Chapter Six: Historical Accuracy vs Good Taste: Valley Forge in the 1920s and 1930s (part 2)

The bitter words spoken and written about the forge reflected the park commissioners' desire for historical accuracy, which also inspired some changes at Washington's Headquarters in the early twentieth century. In 1925, Dr. Myers asked Horace Wells Sellers, chairman of the Committee for Preservation of Historical Monuments of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to study this building, evaluate the restoration work previously done by the Centennial and Memorial Association, and suggest changes that would accurately restore the edifice Washington had known. [34] How extensive Sellers's research was, or what it included, it is unknown today, but his recommendations led to significant changes at Washington's Headquarters. In 1926 and 1927, the reproduction log dining room was removed, a new brick floor was installed in the kitchen, cement pointing was removed from the outside walls, and shingles were substituted for tiles on the hood of the front entrance. [35] Sellers then considered removing the partition that divided the front room from the first floor hall, but Judge Koch, formerly himself a member of the Centennial and Memorial Association, protested angrily that architectural evidence indicated that the layout of the first floor had always been the way it was—two rooms and a stair hall the length of the building (a conclusion upheld by modern research)—and the partition remained in place. [36]

Sellers did succeed in making drastic changes to the kitchen wing at Washington's Headquarters. He examined the earliest available photos and engravings of the building and spoke to a seventy-eight-year-old man still living in the area. [37] In vain, he looked for the records of the previous restoration, searching for some clue as to why the Centennial and Memorial Association restorers had reduced the kitchen wing from two stories to one-and-a-half stories and separated it from the main house by the dogtrot with its arched entry. He concluded that the dogtrot made the kitchen wing unrealistically small, and he wrote Dr. Myers: "I think it is reasonable to assume that the kitchen originally extended over the whole area of the ground floor thus giving access directly from the main house." [38] On the recommendation of Sellers, the work that had been done to the kitchen wing in the 1880s was reversed. The roof was raised and a second floor was reconstructed, while the dogtrot with its arched opening was eliminated. Stairs were built to the new second floor, and a bake oven was added. [39]

In 1933, the park commission also decided that something must be done about the furnishings at the Headquarters, and Sellers advised them to remove "pieces manifestly not authentic as to period." [40] Dr. Myers discovered an inventory listing the personal effects of the husband of a Philadelphia woman named Deborah Hewes, who was related by marriage to the Potts family and who had occupied the structure at the time of the encampment. [41] Antiques dealer Arthur Sussel located objects in the proper style, and when the historic house was reopened it was praised for its aura of realism. One newspaper writer commented: "One of the chief charms of the little house is its air of being lived in. Through the open closet doors of the front ground-floor room, you can see a black Washington tricorn, black cape and sabre." [42] If an inventory was the basis for the furnishing plan, it can be argued that the interior look was indeed more historically accurate, but this praise probably indicated that the interior simply reflected the latest taste in modern conceptions of the past.

The area outside the Headquarters was also transformed. Although the intent was, as Sellers put it, to restore the "original aspect of the house," [43] the result was more a beautification project. Between 1927 and 1934 a stone wall was replaced by a picket fence, large trellises went up on the sides of the building, and the area was landscaped with boxwood and lilacs. Dogwoods and willows were planted along the nearby creek.

In 1933, a fierce summer storm blew down a tree, damaging the roof at Varnum's Quarters. [44] The DAR members who had renovated and furnished the house and kept it open to visitors sent a check to cover damages. The park commissioners returned the ladies' money, deciding to view their misfortune as a blessing and to restore Varnum's Quarters to its eighteenth-century appearance also.

