Renewed Battle Promised For Paoli Battlefield Support Continues For Pursuing Federal Aid To Purchase The Site Where American Soldiers Were Massacred By British Troops.

Posted: November 01, 1998

MALVERN — Four small U.S. flags rippled in the afternoon breeze, commemorating a battle that took place 221 years ago.

Beyond lay a harvested cornfield where, in 1777, 53 Revolutionary War soldiers under the command of Gen. Anthony Wayne were bayoneted to death by British troops on their way to capture Philadelphia.

Jill Greiner pulled out her camera and began snapping shots of the field, which glowed dully in the fading afternoon light.

``I want a panoramic view,'' said Greiner, who plans to use the photographs to create a Web site on the Paoli Battlefield. The project, she said, would help earn her a master's degree in educational technology.

Until last week, Greiner, a teacher from Lancaster County, had never heard of the 40-acre patch of field that lies behind a stretch of middle-class homes in the quiet borough of Malvern.

Known as the Paoli Massacre, the battle became a rallying point of the American Revolution, with the cry of ``Remember Paoli'' spurring the Americans on to victory. The soldiers are buried in a mass grave next to the cornfield.

Greiner said she became interested in the site after she saw an article in a newspaper about how Congress had adjourned for the year without passing legislation securing $1.5 million for the purchase of the battlefield from its owner, Malvern Preparatory School.

The school wants $2.5 million for the site, and the legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon would have set aside $1.5 million in federal funds if the remaining $1 million were raised through state, county and private funding.

Weldon has pledged to renew his efforts to secure funding as soon as Congress reconvenes in January.

Although it had received unanimous support in the Senate, the bill failed in the House Oct. 22, held up by representatives who would let it move only if an unrelated bill concerning the U.S. Virgin Islands were dropped.

``The whole idea that young men died here, and the ground remains untouched since 1777, really captivated me,'' Greiner said. ``And I thought, what a shame that the battlefield might be sold for houses.''

The possibility that federal funding might not be approved in time for a local preservation group to buy the site from Malvern Prep has become a likelihood. That leaves some officials and citizens in the small borough aghast. The school has set a September 1999 deadline for the purchase. After that, it goes on the development block.

Bulldozing the battlefield for development would be like ``seeing the patriots who lie buried there die a second time,'' said Malvern Council President Henry H. Briggs.

Briggs was so moved by the site's significance that he produced a videotape called Remember Paoli, hoping it would persuade people to donate to the cause.

``I figure the ground is worth about $40 million to some developer,'' said Briggs, who bases his estimate on the borough's prime-real-estate appeal. He said 80 houses selling for about $500,000 apiece would fit handily on the battlefield.

Malvern Borough Manager Patrick McGuigan said 190 homes could be built under the borough's cluster ordinance if the school sought to rezone the property from institutional to residential use.

If not, McGuigan said, then the battlefield would be ``an ideal location'' for an office park or corporate headquarters due to its proximity to the Malvern Train Station and the Route 202 corridor.

McGuigan, who also heads the Paoli Battlefield Preservation Fund committee and has been instrumental in bringing national attention to the effort to save the land, estimates the site would bring in at least $200,000 annually in earned-income taxes if it were zoned residential. He said he had not calculated what the real-estate taxes would come to.

``It would be in the interest of the borough to do the opposite of what it is doing. But this has never been a question of economics, and it is not a question of economics now,'' McGuigan said.

So far the borough has spent $10,000 in legal fees, soil analysis and land appraisals in the preservation effort, McGuigan said. Chester County has pledged $250,000. The preservation committee has secured about $350,00 in pledges from private sources. Obtaining federal funding is critical if the battlefield is to be saved, McGuigan said.

Celia Blackburn, who grew up in Malvern and lives on Channing Avenue, said that as a child, she went on field trips to the site. ``If the battlefield goes, what are our children going to learn about?'' she asked.

``I think it stinks. You might as well develop Valley Forge,'' Blackburn said.

For Briggs, the $1.5 million is ``a cup of coffee'' to the federal government. ``It is such a small amount, and when you think it preserves one-of-a kind history,'' Briggs said.

Tip O'Neill, who heads Malvern Prep's board of directors and is a member of the preservation committee, said the school needed to put the property up for bid by September to bolster its $2.5 million endowment.

Malvern Prep has owned the property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, for 75 years.

``It is an asset of no value to the school in its current form. We have no use for the land,'' said O'Neill, who has been steadfast in the preservation effort but also emphasizes the school's fiduciary responsibilities. He said the site would be developed in a manner that ``best protects the interest of the school.''

The battlefield is next to 20 acres owned by the Paoli Memorial Association, which has maintained the grounds and monument marking the grave site since 1817.

William R. Shoemaker, president of the association, said that the school approached the association several years ago about purchasing the battlefield but that the group did not have the financial resources. The association put the school in touch with McGuigan, Shoemaker said.

``Clearly it would be a tragedy to lose the battlefield and would be to the detriment of the grave site to have it cheek-by-jowl with development. But unless you are willing to buy the ground, there is really not much you can do about it,'' Shoemaker said.

Briggs said Malvern could not afford to buy the site despite the town's revitalization, which in recent years has bolstered borough coffers.

``It [$2.5 million] is a huge sum for a community. It would suck up everything we have and divert for years funds from the King Street renovation,'' Briggs said, referring to the town's main street, now lined with upscale craft, antique and furniture stores.

Madeleine Dever, who has lived in Malvern since 1959, said the site should be preserved, since it represents an ideal that men fought and died for.

``We're very proud that the battlefield is there,'' Dever said. ``My nephew, who is in his 40s and lives in Newtown Square, biked out here a couple of weeks ago. He had no idea it was there and was thrilled when he found out about it.''

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