The long weekend of President’s Day afforded us the extra time and, therefore, the opportunity to take a day trip. We were a little limited in our space and time scope because our 17 year old was working and we are his transport to and from work. We, therefore, elected to visit a place not too far from home but where we have never been: Bethlehem and its historic steelworks. I had chosen the focus of our last trip (a cemetery, of course) so a bit of industrial history was my husband’s choice.
The Bethlehem steel works – previously iron works – were around from the mid-19th Century through to its gradual decline and final closure at the turn of this century. The visitor centre was closed to us as it was being used for a ticketed event (areas of the site are now a concert and event venue) so I did not have the same opportunity to learn any of the history of the company but honestly my brain doesn’t really absorb that kind of history anyway. In fact, I was reading information boards during the visit and immediately forgetting what I had just read.
I do, however, like abandoned structures and all of the textures of rust and flaking paint and grime. As such, I was happy just to walk around the site on the raised gantry-style walkway that mostly followed the old train tracks that would have brought the raw ingredients to the site back in the day.
Our other Winter break trip was to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Our last visit was in 2015 so it was time for a return and all four boys were agreeable to coming on this outing.
We made an effort to visit the galleries we had either missed or only flitted through in our previous visit. I was surprised by how into medieval and renaissance art the boys were so we spent a lot of time in the early European art section. There were entire furnished rooms from historic buildings and things like church screens on display but later we discovered that there were entire chunks of ecclesiastical architecture, including a whole cloister, and a Japanese temple from the 14th Century. How had we managed to miss such massive exhibits on our previous visit?
I don’t think it is necessary for me to write at any length about our visit. We wandered around, appreciated works of art from diverse cultures, a wide variety of periods, and different media, and had some good quality discussions along the way. Everyone got to see something that was a highlight for them – such as my 17 year old seeing one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings – and we did not push everyone beyond their tolerance by insisting that we visit every single nook and cranny of the museum.
When the boys were younger, we always used to keep them occupied and engaged in museums by giving them pencil and paper and encouraging them to draw; once they got older, however, we evolved a new family challenge: each person has to find an exhibit that they try to replicate through mime or tableau. I will, therefore, close this blog post with some of our attempts from this trip.
Given our desire to keep Winter break low-key and low-demand, we decided to curtail our usual bent for travel and exploration and instead play at being tourists in our own area. Despite having lived here for 9 years now, I had still never been to Independence Hall. We decided, therefore, to head into the city for a visit there.
Although I am generally very interested in history, the Revolutionary era is not one that captures my imagination. It definitely feels more like a homework assignment or chore to absorb that learning. I think it is because so much of that era is dominated by military history which is very much not my jam. However, the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to American society and culture means that I really did want to visit Independence Hall. I was accompanied by my husband and our oldest and youngest sons.
The Ranger for our tour group did a great job of providing an accessible precis of the relevant history, focusing on the more engaging highlights and peppering in some jokes about the nature of group assignments. It was also a very brief tour, which was welcome to our sons. Now I can check Independence Hall off my list!
My husband suggested that we take a walk down to the 9th Street Market area. I liked the idea of having a good walk and I needed to restock on vegetables post-Christmas so that seemed like as good a destination as any. My oldest son was bemused by my excitement when I was able to buy parsnips, massive leeks, and fresh figs.
Of course, I should have known that my husband had an ulterior motive when he suggested 9th Street because what he was actually aiming for was cheesesteaks. I don’t eat meat so this was of zero interest to me. The boys, however, joined their dad in ordering and munching cheesesteaks. Although Pat’s is one of the famous Philly purveyors and they did enjoy the food, they all agreed that they have had better cheesesteaks elsewhere.
City murals and celebrations of cheese are much more my thing.
My husband and I enjoyed our day away in Gettysburg in May so much that we decided to grab at another opportunity to have a parents-only day out. We decided upon Lancaster because, while I have been to Lancaster County several times, I have never actually been into the town of Lancaster itself. I also had another specific reason for selecting that location which I will explain later.
