Valley Forge

4 October 1998                                by David P. Stern


    We are in Pennsylvania, at the West Chester Holiday Inn where this Elderhostel is meeting. A big one--the normal capacity is 46, and though some attendees have cancelled, this session had a stand-by list with 33 names. Jerry Fleischer, our live-in "host," has led 27 elderhostels for the Valley Forge Historical society.

          The trip began smoothly, under an overcast sky with a fine drizzle falling. We stay in a good-sized Holiday Inn, some 25 miles north of Wilmington on rte 202, well appointed, even with working TV --quite a change from Calpine in Sierra Cty, California, where in another elderhostel two weeks ago we had to make do with a tiny room in what used to be a logging company's bunkhouse.

          Then again--unlike Calpine, no tall pines, no mountains and no rustic informality. All sessions (as well as dinners) are to be in the "Grand Ballroom" downstairs, where our first buffet dinner was already served. The elderhostel is overseen by Pat Uberti, a blonde with a big smile, well painted lips, but most of the program is carried out by others. In particular, the historical presentations are to be given by persons in the garbs of participants in the revolution: tomorrow night Tom Paine speaks to us, and we can also expect a colonial soldier, a "colonial dame" and so forth, ending with a "surprise visitor" on Friday, at the end of the program (could it be George himself?). Also on the schedule is a half-day Gilbert and Sullivan program on Wednesday, by actors of a local G&S group. Then on Thursday night we expect a colonial dinner--one wonders, since colonial cuisine was rather plain by today's standards. It all looks like fun.

          Five o'clock found everyone in the ballroom, sitting at desks. Pat Uberti spoke briefly and appointed a number of "Generals" around the room, each one assigned to one of the surrounding tables and then reporting: an unusual way of learning who one's neighbors are, but it seems to work. Ours is "Baron Johann deKalb" aka Ruth Nuovo of Long Island; I tell her that the Johann de Kalb who helped Washington had invented the "Baron" and the "de" just to boost his social standing. Her husband is into gardening--very nice people. Others at the table were Ted Walleigh, a retired engineer, coming with his wife Dorothy from Las Vegas, they had been 2 weeks on the road, visiting friends along the way. Dorothy originally came from the Philadelphia area; a great-great-grandmother of hers (or thereabouts) was a Quaker who married a visiting whaler: he wanted her to leave her religion, and she consented on the condition that he left the sea, which he did.

          But the people we got to talk to most were the Stolls (no relation to Clifford Stoll of "The Cuckoo's Egg", except that they have a cat named Cliff, acquired by their daughter). Dick is retired from the government, still earning money as a consultant, and he and Anita live in Kensington, near the old armory where the bridge club met. Several attendees, when asked about their hobby, mentioned bridge, but Audrey is in no mood for a social game.

          The main part of the program, its historical part) is paced by a PBS series shown on TV last year. Tonight we were shown its beginning, and a video of the musical "1776" is also on the program. Two afternoons are free: the first is tomorrow, and if the weather allows Audrey and I will go to the Brandywine historical park and the Brandywine museum where a Wyeth art collection is displayed.

          Monday was "second day" to the Quakers, who preferred biblical names--they also knew the months by numbers, as in the bible (though not the same months). In the morning we were welcomed by Ann Brown, the young head of the VF Historical Society (as of 6 months ago). She told a bit about the society, and about Reverend Burke, who around the turn of the century had a vision of a chapel in the VF park, dedicated to George Washington.

          We were next addressed by Harold Barnett, who recounted the battle of the Brandywine. "You may be told all sorts of things about the battle, but let me tell you here--the British won it."

          Harold wore period clothes, which he proceeded to describe: buckled shoes--the pair he wore had different shapes for left and right, though in the late 1700s this was not always the case. White stockings, reaching up well above the knees, were held by garters, small belts just above the calf. The garters were hidden by the breeches, pants made for riding a horse, narrow at the leggings (where they buttoned like the cuffs of long-sleeve shirts) and with ample slack in their rear, to allow stooping and bending.

          The extra slack in the breeches was also needed to accomodate the bottom of the shirt, which doubled as a nightshirt and therefore was quite long: it was made of while linen, whereas the breeches were light blue, like those in Gainsborough's painting of "the blue boy."

          On top of the shirt went a waistcoat ("wesket"), a fancy vest which here matched the breeches, with big pockets. However, personal belongings were carried in a bag like a lady's pocketbook, secured by a sash. Compared to sleeves of today's shirts, his were rather puffed up, and in front he wore a handome white linen cravat. All this was topped by a 3-cornered hat, worn corner to the front ("aerodynamic, so the wind won't blow it off easily), with its brims tied together by a string inside. It could be untied to shade the sun "like a Mexican sombrero".