In 1934, the roof at Varnum's was lowered, eliminating the third floor, the stucco facing was removed, some windows were changed, and a porch on the north side of the house was replaced by a small pent roof. [45] The restorers had studied plans and photographs provided by the Stephens family, previous owners of the house. The park commission claimed another triumph, stating that Varnum's Quarters was "historically faithful, barring perhaps the fireplace in the second story which the architects wished to save, because it is the only considerable part of old woodwork in the house." [46] An incident purported to have occurred in 1937 seemed to confirm this enthusiasm when a couple from Carnarvon in Wales declared the house similar to many old farmhouses in their homeland. [47]

By the end of the 1930s, after work was done at Varnum's Quarters, the park changed its policy on furnishings. Commissioners decided that all objects on display at the park should be owned by the state rather than borrowed from outside organizations, such as the DAR, so commissioners began requesting that the owners of certain loaned objects reclaim them. However, the furniture DAR members had loaned for the decoration of Varnum's Quarters remained in place until the early 1960s, when the DAR donated these objects to memorialize their own role in the preservation of that historic house. [48]

Before the park acquired the house, Varnum's Quarters had been the property of the same William M. Stephens who had protested condemnation of a plot of land to accommodate a prospective Rhode Island monument. The Stephens family had lived at Valley Forge for a long time—in fact, the Stephenses claimed that William Penn himself had deeded their land to a distant Stephens ancestor. The Stephenses still owned about 100 acres around the Star Redoubt flanked by Baptist and Port Kennedy roads and extending down to the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the Schuylkill. In front of the new residence the Stephenses had built when they vacated their old home at Varnum's Quarters, they operated a hot dog stand that did enough business during the summer months to support the entire family. The park commissioners never noted exactly whether they found the modern house or the hot dog stand inappropriate for Valley Forge, but in 1918 this property was condemned. William M. Stephens was paid the purchase money but not the interest on it because his children claimed he was not its sole owner. [49] This enabled the Stephenses to continue living and selling hot dogs at Valley Forge, thanks to a state policy allowing people to remain on condemned property until all moneys due were paid. [50]

Not until the late 1920s was the park commissioners' lawyer able to prepare eviction papers and notify the Stephenses that they would be forcibly evicted if they did not vacate their house. Emily D. Stephens, the wife of William M. Stephens, later published a personal account of what transpired on May 1, 1929—eviction day for the Stephens family. She wrote that she had been at breakfast that morning with her husband and her sister Effie when two moving vans pulled up. Her husband immediately grabbed his hat and ran out to seek an injunction preventing the eviction. He instructed the women to lock the doors and fasten the windows. These precautions did not keep the sheriff out, and the ladies ran downstairs to find him and his moving men on the first floor. Mrs. Stephens wrote:

The events of that day beggar description. I saw my most cherished possessions, the accumulations of years, handled by vandal hands, as if there was never a possibility that we would behold them again. . . . In a daze I could hear the whining of our little dog, "Lindy." It was pitiful to see how she ran and crouched under chair and table, her big brown eyes so beseeching, only to be sent scurrying hither and yon again by the intruders.

Although the sheriff assured Mrs. Stephens that her possessions would be cared for, she commented bitterly, "we found quite a number of things lying crushed in the mud of the drive that night, such as the pendulum of an antique clock, a quill pen, saucers of glass flower pots, an antique mirror with the glass shattered and a porch chair which had been broken." The family departed sadly with suitcases in hand for a hotel in Phoenixville [51]

The drama was not over. Mr. Stephens telegraphed President Hoover, and the family appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, preventing the park commissioners from demolishing their empty house for another six years. It was not until 1935, two years after the death of William Stephens, that the park commission's position was upheld and the Stephens house was razed, its shade trees left standing to shade the picnic ground into which the site was transformed. The park commissioners could finally congratulate themselves on "the removal of this unsightly encumbrance in the center of the park." [52]

Park commissioners also objected to another food operation in their midst. The owner of the Washington Inn continued to operate within shouting distance of Washington's Headquarters. After Prohibition was repealed and the Washington Inn's owner applied for a liquor license, Park Commissioner Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer wrote the state Liquor Control Board to protest that the inn was "an island in a great Memorial Park, which is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year." When spirits had been served there before Prohibition, the bar had been "the loafing place for sots," who would find their way back should the inn be granted a liquor license. [53]

