Chapter Four: The Park Commission Triumphs

The Valley Forge Park Commission found a powerful friend in Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker. In his inaugural speech, Pennypacker boldly stated:

No people are ever really great who are neglectful of their shrines and have no pride in their achievements. . . . The good example set by Philadelphia in its care of Independence Hall and Congress Hall should be followed by the State. The fields of Fort Necessity, where Washington first became known, of Bushy Run, where Bouquet won his important victory, and the camp ground of Valley Forge should be tenderly cared for and preserved. [1]

Samuel W. Pennypacker had been born in nearby Phoenixville in 1843. Instead of attending Yale, he had chosen to fight in the Civil War. He had studied law with a Philadelphia attorney, becoming a lawyer himself and later a judge. Though largely self-educated, he was known as the "Sage of Schwenksville" and considered something of an expert on the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Pennypacker had been the one who had guided Henry Armitt Brown around Valley Forge in preparation for his famous speech in 1878. As governor, Pennypacker made frequent trips to Valley Forge. In 1904, a Philadelphia newspaper reported on one excursion at which "the governor was the life as well as the leader of the party. His enthusiasm over the preservation of the sacred camp was more obvious than that of any other of those present." [2]

It was Governor Pennypacker who finally got the park commission the cash it needed to put Valley Forge on a firm financial footing and make vast improvements at the park. In 1905, he signed a bill appropriating money for the purchase of additional land at Valley Forge, the building of roads, the erection of an observation tower, and the placement of markers to indicate the campsites of the Continental Army's various brigades. In 1906, the Daily Local News observed: "Within the last two years the Valley Forge Park Commission has done much to beautify the old campgrounds, and its work is not one-half completed. The commission was created in 1893, but the work of improving Valley Forge did not begin until about two years ago." [3] In 1908, after Pennypacker had been replaced by another governor, the same paper noted that of the total $261,000 the state had so far spent on Valley Forge, $219,000 had been appropriated during Pennypacker's four-year term. [4]

The revitalization of the park commission made possible by Governor Pennypacker also raised the question of whether this organization should be the sole custodian of the physical Valley Forge and the primary arbiter of what happened at the place. The governor certainly helped the park commissioners put an end to a threat that had loomed large enough at the turn of the century to threaten their very existence.

During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, preservation became a legitimate function of the federal government. Federally funded monuments on the battlefields of the Civil War and the American Revolution had been the first step in this direction. In the 1890s, Congress went further and created several national military parks, including Gettysburg; which became a national military park in 1895. By the end of the nineteenth century, those with hallowed ground worth preserving were clamoring for more federal dollars.

As early as 1883, voices had been raised in favor of making Valley Forge a national park. Senator David Vorhees of Indiana visited Valley Forge. Immediately upon his return to Washington, he introduced a resolution authorizing the Committee on Military Affairs to look into making Valley Forge a national park. [5] His efforts were perhaps premature, and nothing came of them.

The timing was better in December 1900, when no less than seventeen historic and patriotic organizations met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to pursue the idea of a national park at Valley Forge. The Philadelphia Press gave itself credit for prompting this meeting. [6] The Daughters of the American Revolution had also made a resolution some three years earlier to work toward a national reservation at Valley Forge, [7] and the DAR was among the organizations represented at Independence Hall. They were joined by the Colonial Dames, the Society of the War of 1812, the Society of Colonial Wars, the Brotherhood of the Union, the Patriotic Order Sons of America, various Chester and Montgomery county historical societies, and the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge. [8]

Their chief complaint was that Valley Forge had been neglected. True, the park commission had acquired land, but this was only a fraction of the soil on which Washington's troops had spent the winter of 1777—1778. Without other state appropriations, which did not seem to be forthcoming at the time, the park could acquire no more land, nor could it do anything with the property it already owned. Because private owners had once protected the graves, the earthworks and the other historic spots on their own property, Valley Forge seemed worse off under the park commission than it had been before its creation.