          George Bindle, who later presented the role of a colonial soldier, added that American soldiers often stuck a white piece of cloth or paper in the string that held up the rear flap of the hat. The white mark was not visible from the front, only from the back, and helped make sure that its wearer would not be shot by some comrade in the rear.

          Harold may have been the eldest reenactor. He was born and raised in Birmingham in nearby Pennsylvania, where the Quaker meeting house was involved in the battle and was used by both sides as hospital, at different times of course. He began by bidding us good morning in the four languages spoken in the Brandywine area at the time of the revolution: Welch, German, French and lastly, English. The Welch were invited by Penn: Bryn Mawr is Welch, means big hill. Germans settled from here to the west, through Lancaster county, where they are still strong, and they, too, gave the name to Germantown, where the battle following Brandywine was fought. The French were fewer in number, and the English, of course, were the majority.

          He told the story of the Brandywine campaign, aided by a set of maps which George projected. Early in 1777, Washington and his army maintained a watchful presence in New Jersey's Wachtung mountains (Audrey pronounces it Wat-chang) while Howe for a month tried to draw him out to battle, without success (Howe had promised to move his army north towards Burgoyne, but ignored that plan). July 5: Howe embarks troops on ships at Sandy Hook, a sheltered area. July 23: Howe sails out to sea, leaving Washington guessing about his intentions. August: Off Cape May, the fleet meets a British ship which warns it that Delaware River is guarded by forts and by underwater spikes, logs attached to heavy cribs full of stones. Howe turns around to the Elk river, in Maryland, at the top of the Chesapeake bay. And so on--landing, advances, a flanking march by Howe around the top of the Brandywine River, while Washington expects an attack across Chadd's Ford. Too late the Americans find themselves hemmed between two British forces and after a fierce battle retreat north, while the British enter Philadelphia.

          A competent history lesson, with many illustrations.

          After the coffee break, George Findele comes up, dressed in the garb of the 3rd Pannsylvania Light Infantry--with a replica of the French .69 caliber Charlesville musket, a long piece with a flintlock. Firing a shot used to be a major undertaking: before firing, one must cock the flint, pull up the frizzen (a piece of steel from which the flint strikes a spark--omit this and the gun may "go off half-cocked" to no effect) then aim and pull the trigger. But first the gun must be loaded: pull out a cartridge from your cartridge box (leather with wooden block, full of holes for the cartridges), tear it open with your teeth, pour some into the pan (and cover it with frizzen, so it does not spill), pour the rest into the muzzle, then push in the wadding in with the ramrod, return the ramrod, drop the ball--then comes the firing sequence. Today Pennsylvania bans the use of ramrods in re-enactments, because some people, apparently, have fired theirs off. Tied to a strap (around his neck?) the soldier had a curved pin for cleaning the firing hole, and he also carried a tool like a 3-spiked star, one was a spike and two were screwdrivers, for more thorough work on the musket. "The soldiers were often ragged, but their weapons always gleamed."

          With all this, a trained soldier could fire 3 shots a minute. Unlike a rifle ball, that of a musket didn't fit snugly inside the barrel (the wadding formed the seal), making the gun inaccurate beyond 80 yards: but since few soldiers wore glasses, this was anyway probably as far as they could aim. After the first shots smoke obscured much of the view, which is why the bayonet was considered important, a wicked 3-sided spike. I suspect that the bayonet was the main reason why the musket barrel was so long: carbines, used by cavalry, were much shorter.

          An inscription on George's barrel indicated that the replica was made in Japan; it cost $565, while the rest of George's outfit cost some $1000 more. His gear included shoes (identical for both feet), heavy white wool pants which reached the ground and had stirrups, an axe with a leather blade guard, a tinned iron canteen and a metal cup, bent when George dropped it to the ground in a re-enactment, while playing a casualty.

          Also a leather hat and a jacket inherited from the "Old Guard" in Arlington, which dresses up for US army parades--blue wool, lined, with red cuffs and red strips along the button and buttonholes. The corners of the coat were stylishly furled upwards and each displayed a red heart, on top of the off-white lining. A blanket made from "rag wool" (so were the socks), a knapsack, and a "soldier's wife", a folding set of pockets with sewing implements (wooden thimble, old-fashioned shears, sinew for fixing leather, needles). All told, the colonial soldier carried about 40 pounds. Officers only carried a sword or a pike (for signalling), and their heavy gear was carried by servants or slaves. They generally walked behind the ranks, and often gave signals by whistle: in American units, they (and the sergeants) were elected by the men.

          All this for a soldier in the "light" infantry, scouts who went ahead, without added baggage or tents. Extra clothing was worn over the regular ones (e.g. breeches below the pants). And food? "Since we were from Pennsylvania, the famers here fed us well; in New Jersey we starved or stole." Many women came along, soldiers' wives among them, to cook and take care. It was a tough life.

