Tag Archives: Montgomery County

Valley Forge: A Reality Show

Reality #1:  The American Revolution was saved at Valley Forge

For over twenty years  I have driven through Valley Forge, site of the great winter encampment of 1777-78. Nearly every road was laid out over 300 years ago. The landscape is still lush with rolling hills. There are many more trees and deer than in 1777, but I can imagine that prior to December of that year, it was just as peaceful as now in the early morning mist – perhaps a few more farm animals would be awakening.

I park my car and walk down the silent lane towards the Issac Potts House. The gravel crunches under my shoes, birds chirp, Valley Creek gurgles on its way to the Schuylkill. The small stately house that Washington rented for six months, which served as the headquarters of the General Command, stands solitary.  The Potts grist mill  burned in the 1830’s, victim to sparks from one of the nation’s first rail lines – still in use in 2017.  Long-gone as well is the bustle of 1777 Valley Forge village.  Myth and reality float as mist on a land that  holds too many undiscovered stories.

1913 Reading RR train station now Washington’s HQ visitors center, Top Right: original ticket window, Bottom Right: rail line still used for freight

The 3,700 acres of Valley Forge National Historic Park are a small part of what was known in the 18th century as Pennsylvania’s Great Valley – one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the thirteen colonies. Populated largely by Quakers, this industrious area had given rise by the 1750’s to the start of Pennsylvania’s iron industry – hence the village of Valley Forge along Valley Creek.  This small company town owned by a few intermarried families, along with farming and water powered mills on the Schuylkill River, was making the region an economic power house. Yet before the  autumn of 1777, the bucolic, hilly and peaceful countryside was hidden from the turmoil embroiling the colonies since 1775,  but Philadelphia was only 20 miles south.

 The crops were being harvested when the British advanced towards Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777.  Although there is evidence of British requisitioning of supplies, the population was equally nervous concerning any future involvement in war. The British did burn a Potts  forge warehouse because munitions were found. Being staunch Quakers, it’s unlikely the family gave the local colonial militia captain permission to use the facility.

One week before Christmas 1777, the first of what would fluctuate between 10,000 to 17,000 troops, women and children arrived. An area of 3,700 acres had been chosen months before as an alternate encampment should Philadelphia fall to the British.  On the Schuylkill River, at the highest elevation closest to the city and overlooking the  major routes from Philadelphia to the interior of northern and western Pennsylvania, the site at Valley Forge was ideal for both defense and reconnaissance

It wasn’t a demoralized, bedraggled rag of an army that marched into the encampment. The troops were rather pumped at the drubbing they’d given to some of the British Empire’s crack brigades while defending Philadelphia. True, the Battle of Brandywine was horrific in terms of casualties, but the pain was equally shared and the Continental brigades remained intact. Washington’s competition to house everyone in log cabins was a resounding success. Many diary entries speak of the relative comfort of these accommodations compared to other encampments.

Reality #2: Starvation or incompetence?

A severe lack of effective planning plagued the loose collection of brigades that constituted the Continental Army in 1777 with food supplies being the most obvious initial problem. No one was in charge. The troops had arrived at the start of winter, in the midst of the breadbasket of Pennsylvania and they had no one in charge of obtaining food. A canary in the coal mine?

Christopher Ludwick accepted the commission Baker General of the Continental Army. A prosperous German/Philadelphia baker, renowned for his gingerbread (General Washington’s favorite dessert) and a financial backer of the revolution, he was in his late 50’s – one of the oldest men in command.  (Ludwick would remain BG until the end of the war in 1782). Along with the appointment of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne as Quartermaster General, these two men created, within three weeks of the first troop arrivals, an efficient commissary system with 13 field kitchens and 22 bake ovens feeding 10,000 – 15,000 people a day soup/stews and baking nearly as many loaves of  bread. (Volunteers offer baking and cooking demos during the summer and special events. See park web site.)

  Reality #3: Snag the Golden Ring

Because the defense of Philadelphia had called for a total effort, nearly every important person involved in the Revolution (and most of the troops) were together at Valley Forge – in one encampment. Yet Valley Forge encampment history seems almost uneventful to all but diehard history buffs. No battles for one thing.

The British fail to venture out of Philadelphia by the end of January to engage Washington at Valley Forge (they were not having an easy time controlling the city). The consequences of such an encounter – before the onset of “mud season” –  would have been fatal for the Revolution.  A golden opportunity presented itself and the General Command seized the ring: six months to get organized, trained, equipped, deal with corrupt merchants and a cautious Congress, standardize training, revamp recruitment and establish a central commissary kitchen system that remained in place for the remainder of the War. In other words, create a unified Continental Army – in six months.

The French Alliance in the spring of 1778 sent the French navy and millions in gold to the Revolution. The army marched out in June and nearly crushed  British forces evacuating Philadelphia for New York at the Battle of Monmouth.  For all practical purposes (except New York City) the Revolution in the North was over – bitter fighting moved South for five more agonizing years.

