Here to return to
New England and its Neighbors
MIDWINTER IN VALLEY FORGE
MY impression had been that Valley Forge was a wild glen, high among the mountains, where winter frosts and snows held unrelaxing sway for many long, dark months every year. But in reality its situation is neither lofty nor remote, and the rigors of the cold are not nearly what they are in the states farther north. Comparatively little snow falls, and often there is not a week’s sleighing the winter through.
In Valley Forge
The Valley is only twenty-three miles from Philadelphia, with which it has direct connection by a railroad that skirts along the Schuylkill River. When you alight from the train you find a diminutive station, and, on the opposite side of the tracks, a freight-shed and an ancient, broken-roofed mill. But immediately beyond the old mill is the colonial mansion which was Washington’s headquarters, and beyond that lies the village — a straggling little place, scattered along several diverging roads. A good-sized stream courses northward through the midst of the hamlet to join the Schuylkill, and beside it are two mills. These, like the one adjoining the station; are vacant and crumbling. The smaller of the two is mostly constructed of wood. The other is of brick — a great barrack of a building, painted white, with tiny-paned windows of days gone by. Near it stand some rows of dilapidated mill cottages gradually dropping to pieces; and, taken altogether, a melancholy air of industrial ruin hangs over the Valley.
A massive dam stems the stream above the big mill, but the water-power is in no way utilized, and the manufacturing of the present is confined to a racka-bones structure on the western outskirts of the village, where a stone-crusher reduces to sand a peculiar rock from an upland quarry. About five car-loads of sand are turned out daily and shipped away to foundries, for use in making moulds.
My acquaintance with Valley Forge began in the early evening of a day in February. I walked from the station to the village and looked about vainly in the dusk for a hotel. Finally I appealed to a passer, who pointed out one close by. It was girded around by ornamental piazzas and surmounted by a very fancy cupola, and I had mistaken it for some gentleman’s villa. Moreover, its spacious grounds were adorned with fine trees that gave a touch of the idyllic, though the lager-beer signs which their trunks supported were something of an offset to this impression. Winter visitors are rare, and I took the landlord by surprise. He explained apologetically that his cook had just left, and he and his father were the only persons in the house. They were going to shift for themselves until they found another cook, but if I wanted to lodge with them, he would get some neighbor to come in and help in the kitchen. I accepted the situation, and after I had disposed of my luggage I started out for a walk. It was a pleasant, quiet night, with a half-moon high in the sky. The ground was mostly bare, and the wheeling on the frost-bound roads could hardly have been better. Only under shadowed banks and on the northward-sloping hills was there snow, though the streams, wherever the cold had a fair chance at them, were frozen tight and fast. Much of the valley was overflowed by a long, narrow pond that set back from the dam of the large upper mill. On the borders of this pond I came across a young fellow regarding the ice attentively, and I spoke to him. He had been testing the surface with his heels to see if there was skating, and had concluded it had been too much softened by the heat of the day, but that it would harden up all right during the night. “A good many come here skating,” he said — “mostly Sundays, and other days, and some nights, and daytimes, too.”
I asked him what the name of the stream was, and he replied that he’d “be hanged “if he knew. He’d never heard it called anything but “the dam.”
Then I inquired the name of the larger stream to the north; but he had to “be hanged” again — he’d lived here twenty years, all his life — and never heard it spoken of as anything except “the river.”
This was not very encouraging, but when we continued our chat I found his information about the village itself more definite and satisfactory. Some of the people depended wholly on their little farms, but the majority of the male population were either employed at the quarry on the hill and the stone-crusher, or at a brick-yard about two miles distant; and ten or twelve of the village girls went daily by train six miles down the river to work in a cotton-mill. He told how crowds of people flocked to the Valley in the summer, some to stay several days or weeks, but mostly picnickers who came in the morning and went in the late afternoon. There were boats to let on the pond, and the summer people “rowed and fished and caught carp that weighed thirty pounds.”
VALLEY FORGE POND
On the hill in the background were the most important of Washington’s fortifications
I mentioned that from up the hill where I had been before I visited the pond I had seen what looked like the lights of a town off to the northeast.
“Were the lights all in a bunch?” he asked.
“Yes,” I responded.
“That’s a protectory.”
“A protectory — some big buildings where they keep boys — boys that have been bad. A lot of ‘em got away last July — took the sheets off their beds and tied ‘em together and shinned down on ‘em from a window. They started off for Philadelphia, but they were all caught.”
My companion had no overcoat on, and he began to get shivery. So he turned his collar up a little closer about his ears and said he guessed he’d go over to the store. I turned in the other direction and walked up the pond on the ice. The village lay behind me, wooded hills rose on either side, and with the moonlight glistening on the ice, the scene, in spite of its loneliness, was pleasantly romantic.