          George also carried a white clay pipe, about 10" long, a tavern pipe tucked in his jacket's buttonhole. Such pipes started out perhaps 15" long, and every new user broke off the tip and used a fresh section; when he got too close to the bowl, the pipe would be thrown away. He also had a wooden bowl, and shaving gears: the revolutionary soldier was required to shave every 3 days--in the Civil War, in contrast, beards were allowed and were popular.

          George belongs to a group of re-enactors, and recently he participated in a reenactment of the battle of the Brandywine, with about 300 participants on each side. Re-enactors rarely get paid (he got $10 for Brandywine), yet they try hard to be as authentic as possible, wearing glasses of the old style and cooking in iron kettles. He also participates in Civil War re-enactments, and likes to go into schools and tell about the revolutionary war. In New Jersey, he said, he is not allowed to carry his musket into school, but must use a wooden replica, which students find a bit funny.

    I should stop here--there's more in the notes. Over meals and in the talks, we gradually got to know Dick and Anita Stoll, our neighbors from Kensington, Jewish like us--belonging to "Tikvat Israel", a new congregation from the merger of Beit Israel (which was losing members) and Beit Tikvah. They came from Philadelphia (I think) and have three kids, Robert their natural son and two adopted, all grown now, one married and Unitarian, one soon to marry in a Catholic church.

          In the afternoon, which was free, we went with the Stolls to the Brandywine Battlefield and then to the Brandywine museum, on the river bank a bit further down rte 1. The day was pleasant, cloudy but warm. However, no one had warned us that the battlefield museums were closed on Mondays. We walked a bit around the grounds--not much to see, just a forest with leaves beginning to turn, so while the walk was good excercise (much needed after the filling lunch!) and the conversation was interesting, we didn't see anything noteworthy.

          The Brandywine museum is in an old grist mill where the artistic dynasty of the Wyeths worked. The first was N.C (Newell Converse) Wyeth, who around the turn of the century created large canvas paintings and used them to illustrate children's books. We saw some of those, for Stevenson's "Treasure Island," "Black Arrow," and "Kidnapped," quite striking. His son Andrew became a major American painter --"Christina's world," little Jamie with the coonskin hat, studies of his German neighbor Kuerner who was a soldier in WW I, and many paintings and watercolors of Helga, the German woman who with her husband came to take care of the Kuerners. More recent, lesser Wyeths included his son Jamie, whose painting of a fat sow dominates one wall with raw piggishness, and we also found a brass sculpture of a sow in the garden by the river.

          Then back to dinner--tuna fish with new potatoes, quite good, and bread pudding dessert--and to the evening's speaker, William Kashatus, posing as Tom Paine.

          His entrance was quite stormy, a wonderful portrayal of an insolent, argumentative firebrand, confronting individual members of the audience, raising and lowering his voice in loud obscenities, sarcastic depreciations, quiet reasoning, a virtuoso performance. Kashatus later told us he learned his insolence by being high school history teacher for 15 years. He has his Ph.D. in history--his work on the revolution did not work out with his advisor, in the end he wrote a thesis on Philadelphia schools---and is now director of public information (?) for the Chester historical society "...much of my work is paperwork, but this is what I like to do." He looked like a youngster (especially after he removed his wig and three-cornered hat and began giving us a talk about Paine, rather than acting his role) and has energy to match


          We just came back from a day-long excursion to Valley Forge. The weather was good, and we saw quite a bit--also listened to a lady in colonial garb tell about women in the American revolution, and walked around the park with a ranger dressed as a colonial soldier.

          As a result, my vision of Valley Forge has somewhat changed. Rather than the retreat of a dispirited army, crawling into a hole from which it emerged transformed, it seemed both more ordinary and more significant. The British took Philadelphia but Washington's army, although beaten in battle, was intact, it was actually growing, perhaps a result of the victory at Saratoga. Supplies were a problem: but the army set up huts for 10,000 men, received supplies and even fought some small skirmishes (in one Howe's troops came out in force to catch a patrol with Lafayette, who evaded it, but just barely).

          Valley Forge was a well fortified place. The name was that of a small village, built around a small forge in a deep valley leading to the Schuylkill ("school-kill"). Washington's headquarters was nearby, and his household was managed by Martha, who joined him every winter of the war. But the army was entrenched on a steep hill nearby, "Mount Joy" which was an estate of Penn's daughter, well suited for fortification (the next hill to the west, even higher, was "Mount Misery," but did not figure in the campaign). They set up huts in record time, the winter was a mild one (contrary to paintings, only rare snowfalls) and Washington's stand there prevented the British from extending their hold on Pennsylvania.