The park commission also complained about the Washington Inn's exorbitant prices, prompting a new governor to take action that the park commission would find even less tasteful. The Department of Forests and Waters suggested that the park itself should provide some of the amenities available at the Washington Inn by erecting concession stands like those that could already be found at Washington Crossing Park. In 1935, Pennsylvania's new Democratic governor, George H. Earle, signed a resolution permitting the construction of two refreshment stands at Valley Forge, and by October workers were whacking stakes in at one picnic grove. [54]

A barrage of letters and telegrams immediately made their way to the office of the governor. Members of the DAR, the POS of A, and the Sons of the American Revolution were among those protesting what they considered the crass commercialization of Valley Forge. Some predicted that the governor would award the concessions as political favors for his Democratic cronies. There were also dire warnings about the types of people who would be attracted to Valley Forge. The Department of Forests and Waters blamed the original idea on certain park commissioners who had recently been replaced by Governor Earle for political reasons and who were now among the protesters. The former park commissioners denied all responsibility. [55]

The governor himself entered the "Hot Dog War" with a letter to the current park commissioners.

There is nothing cheap or degrading about low priced food. Personally I am one of the multitude who like hot dog sandwiches. The "sacred soil" of Valley Forge would not be desecrated if visitors were permitted to purchase cheap and wholesome food in an inconspicuous, but attractive, log cabin. Indeed, I surmise that the Continental soldiers who wintered at Valley Forge would have been thankful had they had an abundant supply of "hot dogs." [56]

The governor backed down, however, and saved face by citing the 1893 resolution and guiding principle of historic preservation at Valley Forge—that the park should be maintained as nearly as possible as a revolutionary military camp. This left the issue up to the discretion of the park commissioners, who quietly voted against it in 1936. Good taste would prevail at Valley Forge, and no cheap hot dogs would entice those who could not afford to eat in a local hotel or restaurant to visit.

The park commission also removed two other private commercial interests engaged in selling other items in Valley Forge. A stand near Washington's Headquarters operated by the Union News Company through a Reading Railroad employee, which had been selling soft drinks and souvenirs, was removed with the cooperation of the president of the Reading Railroad. [57] The park commission closed another shop at the old schoolhouse where a John U. Francis had been selling gum, flags, postcards, tobacco, and the letters of Henry Woodman, which had by then been published as a book. Today the Woodman account is considered a valuable resource, but the park commissioners recorded their current opinion in their minutes with the words "It has little historical value, except as it may suggest the names of the occupants of houses and families in the neighborhood while the army was here and afterward." [58]

Their determination not to tastelessly commercialize Valley Forge backfired on the park commissioners a few years later when they decided to publish a new guidebook. Gilbert Jones, a former park superintendent and then secretary of the park commission, wrote the text, and Karl F. Scheidt of Norristown, who operated a brewry, financed the venture. Trouble arose because Scheidt printed the name of his business in very small type at the bottom of the inside cover. The park commission had to call a special session to counter accusations that the sacred shrine was now advertising beer. [59]

Commissioners withdrew the book from sale at the insistence of the governor. One commissioner blamed the storm of unexpected criticism on members of the POS of A, whose role at Valley Forge had been overlooked by the guidebook's author. [60] Scheidt solved the problem and salvaged a considerable supply of booklets by paying for the printing of little stickers that were then carefully positioned over the offensive words. Jones wrote Scheidt, "The commission always regretted that your generous act should have been interpreted on a commercial level." [61]

The tendency of the park commissioners in the 1920s and 1930s toward restoring the eighteenth-century scene at Valley Forge placed the commissioners in direct conflict with the Rev. Dr. W. Herbert Burk, who served for a part of this period as a park commission member. Burk wanted to expand his role as chief interpreter at Valley Forge and create a learning center of sorts by making the area a combination of the present Smithsonian Museum complex and a cathedral town. From the outset of this period until his death in 1933, the animosity between Burk and the other park commissioners, especially the outspoken Israel R. Pennypacker, would grow until the issue became exactly who would determine the direction Valley Forge would take.