When I returned to the hotel the evening was well advanced and I soon retired. I wished afterward I had sat up later, for I had the coldest, most unsympathetic bed I have met with in all my experience. There were plenty of blankets and quilts; but the foundation was a corn-husk mattress that had apparently been absorbing frost for months, and I did not get comfortably warm all night.
In the morning one of the village women had charge of the kitchen and prepared the breakfast. I had just come down to the office when she put her head in at the door and asked, “Will yees eat now?”
The two men of the establishment rose and led the way through several cold vacant rooms and passages to the rear of the house. They themselves ate in the kitchen, but I was directed to a corner of one of the tables in the adjoining dining room. It was not a very sociable arrangement, and I liked it the less because the little stove at my elbow only succeeded in tempering the chilly atmosphere of the big apartment. Conversation was confined to a few remarks passed with the substitute cook.
“I’ve had to spind the biggest part of me time here this winter,” she said. “The young girruls the hotel do get will not stay. It is too cowld and lonesome. They likes the city betther; and so I have to be always runnin’ in to help from my house that’s up here fornent the ould mill.”
I noticed her house later in the morning when I was out walking. Around it was much litter and a curious conglomeration of patched-up shanties for the domestic animals, which included a lively brood of nondescript fowls and a sober family goat. All in all the place looked as if it had been transplanted bodily from the woman’s native Ireland.
That visitors to the Valley were many was attested by the numerous wayside signs warning against trespassing. These were a characteristic and predominant feature of the landscape. They were set up on posts and tacked to trees and fences everywhere and suggested a wild raid of tourists in the season. Most of them threatened you with the law, but others confined themselves to a laconic, “Keep Off!”
The day was gentle and springlike, the atmosphere full of haze and odorous of coal gas from the engines of the freight trains that were constantly throbbing and hissing along the railway. The mildness of Nature’s mood made it far from easy to call up the mental picture of the hardships of that far-gone winter when Washington was there, and any sentiment of seclusion was impossible with that noisy, sulphurous railroad immediately at hand and the knowledge that it could carry me straight to the heart of Philadelphia in little more than half an hour.
I think the casual student of history fancies that Valley Forge sheltered the whole patriot army. On the contrary, only a small portion of the troops dwelt there. At the rear of Washington’s headquarters the life guards were encamped, and across “Valley Crick “were General Stirling’s men; but the rest of the army was over the hill eastward. The area of ground suitable for camping in the Valley itself is not large, for to the south it almost at once becomes a narrow, irregular defile hemmed in by steep slopes of loose stones.
A half mile up the ravine stood the old forge—an iron-working plant that was established long before the Revolution, and that was known in its earlier days as the Mount Joy forge. It did a flourishing business and employed many men and teams. John Potts, a Quaker, purchased it in 1757, and immediately afterward built at the mouth of the creek a flour-mill and
The Site of the Old Forge
a stout stone residence. Just before the war this dwelling and mill passed to his son Isaac, in whose possession they were when Washington made his official home in the house.
Another half mile up the Valley beyond the site of the old forge the hills cease and the road, which hitherto has been creeping along the margin of the stream, goes through a covered wooden bridge of picturesque type and strikes off in several divisions across the rolling farmlands that sweep away as far as the eye can see.
One of the Bridges over “Valley Crick”
On this side of the hills all the oldest farm-houses for miles around were headquarters of Revolutionary generals in that dismal winter — of Lafayette, of Knox, Stirling, and others — substantial structures of stone that bid fair to last for many generations yet.
While looking about over here I met a man trudging along smoking his pipe. He wore an overcoat dyed the color of rust by long exposure to the sun and weather, and under his arm he carried a bag. I made some inquiry about the road, but he could not help me. He said he did not often come up this way. His tramping ground lay more to the south. All the farmers there knew him and let him sleep in their barns. He made a business of gathering water-cresses in the brooks, but they had been all frozen by recent cold weather, and he could get none to fill his bag to-day.
I at length took a byway leading toward the heights, and soon was in the brushy woods, where I found the snow lying six or eight inches deep. As I approached the summit of the hills I came on the old-time intrenchments skirting around the crest of the ridges. They were not imposing, yet they were clearly marked — a ditch, and, behind it, a low, flattened embankment with a path along the top kept well trodden by sightseers. I followed this sinuous line whitened by the snow for some distance. The hilltop was very silent. At times I heard the cheerful twitter of the chickadees, and once a hound came baying through the trees, with his nose to the ground, zigzagging after a rabbit track. A hawk circled high overhead and turned its head sidewise to get a look at me, and somewhere down in the Valley a bevy of crows were cawing.