We wandered along to the Central Market, the oldest continuously operated market in the entire nation. Lancaster has had a regular market since 1730, pretty much on the same site. Unfortunately we were visiting the day after Independence Day so approximately half of the stalls were closed since the vendors were on vacation. We enjoyed wandering around, however, and taking in all of the produce and wares on sale. We bought some wonderful rhubarb from an Amish vendor and a punnet of fresh figs, the first fresh figs I have had in at least three years.
Our next port of call was a cemetery, the modest Shreiner-Concord Cemetery. You know I love cemeteries and finding graves and you also know that my husband is a massive Civil War nerd so the first grave we visited was that of Jonathan Sweeney, a black Civil War veteran. Pretty much adjacent to that grave was the one that was the focus of my visit: the final resting place of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was a radical politician and passionate abolitionist, active in the Underground Railroad and an advocate for both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Stevens had elected to be buried in this cemetery because it was not segregated.
We next wandered back towards the centre of Lancaster. In common with many towns that are trying to rejuvenate their retail and leisure areas, Lancaster has lots of independent stores, quirky specialists, and interesting eateries. My husband and I enjoyed pottering around in all of the vintage stores on Queen Street. I was tempted to buy a mid-century punch bowl and glasses but could not justify doing so since I really have no regular use for it. Mr Pict enjoyed flicking through stacks of old vinyl albums and he did buy one.
We had worked up an appetite after a morning of exploring on foot so we headed back towards the Market and a pub-restaurant that was recommended by the staff at the visitor centre.
Refuelled, we collected our car and headed back to our final destination in Lancaster and the one that was actually the prime reason for our visit: Woodward Hill Cemetery. Yes, I love cemeteries anyway but I had a specific reason to visit this one. You see, I have accidentally created a somewhat random travel bucket list. I have visited enough Presidential graves that I now want to see if I can visit as many as possible. I am not as fanatical about this travel mission as I am, for instance, about visiting all 50 states but I think it gives my cemetery wanderings a focus and suggests ideas for trips. Anyway, James Buchanan, the 15th US President, is interned in Woodward Hill Cemetery. The cemetery itself is in a bit of a state, with plentiful collapsed gravestones. We saw myriad groundhogs during our visit who might have something to do with that. Buchanan’s grave, therefore, while inherently simple, looked a little grander by comparison to the surrounding grave markers. Buchanan is consistently ranked as one of the worst presidents in history, often as the worst. Maybe, therefore, he should be honoured to be the 9th president whose grave I have visited.
We were looking for something indoors that we could do on a very hot day that threatened with thunderstorms. The middle two kids were meeting up with friends and that scheduling meant we could not venture too far from home base. I, therefore, suggested the Mercer Museum as my husband and youngest son had never visited. My only previous visit had been in 2017 so I was happy to return.
The Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and was created to house his vast collections. Mercer had a deep interest in a vast array of pre-industrial trades and tools and the building he commissioned is full of weird shaped rooms and nooks and crannies where he could showcase these according to subject and theme. We learned that the team of men who had constructed the building – from hand-mixed concrete – had been paid about $1.70 for a ten hour day. That is the equivalent of about $5 per hour in contemporary money. Mercer got a right bargain out of that because – to my mind – the building itself is the absolute star of the show.
I may have unintentionally oversold the experience of this museum to the rest of the family because they were underwhelmed. My husband’s problem is that he compares all eccentric buildings or museums to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont or the House on the Rock in Wisconsin and finds them lacking as a result. As for the kids, I guess they have grown accustomed to interactive exhibits and experiences to capture their interest or some way I have created to engage them. They did enjoy some of the activities designed for kids along the way – despite being 13 and 19 – but they were otherwise a bit checked out. Despite having a bunch of moaners in tow, however, I still loved the place and all of its quirks.
I will say that visiting a concrete building on an intensely hot day was a challenge in and of itself. I often felt as if I was exploring the interior of a pizza oven. The fans became very welcome and appreciated waypoints around the building. Temperature control was, I guess, the one real flaw in Mercer’s design.
This Memorial Day, Mr Pict and I decided to go out for the day without the kids. They were invited to join us but declined so we thought we would take the opportunity to do something they would find tedious. We have been to Gettysburg many times since emigrating to the US. However, because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd, our focus has always been on the battlefield. This time, therefore, we decided to approach Gettysburg from a different angle and visit Eisenhower’s home.
