Chapter Nine: The Siege of Valley Forge (part two)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Americans became more politically aware as a result of America's involvement in Vietnam, and Valley Forge began attracting people seeking a place to make a political point. In 1969, park commissioners recorded no objection to a request from a group that wanted to hold a patriotic rally at Valley Forge. They replied that Valley Forge was at the disposal of the people and merely asked that park regulations be followed and confrontations avoided. [24] However, the commission was called into special session when the Vietnam Veterans Against the War asked to stage a demonstration in the park on Labor Day of the following year, when they planned to march to Valley Forge from Moorestown, New Jersey, and listen to speeches by peace advocates. Although commissioners felt they could not deny access to the park even though they found the group's beliefs distasteful, they were chagrined to find themselves burdened with an extra potential problem on a weekend when the park was normally mobbed. They offered the group certain conditions, including the requirement that they obtain insurance and provide their own toilets and parking attendants, and these conditions set a precedent and were later applied to all groups that wanted to stage demonstrations at Valley Forge, regardless of political viewpoint. [25] Let 'em come, said fundamentalist preacher and conservative spokesman Dr. Carl McIntire. "The more they talk, the more people will turn from the defeat and surrender they champion and demand that the Nation win the peace by victory and honor." [26]

There was no violence at the Labor Day demonstration, but the park superintendent did receive several anonymous threats to bomb Washington's Headquarters and other Valley Forge landmarks. Park police were issued shotguns and put on extra duty. That Saturday, when one officer saw a car being driven in a erratic manner near Washington's Headquarters, he repeatedly ordered the driver to halt, then fired on the vehicle. The driver kept going until he reached the Valley Forge Soda Shop about half a mile away, where he was intercepted by local police. The terrified driver identified himself as a rabbi recently transferred to the area who had become lost. Both the rabbi and his wife had suffered injuries from shotgun pellets. [27]

The Montgomery County district attorney ordered an investigation into the unpleasant encounter. The incident became more unpleasant when the rabbi received two traffic tickets for swerving his vehicle from side to side and going through a stop sign—after he had been wounded and while believing that he was fleeing for his life. [28] On the recommendation of State Attorney General Fred Speaker, the park guard responsible was finally suspended. Quoting a state Justice Department report, Speaker said: "In the opinion of this department, if the facts as described by the shooting victims are ultimately established, they constitute a gross and unprovoked attack by an employee of the Commonwealth." [29]

Fortunately, there were no problems in December 1971, when 100 Vietnam veterans came back for "Operation Winter Soldier," even though Dr. McIntire led his own followers to protest the protesters. [30]

Young people looking for a place to hang out were more of a problem than political demonstrations. "Valley Forge bears too honorable a name in our history to permit hoodlum gangs to disgrace it," stated a 1969 editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, complaining of the trash they left behind and the limbs they broke from the flowering dogwoods. [31] Shortly afterward, the park commission issued a press release firmly denying "the possibility of marijuana growing in abundance in this park." [32] Philadelphia's other major daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Bulletin, quoted a park commissioner's allegation that "an army of young drifters, supplemented by commando squads of older undesirables, has turned the historic park into a No Man's land." This article told of young people riding motorcycles across the grass, urinating on monuments, and romping about unclothed, [33] The commissioner in question later claimed that the reporter had exaggerated his statements.