          One thought keeps coming back again and again, the close parallel between the American Revolution and the Vietnam war, "except that in Vietnam we were the British." Yesterday I said that to Harold Barnett and he replied that no one had ever suggested that to him before. Yet it is striking: In Viet Nam, too, the US held the cities but could not penetrate far into the countryside. Its army was superior, better trained and with better means of travel (Howe had his navy, we had helicopters), and it won many victories, but it could never draw the enemy to fight a big battle on its own terms. It's a bit disturbing.

          There was much more to today's tour, but more recent impressions pile up on old ones and I'm running out of time. The best part of this elderhostel--by far--are the personal narratives and performances by impersonators of colonial figures. Tonight, after dinner (meatloaf, lemon pie, corn, as usual very good and too much) we listened to the best one so far, Robert Gleason, impersonating James Wilson, signer of the declaration of independence. Wilson arrived on a darkened stage, carrying a candle in a lantern, from which he lit a candle placed on the table in front of him. Tall with metal rimmed glasses, wearing brown wesket and brown cloak above it, he spoke in a wonderfully thick Scotch brogue as he introduced himself--lawyer, signer of the declaration of independence, member of the constitutional convention, associate justice of the supreme court.

          From a wooden case he extracted a copy of the declaration of independence (later he asked us, if we supported it, to affirm so by signing at its bottom) and began by reading the text, in a clear if accented voice. Great ideals he said, a sound plan, "but words alone will not carry it through", people stood behind it. And he started listing the signers. Some became presidents--Adams, Jefferson, "maybe Franklin would have if he did not have a prior appointment in Paradise." And "the richest merchant in Boston, John Hancock..." who signed in letters so big that even King George (he used another word which I did not catch) would be able to read it without his glasses... "and his name today stands for one's signature and" he lowered his voice "some even say for life insurance."

          Others he recounted became generals, heroes... but what about the lawyers and doctors, landowners and farmers, shippers and merchants, people who never became famous--and yet, they signed their names and pledged their sacred honors, and the moment they did so, they became marked men to the British? They too had a part in that momentous event which we should celebrate forever, on August 2nd.

          No, not July 4th, August 2nd, "so there will be something to do in August." On July 4 the document was approved, but only two people signed it, the president of the Congress John Adams and its secretary Thompson. They then gave a copy to the printer to be printed up and distributed through the colonies--and Wilson held up a copy for us to show it had no signatures. What happened to that original draft no one knows, it disappeared, the printer never gave it back. Perhaps it was thrown away, and perhaps someone will one day find it somewhere in Philadelphia, and get a milion dollars for it.

          After that a copy was engrossed on parchment, and was signed on August 2nd. Not by everyone. Some members had left, some joined the army, some new ones replaced them and a few of them signed, one member who voted against signed anyway... and so on, one was lost at sea with his new bride, and some signed only years later.

          And so on and so forth, a wonderfully entertaining 45 minutes--including his own story, and that of some signers--Robert Morris died in debtor prison, Gwynneth in a duel, and Wilson himself had to escape from state to state because of his debts, until he got ill and died. Also about his own early life, growing up in Scotland, studying in St. Andrew but never finishing for lack of money...and some witty and clever answers to questions, all in that Scotch accent.

          The TV movie on the revolution is scholarly and well-done; but if these characters we have heard in the last 2 days are a bit more carefully presented (and we have not had Big George here yet!) they might give just as good an account of themselves on the tube. This one was probably the best, but the others yesterday, and the lady today, were pretty good, too. School kids who listen to them are not likely to regard history as boring.

          After that, we watched the end of the TV program on Tom Paine, also on the signing of the declaration of independence (with Abigail telling John "remember the ladies!"), and since there was still time, we ended by watching a video tape of "The Mikado" brought along by the Stolls--very well sung, a bit abbreviated (no Katisha song and no "I got a little list") but thoroughly enjoyable.

          And now, to bed


          Last night it seemed as if nothing could top the virtuoso portrayal of James Wilson. This morning's program on Gilbert and Sullivan did just that.

          It began with a white-haired gentleman, Hastings Griffin, a retired lawyer and former leader of the Savoy company of Gilbert and Sullivan actors of the Delaware Valley. Quoting and acting, he gave us a short but spirited introduction to the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan, up to their initial collaborations. Then the other Savoy actors appeared--his son Sam, his nephew John Tyler Griffin, two lovely ladies (one a long haired blonde, one with coal-black hair, both terrific singers) Mark at the piano and a bearded vaguely mephistophelian gentleman with a deep bass voice, whose name might be Guilermo Bosch (if not, it's close) and who is the company's current president.

