Chapter Two: The Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge (part 3)

Long before the POS of A became involved with Valley Forge, the Centennial and Memorial Association had wanted to furnish Washington's Headquarters with antiques. In 1887, Mrs. Holstein reiterated this desire, writing: "The intention is to furnish the main building with furniture of the Revolutionary period. As it is not at all probable, we can now collect anything belonging to Genl Washington. We will have to get it, where we can." [69] She was hoping for donations, and in 1888 a local paper publicly requested suitable heirlooms: "If deposited at Washington's headquarters at Valley Forge, they would be well cared for, prized, seen and admired by hundreds. While being kept by individuals, they are only seen by members of a family occasionally." [70] Over the years, Mrs. Holstein personally solicited contributions from her contacts, including Frederick D. Stone, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In 1892 she reminded Stone that she would be glad to have a clock he had mentioned and would appreciate the society's help with pictures and photographs. [71]

On December 17, 1894, nine local women assembled in Norristown to organize a Valley Forge DAR chapter, and Anna Morris Holstein became its first regent. [72] In 1900, the Centennial and Memorial Association granted this chapter permission to furnish Washington's bedroom at headquarters. It held a concert and raised $103.45, which formed the nucleus of a fund on which they could draw. [73] In their minutes, they noted, "it was the general sentiment of the members present to use only genuine old furniture if possible." [74] In the early months of 1901, the ladies visited antiques dealers and managed to get a bureau, chairs, and a washstand, [75] they had some trouble locating a suitable bedstead, and once one was found it was discovered that the bedposts were too high for the low ceilings at the Headquarters, so the piece was altered accordingly. [76] A separate carpet committee attempted to provide a rag rug made of scraps collected and prepared by each member of the chapter. They tried to have their carpet woven on the Martha Washington loom at Mount Vernon, but in the end they provided a carpet woven locally. [77]

Other DAR chapters followed the example set by Valley Forge. In 1902, the Chester County DAR asked to furnish another room on the second floor of headquarters. There were some dissenting votes on the board at the Centennial and Memorial Association, but permission was finally granted. [78] The Chester County ladies came up with a bedstead, two bureaus, a looking glass, and another one of those rag rugs then considered so essential to colonial interior decor. [79] In 1903, the Merion DAR asked to furnish an attic room that had a round window and was believed to have been George Washington's observatory. The minutes of the Centennial and Memorial Association read: "There was some objection to further occupancy of the Building, and a spirited discussion ensued, but the privilege was granted by a vote of eight in favor to five opposed." [80] The Merion daughters used a less formal arrangement of objects in an attempt to make the room look inhabited. In their literature they proclaimed their success, writing that they had "seen numerous visitors turn away hastily, fearing that they had intruded upon a private room." [81] After all three rooms were open to visitors, one tourist commented on the wealth of relics on view at headquarters, noting that the building had three furnished rooms, two done to evoke Mount Vernon and one in a country style. [82]

In the 1880s and 1890s, while the Centennial and Memorial Association acquired and restored Washington's Headquarters, the industrial community at Valley Forge was going through difficult times. Economic decline began in 1881 when Isaac Smith relocated his woolen mill in nearby Bridgeport. Later a paper mill folded, and in 1890 the Thropp mill complex burned down. Valley Forge's population dropped from an all-time high of 500 to about 125. [83] Houses were abandoned, and area residents were beginning to describe the village as an eyesore, contrasting sharply with the natural beauty of the valley. Port Kennedy's lime business failed, and the Kennedy family went bankrupt. An ironworks in the same town failed in 1893, and by 1900 Port Kennedy was also nearly abandoned. [84] Local problems were exacerbated between 1893 and 1897 as the nation experienced the worst economic downturn since its foundation.

Visitors from outside the immediate area commented on the valley's sad state. In 1895, the Philadelphia Press ran an article on Valley Forge entitled "A Deserted Village." Its writer spoke of crumbling mill buildings idle for more than a dozen years, with gaping holes in their windows and vines growing up their neglected walls. He observed rows of decaying tenements still sparsely occupied by a few black families. [85] Clifton Johnson, writing for Women's Companion in 1902, made the same observation, noting: "A melancholy air of industrial ruin hangs over the Valley." [86] He discovered that the few remaining residents found only occasional work at a local quarry, a brick works, and a stone-crushing operation. As a mid-winter visitor, Johnson had surprised the village hotel owner and had listened to the cook complain about how impossible it was to keep help at that time of year in such a deserted place. [87]