A little below the intrenchments were the heavy earthwork squares of two forts, one commanding the approaches from the south, the other from the east. An outer line of intrenchments was thrown up about a mile from those on the hills; but they lay through the cultivated farm fields and have long ago disappeared. Between the two lines of earthworks the main army was stationed, and there the soldiers put up their little log huts. On the bleak December days while these were building and the work of fortifying was going on, the troops had no shelter save their tents. The huts were sixteen feet long, fourteen wide, and six and one-half high. They were banked up outside with earth, and the cracks between the logs were chinked with clay, while the roofs were of logs split into rude planks or slabs. The buildings were regularly arranged in streets, and each was the home of twelve men.
Every cabin had at one end a fireplace of clay-daubed logs, but, with the bare earth floor underfoot, comfort must have been well-nigh impossible. Besides, the winter is reputed to have been uncommonly cold and snowy, and the men were very inadequately clothed and fed. Sometimes they were without meat, sometimes even lacked bread. Disease, too, was rampant, and smallpox ravaged the camp. Privation made the troops mutinous, and at times it seemed as if “in all human probability the army must dissolve,” and the actual strength of the army was reduced to barely four thousand who could be depended on for service. Washington affirmed on December 23d that over twenty-nine hundred men were ineffective “because they are barefoot and otherwise unfit for duty.” Scarcity of blankets, he says, compels numbers to “sit up all night by fires, instead of taking comfortable rest in the natural way.”
A congressional committee which visited the camp reported that many lives were sacrificed for want of straw or other materials to raise the men when they slept from the cold and wet earth. The horses died of starvation, and the men themselves often had to do the work of beasts of burden, with improvised handcarts or carrying heavy loads on their backs. The dilapidated soldiery were as badly off with regard to firearms as they were in other respects. Some would have muskets, while others in the same company had carbines, fowling-pieces, and rifles. These were covered with rust, half of them without bayonets, and many from which not a single shot could be fired. Frequently the men carried their powder in tin boxes and cow-horns instead of in the regulation pouches.
The condition of the army was primarily due to the feebleness of the Union of States and the lack of power on the part of Congress to levy taxes or to enforce its edicts. The states were jealous of each other, and there was fear that the army would assume control of the country if it was allowed too much power. Yet, even so, the hardships of the troops were not all â necessity. Incompetence, as usual, played its part in the commissary department; there were supplies in plenty, it is said, but they were in the wrong place, and often Washington could only obtain food by foraging far and wide through the country round about. Many of the farmers were hostile, and, to save their grain from seizure, they stored it away unthreshed in sheaves. If it was to be confiscated, the soldiers themselves must wield the flail.
The millers were equally perverse, and in one instance a lot of glass was ground into the flour. An investigation followed, and it was decided that the person guilty of this mischief was a Quaker Tory by the name of Roberts. A detail of troops was sent to his mill, and they hanged him in his Orchard.
The Valley Forge encampment was virtually at Philadelphia’s back door, and an easy road along the banks of the Schuylkill led directly to the city. Yet the British army, fifteen or twenty thousand strong, stayed revelling in the town all through the winter and spring. The only excuse offered is that no spy ever got into the American camp or, if he did, he never succeeded in returning, and the English did not know their enemies’ weakness. Perhaps, too, they got an exaggerated idea of the wildness of the country up the Schuylkill from the names of some of the river villages that intervened between them and the patriots’ stronghold — Monayunk and Conshohocken, for instance.
The Schuylkill at Valley Forge
In the evening after my first day’s tramping I visited the Valley Forge post-office. It occupied a corner in a genuine country store. The ceiling of this emporium was low and dingy, the counters rude, and the shelves were piled full of a most varied assortment of goods. Posters hung here and there advertising plug tobacco and other wares, or announcing prospective auctions of the region. Of course the stove in the centre of the room was hedged around with men smoking and absorbing opinions and news from one another. Their clatter was going full tilt when I came in, but at once subsided into mild-voiced and occasional remarks. I sat down at some remove from them to write a letter, and they gradually recovered.
All but one of the men had their hats on. The exception was a thin, elderly man who wore slippers and was apparently a part of the store. The others addressed him as “Uncle Buxton.” He was actual uncle to the postmaster, I believe, and adopted uncle to the rest of the community. I noticed presently that he was speaking about a well he was having dug, and was complaining that the diggers did “a good bit o’ torkin’, but mighty little work.”
“I reckon it’s too near the road,” commented the man at Uncle Buxton’s right. “Y’ see every one goin’ along has to stop ‘n’ ask all about it and tell what they think on’t.”