          For the rest of the morning was a scintillating display, a sampler of some of the best known work of Gilbert and Sullivan. Hastings was not sure what to call it--the authors and Doyle Carte called them "comic operas", but they were not operas in the usual kind, not operettas either--and he read an excerpt of "Punch" that here was a completely new style, uniquely theirs (elsewhere "Punch" wrote "there is one Gilbert, and Sullivan is his profit").

          The bottom line is that their work is still performed all over--even in Germany, in German (and yes, Richard Stoll told me the Mikado has been performed in Japan, in 1947). In Britain the D'oyly Carte company finally closed down after a century, because the cost of regular stages, union actors and union help was too high. Among US amateurs, however, their work is more popular than ever--costs are low, community stages cost very little and the copyright has run out. He and his company once toured Britain, and were welcomed there with great enthusiasm.

          Gilbert was born in 1836 and after a spell of clerking to the privy council became a lawyer, though not a very successful one. But he did well in writing, published his "bad ballads" and some successful witty plays. Sullivan, born 1842, came from a family of musicians and showed early talent--age 12 he wrote a cantata, at age 18 incidental music to "The Tempest" that was very popular, and after that, a symphony or two, some good classical pieces and 100 hymns, including "Onward Christian Soldiers." He was viewed, Hastings said, as England's answer to Europe's classical composers.

          But it was the combination of the two which sparkled. Hastings read one of Shakespeare's sonnets to the spring (which Sir Sullivan also put to music) and then "the flowers that bloom in the spring." Listening to the words, it paled in comparison, but with Sullivan tunes it is something altogether different, giving a new glitter to "days of roses and wine."

          The two were brought together by Richard D'oyly Carte, musician, playwright and at that time, manager of a playhouse. He needed a short piece to introduce an operetta by Offenbach he was showing, and the result was "Trial by Jury," a half-hour of fluff which the public loved, followed by "The Sorcerer." In that play Dr. Daly puts a magic elixir in the water of a village, causing every drinker to fall in love with the first person he or she sees, leading to all sorts of mismatches among the entire population. Then came "Pinafore", a howling success which ran for 700 performances.

          And so on, but the best part were the songs. Katie Craig (blonde with puckered cheeks) sang an incredible soprano "Poor Wandering One, part of "Pirates of Penzance" after Frederick's discovery of the girls, followed by John Tyler Griffin with Dr. Daly's song from "Sorcerer", the first of many patter songs. Then Janice sang "The Moon and I" from "Mikado" and Guilermo the usher's song from "Trial by Jury", with the others serving as chorus and the usher always shushing them with "silence in the court!". Wow! And that was just the beginning.

          Then came several selections from "Yeomen of the Guard," followed by "Tit Willow" and other parts of the "Mikado," even "three little girls" with Sam Griffin temporarily singing a girl's role. It seemed unrehearsed and sometimes singers needed cues, or mixed up lines, yet it went so smoothly--and the singing, even of the sections that needed cues, seemed flawless--so much that it was hard to tell whether the improvisations were real or staged.

          After that a quartet from "The Gondoliers" which Hastings told us, marked the healing of a breach between Gilbert and Sullivan. It was a compromise--since Sullivan felt his music did not receive enough credit, that opera opens with 20 minutes of pure music. The quartet was of two boys raised together--one a prince, one not, but even dad can no longer tell which is which--and their fiancees. Pending resolution, the two youngsters Marco and Giuseppi (temporarily) share the throne of Barataria, while their girl-friends sing about the prospect of being a "regular royal queen." Queen Victoria for many years avoided attending shows by Gilbert and Sullivan, but for this show requested a comand performance at the palace, and enjoyed it immensely.

          Then we heard "The Ruler of the Queen's Navee", followed by "Faint Heart never won Fair Lady" from "Iolanthe," and numbers from "Patience" and from "Pirates"--"A Policeman's Lot is not a happy one" and of course, "I am the Very Model of a Major General' by John. Hastings noted that Gilbert and Sullivan tunes were often parodied, and submitted as an example a parody on the major general which he performed in his church, about the ignorant parishioner who is nevertheless sure of his place in heaven

      When the gates open, I am sure I will go sailing in
      Because I am the very model of a good episcopalean

    The afternoon was free, and the Stolls planned to go to Baldwin's Book Barn, on rte. 100 in the south-western corner of West Chester. I was happy to join them, and Audrey went along, hoping to go from there to Longworth gardens. But both Dick and I lost ourselves among the multitude of books, and by the time we came out it was too late for further journeys (Audrey: "You owe me in a big way... Next time, you come here and I go shopping in Reading.").

