Epilogue: Valley Forge - Past, Present, Future

No battles were fought at Valley Forge—until after the soldiers marched out. It was after the Revolution that Valley Forge became the scene of intermittent quarrel and strife. Each new trend in historiography and historic preservation brought up new issues for those who held its story dear. Each new trend left documentary remains and contributed to a second history of Valley Forge, equally worthy of attention.

It took the Romantic Era of the nineteenth century to create a Valley Forge worth fighting over. Before professional historians had a chance to dwell much on the winter encampment, antiquarians promoted and glorified the Valley Forge experience. The Colonial Revival Movement intensified America's love affair with its own past, and in its wake organizations were formed to celebrate the Valley Forge experience and preserve its Washington's Headquarters.

The early record of the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge is one of cooperation with other patriotic groups, such as the Patriotic Order Sons of America and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). They made Valley Forge a tourist attraction that drew pilgrims to the sacred soil where, it was believed, so many had suffered and died, and this new role for the town, following its decline as an industrial area, actually gave it a renaissance.

The long battle of Valley Forge can be said to have begun when a second lasting entity—the Valley Forge Park Commission, with its mission to establish a park and its power to condemn property—was organized. Private-property owners disputed the amounts they were offered for their dwellings, and business owners complained even more bitterly about actions that inhibited their operations and expansion. Yet the prevailing spirit of nationalism in America put public opinion on the side of the park commission, even when it condemned the property of its rival organization, the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge.

At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the park commission transformed Valley Forge into a memorial park. Monuments sprang up, and the grounds were beautified with flowering dogwoods and attractive vistas. Additional relics of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods were preserved. There were conflicts over where monuments should be located and what they should look like, but consensus that such tributes were appropriate for Valley Forge.

The Rev. Dr. W. Herbert Burk was initially able to coexist peacefully with the park commission. His establishment of the Washington Memorial emphasized the sacred and holy nature of Valley Forge in a period when history and religion both were employed to foster morality. His modest first attempts to interpret the Valley Forge experience, as in his museum collection and his publication of interpretive guides, were not resented.

As the 1920s and 1930s brought a new emphasis on historical accuracy, leaders of the park commission increasingly came into conflict with Burk. Burk objected to expanding the park and to destroying the living communities that expansion entailed. The park commissioners objected to Burk's plans to overwhelm Valley Forge with a cathedral, since there had been no cathedral at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777—1778. The concurrent predilection for tasteful historic sites ensured conflict also over perceived attempts to commercialize Valley Forge. Battles were waged over the specter of hot dog stands, and the mere name of a brewery on a guidebook raised alarm.

As the re-creation of Williamsburg changed tastes in historic preservation, Valley Forge followed suit with its "complete restoration" project, originally planned to give the visitor the feeling of visiting the actual winter encampment. At first, only a few people questioned whether attempts to re-create the past were preferable to merely preserving what was really left of it. As time passed and tastes and styles changed once more, the major projects of the complete restoration drew more and more criticism.

The Cold War brought intensified twentieth-century attempts to use the Valley Forge experience to inspire visitors to greater patriotism and loyalty. Entities then active at Valley Forge seemed almost to enter into competition over which one could achieve this objective best. The new Freedoms Foundation emerged as the clear winner. The most recent conflicts have come about from new professional research done at Valley Forge largely after the park's transfer to the National Park Service. Was the Valley Forge Report unnecessarily iconoclastic? Did it in turn overly influence the new interpretive exhibit at the Valley Forge Historical Society's museum?

As times change and trends continue to develop, the surviving major institutions at Valley Forge must keep pace by adjusting their agendas to serve new constituencies. At the moment, they are at peace with one another and going about their business in a spirit of unprecedented cooperation and respect.

On May 3, 1992, there was a special celebration of Evensong at the Washington Memorial to commemorate the alliance between France and the United States that had contributed so materially to America's victory in the Revolution. Because news of the French alliance had come while Washington was at Valley Forge, the Valley Forge Historical Society generally hosts an annual celebration, but this one was special because it was jointly sponsored by the historical society and the chapel. At the end of the service in the Washington Memorial Chapel, Dr. Richard Stinson, the new rector, took Meade Jones, president of the historical society, on his arm, and together they officially unlocked the door that had been closed since 1969. They intended their action to symbolize the dawn of a new age for their two organizations. Each of them shook hands with all guests as they passed from the chapel to the museum for a reception hosted by the historical society.