While such allegations were being made and denied, the park commission launched an investigation by its new "Subcommittee on Sex, Hippies, and Whiskey Swillers," which issued a report in 1969. The investigation uncovered "no evidence of widespread violations of park rules" but admitted, "There are scattered whiskey and beer swillers, there are heated love scenes being enacted on blankets here and there in view of the moving traffic and there are groups of hippie-like characters who can be observed doing their 'things' (mostly sitting around in circles)." [34] The park commissioners proposed to solve what problems they admitted the park had by printing and enforcing all park regulations and preventing parking or stopping except in designated areas. Arrests would be made if warnings were not heeded. [35]

Real trouble came with the real criminals who began to make their way to Valley Forge. The Valley Forge Historical Society reported a theft of guns and Washingtoniana in 1968. [36] About the same time, vandalism resulted in $75,000 worth of damage when some young people camping near the Washington Memorial filled a trash barrel with rocks and wedged it between the rails of the train tracks, seriously damaging an oncoming train. [37] A brazen scam was perpetrated at the park in the early 1970s when people posing as "maintenance volunteers" removed seventeen valuable mature walnut trees from forested areas. [38]

The 1970s also brought confrontations and violence, prompting S. K. Stevens of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to write to an official of the Boy Scouts of America discouraging the use of the park for a jamboree in 1973. Stevens reported: "There most certainly has been a tremendous increase in urban tensions in the Philadelphia area." [39] He may have wanted to avoid incidents like one reported by a teacher who took her eighth-graders to the park and had some of them confronted by students from another school who beat two boys and demanded money from some of the girls. [40]

In 1976, when Meade Jones had been president of the Valley Forge Historical Society for just five days, she took a guest to the historic house in the park known as "Maxwell's Quarters," where some of the society's treasures had been on display, and was shocked to find smashed cases and all the evidence of a major, professional heist. [41] About 100 items then valued at $250,000 were gone, including historic Blue Staffordshire china, lusterware china pieces, oil paintings, pewter, and some tableware that had seen use in the White House. The FBI was called in, making a total of eight federal, state, county, and local law-enforcement agencies cooperating in the recovery of these irreplaceable antiques. After six months of intensive investigation in a three-county area, most of the objects were recovered, having been found wrapped in newspaper in fifty-five-gallon drums at the bottom of an embankment in a Phoenixville landfill. [42]

The increase in crime coincided with allegations of corruption among Valley Forge employees. Robert Fowler, who had covered the story of the accidental shooting of the visiting rabbi for a Philadelphia newspaper, soon followed up with another story reporting that state employees who conducted tours in the park were pocketing tips while collecting state salaries. In an interview, the park superintendent admitted to Fowler that he had been aware of what was going on and that the practice was fairly widespread. He revealed that some park employees had even complained of being deprived of this moneymaking opportunity. The park commissioners and the park's then parent organization—the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters—denied knowledge of the practice, and one guard was ordered to repay the state what money he had collected. [43]

About a month later, Fowler was back at the park interviewing the superintendent about allegations that he had taken kickbacks. It had been reported that the superintendent had paid a park policeman for ten days' work during a period when the man had actually worked only four days. When the officer returned the money, the superintendent used it to create a kind of petty cash fund which enabled him to bypass the inconvenient state requirement that he get bids even for small purchases. [44] The superintendent was suspended and later fired when he failed to appeal his suspension. [45]

At the same time that the park commission was dealing with this bad press, they were also getting used to a new parent organization following a major reorganization of commonwealth government offices. Since 1923, the independent park commission had operated under the Department of Forests and Waters, which had acted as a kind of middleman between the park commissioners and the state legislators. An act signed by Pennsylvania's governor late in 1970 abolished this department and transferred the park to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

An ongoing controversy that quickly emerged between the park commission and the PHMC centered on appropriate uses for the park. By 1970, Valley Forge had evolved into a community greenspace: most visitors came to pursue some recreational activity that had nothing to do with the history of Valley Forge. The prevailing mission of the PHMC was to preserve historic resources, and among its leaders there was a distinct feeling that there was a right way and a wrong way to use those resources. A new park superintendent appointed by the PHMC angered commissioners who thought he had his own agenda and withheld support for the projects they endorsed, such as the making of a film on Valley Forge by the publisher of Screen News Digest. [46] Commissioners were equally annoyed when they learned that the PHMC had contemplated adding the word "historical" to the name "Valley Forge State Park" without so much as notifying them. [47] Such incidents accounted for some unpleasant language in the park commission minutes, including this statement by one commissioner: "For too long has the Valley Forge State Park been the mistreated child of the parent organization." [48]