          It was an incredible place, probably surpassing even Moe's in Berkeley, housed in a brick barn dating back to 1822 (we read somewhere). The inside is divided into 4 floors, each containing several rooms crammed with books on wooden shelves. At least some of of those shelves were made of stacked fruit crates, stil carrying old labels. In a few hours one can barely skim over everything on display, and I am sure that if I spent a week there, every day would bring new discoveries. It was hard to make choices, and many tempting books were left behind--where could I put them? Even the 6 I finally bought, for $70, will be a problem. The biggest and costliest ($25) was the fat Hebrew concordance to the bible: next down, Hersery's "The Wall" and Payne's "Eyewitness" (I had lent my copy to someone and don't know where it now is). And three small, historical items: Arthur Clarke's 'the Exploration of Space" (1951), the original Smyth Report on the Atomic Bomb (1945) and poems and writings by Emma Lazarus.

          Left behind were many shelves on Judaica and Israel, on astronomy and the wide world, also "The best of the McGuffy Reader" and more. Not found were poems by Felicia Lamport, Haji Baba and translations of Yevgeni Onegin (I promised Dick Stoll copies from Hofstadter's book on this--he's interested in translation--also promised Anita my pocket book on the origins of English, her interest). Also didn't see Sikorski's "Flying S", and I saw no book by Nevil Shute. Maybe some day not too far off all these will be on the internet.

          At dinner I sat next to Dick Schulz, a physicist with interest in lasers. He used to work for SDI, he said. What did you think of it? "An incredible waste of money." I told him about the laser-reflector idea of Boston U (encoding satellite data by modulating a reflected laser beam) and he said he knew people working on a similar concept, "it can be done" but perhaps not simply and cheaply.

          Later he left the SDI business and worked on other things, and his most recent involvement was a 10-band scan of melanomas, infra-red scans which penetrate some way into the skin and which can tell them with 100% accuracy (5% false positives), whereas scanning by eye misses half or one third of the cancers. They have a patent, but are not sure about marketing it. Johnson and Johnson are interestd, but their contingent of lawyers scares him a bit. I suggested Elron (Israeli medical tech) and told him about its founder Uziah Galil.

          After dinner we watched a video of "1776," the sound was a bit scratchy, but it's still a good show. Yet after the last few days and the exposure to the record of the actual American revolution, a lot of it seems trite and contrived, trivializing serious history in to cheap drama--even without the defamation of James Wilson.


          A somewhat slow day, in part because of the continuous rain. The main attraction was to be a visit to Winterthur mansion, a sumptuous home of the Du Pont family near Wilmington, now a museum displaying antique furniture and family heirlooms. The house is surrounded by extensive gardens, mostly "naturalized" rather than formal, but the rain did not allow us to tour them (Anita took a "trolley tour," she came back somewhat wetter but said it was interesting).

          In the morning a former schoolteacher, now guide, prepared us for Winterthur, with a talk, a video and slides. The place contains a huge collection of "American Decorative Art" covering 1650 to about 1850, mostly furnishing of the homes of rich people, collected and tastefully displayed. To someone who appreciates the difference between Chippendale, Queen Anne and roccoco (spelled rococo by our speaker, leading to an unresolved debate), it is a treasure trove: massive beds with canopies, silver lamps burning whale-oil, chinaware manufactured in China specifically for the American trade, chairs with legs turned on a lathe, squared off in ancient Roman style or gracefully curved to resemble a horse's legbone, and more and more such artifacts. My mother would have loved it, but it did not ring a bell with Audrey and me.

          We also watched the end of the video on the American revolution and paid a visit to the Birmingham Friends Meeting House, around which at one time the battle of the Brandywine raged. As we sat on the plain wooden benches of the meeting house, still used by a congregation, a retired gentleman in colonial garb, wearing a wide-brim black hat, gave us a quick education about the place and about the society of friends, better known as Quakers. And now, in 10 minutes, we go to a "colonial dinner", to be followed by a presentation by a "colonial dame." And I better wake up Audrey.

    The colonial dinner was a great success, and not just because beer was served--light, pleasant beer, not too bitter. The menu was put together by the evening's speaker--Clarissa Dillon, an older woman with somewhat wrinkled features and with a lot of energy and verve. She came from Chicago, she told us, and earned a Ph.D. in history from Bryn Mawr. Her specialty was the work and cooking of colonial women of the 18th century, and her thesis was on the food of ordinary people, later published in a booklet "The Most Comfortable Dinner."

          She told us that her thesis advisor looked at her strangely when she said she would do about 5/8 of her work in the usual archival fashion, but for the rest she would actually try to duplicate in her kitchen (using an open hearth where appropriate) what colonial women supposedly did. But the advisor was very enthusiastic about the results, and one of Clarissa's rewards is that now she can answer many practical questions.