The same articles mentioned that Valley Forge came alive in the summer. It seems that the village was being transformed into a seasonal resort. Soon after POS of A allied itself with the Centennial and Memorial Association, thousands made it a tradition to take part in an annual celebration on June 19, which was becoming known as Evacuation Day. On Evacuation Day in 1887, there was music, marching, and oratory from 10:00 A.M until dusk. [88] By June 1890, as many as 10,000 people came. Valley Forge had become an attraction not only for patriots and POS of A campers, but also for people out to make a quick buck. The Daily Local News wrote of

the stands of sharpers which lined the roadway from the railroad station in the valley to the pavilion away up on the hillside, where the principal exercises of the day were held. "Sweat cloths," wheels of fortune, and all the paraphernalia of open air gambling was conspicuously arrayed and the swindlers in charge drove a thriving trade until driven out . . . by special officers. [89]

Extra effort went into planning for the exercises for Evacuation Day in 1903, which was the 125th anniversary of the day Washington marched his men out of Valley Forge. [90]

 
Fig. 3. Old mill and tenant houses in Valley Forge. After the Revolution, Valley Forge resumed its role as an industrial community. This photograph most likely dates from the late nineteenth century, when Valley Forge suffered economic decline.
Fig. 3. Old mill and tenant houses in Valley Forge. After the Revolution, Valley Forge resumed its role as an industrial community. This photograph most likely dates from the late nineteenth century, when Valley Forge suffered economic decline.

Courtesy, Valley Forge National Historical Park

 

Many summer visitors passed the time by hunting for genuine relics of the American Revolution. The plows of Valley Forge farmers had long been unearthing grapeshot, cannonballs and other objects apparently left behind by the soldiers in 1778. After the nation's Centennial in 1876, the Colonial Revival Movement made such objects seem more important and valuable, and by the end of the nineteenth century major finds were being announced in the newspapers. In 1888, it was reported that the caretaker at headquarters had found an antique hatchet. [91] In 1890, some Valley Forge workers unearthed a twelve-pound cannonball, a broken bayonet, a sword, and an old case knife. Some of these items were placed on exhibit at Washington's Headquarters. [92] In 1900, a visitor from Marshallton, Pennsylvania, bought a belt buckle plowed up by a Valley Forge farmer and said to have been worn by one of Washington's personal bodyguards. [93]

Summer tourists were also keenly interested in the grimmer aspects of Valley Forge. It has been said that the nineteenth century was preoccupied with death—demonstrated by the cemeteries that became sculpture gardens, and etiquette books devoting entire chapters to mourning customs and fashions. All the accounts of men starving and suffering at Valley Forge implied that many had died there, and nineteenth-century visitors roaming the hills and fields were fascinated to contemplate the prospect of thousands of unmarked graves beneath their strolling feet.

To satisfy the morbid curiosity of visitors to Valley Forge, several individuals made the first attempts to locate burial grounds holding the dead from the encampment period. Local residents believed that many graves had been dug on the north side of the campground, just south of the road connecting the village of Valley Forge with Port Kennedy (now Route 23). Landowner William Stephens remembered how he and his father had heard from old Uncle Abijah about a spot near a sassafras tree just a few hundred yards from their own house (now known as Varnum's Quarters), where tradition had it that perhaps 600 men were buried. Stephens's curiosity prompted him to start digging a trench. "After a little time," he wrote, "I came to the bottom of a grave which showed a layer of black mold. This mold was about three feet from the surface and about a foot or more deep." The fact that he discovered no buttons or buckles indicated to Stephens that the dead had been buried naked at Valley Forge. [94] A little to the east, visitors could see a headstone carved with the initials "J.W.," and a newspaper story quoted an area resident who contended that a person could walk from this grave to the Todd Mansion (now known as Huntington's Quarters) several hundred yards away by stepping from grave to grave. [95] In 1902, it was reported that workers constructing a cement walkway in this area had unearthed five graves with well-preserved skeletons. [96]

Valley Forge's other acknowledged burial ground was on the south side of the encampment just inside what had been the outer line defenses against possible attack. In 1896, scattered graves with rough headstones could be found in the woods atop a small knoll where General Anthony Wayne's men had camped (now known as Wayne's Woods). [97] Today, Outer Line Drive winds downhill around Wayne's Woods, twisting north and then abruptly south in a wide arc connecting it with Baptist Road. The road encloses an area commonly hailed a century ago as a camp burial ground. A Mr. Latch of Devon, Pennsylvania described how this sloping ground had revealed itself as a burial place in a dramatic way: "Unable to dig graves sufficiently long, the living buried the dead with 'crouched knees.' Spring showers and summer rains washing the earth away, left protruding knees as ghastly monuments." [98]

The interest in graves naturally led to the first of what would be many Valley Forge ghost stories. The Philadelphia Press writer covering his visit in 1895 wrote:

It is said that the spirits of the dead Revolutionary soldiers flit along the hillsides on stormy nights and visit the shadowy spots where they once gathered around the camp fire and that ghostly campfires have been seen flickering among the trees on starless nights and the faint echo of a challenge and countersign from the lips of spirit sentinels.