The December 19 meeting at Independence Hall continued that evening, featuring patriotic speeches that were frequently interrupted by bursts of enthusiastic applause. Dr. George Edward Reed, president of Dickinson College, voiced the earliest recorded suggestion that the Valley Forge story might be useful to help Americanize new immigrants. By the 1890s, it was estimated that fully 15 percent of the nation's population was foreign-born, causing other Americans to become increasingly concerned about whether the newcomers could learn American values and be absorbed into American society. Reed said, "One of the necessities of our time is to keep the spirit of patriotism alive in the hearts of all our people, a specially important duty in a country like ours, which has grown so rapidly and whose population is composed of so many different nationalities." [9] U.S. Senator Boies Penrose received much applause for his promise, "I am here to pledge my earnest effort toward the accomplishment of this project until the field shall have been formally set apart by Congress as a memorial of the heroism of the Continental Army." [10]

Efforts to create a national park at Valley Forge were unsuccessful in 1901, but enthusiasm did not seem to lag. Senator Penrose found the House Committee on Military Affairs unwilling to report any more bills for national parks that session, but his movement found a champion in President McKinley, who went on record in favor of federal acquisition of Valley Forge. [11] The movement's leaders, who started calling themselves the National Park Association, sent out form letters to raise money acknowledging their initial setback but promising to present the issue in Congress again. [12] By the end of the year, Senator Penrose joined forces with Congressman Irving P. Wanger, who hailed from nearby Norristown, and the two men jointly sought an appropriation of $200,000 for the purchase of Valley Forge. [13]

Late in January 1902, the National Park Association decided to send a massive delegation to Washington. An assassin's bullet had robbed them of their friend in the White House, but they planned to present a memorial to his successor, President Theodore Roosevelt. Leaders of the movement lunched with the President. [14] The following day, members of the National Park Association explained their patriotic purpose to the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. From ten o'clock in the morning until late in the afternoon, the committee rooms were packed, and it was reported that not one voice was raised against the proposition. [15]

The Valley Forge Park Commissioners, who opposed the movement, stayed home. The general feeling among these gentlemen was that Pennsylvania should finish what it had begun. All the park commission needed was money. Samuel W. Pennypacker became the commission's spokesman during his campaign for governor:

I think it would be a great mistake to take the Valley Forge campground out of the hands of the State of Pennsylvania. . . . The State is abundantly able to take care of Valley Forge, and it will preserve in a most fitting manner the Revolutionary Camp. [16]

As governor, Pennypacker successfully squelched the movement with a letter to Senator Penrose. The park commission was doing well, he proclaimed, it needed cooperation and money, not redirection from groups like the DAR. "We want to do everything we can to help [the park commission] and to prevent the interference which comes from persons outside the State and certain well-meaning but ill-advised women within it." Pennypacker enlisted Penrose's aid: "Should the matter come up in Congress, I rely upon you to help me. Should a bill be presented, you can probably kill it easily by having added to it that the Government also take Bunker Hill from Massachusetts and Stony Point from New York." [17]

The movement for a national park at Valley Forge was never launched again during Pennypacker's lifetime. In 1916, the Phoenixville Daily Republican created a contest soliciting letters both for and against a national park at Valley Forge. The letter of a Fred A. Tencate stated:

In conversation with the ex-Governor [Pennypacker] within the past year he advised me not to try to ever have Valley Forge Park transferred from the State to the Nation, and whilst I realized that he did so purely out of State pride, I could not coincide with his views and since his lamented death, I have again begun the agitation. [18]

This later movement too went nowhere. In his history of the Centennial and Memorial Association, Henry J. Stager reported that Anna Morris Holstein and Theodore W. Bean had both "repeatedly urged" that Valley Forge be made a national park. [19] If this encouraged the park commission to view the Centennial and Memorial Association as a threat, it may have helped hasten the demise of this organization.