Reality #4: Myths are easy; uncovering the human story is difficult.

Mrs. David Edwards Stephens inherited from her father, a prosperous Methodist farmer in this Quaker community, a comfortable stone house and 400 acres. The slave-owning Mrs Edwards, and her Quaker husband David  Stephens, rented the second floor of their house as an office and beds for the staff of 28 year-old  General James Varnum.  A wealthy, staunchly abolitionist Rhode Islander, General Varnum had successfully pressured Rhode Island to create a free-black regiment who billeted across the street.   To have been the fly on the wall…the dinner conversations…

Yet the family put up with half their small house being occupied and watched their prime farm land – the encampment’s Grand Parade – turn into a sea of mud by the boots of troops being trained under the Baron von Steuben. It would be four-years before any of the farms financially recovered.

Little is known of the family that rented rooms to the tall,  dashing 19 year-old Frenchman the Marquis de La Fayette. The Marquis rapidly gained Washington’s trust, entre into the General Command’s inner circle and, I can assume, was a favorite at dinners. The house is not open for tours and is said to be haunted.

Eight hundred fifty women and children lived at the winter encampment.  Blood relatives could share the 12-person cabins with others in the brigade. Women and children performed a number of necessary roles within the camp structure. An authoritative and insightful new book, Following the Drum, does much to end the myth of the disreputable woman camp follower.

The American born Scots aristocrat, General William Alexander, 6th Earl of Sterling, his wife, Lady Sarah Livingston Sterling, along with Martha Washington, were the center of the social calendar for officers and their wives during the encampment. The Sterlings leased a house that, unfortunately, is unstable today, but the Washingtons  leased what is presently the best preserved 1760’s house in America.

Issac Potts house – George Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge
Issac Potts house – George Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge

Built in the 1760’s as one of thirteen rental properties owned by the wealthy Potts family, this fine example of 18th century craftsmanship was never meant to house 15 to 20 people. The staff of the General Command exceeded that number, but not all shared the house with the General and Mrs. Washington (it’s rumored Martha Washington  remarked, through cinched teeth, that the house was a “lovely little cottage.”)  There were strategic reasons for choosing this site even if it was cozy.

Only top aides had the comfort of beds. Most slept on the floor in bed rolls and the attic – including approximately five slaves. One slave, Hannah Till, earned enough money on the side as a seamstress (allowed in the 1700s) to purchase her freedom after the War.

 

 The kitchen hummed all day with a staff of five – majority slaves – cooking meals for the General Command staff as well as numerous VIP guests. The fare was not the bread and soups of the enlisted men. Officers were from a different class. They lived better, ate better, and many subsidized their own expenses. Martha surprised the General with what became the first official celebration of his birthday in February 1778 complete with cake and a band.

kitchen at George Washington’s HQ set with officers fare

Reality #5: This was the 18th century – before indoor plumbing…

That’s why 3,000 people died at Valley Forge. Sanitation, 18th century style, no matter how well thought out by the best science of the day, still left much to be desired. Mass inoculation for small pox was a resounding success – George and Martha led by example. Daily rations for all of beer and whiskey to prevent the consumption of tainted water helped. A daily dose of wine vinegar prevented scurvy. Yet by the end of March and through May 1778, as Spring arrived, fevers, dysentery, pneumonia and infections took the lives of nearly 3,000. None are buried at Valley Forge – considered bad for morale. Many lie in lost graves. Most were tended in hospitals as far away as 50 miles from the encampment by pacifist Amish/Mennonites and Quakers – Ephrata, PA, contains a rare grave yard.

P. C. Knox House (descendant of General Henry Knox) c.1900, with Mercer tiles, now VFNHP’s archives

I spent more hours than I can count roaming the fields and buildings of Valley Forge, leading tours as a volunteer and cooking in the outdoor kitchen. To a military history buff, the meaning of this site is obvious and the wealth of 18th century military information available is abundant.

For me, though, it’s the drama of the human stories of both camp and Valley residents that resonate: the failed attempt by influential locals to arrange a peace conference, dissension within the officers of the General Command,  the constant complaints concerning mud,  denuding  the landscape for over a 5-mile radius of the encampment,  the stench of thousands of barely washed bodies and animals, the smell of fresh-baked bread and dinners at the Sterling’s.

The detritus of war. It’s never myth; it’s only reality.

Maurice Stephens House, 1816

 

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Peas In A Pod – A love story

        

Susan and Kristen

2007 did not start well for Kristen Coyle, Susan Bailey and Karen Dooley. The three sisters faced a bitter-sweet crossroad. Their beloved parents passed away too soon to enjoy retirement and for these three daughters to share those years. Now the nest egg their parents had saved became an unexpected inheritance for the three sisters. It was the decision of the women to use the money in a way that would both benefit all three and, privately, memorialize their parents. They would open a business, a produce business. In my opinion after 30 plus years in the food industry, I’d say opening a small produce shop ranks very high on the risky scale in an industry that already is a big risk. It took brains, passion and a sense of humor to turn sorrow into Peas In A Pod.       