Early in the 1920s, with assistance from Pennsylvania's governor and attorney general, Burk pressed for legislation authorizing the park to sell him some twenty-seven to twenty-nine acres that had once been part of the Todd family farm, where he planned to erect Victory Hall, then planned as the first of his "Halls of History." He secured the approval and cooperation of the park commissioners, who at the time did not feel they needed all the land they held in the area of the Washington Memorial. [62] Burk was already raising funds to pay for this property by writing form letters addressed to "My dear Compatriot" and seeking donations from Boy Scouts, war mothers, and wealthy individuals in Montgomery County. [63] He also tried to authorize the executive board of the historical society to borrow sums for this purpose. [64]

At the same time, Burk was collecting money to expand his collections. In 1921, Burk appealed by circular letter "to the Student Body" asking for help in purchasing a private collection of Washingtoniana. His letter recommended a suggested donation of 20 cents per pupil forwarded to him by certified check. Schools that could raise $100 would receive a medal. [65] In 1923, another letter to "My dear Compatriot" invited recipients to donate toward the purchase of a "Washington's Birthday Present." The previous year, Burk reported, the society had been able to purchase a cut-glass tumbler reputedly presented by Lafayette to George Washington. Now Burk wanted to do better. He claimed, "The country is more prosperous, our nation is richer," and hopefully thousands could be raised toward the purchase of two silver camp cups, "the only luxury Washington allowed himself in that fierce struggle for freedom." [66]

Unfortunately, the legislation Burk had championed authorized but did not compel the park commission to sell him land, and the park commissioners changed their minds. Burk turned his attention to his temporary museum, where he made many improvements. The sixth annual report of the Valley Forge Historical Society, issued in 1924, took the reader on a tour. Where before there had been a single crowded room, the museum now had two rooms with new, lighted cases. A stairway led down to collections in "Indian Hall" and the "China Room," where a sizable amount of the Schollenberger ceramics collection was on display. [67] Although Burk was proud of the museum's new look, he had not stopped dreaming about Victory Hall. In 1926, he inquired about the price of land near Valley Forge village, where he toyed with the idea of situating Victory Hall on a hilltop above an imposing flight of stairs. [68]

The same year, the park commission finally opened its own museum at Valley Forge by converting the old stable near Washington's Headquarters to a display area for relics unearthed in earlier excavations and other objects. Burk protested bitterly in a letter to the chairman of the park commission, accusing the commissioners of purposely setting up a competitive museum. "Money is needed everywhere," he complained, "but at Valley Forge, it can be used to create a useless and hopelessly petty museum merely to establish a rival to a Museum known all over the Nation for its educational and inspirational service." [69] Burk publicly expressed his anger in the 1928 edition of his guidebook to Valley Forge with the statement "The Valley Forge Historical Society offered the Commission a room in the Valley Forge Museum of American History, rent free, but unfortunately this generous offer was rejected for reasons too unworthy to mention." [70]

The park commission was not likely to build a rival church at Valley Forge, but around that same time Burk was beginning to consider dwarfing his wayside chapel with a structure patterned after York Cathedral in England that would seat 5,000 people. He may have been motivated by the reluctance of his own church hierarchy to transfer title to the Washington Memorial Chapel to him. In a 1926 letter to his bishop, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Garland, Burk questioned whether the previous transfer of title to three trustees—which had been done when funds were raised to complete the chapel—was contrary to state law. [71] Burk stated his official justification for the cathedral in a pamphlet in which he observed that the Washington Memorial was mobbed each Sunday when "hundreds of thousands press to its doors, to catch something of its service of prayer and praise." His brochure challenged the American people to donate enough money to open the new cathedral by the bicentennial anniversary of Washington's Birthday, in 1932. [72]