When the park commission was first established in 1893, there seemed to be no reason why it could not cooperate with the Centennial and Memorial Association. Within a week of the park commission's first meeting, the commissioners received a cordial message from the Centennial and Memorial Association offering them the use of Washington's Headquarters for their meetings. The park commission acknowledged the offer but continued to meet in Philadelphia, perhaps simply because it was geographically more convenient for most of the members. [20] While the agitation for a national park continued, the Norristown Times Herald urged cooperation between the three entities that would potentially exist at Valley Forge. "The three proprietors need not clash," it advised. "Each would have its own sphere of action and all would be working for a common purpose." [21] Even the national publication Harper's Weekly hoped that "under the control of the government the various interests would be unified for the good of the entire campground." [22]

Though the Centennial and Memorial Association reported that the takeover of Washington's Headquarters had been an unpleasant surprise, there were early indications of trouble. Stager's history reported that as early as June 19, 1894, it was known that the park was contemplating annexing the Headquarters to its property. "This the Board of Directors prepared to dispute," the association minutes read. [23] In a pamphlet, A Brief Review of Valley Forge and Its Environments, Stager flatly stated: "The Headquarters are not for sale." He suggested that the park commission acquire the structures that had been quarters of Washington's generals and protect the earthworks they already owned. [24] In 1900, the Centennial and Memorial Association's minutes noted that state officials, particularly those at the state capitol, were not giving proper credit to their organization or to the work of the POS of A. [25]

With Pennypacker in office as governor, money in the park treasury, and the national park movement successfully diverted, perhaps it seemed that the time was right for a decisive attack on the Centennial and Memorial Association. The park commissioners' official justification for seeking to eliminate this organization appeared in the commission report published at the end of 1904. The report admitted that Washington's Headquarters was in admirable condition and that the building's attractive furnishings and surroundings made it a mecca for tourists and picnickers. However, entrance to the building cost each visitor 10 cents.

Should this be? [the park commission asked] Is it not rather humiliating to require the payment of a small sum of a visitor when we realize that all of the Headquarters of Washington throughout the country, which are preserved and open, are free to the visitors? [26]

Another reason was perhaps suggested by a 1900 guidebook to Valley Forge, which commented: "Washington's Headquarters is the chief object of interest beyond the line of fortifications." [27] The park commission owned a lot of overgrown heaps of earth, the Centennial and Memorial Association had a valuable tourist attraction. The underlying question was whether that attraction properly belonged in private hands or in public hands.

Hearing the call of the park commission, the Pennsylvania legislature took action at their next session, amending the act that had created the park by striking the phrase that had always protected the Centennial and Memorial Association's property. Association members heard about this at their annual meeting on Evacuation Day in 1905. They received a visit from a delegation from the park commission who quoted the amended act and proposed the immediate takeover of the building. According to Stager's history, the park sought "a friendly agreement with the Association as to the price to be paid." Recorded in the association's minutes for that day were the words "The Association did not consider it had been fairly treated by the State." [28]

The association tried to thwart this hostile takeover by naming a price so high that the park would not be able to pay it. They resolved on a seemingly unreachable $25,000, [29] and might have gone even higher as they managed to find real-estate experts who valued their property between $35,000 and $50,000. [30] As they had during the land confiscation of ten years before, the press seemed to take the part of the park commission. A query to Philadelphia's Public Ledger asked what was a fair price for Washington's Headquarters? The answer came that the state should set the price. This was not a case where private individuals wanted to tear it down or divert the property to another use. If the state was ready to assume the care of the building, the Centennial and Memorial Association should step aside and let them do so. [31]

When the state proposed to arrive at a price through the assessment of an independent jury of view, the Centennial and Memorial Association sought an injunction restraining the park commission. The Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas denied their injunction, and they decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, fearing that the state would in the meantime enact some other legislation that would render any expensive and time-consuming efforts ultimately futile. [32]

When the jury of view awarded the association $18,000, its members decided to accept the offer rather than appeal. Their conditions were that the state would allow them an additional $200 for their personal property at the Headquarters and permit them to place a plaque in the building attesting to their role in acquiring and restoring the structure. [33]

At their annual meeting the following year, members of the Centennial and Memorial Association discussed the prospect of dissolving their organization. The park commission had denied them permission to meet at Washington's Headquarters, so they gathered at the nearby Washington Inn, where they could probably see their beloved building from the windows. Their treasurer acknowledged receipt of $18,000.00 which would leave them with $16,486.27 in cash after their legal expenses were paid. They resolved to defer the question of dissolution for one year while members considered how to distribute these funds. [34]

It was actually 1910 before the Centennial and Memorial Association petitioned a local court for legal dissolution because in 1907 a new question arose concerning their money. Meeting again at the Washington Inn that June, the association received a proposal from the park commission that they give funds back to the park. The association scornfully acknowledged receipt of this letter, sending back word that "the [Centennial and] Memorial Association knows of no warrant in law to pay over the money and respectfully declines to do it." Association members scratched their heads over how the park commissioners figured that the sum they had paid for Washington's Headquarters should now be handed back. [35]

In 1912, the park commission won this odd debate. The matter was resolved by an independent auditor appointed to hear all concerned parties and decide on the legal issues. The auditor's report summarizing the conclusions at law was included in Stager's history of the Centennial and Memorial Association. It was decided that the association had been organized to act as a charity, and its funds were held in trust for public use. Because it had never been operated for the profit of its members, its funds could not be distributed among those members, nor could they be returned to the individuals who had purchased its decorative stock certificates. Association funds legally belonged to whoever would carry out the original mission of the organization. [36] It seemed absurd and incredible, but the very body that had confiscated Washington's Headquarters was the only organization then in a position to carry out the objective of preserving this building. The park commission essentially got Washington's Headquarters for free.

The auditor's conclusions ended with glowing words implying that there had actually been a spirit of cooperation between the Centennial and Memorial Association and the park commission and that the association had been meekly willing to give its property to the park. "The luster of this proud achievement [the preservation of Washington's Headquarters] should not be dimmed by even a suggestion that the donors would undo it, and no such suggestion has come from any of them." [37] Despite these words, the association appealed the decision, but it was upheld by the Common Pleas Court of Montgomery County and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

The auditor's conclusions ended with glowing words implying that there had actually been a spirit of cooperation between the Centennial and Memorial Association and the park commission and that the association had been meekly willing to give its property to the park. "The luster of this proud achievement [the preservation of Washington's Headquarters] should not be dimmed by even a suggestion that the donors would undo it, and no such suggestion has come from any of them." [37] Despite these words, the association appealed the decision, but it was upheld by the Common Pleas Court of Montgomery County and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

That the association's relationship with the park had long ceased to be amicable is witnessed by the controversy that persisted for four years over the small sum of $200 that the park had promised the association for their personal property at headquarters. This property included the souvenirs the association had been selling there. The park commission had originally agreed to pay the association a total of $18,200, but then the commissioners decided they had allowed too much for personal property when they discovered that some objects had already been marked "sold." In 1906, the park commission offered a check for $113.84 but failed to pay this amount until April 1910, by which time they were deeply involved in campaigning for the rest of the association's money. [38]

Nor was the park commission especially cooperative in allowing the association to place their plaque in Washington's Headquarters. At the end of 1905, the park declared that such a plaque must carry no individual names and must not be placed on the walls of the Headquarters lest it "desecrate" that building. [39] By 1907, an association committee was lobbying the Pennsylvania legislature for their support on the plaque issue, and later they made it known that they would not even consider formally dissolving their organization until the park agreed to the plaque. In 1908, they were told that they would be allowed to place their plaque at the headquarters providing the park commission approved its wording. [40] The plaque, with the simple words "This tablet commemorates the patriotic service rendered by the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge aided by the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America in acquiring, restoring and preserving these headquarters, 1878—1906," was finally mounted in the entry hall at the Headquarters in 1909. [41] The park superintendent reported that there was "no ceremony attached to the erection of this tablet." [42]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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