Chapter Six: Historical Accuracy vs Good Taste: Valley Forge in the 1920s and 1930s

In the 1920 edition of his visitors' guidebook, Dr. Burk described a dam near Washington's Headquarters where visitors could rent small boats and row all the way to a scenic bridge some distance to the south. The waters of this dam reportedly covered an older dam, which had been rebuilt, as Burk put it, "in a most substantial manner." [1] In 1896, a newspaper description of the same dam mentioned a white pole and a stone planted on opposite shores of its reservoir marking, "the site of the dam of Revolutionary times, whose exact location was disclosed when a break occurred in the present dam a few years ago." [2] Elsewhere below the water, it was believed, were the ruins of the forge that had given the valley its name.

There would be no more boating on Valley Creek after 1920, when the park commission decided to "restore" Valley Creek and the area around Washington's Headquarters. Silt had raised the valley floor considerably. The commission razed the mill where Ebenezer Lund had conducted his business, removed the tracks and piers from the unfinished trolley, and then demolished the dam. By November 1920, the park commission's Land Committee reported: "The removal of these obstructions has resurrected the beautiful background of hills along the gorge, and reproduced the wild and picturesque landscape which helped to inspire the courage of the revolutionary soldiers to endure the hardships of that almost hopeless winter." [3]

A number of area residents held a somewhat different opinion and protested the destruction of the dam throughout 1920. Where there had once been a scenic lake much appreciated by the locals for its beauty and the pleasure it afforded, weeds were springing up in an unsightly lake bed. Some even claimed that the park commission had destroyed a relic of Washington's day because, it was believed, the dam's waters once powered a gristmill that ground grain for the Continental army. Charles E. Hires, who owned property in the area, wrote the governor and demanded that the dam be rebuilt. [4]

The park commission was forced to defend its actions. Richmond L. Jones denied the gristmill hypothesis, calling it "a fable, recently invented." This dam, he maintained, had been constructed to serve a cotton mill built between 1812 and 1814 and therefore had only sentimental value. [5] What the park commissioners needed to do, he suggested, was make people aware that the commission was restoring the Valley Forge of the winter encampment. [6]

High above the creek, where the dam had been, visitors could also observe a newly remodeled white mansion with a spacious porch shaded by a two-story colonnade, which had started life as multi-unit tenement housing for mill workers. By the end of 1920, it was occupied by the POS of A—and it was probably no accident that it looked a lot like Mount Vernon. Although such a building might have made George Washington homesick, it had certainly not existed during the winter of 1777—1778, yet the park commission did not object to its sharing the scene with the newly restored Valley Creek.

Washington Camp #150 of the P05 of A had previously owned a building in the village of Valley Forge where they held meetings, maintained a library, and housed the village kindergarten. Their hall was a town meeting place, and occasionally others were permitted to use it, the way Dr. Burk been allowed to conduct his first Valley Forge services there. As the park expanded during the administration of Governor Martin Brumbaugh, the commonwealth had condemned and acquired the POS of A hall and demolished it in 1920.

But the park commission was not about to cast the POS of A out of Valley Forge. Members of the Land Committee met with POS of A representatives and worked out an agreement in which the park commission recognized the POS of A as "a patriotic society, organized to disseminate wholesome principles of life and lofty aspirations of government." [7] It further acknowledged that "Patriotic Associations are very helpful in many ways and set an example of reverence for the historic field which is very acceptable and congenial to all the visitors to the sacred shrine." [8] The Land Committee recommended that another park building be placed at the disposal of the POS of A.

The POS of A was granted the right to remodel and use a structure now called the Rogers Building but known then as the Riddle Mansion. The damages they had been awarded for their hall were used for the remodeling effort. The park commission declared that the Mount Vernon-type design they selected was attractive and appropriate for Valley Forge and, at the dedication of the structure, commended the POS of A for "restoring the natural beauty of the field." [9]

In the 1920s and 1930s, visitors to historic sites expected more accuracy and authenticity in what they saw, and restoration was being hailed more than erection of monuments. Attempts at restoration had already been made by the Centennial and Memorial Association and the park commission at Washington's Headquarters, and also by the park commission at the "Letitia Penn Schoolhouse," but these were both interior settings and individual projects. The park commission would now attempt to restore the general configuration of Valley Forge by removing modern structures and preventing any new building. At the same time, park commissioners were loath to give up the pretty park atmosphere that Valley Forge was known for. The quest for historical accuracy sometimes became the strange bedfellow of practical considerations and contemporary upper-middle-class taste, resulting in anomalies like Mount-Vernon-on-Valley-Creek. Though there was no such defined objective, the park commissioners also attempted to rid Valley Forge of outsiders who did not conform to their standards of accuracy or good taste, often leading to turmoil with people, like Dr. Burk, who had been involved at Valley Forge for what was by then a long time and who had different ideas of what visitors should find there. The character of the time as a period of transition can be seen in the interesting controversy over whether Valley Forge should have a restored working forge and, if so, where it should be located.