Burk acquired land for his cathedral when a house on land east of the Washington Memorial burned down and its former owner sold him approximately fifteen acres. On Washington's Birthday 1928, Burk broke ground in a ceremony that attracted more than 500 spectators, including many members of historical and patriotic societies. Followed by his choir and his color guard dressed in the uniforms of Washington's Life Guard, he led a procession from the chapel to the site planned for the new edifice. Shovel in hand, Burk proclaimed, "We touch this soil in the belief that we can build here a house to the honor of God and the glory of a Nation and the memory of Washington and his patriots of the Revolutionary Army." [73] Around Evacuation Day of the same year, the Free and Accepted Masons dedicated the cornerstone for Burk's Valley Forge cathedral.

Burk's plans for a cathedral came as a surprise to Bishop Garland. In the Episcopal church, a cathedral was defined as the church of a bishop, and only a bishop was entitled to erect one. What was more, the Pennsylvania diocese of the Episcopal church had already selected a site for a cathedral in Roxborough, not at Valley Forge, where, Garland believed, the weekly congregation was made up of tourists and sightseers. A park commission report quoted Garland as saying that at Valley Forge "all the church had ever desired was a little shrine in the woods, more ambitious plans being without the church's sanction." [74]

Even the little shrine irked Israel R. Pennypacker of the park commission, who expressed his own view in print, as usual, in a 1926 article written for American Mercury magazine. Pennypacker claimed that the presence of any type of church was "unhistorical" because there had been no church at Valley Forge in Washington's time. He further maintained that Burk's church did not serve the community of Valley Forge, where most of the remaining residents were not Episcopalians. Burk, Pennypacker charged, was drawing his crowd from the wealthy Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia and giving local people the impression that "their presence would be more welcome at the 'cathedral' services if they could afford to drop five or ten dollar bills into the collection plate." [75]

Pennypacker's feelings about Burk and his operations were echoed by others, including H. W. Kriebel, whose letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin was reprinted as a handbill titled "Valley Forge, a National Problem." Kriebel accused Burk of forming a holding company for his various enterprises, competing with the park for land, and filling his museum with objects of questionable authenticity and his property with inappropriate memorials. "The very presence of the chapel," Kriebel wrote, "is an affront to American citizens whose religious convictions are not in accord with the sentiments this organization represents." [76]

An ongoing feud arose between Burk and some of the other commission members, with bitter battles over such tangential issues as where Burk's parishioners were supposed to park their cars. Many people visiting the Washington Memorial and the nearby 1901 monument to the unknown dead customarily parked on the grass outside the chapel or across the road from it. This land belonged to the park, and the park commissioners established a Parking Committee, which resolved that the state had no obligation to provide facilities for a private institution. The committee also suggested that the cars were tearing up what might well be the graves of Revolutionary soldiers. [77] Burk had tried to counter by proposing a resolution that research be done to document the existence of these supposed graves, and that the park commission "place a permanent stone marker at every grave found in this tract." [78] Burk stated in no uncertain terms to members of the press that the park commissioners were actually opposed to the very existence of his chapel. He was quoted as saying, "One of the investigating committee I know would like to take down the edifice and throw it into the Schuylkill River, stone by stone" [79] In another article, appearing on the same day, Pennypacker was quoted as replying: "Oh—Dr. Burk! I'd prefer not to go into personalities. Dr. Burk has had fourteen nervous breakdowns and it is hard sometimes to follow just how his mind does work." [80] Burk petitioned the governor, but in the end the area opposite the Washington Memorial was planted with grass, and parking there was prohibited by signs. [81]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1400 North Outer Line Drive
King of Prussia, PA 19406

Phone:

(610) 783-1000

Contact Us