Chapter Seven: The "Complete Restoration" of Valley Forge

"All roads will lead to Valley Forge," the local newspaper said on June 21, 1935. The story described yet another dedication ceremony that would transpire the following day. Once again guns would boom and patriotic speeches would be delivered. Those attending would also witness a high-tech tribute to Valley Forge when the National Guard piloted a squadron of fighter planes overhead. [1]

This time, the structure being so honored was not a historic house or an imposing monument, but a small log hut built by the Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of the Revolution based on considerable research by architect D. Knickerbocker Boyd. Boyd was then near the end of his career, and today is remembered primarily for the private homes he designed on the Philadelphia Main Line. Under Boyd's direction but without the involvement of an archaeologist, a still-visible hut hole had been cleared of its accumulated debris, and an original hardpan dirt floor had been uncovered. The reproduction hut had been constructed according to George Washington's express orders and positioned precisely over this floor, the hut's replica fireplace stood exactly where deposits of charcoal had been found.

Optimistically calling it "Valley Forge Hut No. #1," the Sons hoped it would inspire other patriotic groups to erect additional huts, eventually creating "an entire 'company street' of Revolutionary huts on the sacred ground where Washington's men bled and starved during the severe winter." [2] Its dedication marked the outset of a new phase of historic preservation roughly from 1935 through the 1950s, when the park commissioners would institute a major development program known as the "complete restoration" of Valley Forge. Actually, the complete restoration was a mixed bag of projects, but strategic groupings of log huts constituted a key component.

One of the first replica huts at Valley Forge. In the absence of surviving structures, such reproductions were meant to give visitors something tangible to see. This one was constructed in 1905 by the Daughters of the Revolution and can be seen today near the Washington Memorial Chapel.
One of the first replica huts at Valley Forge. In the absence of surviving structures, such reproductions were meant to give visitors something tangible to see. This one was constructed in 1905 by the Daughters of the Revolution and can be seen today near the Washington Memorial Chapel.

Valley Forge National Historical Park


Years later, once the building program was under way, editor Gilbert Jones made several comments in the Valley Forge Historical Society's journal indicating why log huts were so important to Valley Forge at that time. Jones congratulated the park commission on its efforts to construct a "living re-creation of this historic scene" so that "the future may learn from the past." [3] Jones later commented that visitors in the past had been disappointed to find so little to see at Valley Forge. He wrote: "A marker is not graphic enough for the average person and he carries away only a hazy idea of Washington's historic Encampment." [4] Jones observed that recent visitors had been considerably more inspired by that original dirt floor in the 1935 hut. Jones's language linked the floor to one of Valley Forge's sacred symbols when he spoke of its being "trod by many bleeding feet that historic winter." [5] In the same article, Jones mentioned the historic sites of Williamsburg and New Salem Village. Surely Valley Forge too could transport the visitor back in time. This would be "the finest of all tributes to the free men who fought not with weapons of warfare, but in the Spiritual battle at Headquarters, in Huts, on Parade Ground and behind Entrenchments at Valley Forge." [6]

His key word was "Williamsburg," the extraordinary project directed and financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. mainly during the late 1920s and into the 1930s. With the help of experts and considerable archaeological and documentary research, Williamsburg went far beyond the restoration of a single house or building; it was the attempted re-creation of an entire colonial town. The project had been started in secrecy when Rockefeller authorized a local minister to begin buying up property anonymously. Buildings that predated the late eighteenth century were restored, but a far greater number of more recent origins were summarily demolished. [7] The result was a kind of movie set peopled with costumed guides performing the crafts of a bygone era. Visitors were literally drawn into the past, and America's imagination was truly captured.

In his book Preservation Comes of Age, Charles B. Hosmer Jr. writes of the enormous influence that Williamsburg had on historic preservation. By the 1930s it was considered a national trust and a place where those administering other sites could come for ideas and advice. It got a great deal of exposure in newspapers and magazines and was considered a success by every standard. [8] In more recent times, however, Williamsburg has been criticized. In an article titled "Visiting the Past," Michael Wallace contends that it did not show a visitor a true cross section of society. "Rockefeller was not the least bit interested in recapturing the culture of 'the folk,'" he writes. "This town commemorated the planter elite, presented as the progenitors of timeless ideals and values, the cradle of that Americanism of which Rockefeller and the corporate elite were the inheritors and custodians." [9] In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Ada Louise Huxtable criticizes the use of an arbitrary cut-off date at Williamsburg. She writes:

Once a "cut-off date" has been chosen for a project, the next step is to "restore it back"—to use preservation-speak. "Restoring it back" means re-creating the place as someone thinks it was, or would like it to have been.