On June 5, 1993, the Valley Forge Historical Society held its annual meeting in the library at the Washington Memorial, an elegant complex tucked away behind the chapel, but a location so unfamiliar that someone was posted outside to direct the members to its door. In his remarks Dr. Stinson emphasized, "This is your room as well as the chapel's room." Pointing out that on the shelves lining the walls books on history and religion are "co-mingled," he continued: "Our organizations are co-mingled, too." Meade Jones continued the theme, commenting on how Dr. Burk had envisioned a "comprehensive memorial." The cooperation and goodwill established one year earlier was definitely the goal for the future.

In a 1992 interview, Stinson discussed his mission as one of developing the Washington Memorial Chapel as a national shrine. He said he admired the significant achievement of Sheldon M. Smith in making the parish live and function, and like his predecessor wanted to increase attendance through a new "Committee on Growth, Evangelism and Communication." He had been in touch with the park service about joint archaeological investigations, and as a dedicated naturalist he said he would like visitors to appreciate the beauties of nature along with the lessons of history when they visit the Washington Memorial. Stinson was formerly rector at Saint James' Church at Mount Vernon and served a tour as a chaplain in Vietnam. In his mind, the Washington Memorial was no anomaly. "If you've read Ivanhoe," he said, "if you believe in the ideals of Christian knighthood, then the Washington Memorial makes perfect sense." [1]

Over the last few years, the Valley Forge Historical Society has been reaching out to new audiences with new programs. The most successful of these is an active Elderhostel program—in fact, the largest such program in the state—administered by C. Robert Gruver, who coordinated the wagon-train event back in 1976. The society also sponsors an annual art exhibit and participated in the popular annual Philadelphia Open House program. In 1993, architectural improvements to the museum portion of the complex made certain areas brighter, more inviting, and more up-to-date in terms of visitor expectations.

West of the park, the Freedoms Foundation underwent a transition during the 1970s when Ken Wells retired and Robert W. Miller was installed as president in 1975. In a 1983 article for the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Chuck Bauerlein wrote: "The foundation is, indeed, drifting into a new emphasis on education and spending less of its time and energy 'promoting America.'" [2] In 1992 Miller defined the Freedoms Foundation as "basically an educational institution." [3] The premise that the nation's youth had failed to realize that freedom entails certain responsibilities inspired the foundation's Annual Youth and Leadership Workshops, in which students were instructed in traditional American values and principles. A recent foundation publication comments:

Although initially the long range value of these programs was open to question, their significance now has become indisputable. Not only do elementary programs provide an important learning activity supplemental to the school curriculum, but there is an even more important result, namely, the acculturation of children who are immigrants or whose parents are immigrants. Freedoms Foundation programs have helped to mainstream ethnic populations in American history and familiarize children with the nature of American institutions. [4]

Recently the foundation offered some courses for which several universities granted graduate credit. Some of them focused on the history of the American Revolution and the Civil War, and in some the word "freedom" figured prominently in the course titles—such as "Rights, Responsibilities, and Freedom" and "Freedom and the American Presidency."

In October 1994, as this book goes to press, President Robert W. Miller of the Freedoms Foundation has announced his retirement. A search is being conducted for a new president. One of Robert Miller's key accomplishments was the development of a companion to the Bill of Rights called the "Bill of Responsibilities," based on nearly two years of work by American scholars directed by a steering committee. Miller was also proud of the organization's program of Leavey Awards for Excellence in Private Enterprise Education. Endowed by the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation in 1982, these awards honored those who developed innovative ways to teach about the free enterprise system.

The focus of the organization changed a great deal since Cold War days. In fact, a recent Freedoms Foundation newsletter carried a photograph of Professor Valentin Petrovich Fyodorov, who had been promoting free enterprise in the former Soviet Union. Fyodorov's likeness was captured as he posed next to a copy of the Bill of Responsibilities, which he learned about at a Leavey Awards symposium in 1989. Once the old enemy was gone, foundation administrators appeared to want to put their Cold War heritage behind them. In a 1992 report, a foundation vice president wrote:

The central purpose of the organization is not—and never was—fighting Communism and socialist theory. Rather, Freedoms Foundation illuminates the advantages of a free society with the purpose of reminding Americans of the blessings and responsibilities of freedom. In the course of fulfilling this mission, it naturally compares the workings of the society dedicated to the idea of freedom with those of societies dedicated to other purposes. [5]