“Henry Shaw’s sick again,” remarked a man in a fur cap, who had established himself conveniently near the box full of sawdust that served as a spittoon.
“What’s he got this time?” some one inquired.
“They say it’s pneumonia.”
“That there’s what they used to call inflammation of the lungs,” Uncle Buxton declared.
“About all the diseases hev changed names since I was a boy,” said the man in the fur cap, shifting his quid.
“That’s so,” assented Uncle Buxton. “I was up to my niece’s week afore last and I was coughin’ some and she says, ‘Why, Uncle Buxton, you’ve got the grip.’
“‘No, I ain’t!’ says I.
“‘Yes, you have!’ says she.
“‘No, I ain’t,’ I says, ‘I’ve got a bad cold, but I ain’t got no grip. It’s just a bad cold, same as I had when I was a boy.’ But if you have a bad cold now, people call it the grip.”
“And if you hev the grip now,” said the fur-capped man, “they think they got to send right off for a medical doctor. Why, when I was a boy, my mother used to doctor us — never thought of runnin’ to a professional for every little thing. My mother used to always every year pick St. John’s-wort and life-everlastin’, horse-mint, penny-r’y’l ‘n’ such things in the pastures, and we had sage ‘n’ horehound growin’ in the garden.”
“Any one that understands the herbs knows more than the doctors — that’s my idee,” said a man who was addressed by his companions as Jerry.
“Yes, and you c’n often cure yourself a good many times,” affirmed Uncle Buxton, “if you only have a min’ to. Gorry! I know I used to have the sore throat — had it all the time — and I was a great coffee drinker them days — drank it every meal, ‘n’ I thought I’d stop. So I did, ‘n’ my sore throat got well, ‘n’ a while after mother said to me, ‘Albert, won’t you have a cup o’ coffee? I got some all made up fresh’; ‘n’ I said I didn’t care if I did; ‘n’ the next mornin’ I had my sore throat again; ‘n’ then I decided if ‘twas a question between sore throat and coffee I’d give up the coffee. So I give it up, ‘n’ that was thirty years ago, ‘n’ I ain’t drank a cup of coffee since.”
“I make my own spring medicine,” said Jerry — “costs me just ten cents. I buy that much worth o’ cream o’ tartar and stir up a spoonful with a little sugar in a tumbler o’ water every mornin’ before breakfast. It makes a good drink — about like soda-water.”
“I got a good receipt for a cough,” Uncle Buxton said, “of the woman in at the bakery down at Conshohocken. She’s given that receipt to lots o’ folks, and I’d heard of it before I went down there. I had a very bad cough and people here said I was consumptive. My brother was always at me to go to a doctor, but I said I didn’t want no doctor, and one day I was in Conshohocken and I went into the bakery and got that receipt. It was half a pint o’ white wine vinegar, half a pound o’ rock candy, and two fresh-laid eggs. You stewed ‘em up together into a kind of syrup, thick like jelly. Well, I took half the quantity o’ vinegar and rock candy and one fresh-laid egg and made a jelly, and gin I had used that I was better, and before that I was gettin’ worse all the time; and then I fixed up the rest, and that cured me.”
“You couldn’t ‘a’ got cured less ‘n twenty-five dollars if you’d gone to a medical doctor,” said Jerry.
“Well, I don’t begrudge the doctor his money if he cures,” remarked the man in the fur cap, “but if he don’t cure, it comes kind o’ tough.”
When I rose to go I glanced at the auction posters once more. It occurred to me I might attend one of the sales if the distance was not too great. “Where is this Wednesday auction to be?” I asked.
“That’s the one at Howltown, ain’t it?” queried some one in the group about the stove.
“No,” put in Uncle Buxton; “that’s four miles from here, over at Di’mond Rock.”
“Diamond Rock,” I repeated, “how does it get that name?”
“Why, this ‘ere rock’s full o’ little di’monds,” responded Uncle Buxton — “crystals, you know. There’s small holes all over the rock, and you can look in and see the di’monds shinin’ there, plenty of ‘em. Folks go with hammers and knock ‘em out, so the rock is pretty well chipped now.”
“Will any of these mills at Valley Forge ever be used again?” I inquired, changing the subject.
“I don’t know, indeed,” was Uncle Buxton’s reply. “They ain’t improvin’ none. That one by the depot is the worst. It’s all goin’ to wrack, and the top story’s fell off; but it’s nothing like as old as the other two mills. The upper mill on the crick was a cotton and woollen mill and has got a good water-power and a good dam. The old dam washed out in 1865. There was a cloudburst up the valley, and the water riz way over the banks, roarin’ an’ rushin’ along full of deb-ris and carrying away all the bridges, and dams, and everything. Since the mills all closed, Valley Forge’s been kind o’ a run-down place; and then, last year, there was a minister made us some more trouble.”