The park commissioners considered breaking away from the PHMC and operating as an independent state board. A committee was formed, and early in 1974 its members issued a special report complaining: "The role of the Park Commission has been greatly diluted since the State Legislature transferred its direct Harrisburg affiliation to the PHMC in 1970, . . . The Commission's status in this setup has gone from the governing and policy making board of the Park to that of an advisory unit. And, even the advice presently offered is shunned or ignored." The report suggested that park commissioners contact local legislators and initiate a bipartisan legislative study "to resolve the current crisis at Valley Forge." [49]

Animosity deepened that year when the PHMC published its "master plan" formally defining the park's problems as it saw them, proposing solutions, and determining how the park would be developed and used for the nation's Bicentennial and in the future. As the report neared completion, the park commission minutes revealed the park commissioners' "alarm" that the planners had spent so little time in the park. [50] They were also miffed to learn that Park Superintendent Horace Willcox had been working with the planners, something they had decreed was not to interfere with the regular duties of his position. [51]

The master plan, finally published in 1975, declared the intent of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) to transform the park from a recreational area to a real historical site, to "return the park to the mood, pace, spirit and appearance of the eighteenth century." [52] The report proposed that "vehicular intrusion" be curtailed by turning several modem roads into dirt-road traces, including fairly busy Gulph Road and Baptist Road. [53] These modern road surfaces would be covered with a hard-packed soil mixture in which old wheel ruts might even be simulated. [54] New huts would be built, and Washington's Headquarters would be restored one more time, its Colonial Revival landscaping finally replaced by the kinds of plants and shrubs that would have grown in the area during the eighteenth century. [55] There would be "living history" programs at Artillery Park, near the blacksmith shop, and eventually at one of the park farms, which would be developed as a working farm of the appropriate era. [56] Area residents who used the park as a place for picnics and recreation could continue to so do, but primarily in the area north of the Schuylkill River, which was not thought to have been part of the winter encampment. [57]

The park commissioners believed that both the writers of the master plan and the key members of the PHMC were ignoring many nuts-and-bolts issues. In their minutes, they derided the master plan as a "mini-plan" that did not go far enough and examine the park's needs up to the year 2000. [58] One park commissioner went on record saying, "The proposed master plan is a public rip off. I have no doubt that the plan itself was honestly written—under specific direction given to the Planners as to substance and content. I do not believe Phase I was written with the idea of serving the People of the Community or the State but rather, to foster and further nurture the 'Ivory Tower' concept of its directors." [59]

The commissioner went on to identify rest-room facilities and drinking water as amenities that had not been given adequate consideration. [60] Other notes in the park commission minutes stressed the need for more police [61] and money to clean up the picnic areas, [62] The park commissioners also voiced concern over the deteriorating condition of Valley Forge's famous dogwood groves, where dying trees were not being replaced. [63]

Other issues widened the rift between the park commission and its parent organization. For literally as long as anyone could remember, no admission fees had ever been charged at Valley Forge State Park. In 1973 the PHMC proposed a 50-cent fee for entrance to the historic buildings at Valley Forge. Annamaria Malloy, the park commission's first female chairperson, immediately protested, noting that if an entrance fee were imposed it should be a general park entrance fee, because many visitors never entered the buildings. She was also quoted as saying: "If we are going to charge, let's charge enough to embarrass the legislature. Let's not put a charge on historical buildings. Do you want me to put fifty cents in a box to look into my mother's grave?" [64] The park commissioners also wondered whether the funds collected would be used at Valley Forge or would enter some slush fund and be spent at other sites. [65] As if fees were not distasteful enough to the park commissioners, they were coupled with the proposal to close the park on Mondays, holidays, and Sunday afternoons.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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