We arrived a little too early for a tour so we had a wander of the exterior of the property. We saw the limousine the Eisenhowers would take from the White House to Gettysburg and I was imagining this fancy car bumping along the uneven roads for two or three hours. Popping into the barn, I ended up chatting to one Ranger about Scotland generally and specifically about Eisenhower’s suite in Culzean Castle. It has been a long time since I visited Culzean so I had forgotten the Eisenhower connection. It is, therefore, pretty weird that I have ended up visiting two places where he lived given he is not exactly of interest to me. Adjacent to the barn, we saw the cramped cinder block hut that was the base of operations for the Secret Service Agents.
We lucked out when it was time for our tour as we were assigned to a very informative and engaging Ranger. I only possess general knowledge of Eisenhower so I found it all very educational. I learned that the farm house was purchased and extensively restored by the Eisenhowers as part of their retirement plan but Ike kept being called back to serve his country in one way or another so it took many years before they could use the property as their permanent residence. They did, however, use it as a weekend bolt hole and to entertain visiting Heads of State. Only one – Nehru – stayed overnight and we saw the guest bedroom where he slept.
My major takeaway from my visit was that, while Eisenhower was a man of extraordinary achievements in public life, in private life the Eisenhowers were massively ordinary. Since I am much more interested in social history than I am military or political history, this actually led me to engage with the tour much more than I anticipated because the home was a time capsule of mid-century taste rather than being a grand home. For example, the Eisenhowers loved to dinner eat off of tray tables while watching TV so we saw the sun room where they used to relax and their wonderfully cuboid TV cabinet. We saw the bedroom where Ike took naps and recuperated from his various acute health complaints and the master bedroom where Mamie would issue orders to staff while still in bed in her nightgown.
After leaving the Eisenhower farm, we headed into Gettysburg. The centre was packed because of the Memorial Day celebrations so we ended up parked a few blocks away. As it happened, we were near a brewery so we decided to pop in for a grown up lunch and some day drinking on my part since I had a cider. That repast then gave us the recharge required to do some extensive wandering in the blistering heat. Most of the historic buildings were closed because it was a holiday but we took in the exteriors and browsed in some fun stores. Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the house where Lincoln had slept the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address and was also in nerd heaven in a store selling board games and another filled to the gunnels with Civil War antiques. We strolled back to our car along the route of the Memorial Day Parade so we could take in some of the festivities as we went.
It was a fun day out and we are hopeful for more day trips – preferably with our kids – now that we are officially in Summer.
Early evening on the first Sunday in November, we headed to Upper Darby’s historic Tower Theater. The purpose of our visit was to go to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. We had booked tickets in the Spring hoping we would feel confident enough to attend an indoor event safely. We took the chance and crossed our fingers because Van Gogh is our 16 year old’s favourite artist and the Experience was coming to the Philly area around the time of his birthday.
The first half of the Experience was engaging and interesting. There were three-dimensional objects on which projected images were moving, replicas of Van Gogh’s works, and well-curated information boards. I actually learned a couple of things about Van Gogh that I had not previously known – that he was very possibly colour blind and that the reds in his paintings have disappeared over time because of the degrading of the particular pigment he used. Had this section been the sum total of the Experience, however, I would have been disappointed. It was an attractive and appealing way to present information but would not have justified the ticket price.
The second half of the Experience, however, was utterly mesmerizing. A large room had images being projected on all four walls and on the floor. The changing images told the story of Van Gogh’s life as an artist, conveyed something of his emotional and mental state, and showcased the imagery of his paintings. I thought the almond blossom section was especially aesthetically pleasing while the crows in the wheatfield were emotionally stirring and the Starry Night was evocative.
My husband and two youngest sons plonked themselves in deckchairs and enjoyed the entire show from that vantage point. Our 16 year old loves the movie ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ so he popped in his earbuds and listened to the soundtrack of that film throughout his visit – though there was a lovely soundtrack accompanying the imagery. He was definitely into the “immersive” aspect of our time there. He most certainly did not appreciate me breaking into his bubble to take his photo or talk to him. Meanwhile I chose to wander around and see what things looked like from different perspectives in the room. I also enjoyed looking around the room and seeing the sunflowers and crabs and branches being projected onto the floor flitting across all of the other visitors.