          Only today she got a call from South Carolina: what could she say about the fire hazard in the colonial kitchen? She said she did not think women caught fire even with the open hearth, because they wore linen petticoats which smoldered but did not burn--and neither did wool. In contrast, cotton goes up in flames, and synthetic fabrics not only burn but melt into the skin, causing bad burns. Children, wearing cotton, often burned. Linen may suffer burn holes, but is not likely to cause danger, especially since colonial women (unless too poor) usually wore two petticoats, the inner one dark to make sure the body outline could not be seen.

          She also said that she found a recipe by de Rensellaer for making cotton fire resistant, tried it and it worked, the cotton behaved like linen. She herself wore a light blue dress and two petticoats, the outer one furled on the sides with a ribbon, for more mobility. Under the inner one she wore a belt with a pocket, to hold keys and money, and the petticoat had a slit to make the pocket reachable. On her head was a linen cap--for safety, to hold back loose hair--in front a dark-blue apron, and under everything the basic woman's garment, a shift (of wool?). On a hot summer day a colonial woman must have had a hard time--especially when tending her kitchen garden, a subject on which Clarissa had also written a book.

    The menu:

      Hors D'Euvre: Pickled Beets, Cucumbers and Mushrooms
      Beef Gobbets: Stewed with Mace, Cloves, Turnips and Carrots
      With Sweet Herbs and Barley

      Potatoes: Boiled with Ale, Mashed with Milk
      Vegetables:French Beans, Red Cabbage and Stewed Apples

      Whole Wheat Rolls and Butter

      A wheel of Sharp Cheddar Cheese

      A Draft of Beer

      Rice Pudding with Raisins: Flavored with Rosewater


          Someone asked: was this a typical colonial meal? There was no single typical meal, Clarissa said--and different people followed different regional and ethnic traditions: New Englanders ate pie for breakfast, Pennsylvanians scrapple, southerners grits, and so on. Tonight's dinner was appropriate for English was unlikely all these dishes would appear on the table simultaneously. For one, cooking was so much work that most households would probably combine all main dishes in a single pot.

          The green beans and red cabbage were appropriate for the season, because they had to be picked before the first killing frost. Turnips, carrots and potatoes were picked before October and were stored in the root cellar, in a dry cool place, between layers of straw (or dry leaves?).

          The rice pudding was also appropriate for early fall. After mid October, the pastures become thin, cows dry up, and milk quality becomes poor. Eggs could be saved from August and last until December.

          Beef, however, would not be available on the farm until the slaughtering season in early December. Only then was it cold enough for meat to be preserved, and flies have died off so they could not lay maggot-producing eggs in the meat. In Philadelphia, of course, cattle were slaughtered throughout the year, their meat was quickly sold and it did not have to be preserved.

          Apples were plentiful in colonial times, and different varieties were grown for different uses--for cider, pies etc. They were available after September and needed to be stored carefully--if heaped together, they had to be checked from time to time to weed out the proverbial bad apples, capable of spoiling the rest.

          The gingerbread (which was delicious--all the dishes were) tasted more like regular honeycake, and was not what the colonials used. One thing Clarissa had studied and experimented with was the preservation of food, and the colonial gingerbread was prepared without yeast, in round cookies, to last a long time. She showed us a sample of these prepared 6 years ago, they still look OK; from time to time she tries one and it still tastes fine. Elizabeth Moxon of the 18th century has 6 "receipts" (Clarissa always used that word) for gingerbead, and for this one she wrote, "this one will keep a long time."

          Someone asked her how eggs were preserved. "Depends for how long." For short-term preservation, put the eggs in finely sieved wood ashes (fresh? hard boiled?), or in sawdust, bran or fine clean sand. She has not yet tried the sand--she plans to buy clean washed aquarium sand, because builder's sand is too wet, and sand found outdoors might have well been used as some dog's toilet.

          For long term--rub them with lard all over, or with butter, or suet. Suet is the fat on the beef kidneys, it is white and clean. What is sold in stores as suet for birdseed is usually tallow--fat between the skin and muscle, which slaughterhouses separate and throw aside. In England tallow (or suet?) is still used for cooking, and can be bought in clean containers. Clarissa had stored eggs in lard for two years, eating an egg each month, they were still good.

          Another way is storing the eggs in quicklime, and Clarissa had some problem getting it. But this did not work out as well as expected (isn't quicklime somewhat similar to sifted wood ashes?).

          She also tried preserving common cheese, usually aged 6 months and then eaten in next 6. She showed us a 2-year old wheel of cheese, it gets older and drier, but seems still edible.

          And so on--about Rutabaga, aka yellow turnips, and in England, "Swedes." About "sack," a honey-based English wine flavored with fennel pods (which she had grown for this purpose), as a cheaper alternative to Spanish sherry. On corn in Pennsylvania--originally the soil was rich and farmers there grew wheat and barley. After the revolution, with the soil depleted and the rich soils of Ohio producing cheaper wheat and barley, Pennsylvania shifted to corn, easier to raise and as an American grain the "more patriotic" thing to grow.