Warren D. (Denny) Beach has been superintendent at Valley Forge National Historical Park since the spring of 1990. Very much a "people person," he enjoys meeting visitors and the members of various organizations active at Valley Forge. "But this is no popularity contest," he states. "We are here to serve the resource. Not everybody understands that." [6] To Beach has fallen the unenviable job of enforcing the provisions of the General Management Plan and balancing the interests of the resource with the demands of the local community. In the summer of 1992, paratroopers from the Eighty-second Airborne Division requested permission for a mass jump into the park as a part of their annual reunion. A similar jump had been permitted in 1989, but Beach denied the request—which, he maintained, did not serve the resource and may have posed a threat to the safety of visitors. Beach stood firm against a host of complaints, like one letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer in which the writer denounced Beach's decision as "just one more step in successive attempts to keep the public from using this historical park." [7] Beach also had to deal with the angry owners of homes adjacent to the park who complained about deer destroying their shrubbery and, most recently, with structural problems in the arch. Probably the biggest park controversy in recent years was the discovery that gay men were using one area of the park for open sexual activity, something that led to a sting operation resulting in more than sixty arrests.

Will the park expand again? Beach says probably not. Instead of buying land, the National Park Service now secures scenic easements to protect the park's remaining buffer areas from any drastic developments. It is hoped that scenic easements will protect much of the privately held land in what used to be Valley Forge village, so that the area retains what remains of its old village flavor. [8]

Recent research in historic preservation at Valley Forge has been done by historic architect Tom McGimsey at a ruined dwelling on the former Walnut Hill Estate on the north side of the Schuylkill River, which had been protected by a hastily erected fence during the Boy Scout activities of 1985 and 1986. McGimsey produced a lengthy multidisciplinary study revealing that this structure, much of it destroyed by fire in 1967, had a wing built in the mid-eighteenth century, and might well have played a part in the winter encampment. According to McGimsey, the house also has "significant building fabric from each of its periods and can help interpret building construction." [9] According to Denny Beach, "We used to have a house and a barn, now we have an historic house and barn. We have to treat them a little differently. [10]

In 1993, Valley Forge National Historical Park hosted a centennial celebration that had been in the works for approximately two years to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the existence of a public park at Valley Forge. Authorized by Denny Beach but coordinated by Joan Marshall Dutcher, this celebration, like all anniversaries, acknowledged the past but really revealed the attitudes of the present and hinted at plans for the future.

Marshall-Dutcher started by organizing a steering committee and a number of subcommittees. For months, trial balloons were floated and reviewed. At one point, an appearance and speech by the President of the United States was contemplated. Eventually the celebration was limited by the amount of funds that could be raised from corporations and the local community, because the decision had been made to use no federal (taxpayer) dollars. The original plan for a single, elaborate celebration evolved into a year of special events beginning on December 19, 1992 ("March-In Day") and culminating on the weekend of June 19, 1993 ("Evacuation Day").

Marshall-Dutcher's goals included raising the profile of Valley Forge and involving new people in its events. The steering committee had many new faces including local corporate executives and known movers and shakers from other organizations, such as the Junior League and the Friends of Independence Park. One centennial event was an entry in the popular Philadelphia Flower Show, which entailed the organization of a garden group—another first for Valley Forge. The black sorority Delta Sigma Theta participated by funding and dedicating a monument honoring patriots of African descent. The 1993 National Council on Public History was hosted by Valley Forge National Historical Park, and the extremely popular Chester County artist Richard Bollinger created a painting, Forging a Nation, set in Valley Forge in December 1777

Another goal was to make it clear that history did not begin and end at Valley Forge with the winter encampment, so the big weekend celebration held June 19 and 20, 1993, had two focal points. At one location, hundreds of people participated in hourly reenactment programs on eighteenth-century military and camp life, making this the largest reenactment organized at Valley Forge in recent years. In the area around Washington's Headquarters, the focus was different. There, interpreters in Victorian dress explained the layout and life of the now-vanished 1890s Valley Forge village. A special exhibit on the park's nineteenth- and twentieth-century history was mounted in the 1913 train station, and bands playing turn-of-the-century American music performed.

Visitation in the park that weekend alone was estimated at more than 15,000 people. An aggressive publicity campaign resulted in Valley Forge press releases being picked up by the wire services, and the appearance of Valley Forge information in publications as distant as the Kansas City Star and the Chicago Tribune and as national as Family Circle magazine and the Washington Post.

Comments overheard at the centennial celebration indicated that this blending of the story of the encampment with other aspects of Valley Forge history was refreshing to some but incomprehensible to others. An emphasis on Valley Forge's "second" history may well spark new controversy, start another battle, and add yet another chapter to that same tale.

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