A good source of waterpower like Valley Creek would have attracted an eighteenth-century industry like iron manufacturing. The swiftly flowing creek never dried up and fell 25 feet in the course of its last mile. In February 1741/2, Stephen Evans and Daniel Walker purchased land in the area and, in partnership with Joseph Williams, operated a forge known as the Mount Joy Forge. In 1757, John Potts of Pottsgrove, a leading Pennsylvania industrialist, became the forge's controlling partner and later its sole owner. Potts expanded operations at Valley Forge, where workers produced wrought iron by removing the impurities from iron cast at other blast furnaces. An industrial community grew up around the forge, and the area soon had a store, a gristmill, a sawmill, a smith, and a wheelwright—businesses that were patronized by local farmers much like a modern shopping center. [10]

The sons and relatives of John Potts joined in management of the forge after 1760, and operations were expanded, probably between 1773 and 1776, under the direction of David Potts and William Dewees. Another sawmill was added, and a second forge was built, on the west side of Valley Creek. Less impressive than the main forge at the mouth of the stream, this forge allowed the Potts family to increase production, and business was good until 1777, when many workers left to take up arms for the cause of American independence. [11]

In the spring of 1777, Thomas Mifflin visited William Dewees at Valley Forge and asked that some of Washington's army supplies be stored there, where they would presumably be safe from the British army that was shortly expected to invade Philadelphia. Dewees reluctantly agreed, and his fears were justified when General Howe sailed to the head of the Chesapeake Bay and encountered the Americans at Brandywine Creek and then at Paoli. This put British scouts in the immediate area of Valley Forge, where a few men were desperately trying to move the supplies to a safer location. The British spied out their activity and sent in their light infantry, which drove off the few American defenders, and burned the forges. [12]

In 1921, while park workers were grading the area where the old mill dam had been, a civil engineer named Jacob Orie Clarke studied the Duportail map and tried to locate the remains of a forge in the area near the mouth of Valley Creek. His complaints that the grading work would prevent proper exploration were brushed aside by the park commission. [13] Grading continued, but in November the park superintendent reported an important find near the breast of the old dam. He wrote: "We [found] an old stone wall about two feet thick and the remains of an old floor built of hewed Chestnut logs, also some lumps of partly reduced iron ore, 'loups' and charcoal dust. Also broken pieces of soap stone, evidently used in a furnace hearth." [14]

The park commission concluded that these were not the remains of the forge the British had burned, but a second forge built sometime after the more important forge had been destroyed. Park Commissioner Richmond L. Jones explained to the superintendent that the ruin had "no historic value," but that it might have been part of the landscape by the time the Continental army marched away. [15] Within a month Jones concluded that it had "no relation to the military camp" [16] and was therefore not protected by the act of 1893 and no concern of the park commission. Workers continued grading the area, and most of the remains were destroyed.

More intensive efforts to locate the old forge began in 1928, when digs were started on both sides of Valley Creek. One dig explored the eastern, or Montgomery County, side of Valley Creek, about one-quarter mile from its mouth at a spot where Duportail had indicated a forge on his famous map. A second dig concentrated on a spot on the western, or Chester County, side of the stream about three-quarters of a mile from the Schuylkill. [17]

Workers made a find at the upper or western site in 1929, where the artifacts were far more exciting than those discovered eight years before. That August they unearthed the walls of what was obviously a forge and found evidence that the structure had once been subjected to fire. They uncovered the remains of a waterwheel 10 feet in diameter and a bar of pig iron marked "Andover." A frame shelter was erected to protect the ruins. [18] The same year, ruins of yet another forge were discovered at the lower site near the breast of the old woolen mill dam near where Clarke had continued investigations on his own initiative and at his own expense some years before and where he had found traces of a millrace. Here workers found the remains of a stone building, plus a wheel pit and some timbers. [19] There were also more mundane items, such as nails, spikes, and pieces of hardware and crockery. [20]

The park now had two ruins, both thought to be pre-Revolutionary forges. Judging strictly from the artifacts found, the upper site had more to connect it with the business of ironworking. In a recent examination of research done on the ironworking industry at Valley Forge, Helen Schenck speculated that the upper forge might have been a newer forge built by the Potts family so they could experiment in forging steel. [21]

