Just up the Delaware River, 26 miles from the bustle of 17th century Philadelphia, Sir William Penn spied his country retreat and let out a relieved sigh. With good tide, his six sturdy rowers could muscle the slim craft right up to the riverside gate in five hours.
Upon disembarking, the Lord Proprietor would stroll silently under the arch of tulip poplars, then through the small, oh-so-avant English garden. Before mounting the steps, Penn would stare appreciatively at the towering three-story, brick-faced manor house, designed as much to impress visitors as to afford Pennsylvania’s Governor and family comfort. He adored this plantation and named it Pennsbury Manor, as a sort of joking wish that he might be buried on its grounds. But alas, such was not to be.
The date was 1684. England’s King Charles II had three years prior repaid a debt to Penn’s father, by giving son William the 26 million North American acres called Pennsylvania. People flocked to this newest of the seven colonies, hoping to experience Pennsylvania’s renowned religious tolerance and acquire land, which Governor Penn sold at the equivalent of 60 cents an acre. Pennsbury plantation, not yet complete, was only two summers old.
Upon Penn’s return from Philadelphia, the giant wood door would be flung open by the house stewardess, Ann Hutchinson, followed by the gardener, Ralph Smith, and a host of staff each filled with news:
"Yes, sir, we have gotten your favorite smoked fish from northern Europe. I wish we could learn how to do that smoking here, sir."
"No, sir, those figs and apricot trees you imported just aren’t responding, but the apples, pears, and quinces, oh you should see, sir, are in full blossom."
And finally, "Governor Penn, sir, it’s that indentured blacksmith again. He’s run away to the Biles place next door and is making us all nervous with the cannon he’s got pointed at the manor house. Yes, I’ll explain later."
And so it went, first all the servants’ reports; only last the family.
What was life like for the hired workers, indentured servants, and slaves who labored to make Pennsbury totally self-sufficient? While one cannot recapture a wave of history gone by, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has established an astonishingly accurate, entertaining re-creation of life in America as it was 100 years before Colonial Williamsburg’s heyday. Located in Morrisville, just across the Delaware from Trenton and a bit south of Yardley in Bucks County, Pennsbury Manor thrives in a way that would have done Pennsylvania’s old Quaker Governor proud. Year-round events – such as open hearth cooking demonstrations, living history theater, and children, family, and adult workshops – provide entertaining and educational experiences for all ages with ample history for the scholar and a working farm for the kids. For information on the manor’s next event, "Waking Up in the 17th Century," see box, page 35.
Penn had been in the New World a scant two years when he learned that Lord Baltimore of neighboring Maryland had sent a letter to King Charles. The missive told of "Maryland’s most delightful northern city, Philadelphia…" – Baltimore was poaching Penn’s colony. Pennsylvania’s Lord Proprietor hopped the next boat back to London to reassert his claim. He was not to return until 1699, by which time his first wife had died. The 52-year-old Governor brought back with him a second wife, 24-year-old Hannah Callowhill. She and Penn’s 21-year-old eldest daughter, Latitia, apparently got along famously.
Today over 100 trained volunteers, along with a small permanent staff, yoke the oxen and plow, join the barrels, forge the nails, haul the water, spin the wool, and prepare the cookfires throughout the 43-acre restored plantation. Their sweat is honest, their labor hard, and their products authentic. Pennsbury historical researcher Lara Murphy pores over the four volumes of Penn’s family letters and ships’ manifests to make sure every tool and bonnet is authentic to the place and period.
"The most difficult item to make sure of," Murphy says, "is commoners’ clothing. Actual clothing decays so quickly, and there is very little written about it." But two things are certain: colonial clothing was worn hard and hard to come by. Most Pennsbury folk wore layers of wool and linen. To obtain wool for breaches, people would have to first shear the wool from the manor’s sheep, card it clean, spin it into thread and weave it on a loom, then hand-sew the clothing. Two full sets of clothes would comprise the average worker’s total wardrobe. Thus the patches and tears in the volunteers’ costumes truly represent the 17th century. But those who don the bedraggled outfits each weekend and step back into another era find an enormous fulfillment in making history come alive.
