Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

I will never forget the Bicentennial of 1976. The year before I had volunteered to work at Valley Forge State Park after seeing a notice asking for people to staff the buildings. We were given paper patterns with which to make our outfits, hopefully resembling those from the eighteenth century. Mine was comprised of a knee-length white shift, long skirt, lace-up vest, and a “mob” cap.

We staffed the Isaac Potts House, which General George Washington had used as his headquarters, a house that Baron Frederick Von Steuben was said to have used, General William Maxwell’s quarters, and a few other places of inter­est. As new volunteers, we were given a small pam­phlet about the encamp­ment. We soon found, however, that we learned a lot more from visitors. So many of them were experts on eighteenth-century architecture, on the American Revolution itself, and the ways of living in that period. Once after explaining to a group of tourists that our building was an example of pure Georgian architecture – quoting from the only paragraph in our pamphlet on the subject – I noticed a man smiling faintly. I politely asked him if he was interested in architecture. “Rather,” he replied, “I have one architectural degree from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and another from a college in England.” That bit of information is our brochure certainly proved inadequate!

Part of the excitement that year was the arrival of the wagon trains. These consisted of “covered wagons” from all parts of the country. We had fifty to sixty covered wagons camping in the park, and the people I met were friendly, enthusiastic, and interested in the history of the area. Many wanted to pose for pictures in our historic buildings and we often allowed the men to pose with some of the old muskets. Since many were dressed in period clothing, they looked authentic.

The only unpleasant incident in my two-and-a­-half years of volunteering occurred in the Potts House. We took a group of between six and ten people through at one time because the buildings are very small. I had just finished describing the rooms that Martha Washington used and other little bits of interest when a man wearing thigh-high boots pushed his way to the front of the group and boomed, “Your Washington was nothing compared to our Oliver Cromwell. He taught Washington every thing he knew.” Hardly believing my ears, I turned my back to him and went on talk­ing to the other visitors. Once again he shoved his way to the front and shouted, “Oliver Cromwell could wipe the floor with your Washington.” His face and mine nearly met and the rest of the group stood there, bewildered and upset. I told him that he had been misinformed.

I gave a quick course in history. His hero had beheaded Charles I in 1649, Charles II was restored in 1660, and I then went through the list of British monarchs to the Georges of the eighteenth century. I mentioned that Washington was a compa­triot of George III and, although England did have its heroes, Oliver Cromwell was a butcher and certainly not one of them. My heckler then responded, “I bet you’re Irish.” When I proudly told him I had a tiny bit of Irish blood, he replied, quoting his hero, “They should have got rid of the nits when they got rid of the lice.” All manners momentarily forgotten, I retorted that it was because of Englishmen like him that we had a revolution – we didn’t want people like him in our nice, new America.

Of all the people that visited the park, I always enjoyed the children most of all. They came in family groups, busloads from schools, and scouting troops. It didn’t matter where they were from, but many of them asked the same question, “Where is General Washington?” Most young people have no conception of the passage of time and for them the eighteenth century blended into the twentieth century, and visa-versa. When I told them he had died, they wanted to know if I was there at his passing. Many wanted to know if I was his wife. Several times I was asked if I was his mother! I usually satisfied them by telling them I “was just a friend of the family.”

After the Bicentennial, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania turned over the park to the federal government for the creation of the Valley Forge National Historical Park, which covers more than three thousand acres in Chester and Montgomery Counties. The government assumed the park operations and brought in its own groups to staff the historic houses, but I will never for­get my days at Valley Forge during the Bicentennial of 1976.

 

Ruth C. Polchek, of King of Prussia, is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines. Her interests include history and genealogy. She grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and has resided in King of Prussia for the past thirty years. The writer and her husband John are the parents of three chil­dren and the grandparents of nine.