He spoke of other ghosts in the dilapidated village tenements. One dwelling had been the home of a man shot trying to rob the railroad station agent. It seemed that no village family would live in the place, not even rent-free. [99]

If other places associated with George Washington could be spoken of like sacred shrines, then surely the tales of ghosts and the supposed graves of Revolutionary War soldiers made the whole encampment area sacred ground, prompting the Centennial and Memorial Association to try and expand their operations and purchase more land. In 1890 they bought an adjoining acre-and-a-half from Nathan Jones for $1,200. This tract included a spring behind the Headquarters from which Washington was said to have obtained his drinking water. [100] In 1891, Mrs. Holstein received a letter from Robert Crawford, who owned another adjoining lot, including what was thought to be Washington's old barn. Crawford offered his property for $4,000, and Holstein hoped to find some patriot with enough money to buy it and hold it for the cash-poor Centennial and Memorial Association. [101] As 1892 wore on and the property found no buyer, Mrs. Holstein became increasingly worried. She confided to Frederick D. Stone at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania how important it was that her organization "thus control a property which might become troublesome and annoying to us". She continued: "I think I mentioned to you, a year ago, that the Romish Church would like to have it. But Captain Crawford would prefer that it should again form part of the Hd. Qur. tract." [102] In 1894, the Centennial and Memorial Association was finally able to buy the property for $3,000. [103]

Considerably further out of the reach of the association was the 190-acre Carter Tract, which included much ground on which Continental soldiers had camped, the supposed site of the old forge in the valley, and the oak under which Washington was said to have prayed. Carter had had a bid from a brewing company in 1890, but he hoped to find a buyer who would preserve this hallowed ground rather than set up business there. [104]

For the kind of growth and expansion it wanted, the Centennial and Memorial Association needed more cash. After receiving the grant of $5,000 from the state, they had optimistically sought $25,000 from the federal government between 1888 and 1890. Theodore W. Bean drew up a bill to this effect, and a Centennial and Memorial Association committee visited Washington. Bean found a Mr. Yardley to introduce the bill in the House and sought the assistance of Pennsylvania's Senator Cameron. [105] The proposition languished and was finally dropped under opposition from President Grover Cleveland, who was afraid every other historical association in America would seek an equal amount. [106] Having failed with the federal government, the Centennial and Memorial Association again looked to the state of Pennsylvania. In 1892, they planned to ask for $10,000. In 1893, a bill passed awarding them $5,000, but Governor Robert E. Pattison vetoed it. In May 1897, the Centennial and Memorial Association's legislative committee reported that efforts to obtain state money were being temporarily abandoned "as the time was not considered opportune." [107]

Without government appropriations, the Centennial and Memorial Association collected operating funds by charging a 10-cent admission fee at Washington's Headquarters and selling pictures, prints, and mementos. In 1893, they offered a silver souvenir spoon engraved with a picture of Washington's Headquarters on the bowl, designed by association member Rebecca McInnes. [108] The association had spent some time disputing whether the handle should represent a musket or a continental soldier. [109] In 1895, the association also marketed a china plate with a picture of the Headquarters building. [110]

By that time, it was unlikely that the Centennial and Memorial Association would ever see government money again. This local organization had followed current trends in historic preservation by acquiring a house associated with George Washington and giving it a period look with antique furniture. Its members had involved local chapters of the national organizations of the POS of A and the DAR. They had organized public ceremonies and opened a historic site to the public, bringing thousands to Valley Forge and giving a dying industrial community new life as a summer resort and historic shrine. Their efforts received enough public attention to lay the groundwork for creation of Pennsylvania's first state park, established at Valley Forge in 1893. The new park was empowered to acquire, or "condemn," the land on which redoubts, entrenchments, or campsites had existed, to preserve these sites, and to make the area accessible and meaningful to the public by building roads and erecting markers.

The Centennial and Memorial Association must have realized that the park would also draw off additional funding they might have received from the state. Nevertheless, the association welcomed creation of the park and expected to work hand in hand with this new Valley Forge organization. After all, Anna Morris Holstein and Francis M. Brooke, the latter chosen to head the first state park commission, were cousins. It must therefore have come as a shock on Evacuation Day, June 1905, when the Centennial and Memorial Association treasurer reported that a committee from the park had come to tell them that the park commission was about to take their beloved Washington's Headquarters away. [111]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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