]

More expensive suggestions foundered, and Valley Forge ended up with a modest pageant. Pageants were not new to historic sites, and as early as 1949, park administrators had considered some sort of annual Valley Forge play that would combine history and entertainment. [20] This never materialized, although the Boy Scouts had been permitted to stage pageants during their jamborees. Valley Forge finally got its own official pageant in May 1976, when "The Ballad of Valley Forge" was performed in a temporary amphitheater near the Wayne statue by the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra and a chorus of local residents and high school students. Astronaut Neil Armstrong dramatically read the narrative portions of this combination of music and history based on the letters of George Washington. [21]

A second bicentennial event reenacted a foraging expedition originally conducted by Anthony Wayne. During the winter encampment, Wayne had gone to New Jersey by way of Wilmington to procure provisions for the army. He had driven cattle back to Valley Forge through New Jersey's Mercer County and Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester counties in Pennsylvania. The Salem County Historical Society of New Jersey organized a project in which modern cows retraced the footsteps of their eighteenth-century ancestors, Cattle for the reenactment was provided by Cowtown, New Jersey, a place known for its rodeos. The cows arrived at Valley Forge in June 1976, and the event was locally known as "the Great Cow Chase." [22]

The cows were soundly upstaged by Valley Forge's real bicentennial spectacle, still fondly remembered by some as the Wagon Train Pilgrimage, a nationwide bicentennial event lasting more than a year in which authentically reproduced covered wagons were driven east instead of west over old wagon trails. Each of the fifty states was provided with a wagon, which could be sent on a state tour until it joined one of the other wagon trains coming through. Each major wagon train had a traveling musical show that was performed for local communities at every place the wagon train stopped. Citizens and schoolchildren could sign scrolls rededicating themselves to the principles on which the nation was founded, and these were collected by the wagoneers. The project was also inclusive in that anyone who had a Wagon and horses could ride along. Some people took their children out of school for a year to ride with the covered wagons. The project had many corporate sponsors, including Aero-Mayflower Transit Company, Gulf Oil, and Holiday Inns. A division of a prominent Philadelphia advertising firm handled details and public relations. [23]

Annamaria Malloy suggested to the park commissioners that Valley Forge be considered as the eastern termination point for the Wagon Train Pilgrimage, and in 1975 she introduced the wagon train's national coordinator, C. Robert Gruver, to the commissioners, who unanimously approved the plans. [24] The wagon train was scheduled to arrive on July 4, 1976, and remain at Valley Forge for two months, during which participants would host activities for park visitors.

The general public did not seem to question whether this activity was compatible with the cause of historic preservation at Valley Forge, or even appropriate for this site. Unlike the Great Cow Chase, the Wagon Train Pilgrimage did not reenact a historic event connected with the winter encampment. It was, however, a highly entertaining and involving project and a chance for people to reaffirm their loyalty to America. The nationwide program was warmly received, and local criticism was limited to problems with food delivery in Valley Forge and the unauthorized activities of some rogue wagoneers. [25]An editorial in the historical society's journal mentioned damaged grass and remaining litter, but also noted that the participants had left "the feeling that some people in America besides the members of the [Valley Forge Historical] Society remember that Valley Forge is important, and that this Park marks a very decisive time in the nation's history. If the wagons can accomplish that, they're welcome here . . . anytime." [26]

Just one month after Valley Forge became a national park, the National Park Service's Mid-Atlantic regional director (whose name, coincidentally, was Chester Brooks) stated that within three years the National Park Service would prepare a new master plan, a document required by the National Park Service to outline the reserved land's long-term development and use and to act as an operations handbook. [27] This process began in the fall of 1977, but the plan was not published until 1982. The general management team leader recalls that the committee did read the state park's recently published plan but went through the entire National Park Service planning process anyway, gathering input from the public and circulating a draft document for public review to incorporate all the best ideas and create a consensus for future direction. [28]

The final General Management Plan acknowledged Valley Forge's wide spread use as a regional recreation area but stated that new emphasis would be placed on preserving and maintaining the historical setting. Attempts were made to achieve a compromise that would accommodate the most popular kinds of recreation while protecting sensitive areas. The final result was the most recent expansion of the park in 1984 on ground north of the Schuylkill, where it was hoped more intensive forms of recreation could be transferred. This plus the 1978 acquisition of the holdings of the Keene Corporation (formerly the Ehret Magnesia Company), which had become completely surrounded by land acquired by the park, brought the park roughly to its current dimensions.

General Von Steuben takes a ride. This statue, originally located on Outer Line Drive, was moved in 1979 to the Grand Parade so the general could look down on the place where Washington's army once drilled. This is one of many changes made in the park after it became a national park.
General Von Steuben takes a ride. This statue, originally located on Outer Line Drive, was moved in 1979 to the Grand Parade so the general could look down on the place where Washington's army once drilled. This is one of many changes made in the park after it became a national park.

Valley Forge National Historical Park


Although the authors of the General Management Plan had solicited input from park users, it took a while for the plan's implications to sink in. Early in 1985, the park superintendent denied a request to allow thousands of Boy Scouts to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of scouting by camping at Valley Forge and holding an elaborate jubilee, originally planned to include concession stands, fireworks, hot-air balloons, helicopter rides, and sky diving demonstrations in a part of the park that had just been reserved for light recreation only. [29] When the organizers of this event used political influence to overturn the denial, the park superintendent was faced with the challenge of getting them to use the land north of the Schuylkill, in which cause he had the support of a number of conservationist and preservationist groups, [30]

Even after the jubilee organizers agreed to move north, the problem was not resolved. Some of the property acquired in 1984, known as Walnut Hill, was believed to have been somehow associated with the encampment, but its value as a resource was unknown because no professional surveys had yet been made. The National Park Service's regional archaeologist and its regional historian protested that the Valley Forge administrators planned to locate certain jubilee activities on precisely this unsurveyed area. [31]

Although the jubilee was held in October 1985 and park administrators reported that little damage had been done, [32] many of those whose priority was preservation continued to be concerned. The following year, voices were raised in protest when the Boy Scouts were permitted to use the same unsurveyed area a second time for a winter pilgrimage. [33] The protesters questioned the value of having a General Management Plan if its provisions could not be enforced in the face of political pressure exerted by well-connected groups and individuals who continued to look on Valley Forge as primarily recreational greenspace, a dispute that would not be completely resolved even after another decade had passed.

The trend toward a more professionalized interpretation of the Valley Forge encampment after the park's transfer to the National Park Service was more the result of the administration's new emphasis on research than the result of the General Management Plan. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several major research projects would be carried out, including an architectural analysis of structures in the park, a major historical research project, and a major archaeological survey.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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