Yet Another Journal

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» Sunday, November 08, 2009
Traveling to the Past
We had a super time at Valley Forge. The site was only fifteen minutes down the road, right off Route 422. The Visitor's Center is a modern glass and concrete structure, with a gift shop on one side and exhibits of relics on the other.

We decided to take the trolley tour, which is operated independently from the National Park, so it did cost, but it was a brilliant idea. The tourguide was a young woman who had been working at the park for six years and was enthusiastic about the history of the place. There is a one-way route you take around the park and we followed that, first stopping at a reproduction of one of the encampments, where we saw the log huts (built in the 1940s) the colonial soldiers would have lived in, a small exhibit of medical equipment, and a demonstration of firing of muskets and the one Kentucky rifle. Of course today we think of the huts as very rude and uncomfortable, but most pioneer folks lived this way all the time.

One of the things the guide talked about were the misconceptions about Valley Forge. It wasn't really a terrible winter; in fact, parts of it were so mild that the snow melted, and the mud was worse than the snow. The men were underfed and under-clothed, but the worst thing about the encampment was not the cold but the disease. Also, there were wives and children with many of the soldiers, one woman to every fifty men. They helped with camp life, but mainly did the laundry, which the men disliked. (Knowing how laundry was done in those days, I can't blame them.) The "soldiers" then told a few things about their costumes and their guns, and then we went on. It was a lovely day for a ride around the park, but it was a good thing I brought a short-sleeved top, since it was in the upper sixties and clear as a bell. I'm glad I remembered the hats, since the glare would have left me with a raging headache later and both of us with sunburned faces.

The trolley went on, to the Valley Forge memorial, a large arched structure like the Arc d'Triomphe in Paris, which was begun in the early 1900s, but not finished and dedicated until 1917, when the soldiers serving in World War I needed inspiration to serve in France. We also saw the park's only equestrian statue, one of General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, Pennsylvania native. The guide told us how he got his nickname.

Finally we arrived at a stone house once the property of the Potts family (Pottstown, down the road, is named after this family). This was Washington's winter headquarters during the six months at Valley Forge, with the property consisting of the house, a nearby stable where Washington's horse (a dapple-grey, not a white horse, named "Blueskin") lived, and another house. The house consisted of a hall on either side (one of the halls was for carriage arrivals), and two small rooms, one where Washington worked, and another where his staff worked, and three small bedrooms upstairs, plus an attic for the servants. The kitchen, as normal in many houses in those days, was attached to the house by a sort of breezeway.

The park ranger told us that the furniture is antique, but not original to the house, but that the house was in remarkably good shape and about 85 percent authentic (the roof has been replaced several times, the walls painted, some plaster replaced, the kitchen completely rebuilt because the owners who had the house until 1877 knocked down the original one and made a larger addition), and the historians who tested the railing on the stair to the second floor says it is original to the 1700s, so you are touching the same railing that George Washington touched in 1777. Wow.

The house overlooks Valley Creek where it joins with the Schuylkill River (Valley Creek is where Valley Forge got its name, since there were two forges, a grist mill, and a blacksmith shop once powered by the creek; all were owned by the Potts and burned by the British), and a short walk away is the old Valley Forge railroad station, where visitors arrived before the automobile era. It has been restored as a museum documenting George Washington's stay at Valley Forge and the people who shared the house with him (not just Martha, but 20 people in total—what a crowd there must have been!). The old waiting room, complete with a fireplace, now has displays and some video re-enactments, and a small room to the side illustrates how the restoration work was done and how they know "how it looked." The station agent's area has a few old things from when it was a working station: an old typewriter, telegraph, etc. Too cool. I love old train stations.

We returned to the Visitor's Center and looked at the exhibits of old cooking equipment, pipes, weapons, etc. from the era (not necessarily dug up on the site), and one case of prehistoric remains from a nearby cave that started out life as a sinkhole and contained relics of mastodons, sloths, early horses, beaver, and saber-tooth cats.

Then we went in the gift shop. Have I mentioned lately how much I love National Park Service bookstores? I really could have been very, very bad—many standard books on the Revolutionary War and its personalities and then some books about interesting facts of the era, unknown facts, etc.

I always wonder why I take books along when I go on vacation; I always buy more! In this case I was good: I bought only a James Burke "Connections" book about the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the new History Detectives book which has cases not shown on the television series! I didn't even know there was a book. Also got a new game which looks akin to "Timeline," and a keychain we are going to turn into a refrigerator magnet.

We brought a whole bag of low-cal snacks with us, but of course failed to leave any in the car, which is why, when we emerged and still wanted to go back to the train station (during the tour we did not have a chance to go inside the building), we ended up noshing on a granola bar (half each) James found under the car seat. It was pretty crumbly, but it was 2:30 and we were getting hungry.

So we drove back to the train station, stopping to take another photo of the arched monument and also of "Mad" Anthony, checked out the overlook over the Schuylkill, then looked through the station exhibit and also checked out the reproduction cabins behind the house, which were occupied by Washington's guards, the equivalent of his secret service. They were solely Virginians at first, but Baron Von Steuben talked Washington into having men from all the colonies. The guide emphasized how Von Steuben made an effort to unite the men of each individual colony into an army of the entire country, and how their drilling on the flat expanse that became the parade ground united them.

Incidentally, when you learn about Valley Forge in school, it seems like it is a very flat place; it's a valley, right? Actually, it is highly elevated, which is why it was a strategic location. All around the encampment one would have to charge uphill to attack it. Also, there are trees everywhere in the park, but they were not there during the encampment, simply because this was (a) farmland in those times and (b) any trees left were chopped down for the huts and for firewood. After awhile they were marching miles away to find trees!

The park is well used today by hikers, picnickers, joggers, and others, including lots of people with dogs. We saw dozens of breeds today, including what looked like a Bernese Mountain Dog club meeting!

Finally we left the park and went in search of food. Had a very late lunch (it was after three) at a Wendy's, and, since it was really too late to go anywhere else, we decided to check out this King of Prussia Mall. I've heard of this mall before; it's one of those places they talk about, like Mall of America. 400 stores and 40 "eateries," and that's just the mall, not the outrider stores. It's just a few miles south of Valley Forge and this strikes me as high irony, such a wealth of everything right near a place of such privation.

Anyway, the King of Prussia Mall isn't a mall, it's an exercise program. Honestly. I don't think we saw a third of it. We walked around part of the top level and about half of the second level, only seeing what they call the "plaza," not even getting into the "concourse," or whatever it is. Never got to the Borders; did find the Borders Express (isn't this what they used to call a Waldenbooks?...LOL), and visited the Lego store. James got a little kit of a "fighter jet" that can also be morphed into a space shuttle and a speedboat, and I got this Christmas tree.

At that point we surrendered to our feet, came "home" via the Giant Foods where we got some frozen dinners for supper, and relaxed, eating about seven o'clock and watching various shows across the dial, including Extreme Home Makeover. We also did some research into our Philadelphia problem. A possible solution: Amtrak! It runs from Paoli, about 22 miles south, to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. Then the only problem is getting the 30 blocks across town: screw it, we can take a cab, I suppose. Who knows when we'll ever come this way again?

Noticed something, again, driving back to the hotel. Last night, the moment we were in Pennsylvania, I noticed many houses with white candles in their windows. They didn't look like Christmas decorations. I wondered if they are some type of Pennsylvania custom. It's very pretty. Saw some tonight, too, and what was definitely Christmas decorations, a big pine tree done up in lights.

This is not our first Christmas lights: going up 411 through Georgia on Friday, we saw what was either a blue tree, or a white tree with blue lights, in someone's front window. Zowee!

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