Pumping the foot pedals of a belt-driven lathe, David Healy labors over a block of ash. Sweat pours down his broad white muttonchops as he turns the wood, transforming it into a delicate banister rail. His purview is the joiners’ (or carpenters’) shop, a small building where all the plantation’s woodworking was performed. As visitors enter, he pauses from his work to display the 60 different hand planes and show how they are used to create individual grooves and edgings.
Healy, a retired psychologist for the New Jersey state government, lives in Hamilton Square. "I love it," says the dedicated Pennsbury volunteer. "Not only is it the most therapeutic thing I’ve done in years but it has taught me a whole new profession."
Beside Healy, fellow carpenter Adam Cherubini chisels the precise hole and pin fitting for a footstool’s angled mortise and tennon joint. Children and parents watch with silent respect as each leg slips perfectly, firmly, into place with no nails or glue. Cherubini has taken his Pennsbury training out to the 21st century marketplace and soon will be opening up an antique furniture reproduction shop.
Retired college professor Robert Shields, a docent and tour guide for the farm, enjoys ferretting out little historical tidbits to pass them along to impressed groups of visitors. By the barn, peacocks scurry around the feet of the farm’s oxen, Summer and Andy.
Shields then leads his visitors inside an approximately 15 by 20 foot wood frame middle-class workers’ cottage, where the family and all apprentices, about 14 in all, would sleep. With a huge wooden key, Shields screws up the rope tension bed with a straw tick mattress and explains the origin of "Sleep tight – don’t let the bed bugs bite." He hands out leathern cups sealed with pine pitch, which inadvertently added extra tang to any beer. (Beer was preferred over water for purity’s sake; children would be started off on a mild two proof version.)
Beneath the bed sits an authentic chamber pot, a marvelous convenience that replaced those bone chilling trips to the outhouse on a February midnight. To the youngest child went the daily honor of emptying the pot. Come daylight, Penn and servants alike would make use of the two-hole outhouse just behind the manor. A hefty supply of corn cobs supplanted today’s lily soft tissue. And the rule stood that everyone availing themselves of the outhouse must return to the manor with a load of firewood from the adjacent shed. A masterpiece of architectural planning.
In 1684, Penn’s blacksmith’s apprentice, John Smith, would be going at it, hammer and tongs, in the forge. In the gloom and smoky environs of the smithy, Smith would pump the huge bellows, clean out slag from the fire, and perform dozens of other unappetizing tasks to work off his five-year indenture to Penn. Thinking that this was too high a price for New World passage, Smith fled next door and unsuccessfully sought to prevent recapture by importing a cannon from Philadelphia.
Veteran staff professional Charles Thomforde frequently plays the role of the plantation’s gardener, Ralph Smith. He takes visitors aroundthe three-acre garden, which grew all the food, spices, herbs, and medicines for the Pennsbury community. Centered around a well, each tree and plant is watered by hand. Within the first year Penn cleared and planted only two of Pennsbury’s original 8,500 acres.
Played often by Morrisville machinist William Knab, Penn’s translator and guide, Lasse Cox, who knew the cultures of both the Lenape Indians and original Swedish settlers, would have accompanied the governor on his frequent treaty-making treks into the Pennsylvania wilds. "Penn was a hard traveler, not just the soft guy seen on the Quaker Oats Box," says Knab. "As a peace-loving Quaker, establishing what he called his ‘holy experiment,’ Penn traded fairly with the Indians."
While Penn wheeled and dealed, his wife, Hannah, spent much time doctoring the community in the best kitchen – a small medicinal herb center attached to the main house. Hannah’s use of ginger root for stomachache still finds favor today, unlike the plantain and dog turd concoction which, thankfully, is no longer used to soothe sore throats. Only a small fire was kept in this attached kitchen, as fire was an ever-present danger. The main cause of injury and death in 17thcentury women came from fire catching onto the ladies’ voluminous dresses, aprons, and bonnets.
A New Start
In l937, when archeologists first began to work on the relict Pennsbury site, everyone balked at the $200,000 estimated restoration price tag. Had it not been for President’ Roosevelt’s WPA, Pennsylvanians might never have experienced their original governor’s amazing estate as it stands today. With approximately 35,000 visitors annuallly, the manor’s on-site director, Doug Miller, justifiably labels Pennsbury "an historical and financial success."
"We are looking to triple the size of our visitors center to accommodate our guests," says Miller, an historical site director at numerous Pennsylvania centers since the l980s, referring to plans for a new Pennsbury visitors center. "Penn was one of the hemisphere’s very first multi-culturalists – a compassionate force that our leadership today needs to keep in mind, particularly after 9/11."
In the end, Governor William Penn spent only a total of four summers at his beloved Pennsbury. In l701, wranglings at court and over finances again called him back to England where he died 17 years later. But what Penn termed "the seeds of a free nation" took root in his beloved Pennsylvania and visitors to Pennsbury Manor may still experience the peace of the land he so adored.
Pennsbury Manor, 400 Pennsbury Memorial Road, Morrisville, Pennsylvania. Tuesday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m.to noon. Call 215-946-0400 or visit www.PennsburyManor.org. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, training entails initial weekly study course on site and some homework.
Join a Family Slumber Party, circa 1684
How straight a furrow could you plow hitched to a team of oxen? What tasty fare could you whip up over an open hearth using garden crops? On Saturday and Sunday, October 8 and 9, you and your family can find out these and other historic answers at Pennsbury Manor.
So what’s it really like to wake up in the 17th century? Don’t worry, you’ll learn. Modern day travelers will be dressed in period clothing; sleep in working folks conditions; muck, chop, and perform all the chores with period tools; and prepare their own meals with Pennsbury utensils. "This really gives people a chance to smell, feel, and see life in the colonial 1600s — with all its muscle aches," says Mary Ellyn Kunz, educator at Pennsbury Manor, who has led two previous sleepovers.
The step back into history begins with homework. Participants are sent 17th century recipes, such as gingeroot bread, which they bring toPennsbury Manor on Saturday eve at 5 p.m. Once in the main manor house, the team zips out of their 21st century togs, and buttons themselves into the linen and flax homespun of Penn’s time. Then the party begins.
The crew shares its 17th century potluck brought from home. A dance follows with music supplied by an expert player of the wood recorder. Meanwhile Kunz and her helpers pass out cards containing hypothetical problems and professions as an icebreaker. One year the lady with the sore throat and the local herbalist argued exhaustively as to whether the "white" in the "white dog’s turd" part of the remedy referred to the dog itself or its leavings.
As the dimming fire and rising stars call the time travelers to bed, they all climb up to the bake and brew house loft, to experience 17th century privacy and doze on air mattresses. (Straw ticks, while more authentic tend to contain equally authentic vermin.) The more squeamish may sleep in their own tents down by the Delaware River. (Modern toilets are available all weekend.)
On Sunday, due to the late autumnal sunrise, participants will sleep in until nearly seven a.m. After a breakfast of last eve’s leftovers, it’s time for chores. All the stables need mucking, and the animals require feeding. There’s laundry and gardening to do. Each fruit tree and vegetable is lovingly hand-watered with buckets carried from the well.
The oxen may not be fit for plowing this time, says Kunz, but there are always fences to be built. Have you ever wielded a scythe?
Amid this full day, people break for a meal and an optional Quaker Meeting for worship. By 2 p.m. the day draws to a close. As the group sits down and laughs over tales of runaway horses, weaving furrows, and other travails, Kunz notices a distinct reaction, which she has seen after the last two sleepovers. "The day is over but they don’t want to leave. They want to stay on in this century." Just remember, you can come back again next spring, when Pennsbury Manor runs the program again.
Waking Up in the 17th Century, Saturday and Sunday, October 8 and 9 (includes an overnight), Pennsbury Manor, 400 Pennsbury Memorial Road, Morrisville, Pennsylvania. Not recommended for children under six years of age. $100 per family; $35 per person. Space is limited; register at 215-946-0400 or visit www.pennsburymanor.org.