There was an option to extend the “immersion” by doing a virtual reality activity. There was an extra cost involved but it was not too steep. The boys were not keen enough on the idea, however, to want to queue up for a turn plus we were all getting hungry so we did not opt into that. We really enjoyed the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. This type of event was a first for me and I would certainly be keen to visit others with a similar approach. It’s just a different way of engaging in a subject.
We have had an incredibly busy couple of months so this is going to be a bit of a “catch up” blog post that jumps from subject to subject.
My oldest son moved to Rochester, New York, in the middle of August in order to attend college and then the other boys went back to school on 1 September. This was their first time attending in-person school since March 2020. After 18 months of virtual learning and only seeing teachers through screens, they were very much looking forward to a more normal school year. However, not long after they got home on that first day, our community was hit by a tornado. Some neighbourhoods were devastated and community buildings, including the High School, sustained damage. My two High School aged sons, therefore, had to pivot back to a few weeks of virtual school again. As deflating as that setback was, we were very thankful to have not personally endured any lasting damage to our property.
In October, my in-laws came to visit. Having not seen their grandsons for almost two years, they decided to risk travel and international flights. Their visit inspired us to return to some seasonal family traditions we had skipped last year because of the pandemic. The first of these was apple picking. We went a bit crazy picking a variety of apples. Over a month later and I we are still eating those same apples and I am still baking apple cobblers for dessert. I never thought I would get sick of apples but …
Our second son turned 16 in early October. What he wanted to do was take his two best friends to Shady Brook Farm to hang out and eat fair food. We all went together and then we set him and his friends loose to do whatever they wanted while we did the visited the Halloween themed barns, found our way around the corn maze, and visited the pumpkin patch. Mr Pict and our youngest son even took a ride in the monster truck hearse.
My in-laws wanted some time at the shore while they were in the US so they rented a beach property in Lewes, Delaware, for a week. We went down to stay with them for the weekend and properly explore Lewes, having only dipped in there before. We took a wander around the historic town centre. I enjoyed seeing all of the vintage architecture. Even my kids enjoyed seeing a cannonball from the War of 1812 still lodged in the side of the building that now serves as the town’s maritime museum. We took a stroll past the lightship Overfalls and played draughts (checkers) on the waterfront. I also managed to meet up with a friend who moved to Lewes over the Summer.
My in-laws celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary at the end of their visit with us. We went for an elegant and delicious brunch at the William Penn Inn.
Finally, in the last weekend of October, we took a flying visit up to Rochester to visit our oldest son. He had attended the open day on his own – the weekend before we went into lockdown in 2020 – and my husband had dropped him off in August so this was actually my first time visiting the RIT campus. Our son took us on a tour of the campus and to his dorm room. He is actually sharing with one of his best friends from High School so that worked out perfectly. He seems very happy and settled there and it was reassuring for me to see with my own eyes how comfortable and confident he is and how successfully he is managing everything.
It was cold and rainy while we were in Rochester so, in search of something indoors to do, we went to the Strong Play Museum. It was a terrific museum focused on the history of games and my kids would have had an absolute blast there when they were younger. There were lots of interactive exhibits, indoor playgrounds, and even a miniature supermarket. With our kids all being much older than the target demographic, we spent most of our time on the upper floor which was focused on board games and video and computer games. We are a big board gaming family with an extensive collection and Mr Pict and the boys all love computer games so we all found it pretty engaging. It is always amusing and mildly disconcerting to see things from our own childhoods now being curated in museums as vintage and classic items and there were abundant cases of that in this museum.
It was so lovely to have all six of us together again and the perfect way to round out a very busy couple of months. I am now looking forward to things slowing down and getting quieter for the remainder of the year.
A friend who owns a second home in the Poconos thoughtfully offered us the opportunity to spend a day or two at her property. We gratefully accepted her offer partly because we thought we could all benefit from a mini-break and also because we normally only take day trips to the Poconos so it meant we would have longer to explore. Furthermore, I have also wanted to visit the Delaware Water Gap since we moved here (I cannot even recollect precisely why) and having my friend’s house as a base presented us with the chance to go that bit further afield and spend an entire day poking around in that area, which is governed by the National Park Service.
On our first day, we decided to focus on relaxation and quality family time. We spent time in the house together – playing card games, watching shark documentaries – and we walked to a nearby lake to spend some time there. We had planned on going swimming but it was a little bit too chilly at that time of day even for paddling so we just enjoyed the scenery, people watching, ice cream, and playing more card games. After dinner on the shore of another lake, however, it was time to head out and go for a hike.
My husband and I visited Hawk Falls several years ago now but we have never managed to take the boys there because the parking situation has always been horrendously swamped. Because we had the ability to hike in the early evening this time, however, we found a parking spot with ease and headed to the falls. It’s a relatively easy hike to the falls – though a little steep for a stretch on the return – and I like the way the path winds through the woods and across streams. I just really like being in the woods.
There are definitely more impressive waterfalls but Hawk Falls are pleasing enough. Running water is always lovely, right? Except in relation to natural disasters or domestic pipe failures, of course. While we had met other visitors on the path, by the time we reached the falls, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was really peaceful. The boys had fun leaping around on the rocks. The 15 year old even scaled the rock wall on the opposite bank.
We had a leisurely start to the next day. We also decided to start with a big breakfast because we knew we would have few and far between (if any) opportunities to stop for a bite to eat for the rest of the day. Our 18 year old ordered a massive sandwich stacked full of any breakfast meat you can think of and slathered in sausage gravy. His digestive system is in training for that $27 a day college meal plan he had to sign up for.
I had devised an itinerary for our travels through the Delaware Water Gap and the first stop was my happy place: an old cemetery. Obviously I like to wander around in cemeteries regardless of any personal connection to the place but, on this occasion, my husband and kids actually have some relatives buried there. Only my 12 year old agreed to come and find the graves with me. Everyone else stayed in the car. You will observe from the accompanying photos that this became a common occurrence on this particular trip. My youngest son was my exploration buddy while the others opted in and mostly out of most itinerary items. Anyway, we found the two relevant Shellenberger graves with ease.
Next up on the itinerary was visiting the view points on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Now I had conducted a decent amount of research on the Delaware Water Gap in order to draw up my itinerary so I was surprised and disappointed to discover that the view points were, quite frankly, totally duff. The first one we visited, we literally could not even glimpse a sliver of water through the trees and across the railroad tracks. What we could see was the interstate on the opposite side of the river and the sheer face of a small mountain. The same proved true of the other two view points we visited – though I did manage to see a patch of water from one of them. What I came to realise was that the National Park Service had taken photos of the views using either drones or cranes. Therefore, any human of normal height stood absolute zero chance of seeing the view, especially since there seemed to be no management of the foliage on the river banks.
After that failure, the kids were growing ever more cynical about the purpose and merits of the whole trip. I decided we should boost up the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and focus on all the bits and bobs on the New Jersey side I was hoping to see. Incidentally, all of the Visitor Centers and Ranger stations were closed and none of the historic buildings were open for visitors so it was just as well I had conducted all of my research in advance. What my research did not tell me was just how arduous navigating the roads was going to be.
The first stops were all fine as they were within the boundaries of still functioning towns. First there was the Foster-Armstrong House (usually open the public but not recently) which was a ferry-side tavern and inn for tired 19th Century travelers. Then there was the Minisink Dutch Reformed Church, the oldest church in the county and still going strong today. And there was the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse.
After those three historic buildings, my itinerary took us onto the Old Mine Road. Well, this proved to be quite the challenge. The road dates from the 1600s but I had expected the surface to have been improved since then. I am obviously exaggerating but the surface was seriously bad. It was extremely crumbled, full of deep pot holes and eroded at the sides – and it was single track as it was for very long stretches – and just incredibly rickety. It got worse the further we ventured down the road and the more committed we were to just plunging onwards. It actually got to the point that Mr Pict and I were making mental note of routes for one of us hiking back off the road on foot and where the nearest lived in property was for phoning for help should the axel of the car break. I feel like we should have earned badges declaring “I survived the Old Mine Road”.
Anyway, first stop on the Old Mine Road was the Westbrook Bell House. While my oldest two sons trekked back along the road to a ruined barn my 15 year old wanted to photograph, my youngest son and I headed down a grass covered path through the woods in search of the house. It felt like a fairytale with maybe a witch’s house at the end of the trail. We soon reached the house, which is the oldest extant structure in the Delaware Water Gap, dating as it does from 1701. We were wandering around the exterior of the house and peering into barns that looked like they might collapse at any moment when I smelled and then spotted what looked to my non-expert eyes like pretty fresh bear poop. We, therefore, decided it might be a smart idea to skedaddle back through the woods to the car.
After another bone-jangling stretch of the Old Mine Road, we rejoined a proper road to visit what was once the village of Bevans. This rural hamlet has been transformed into the Peters Valley School of Craft so there were art and craft galleries and artisan workshops operating out of the old buildings.
Tempting as it was to stay on these proper roads, I was both determined (some might say foolishly) to see the other items on my itinerary and I was convinced (some might say foolishly) that the final stretch of Old Mine Road could not possibly be as bad as the stretch we had left behind. Yup. Foolish. If anything, it was worse because this stretch also involved uphill stretches. I swear I could hear our car wheezing. I think everyone was relieved when we reached the Van Campen Inn and could pull over the car and take a break from all the bumpy driving. I had spotted on one of the maps I had looked at that there was a cemetery for enslaved people in the vicinity of the inn so my youngest son and I set off trying to find it. We were wholly unsuccessful. I think mostly we were determined to try just to avoid getting back in the car for a while longer.
The Delaware View House was in a very sorry state. It had served as a hunting lodge and a hotel in its prime. Now it is clearly deteriorating rapidly. We very carefully walked around the wraparound porch before losing our nerve and getting ourselves back to solid ground.
The penultimate planned stop was at Millbrook Village. This is the site of a genuine settlement from the 1830s but the few remaining historic buildings have been expanded upon with reconstructed buildings that create the impression of what the village looked like in the 1870s. I think it would have been fun to visit at a time when visitors were permitted to enter buildings. This was probably the most engaged the boys were on the trip but they were fed up and jaded from all of the previous stops and from the nerve-shredding travels on that road so they were pretty resistant to finding anything of interest at that point.
The penultimate actual stop was at the request of my 15 year old. He has apparently inherited my love of dilapidated buildings so he wanted to take photographs of a barn that was falling apart at the seams. My 12 year old stood in the window of a gable end that had fallen, Buster Keaton style, while the 15 year old gave me palpitations by climbing over piles of planks in search of better camera angles.
We made one final pit stop in the Delaware Water Gap as one final attempt to see the Delaware. Kittatinny Point Overlook suggests being in an elevated position that provides a view out over the Delaware. Well nope. Not that we could find anyway. The best we could hope for was descending some stairs in order to be down on the shore. Unfortunately this spot was the end point for the scores of people who had rafted down the river so it was very busy and there were boats everywhere. Therefore, even that close to the water, it was nigh impossible to really take in let alone appreciate the view.
As you can no doubt tell, my trip to Delaware Water Gap was somewhat disappointing. I am sure it is a fantastic area to visit if one wants to interact with the water in some way but I don’t do water sports. I really wanted to engage with the history of the area and to take in the landscape. I believe, therefore, it was a case of too high expectations and a lack of delivery. The whole “view” point debacle really set the tone for the day. When Mr Pict gets hacked off on an excursion, things are really not going well. I happen to like old, abandoned, decaying buildings so I definitely got far more out of it than anyone else in the family but I cannot say that was worth the investment of time. The condition of the Old Mine Road was probably the nail in the coffin of the trip. It set our nerves on edge and meant there was too much focus on the function and mechanics of driving rather than taking in the surroundings. It also simply slowed us down and made a long day out even longer. I am glad I finally visited the Delaware Water Gap after years of wanting to do so but I don’t think I could recommend a visit there to anyone not wishing to float down the river and I don’t envisage a return visit.