          And on spinning and weaving--Pennsylvania women did spin flax and wool, but they rarely wove it (except for the small-scale weaving of tapes). Instead, they would take it "down the road to a professional weaver," who was paid either in kind or with part of the yarn. Also, colonials imported many of their fabrics--from canvas for the slaves to fine broadcloth. They were not as self-sufficient as some historians made them out, until trade with the British became strained and the home-spun cloth became a political statement. And even then, the weaving was not done at homes but by weavers.


          Overnight the rain tapered off to an intermittent drizzle. Audrey and I packed some of our gear before breakfast, which consisted mainly of danish tarts and similar food--it seemed a day old, but so what. In the back of the room two boxes were set up--one for evaluation sheets, one for the badge-holders, which would be reused. We deposited all those and then sat down to watch the last part of "Liberty! The American Revolution" dealing with the US constitution and how it came to be.

          It may have been the best part--one thing for sure, it was the part of the history of which I knew the least. The points made--of the serious study accorded the choice of political system, the role of Hamilton (who belonged to no state and therefore could be somewhat detached) and of Madison, the social polarization due to war debts, the secrecy of the convention and the emergence of the Bill of Rights--all these were nicely presented. I silently wished I could translate the program into Russian and perhaps a few other choice languages, to help other nations understand proper path to effective democracy.

          The program was to end with a "mystery guest": I wondered whether it would be George himself (a Washington impersonator was highlighted in the photo album on the Elderhostel, put out for display), while Audrey thought it could be Mad Anthony Wayne, after a book about him appeared (just this morning) on the table in the rear where elderhostel papers were also placed.

          It was neither. Instead, the speaker was a young wisp of a woman, dressed in Quaker garb, ostensibly seeking her father, a veteran of the revolution, who liked to tell stories about his war experiences, some of which she promptly told herself. A Quaker joining the revolutionary army? That was her first story--told like the rest with girlish humor, as if Hanna, the name she gave, was even younger than she appeared. Her father was drawn to the village green (he had told her) by the recruiter's drumbeat, and once there, with other young men already enlisted and egging him on, he pretended to sign his name, holding the pen above the paper. However, someone pushed his elbow, the pen made a mark on the paper "for his indenture," and he became a soldier after all. Nice story, well told, even if it was all cribbed from the recollections of Joseph Plumb Martin, as told in "Private Yankee Doodle."

          She followed with stories about her father's stay in Valley Forge--about Martha Washington's stay there, about her inviting Mrs. Drinker--who came to secure the freedom of her husband--for dinner with the general, about the soldiers' wives and "camp followers" and other views of the war from a woman's point of view. The work of women in Valley Forge was so much appreciated that when food was available, Washington ordered half rations to be allocated to them. When Clinton retreated from Philadelphia, she said, about 1500 women accompanied his troops, including some 700 colonial women who had married British or Hessian soldiers. And she told of Mary Ludwig Hayes, named "Molly Pitcher"--according to Hanna, for bringing water to soldiers on the hot day of the Battle of Monmouth.

          She admitted being fussy about her food, which had prompted her father to say "if we only had that bit of food you are refusing in the winter of 77-78 in Valley Forge!" For six days in February, no food at all was distributed. And then, he told her, on February 24 something exciting had happened. A bleak and cold day, with two court martials, in which two soldiers, convicted of stealing boots from another regiment, were sentenced to picketing--being hung by their thumbs for two hours. When suddenly a fat officer arrived with his enourage, wearing an outsize 3-cornered hat, speaking no English--Baron von Steuben (pronounced "fon Shtoiben"). And Hanna then told how Steuben trained the troups, and the rest of the story. Then she apologized, she had to find her father, and left. Later however she answered some questions.

          All this was well ahead of the schedule. Jerry, Muriel and Pat bade us farewell, and raffled off the copy of the declaration of independence brought by "James Wilson" which everyone had signed (others got xerox copies)--also a memorial piece of stone from Valley Forge, taken from the original memorial arch when it was refurbished.

          Last farewells and group pictures, and by 11:20 Audrey and I were on the road. About an hour later we were at the Perryville shopping mall, buying presents to send to Zoya in Russia for her daughter Varvara, from the "Oshkosh B'gosh" outlet store (and also some for our dear Zoe) and an hour later we walked out lighter by about $170 (incl shirts, pants and belts for me from a nearby men's store). One hour after that we got into Haussner's famous restaurant in Baltimore for a late lunch (or early dinner).

          We got back to Greenbelt in time to retrieve our mail. Our house was still there.



Back to the beginning of "Valley Forge"

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .