Chapter Five: The Churches at Valley Forge (part 2)

Eleanor Burk also told how her husband's barnboard chapel won national fame and the endorsement of the nation's President. Theodore Roosevelt, she explained, once came to visit the attorney general, Philander Knox, who happened to have a country estate just west of Valley Creek. In conversation Knox mentioned Burk and the church he was trying to build at Valley Forge. Roosevelt approved of the idea and asked, "How can I help this man?" Knox suggested that the President deliver a speech at the barnboard chapel. [29] Roosevelt, who is known for having described the presidency as a "bully pulpit," took the opportunity to speak from a real pulpit at Valley Forge.

On Saturday, June 18, 1904, the President and Mrs. Roosevelt came by private railway car to Devon, Pennsylvania, from Hyde Park, New York, and were driven to Knox's estate at Valley Forge. On the morning of Evacuation Day they toured the area, viewing the earthworks, the forts, and Washington's Headquarters, where Roosevelt insisted on paying the Centennial and Memorial Association's customary 10-cent fee. After lunch at the Knox mansion, the President set out for the barnboard chapel amid the cheers of Americans lining the roadway. Burk had the honor of introducing the President, who arrived around four o'clock. His presence in the area had not been highly publicized, but the chapel was filled to capacity and surrounded by many more spectators hoping to hear his words through the open windows. [30]

Roosevelt's speech compared two great moments in American history: Gettysburg and Valley Forge. He implied that the fledgling state park was just as important as the far more impressive memorial park at Gettysburg. In fact, the President claimed that Valley Forge had an even more important message for America. Gettysburg, he declared, had been a single heroic effort, while Valley Forge was "what we need, on the whole, much more— much more commonly—and which is a more difficult thing—constant effort." Roosevelt continued, "I think as a people we need more to learn the lesson of Valley Forge than the lesson of Gettysburg." [31]

The President concluded by heartily endorsing the Washington Memorial Chapel:

I congratulate you that it is your good fortune to be encouraged in erecting a memorial to the great man who was equal to the great deeds that he was called upon to perform, to the man and the men who showed by their lives that they were indeed doers of the word, and not hearers only. [32]

After the final hymn was sung, the President took his leave, shaking hands with Burk and declaring that it had been his pleasure to come. President and Mrs. Roosevelt left Knox's residence the following morning, again boarding their private railway car for Washington. [33] Roosevelt's presence had enabled Burk to claim a wonderful accomplishment. Theodore Roosevelt had been the first President to visit Valley Forge while in office, and he had come specifically to speak at Burk's barnboard chapel. The structure was renamed the Roosevelt Chapel in his honor.

The barnboard chapel continued to house Burk's congregation while work was begun on the Washington Memorial Chapel proper. Enough money was raised to build the walls of the nave to a height of 10 feet, or up to the windowsills of what would be the completed chapel's stained-glass windows. Then money ran out, and the church was furnished with a temporary roof, but this made the building usable and Burk held his first church service inside it on Washington's Birthday 1905. The barnboard chapel was retained as a Sunday school and as a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt.

Burk began furnishing the half-built chapel by soliciting contributions. Wealthy individuals were encouraged to pay for an article of church furniture in memory of the life of some great American of the Revolutionary period— one of their own ancestors if their roots went back that far. Mary H Wood provided the church with its pulpit, lectern, and choir perclose in memory of her late husband, Alan Wood Jr., who had been a descendant of William Dewees. [34]

Dr. Burk managed another Valley Forge first at the pulpit's dedication on Washington's Birthday 1909. Because the pulpit honored George Washington's services as a British soldier during the period of the French and Indian War, and particularly the fact that Washington had officiated at the burial of the unfortunate British General Braddock, Burk got a British official to pay homage at Valley Forge for the first time in American history. His Majesty's British consul, the Honorable Wilfred Powell, proclaimed in his speech that Washington had been "the greatest Englishman of the eighteenth century." Powell also had words of praise for the partially completed Washington Memorial Chapel and asked, "Why should not this Memorial Chapel become the nucleus of a Valhalla, a Pantheon or a Westminster Abbey, where the monuments and tombs of the heroes and great men of the United States should find a home?" [35]

Fig. 15. Washington Memorial Chapel during construction, probably between 1905 and 1913.  partially completed chapel with temporary roof.
Fig. 15. Washington Memorial Chapel during construction, probably between 1905 and 1913.interior of the partly completed chapel.
Fig. 15. Washington Memorial Chapel during construction, probably between 1905 and 1913. Upper: partially completed chapel with temporary roof. Lower: interior of the partly completed chapel.

Valley Forge National Historical Park


The chapel had a long way to go before it lived up to Powell's expectations but it was beginning to turn into a tourist attraction. When Dr. Burk was not available to show the visitors around, his sexton acted as tour guide. Eleanor Burk remembered the first sexton as quite a character, who embarrassed Burk by claiming to know the exact spot at Valley Forge where Washington had knelt in prayer. Once while addressing a group of students from the prestigious Bryn Mawr College, he pointed out an inscription carved in the chapel wall in Old English lettering, saying, "Now gals, I'll just read you these Latin inscriptions." [36]

Dr. Burk was the first to use a museum-style collection of objects in the interpretation of the Valley Forge experience. Burk's father had collected Indian relics, and as a boy Burk himself had roamed the fields of local farmers to see what their plows might unearth. He had long been gathering artifacts associated with Washington and the Revolutionary War, and these were first displayed in 1908 at an "Exhibition of American Wars" sponsored by the Valley Forge DAR. The collection also included an item that continues to be one of the treasures of Valley Forge: the check presented by the U.S. Congress to the Marquis de Lafayette in partial payment for his services during the American Revolution. [37]

Burk opened a museum to house his collection, which was officially dedicated in 1909 and, like Burk's church, was only partially completed at the time. In 1908, Burk's building committee had erected a portion of the chapel complex that would be incorporated into Patriot's Hall, the proposed meeting place for patriotic and historical societies. This second, half-completed steel and concrete structure provided Burk with a room approximately 28 feet by 24 feet in which he could house his precious relics. "The cases were such as I could beg or buy," he wrote, "the relics were few, but as I have already said were of great value." Burk filled in the empty spaces with flags and decorative bunting. [38]

Burk had a vision of what his museum might become, and it was not going to be a small, local museum. He considered Valley Forge the turning point in America's history and therefore believed that his collections should be the basis for interpretation of all of America's history to date. Besides the objects related to the American Revolution and his father's Indian relics, Burk began collecting historical documents and items related to the Civil War and the Spanish American War. He expected to raise $10 million for a complex of museum buildings to be named Pocohontas Hall, Raleigh Hall, Franklin Hall, Washington Hall, Jefferson Hall, Lincoln Hall, and Roosevelt Hall. As the names implied, each building would be dedicated to a specific period in American history. [39]

As Burk intended, opening the museum encouraged donations of even more artifacts. Mrs. S. R. Bartholomew was inspired to donate the impressive collection of old china her brother had left her. The sexton had just moved out of his room below the museum and into a small house, giving Burk a place to display his latest acquisition. The Thomas H. Schollenberger Collection of more than 4,000 pieces of lusterware, Chinese export porcelain, Staffordshire, and other ceramics remains another one of Valley Forge's treasures. [40]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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