Living in eastern Pennsylvania as we do, we are never too far from a Revolutionary War site. We are surrounded by the stuff. Despite that, I really don’t know as much as I ought to about the Revolution. It just doesn’t engage me as a subject so I really only retain the scratchiest general knowledge about it. This is not because I am British. Nope. I am totally on the side of the Americans. I am just really not into military history unless it intersects with some other genre of history that I am into. I only know as much as I do about the Civil War because I am married to a big Civil War nerd and learning osmosis happens.
Anyway, one of the local Revolutionary history sites we had not visited in the almost 8 years since moving here was a pretty big one: Brandywine. It was the biggest battle of the War, with the most troops fighting and doing so continuously for 11 hours over 10 square miles. The battlefield is only open seasonally and on particular days so we have just never gotten around to making a plan to visit work. Mr Pict, however, was determined we should finally visit so we got our act together and went.
We started off at the Visitor Center where some friendly, chatty staff placed the battle within its wider context for us. Mr Pict also got deep into the weeds of a conversation with them about why the site doesn’t have National Park status. The rest of us scuttled off into the adjoining museum. Small as the museum was, the information boards were some of the clearest and most informative I have encountered. I was actually finally able to grasp the chronology of the conflicts that occurred in our region and why the American and British sides manoeuvred that they did. I always love a diorama and they had several. Meanwhile the 12 and 14 year olds entertained themselves in the dress up corner.
The rest of the trip was a driving tour. We could have hit up a couple of dozen points of interest along the route but nobody was really enthralled at that prospect so we kept to the highlights. We started at the house of Gideon Gilpin, a Quaker farmer. It was the property that Lafayette used as his quarters and where he returned after being shot in the leg during the battle. Incidentally Lafayette turned 20 days before Brandywine which kind of blows my mind. I personally just like old buildings so I enjoyed wandering around and looking at the shapes and the stonework. Near the house is a massive sycamore tree that is over 300 years old which means it was around during the battle. I kind of love that living connection to the past.
The next stop was the Benjamin Ring house that Washington used as his HQ. The interior was not yet open so we just skirted its exterior. I didn’t find it too interesting to look at. However, we got chatting to a volunteer guide who, while telling us that his hobby is making replicas of historic guns, revealed that he lives in the house that was the site of the last witch trial (more of an interrogation) in Pennsylvania. Obviously I had to steer the conversation in that direction. Much more interesting to me than battles and military leaders.
We went to find Jefferis Ford, which is the spot where the sneaky British forces managed to cross the river. American troops were defending all of the other fords along the river but, for some reason, neglected to protect Jefferis Ford. Quite the oops. Anyway, we cross the bridge that now spans that area and looked down at the dun brown water and then we went on a trek up hill and down dale trying to find a spot with decent sight lines where I could do a three point turn. So that was annoying.
The final stop was at the Birmingham Quaker Meetinghouse. This was the location of some ferocious fighting and fallen soliders from both sides are buried in a mass grave in the small walled cemetery that abuts the meetinghouse. As much as military history is not my thing, cemeteries very much are. After visiting the walled graveyard, I therefore wandered off into the adjoining larger cemetery. Most of the stones are very small and simple, since Quakers traditionally do not approve of ostentatious memorials. I went in search of the grave of artist NC Wyeth but really stood no chance of locating it since his family’s stone is a simple one set into the ground. Our kids were all out of tolerance for this parent-driven excursion as it was so were not up for entertaining my cemetery wanderings.
While the cemetery largely comprised standard grave markers, there were some very elaborate memorials. Just outside the gates were monuments to Lafayette and Casimir Pulaski, neither of whom is buried in Pennsylvania let alone that cemetery. Inside the cemetery, however, is a large monument containing a marble statue that really is quite at odds with the rest of the graves. It marks the plots of the family of John Gheen Taylor. Want to know why he got to break the rules? That would be because he was the cemetery president.
So that was our trip to Brandywine Battlefield. I don’t think I will feel the need to return but, surprisingly, I did actually learn something through my visit. Plus it is always nice to go for a wander somewhere new. Now I am actually keen to visit the Museum of the American Revolution so that I can put together some more of the details of the war. Because goodness knows I am not going to sit down to read a book about it or even watch a documentary. Once I feel ready to return to museums, that one is going to be high on my list.
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