       

The sisters do not come from a food industry background. Kristen and Susan are both nurses and Karen is a teaching assistant. All were ready to try something different – but anyone can run a food business? Susan and Kristen freely admit that after three years they are still learning – a key ingredient for success. Their Dad, according to Kristen, had an adventurous spirit taking the family on roaming summer drives through the farms of south-eastern Pennsylvania – the famed Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker farm counties: Lancaster, Chester, Berks, Montgomery and  Bucks. The object was to find, and eat,  the freshest in-season vegetables and fruits at local farms. “Eating a fresh tomato with salt…,” is a strong memory for Kristen. So is growing up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia surrounded by the kitchen aromas of the many Italian households in the neighborhood and  sitting down to a freshly made family dinner every night – a tradition these three busy, multi-career women still uphold.       

       

I entered the small shop at the intersection of Keswick and Glenside Avenues in Glenside, PA – a leafy, older suburb a mere 10 miles from center city Philadelphia – through a plant framed door that sticks and agitates an old-fashioned bell announcing a customer. Peas In A Pod is in a typical nondescript twin house converted into mixed commercial/apartment space. Out in front of the shop is a covered stand with produce available on the honor system. Inside, Kristen was at the counter and Susan, with helper, niece Mary Kate, were in the kitchen. (Karen had the day off). Frequent customers, of which there are many, are greeted by name; perhaps they have a quart of soup reserved. Customers, now friends by association, linger and chat.  The interior space of the shop is small, simple and functional.       

       

80 South Keswick Avenue was chosen the end of March 2007, and the doors to the shop opened in June – record time for a food business…until the sisters tell me the space was the very small front room – maybe 8 x 10 –  of the three rooms.  From day one the object was to sell produce from local farms that used green-earth farming techniques from southeastern Pennsylvania counties.       

 For small shops, and any small food business to succeed, it’s necessary to build personal relationships with suppliers. Susan spent days driving through  the countryside and was attracted to the corn fields ofTruck Patch Farms in Bucks County and developed the trust necessary to ensure high quality fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs. Truck Patch is their largest supplier.  Heirloom tomatoes come from Herrcastle Farms and Jesse Hale of Everhart supplies the raw honey. Patterson Farm’s  maple syrup is a personal favorite, and Four Seasons Farm in Lancaster County, as well as orchards in Loyola, PA, supply fruit, especially Pennsylvania’s wide variety of apples. What you will not find at Peas In A Pod are strawberries in January.       

       

You also will not find most of their 21 soups during the months of June, July and August, but, fortunately, their incomparable Crab Bisque is available every Friday year round – otherwise there would be serious withdrawal issues. Susan’s responsible for the soup, according to Kristen. (Susan: “What were we going to sell in the winter? Soup!”) Susan wanted to bake breads, make soup and maybe expand into… (the curse of a new business – expand). Expansion is a decision often made too early. Sometimes bureaucracy is beneficial, especially considering the 2008 financial meltdown. Cheltenham Township made it clear that fire codes allowed a maximum of only two hot plates for cooking – no oven without excessive renovations –  in the compact kitchen (complete with walk in-refrigerator) that was being constructed in the second room.  A third small room became more produce and Cento brand packaged pastas and sauces. Susan had a stint, while being a nurse, at Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill and still has dreams of adding more in-house made products, but reality dictated that soups and salads were a marketable match. With the exception of crab bisque every Friday (300 quarts), the remaining 20 soups rotate with one or two  available daily – lemon chicken, bean and potato leek are all favorites. I was allowed only the briefest glance at one of their proprietary recipes, some from their Mother.  Fresh salads with in-house dressings are in a refrigerated section and range from garden to chicken to orzo. The two professional grade hot plates are doing just fine.       

       

Peas In A Pod celebrated a milestone anniversary this past June 2010: they’re still in business three years after opening – nearly 65% of all food businesses are bankrupt within the first three years. Not that mistakes haven’t been made – the worst was an early over reliance on expensive certified organic produce. Customers preferred the chemical-free products from many local farms that result in “same as organic” at less cost. An obvious suggestion that  future  marketing of their soups, salads and dressings may be a good idea was met with a look  in their eyes that it was already on the table.

The bell at the front door gently clanged as another customer entered the shop. Kristen said that sometimes the bell rings but no one enters. After a brief pause she adds, shyly, “We know its our parents. They would want to be here. I think they’d be proud.”                    

They certainly would.       

Peas In A Pod       

80 South Keswick Avenue
Glenside, PA 19038-4607
(215) 887-2719