The "selective fantasy" that results she links to the birth of theme parks: "Certainly it was in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg that the studious fudging of facts received its scholarly imprimatur and history and place as themed artifact hit the big time." [10]

In the 1930s, however, such voices were not being raised against Williamsburg or Henry Ford's Greenfield Village. Greenfield Village was another attempt to re-create the past on a large scale, but one that would illustrate the lot of the common man: the blacksmith, the farmer, or, as Wallace puts it, "the sturdy pioneers." [11] Greenfield Village profited from the populist tendencies of the 1930s a time when the lesser figures of American history, such as Paul Revere, were being rediscovered, and when less emphasis was put on the deeds of heroic individuals—while collective group efforts were increasingly glorified. [12]

Valley Forge could perhaps not aspire to the architectural magnificence or genteel lifestyle that had been re-created at Williamsburg, but it was believed to be a place where a great many sturdy, common soldiers had collectively developed as an army. In the late 1930s the time was ripe for Valley Forge to move beyond the relatively conservative, piecemeal restoration projects of the recent past with a single, coordinated project designed to actually re-create the winter encampment the same way that towns had been re-created at Williamsburg and Greenfield Village. In 1936, the commission finally sounded the death knell of the era of monuments by resolving that no additional monuments would be erected in the park, although those already in the park would be maintained and their landscaping improved. In the words of the commission report for that period, "The Commission did not approve any suggestions for the erection of monuments and expresses its opinion that restoration, where possible within reasonable historical accuracy is the better plan for memorializing the Valley Forge encampment." [13]

Park commissioners needed no new mandate or legislation to justify their plans. They reinterpreted the language of the 1893 legislation creating the state park, which charged that future custodians maintain Valley Forge as nearly as possible in its "original condition as a military camp." This mandate would now be taken literally by park commissioners, who believed that they were finally doing what Pennsylvania's lawmakers had envisioned more than a generation earlier.

The "complete restoration" began with yet another attempt to enlarge the park. In November 1936, Governor George H. Earle announced intentions to finally acquire the entire area believed to have been occupied by the Continental Army, plus surrounding parcels of land, increasing the park's size by some 3,500 acres. The governor revealed that the Pennsylvania legislature would be asked for $350,000 immediately and $1,050,000 over a period of three years. Earle explained, "The land itself not only will be cheaper now, but we will be saving the cost of any buildings erected in the meantime. Building here is advancing with recovery." [14] The governor's plans were considerably scaled back by his successor.

Governor Earle wanted the federal government to foot the bill for the "complete restoration," which initially called for reconstruction of miles of entrenchments and the building of hundreds of soldiers' huts. The governor explained: "I hope the CCC, meanwhile, will be able to restore the old camp to its Revolutionary character. I will confer Monday with James F. Bogardus, Secretary of Forests and Waters, preparatory to asking CCC aid." [15] The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was part of the U. S. Department of the Interior and one of the many job-generating programs of President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal." The CCC placed individuals in state and national parks and sites of historic interest under the supervision of the National Park Service. The governor's initial plans for federal aid fell through, however. In December 1936, Conrad L. Wirth, chief of the CCC, reported that current regulations forbade the opening of any additional CCC camps. If, however, the CCC was reorganized the following year, a Valley Forge camp might be considered. [16] This opinion was echoed by Emergency Conservation Director Robert Fechner, who also urged Earle to enlist the aid of the National Park Service. [17]

As soon as the governor's plans were made public, they came under fire from the same element that had so loudly protested a perceived commercialization of Valley Forge in the governor's hot dog stands, Though some of the protesters had previously been proponents of individual restoration projects, they did not like the sound of this larger-scale effort and they used the same reasoning that can be found in Huxtable's modern criticism of Williamsburg—that such a project would re-create too arbitrary a vision of the past, perhaps at the expense of genuine artifacts. Former Park Commissioner Dr. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer used the words "desecration" and "abomination" to express his opinion. "To touch the inner line entrenchments as they stand would be a crime," he said. "They are the only untouched thing of camp days in the park." As for the log huts, Oberholtzer commented:

About them there is scanty knowledge at best. The whole thing would be unhistorical. This chaste, simple landscape, the ideal which we have had before us for years, would be marred by ugly structures. Valley Forge would be an exposition instead of a beautiful piece of Pennsylvania countryside. Every historical and patriotic association in the States should rise up in protest against such desecration of an American shrine. [18]

Dr. Albert Cook Myers said, "The data is insufficient to do as the Governor proposes. It would be much better to leave such restoration alone. . . . Let them protect and preserve what they already have." [19] Lawrence C. Hickman, president of the Sons of the American Revolution, professed himself to be "bewildered":

Even if they had sufficient data, I don't see how the reconstruction could be done with thousands of dollars' worth of monuments and the Washington memorial arch already standing. How could they do it? It would certainly be incongruous to put up huts around the modern monuments. Or would they tear down these expensive markers put up by various States and organizations? [20]

The "complete restoration" never did get off the ground in the 1930s for lack of funds, not because of philosophical opposition. Valley Forge had no John D. Rockefeller Jr., nor was money forthcoming from the CCC, the National Park Service, or the Department of the Interior. From June 1935 through June 1937, the state legislature also slashed Valley Forge's maintenance appropriation from its previous level of $60,000 to $25,000. Between June 1937 and June 1939 it was raised, but only to $35,000. [21]

But the people serving as park commissioners during this period would not let their idea die. They continued to develop plans, sketches, and man hour estimates. Gilbert Jones kept mentioning restoration plans on his extensive rounds as public speaker, and he was often quoted by the local press. In 1938, he spoke before the Pottstown National Guard Unit, saying, "Valley Forge Park is a shrine, not a cemetery, and it should be restored to its original condition instead of erecting tablets and monuments." [22] In 1939, Jones spoke to the Norristown Kiwanis Club and commented on the difficulty of securing funds: "Everyone wants to wave a flag at Valley Forge but very few want to pay for the flag." [23] In a book on Valley Forge published in 1938, author Harry Emerson Wildes mentioned that plans for the restoration were still alive and that Williamsburg was evidence of what could be done. [24]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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