“How was that?” I asked.
“Why, we was goin’ to have a Baptist church built. The minister collected the money, and then he spent it himself. He was found out and had to leave. Now he’s up at Perkiomen runnin’ the streets — that’s about all he’s doin’ ‘s far’s I c’n find out.”
A VALLEY FORGE FOOTPATH
The ruinous buildings are the former homes of the operatives who worked in the deserted village mills
“Do you think,” said I, “that Washington’s soldiers had as hard a time here as we read they did?”
“Yes,” replied Uncle Buxton, decidedly, “I do. There’s a colored woman lives in Philadelphia, and she’s a hundred and thirty years old, and when she was a girl she was owned out near here by a family named Huston, and the soldiers was so bad off Mr. Huston used to go round gathering up stuff to give ‘em; and the colored woman — she was a little girl then — went up to the camp with him sometimes, and she says the soldiers’ shoes was all worn out, and she could track ‘em around on the snow by the blood from their feet. My grandfather was with the Vermont troops, and I’ve heard him tell, too, how things was, many a time. He said one cold spell Washington appinted a dress parade, and he asked the soldiers to all put on their best clothes and look just the finest they could. They did it, and then he had all them picked out that was comfortable dressed and set ‘em to work choppin’ wood. The rest he had stay in their huts to keep warm. If people was to go through the hardships o’ that winter now, they’d all die. They ain’t got the spunk they had then — nowhere near!”
On one other point I asked enlightenment. I had failed to find what was known as the Washington spring, though I had searched for it again and again.
“It’s close by the place where the old forge stood,” explained Uncle Buxton, “in a bar’l right by the side o’ the road,” and he gave minute directions.
I renewed my search the next day, and was rewarded by finding a few rotten staves around a hole in the gutter, full of leaves and rubbish, and not a drop of water. The natives, to whom I afterward mentioned these conditions, apologized for the spring by saying they had never known it to go dry before. Its claim to be the “Washington” spring does not seem to be very valid. The same claim is made for nearly all the springs in the Valley, including two or three nearly railroad has wiped out. But surely Washington would not have depended on this spring a half-mile distant from headquarters when there were plenty nearer.
The old Potts house, in which Washington made his home, is a square, good-sized stone building, two and a half stories high. A public association has it in charge, and preserves it as nearly as may be in its Revolutionary aspect. Its most pleasing outward feature is the great front door, divided horizontally in halves, after the manner common in colonial days, and shadowed by a picturesque porch roof that pokes out from the wall above. The windows are guarded by solid wooden shutters, and the glass in their tiny panes is only semi-transparent, and distorts with its twists and curls whatever is seen through it.
The Entrance to the Headquarters Mansion
The rooms within have their ancient open fireplaces and white, wooden wainscoting, and contain a variety of old-time relics, yet there is no touch of life, and the house has the barren look of a museum. This is the more pronounced because of certain barriers it has been necessary to put up to restrain the vandalism of the sightseers. Even the great kitchen fireplace has to be protected. It was kept open until it had gradually lost every piece of ironware it contained, and then, when a new set of old furnishings was presented, a wire screen was run across the front.
The visitors treat the place as their prey to a surprising degree. Frequently they attempt to avoid paying the ten-cent admission fee. At the rear are spacious grounds of lawn and shade trees, the whole surrounded by a weatherworn picket fence. Over this fence comes many a pilgrim, but sometimes these interlopers get their just deserts, as, for example, a party of eight young women who scaled the palings one day when they thought the keeper was at dinner. He suddenly confronted them, much to their consternation, and in spite of their pleadings, made them all clamber over the fence again and come around to the gate.
One very interesting portion of the house is a low log annex which reproduces a like structure erected by Washington for a dining-room. In its floor is a trapdoor, and a steep flight of steps leads down to an arched passage and room underground. The house was built when the Indians were still feared, and this retreat was to serve as a refuge in case the house-dwellers were hard pressed. A tunnel originally gave connection with the near river, whence escape could be made by boat.
Many schemes are broached for improving Valley Forge as a Revolutionary shrine, some good, but others of doubtful wisdom. The danger is of making it a great show place; for, laid out as a park and adorned with ostentatious monuments, its tinge of wildness would be destroyed, and it would wholly lose its charm and all flavor of the old war days when it was a refuge for the feeble and tattered Continental army.
The House which was Washington’s Headquarters