The excavations and the exciting finds prompted the park commissioners to consider locating an old forge somewhere in the park. They consulted with George W. Schultz of Reading, who had long been studying ironworking and old iron plants. Assisted by Charles B. Montgomery of the Berks County Historical Society and a park commission committee, Schultz found a forge in nearby Berks County in a quiet valley south of Birdsboro on Hay Creek. The park commission made plans to dismantle this old forge and bring it to the valley for the entertainment and education of park visitors. [22] The park commission established a committee headed by Dr. Albert Cook Myers to decide exactly where the Berks County forge would be erected. [23] Myers produced a report suggesting that the forge be rebuilt at the lower site, near Washington's Headquarters. He did research among deeds recorded in Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Chester counties and found no reference to a forge on the Chester County side of Valley Creek. Myers concluded that the upper site was just a smaller, auxiliary plant and not the forge burned by the British. [24]

Fig 16 Worker excavating one of Valley Forge's eighteenth-century forges in 1929. It is unclear whether this is the upper or lower forge
Fig 16 Worker excavating one of Valley Forge's eighteenth-century forges in 1929. It is unclear whether this is the upper or lower forge

Valley Forge National Historical Park


At the time, Israel R. Pennypacker was chairman of the park commission. A resident of Ardmore and a former newspaperman, Pennypacker was the brother of Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker and the son of Isaac A. Pennypacker, who had been among the first to recommend the preservation of Valley Forge. Like his brother, Israel R. Pennypacker was known as a historian and had written some works about the Civil War. Pennypacker strongly disagreed with Myers and published his own conclusions in a pamphlet. He maintained that the forge in operation in 1777—the one burned by the British and the one that gave the valley its name—had been located at the upper site. His key evidence was a history of Charlestown Township written by one of his own ancestors, Isaac Anderson, in 1802. Pennypacker attacked the Myers report with stinging words, claiming that it was full of "irrelevant matters" that only "create[d] a wilderness of words and a maze of blind paths none of which leads to a correct destination." [25] He also mentioned the practical consideration that a forge near Washington's Headquarters would clog up that area with too many tourists and vehicles. [26]

When it became obvious that Pennypacker and Myers could not resolve their conflicting views, Pennypacker suggested that the two historians submit their reports to the three lawyers on the commission, who had experience in weighing evidence, to break the tie. Judge Richard M. Koch headed up this new team, which eventually upheld the Myers view that the upper forge had been some sort of appendage to the lower forge. However, Koch concluded that both forges had been burned by the British. Pennypacker, again displeased, produced another pamphlet in which he maintained: "The Report's conclusion is offset by a mass of direct evidence to the contrary such as rarely can be assembled in regard to an historical event pertaining to a remote period of time." [27]

Jacob Orie Clarke believed that the upper forge had been built sometime after the Revolution, and he sorely resented Pennypacker's suggestion that he confine himself to the "physical facts without reference to matters of historical construction." He added, "I must confess my dismay at your evident misapprehension as to . . . the ability of an engineer to function in matters technically historical." [28] In a later letter, Clarke cautioned Pennypacker about embarrassing the park commission with his self-published pamphlets. "Printers' ink will not make authoritative any statement," he warned. [29]

In response to a circular letter from Pennypacker, Schultz questioned the value of arguing over which forge the British had burned. "Really I do not see why we should quarrel about that, because it is clear that the forge on the west side of the creek was burned as well as the one on the east side, but that the one on the east side was older." [30] In 1930, the park commission voted to install the Hay Creek forge at the upper forge site, probably for the practical purpose of spreading out the attractions that drew the tourists. Dr. Myers asked that his negative vote be recorded in the park commission minutes. [31] The project was delayed, however, because the upper forge site was at that time on private property, and it would be 1936 before the park actually acquired the site where they had been permitted to make excavations.

In the meantime, Dr. Myers studied the Hay Creek forge and expressed his opinion that it was not right for Valley Forge after all because it was neither Colonial nor Revolutionary but had probably been constructed in the 1790s or early 1800s. Furthermore, he said, it was not built of stone indigenous to the Valley Forge area—and it was really not a forge at all, but a blacksmith shop with a trip hammer powered by water where scythes and other farm tools had been made and repaired. [32]

The structure was turned over to Pennsylvania's Department of Forests and Waters, then the park commission's parent organization. For a while it was on exhibit at the state museum, but then finally retired and placed in storage, where it probably still remains. No definitive studies have determined exactly what it was, but it might have originally been a forge that was later converted to a blacksmith shop the way old gas stations and school buildings are today made over to serve other functions. Years later, Schultz lamented that his attempt to reconstruct a working forge at Valley Forge had been "blocked by politics and carpers." [33]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1400 North Outer Line Drive
King of Prussia, PA 19406


(610) 783-1000

Contact Us