Real history buffs go to historic sites

Bill Holscher: From Atlanta, a Philly-history lover. Michael Hinkelman / Daily News staff
Bill Holscher: From Atlanta, a Philly-history lover. Michael Hinkelman / Daily News staff
Posted: July 06, 2012

Real history buffs didn't mingle with the thousands of visitors and tourists who flocked to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center in Old City on Independence Day.

Instead, they could be found along a 2-mile strip of Germantown Avenue that runs through Germantown and Mount Airy, enjoying the rich historic sites — including Cliveden, Stenton, Concord School, Johnson House and Colonial burial grounds — while avoiding the throngs in Center City.

Historic Germantown gets about 400 visitors on Independence Day, a piddling number compared to the thousands who descend on Old City each year at this time.

Most of the visitors are locals seeking a more "authentic" experience in a "more family-friendly and relaxed" atmosphere, said Barbara Hogue, executive director of Historic Germantown, a nonprofit consortium of 15 historic sites in Germantown that works to educate the public and helps preserve the sites.

Visitors to Germantown's historic shrines and burial grounds on Wednesday seemed to share that sentiment.

"This is living history," said Karen Ford, an events planner who lives in Mount Airy with her mother, Edythe Ford Bush. Both women said that they were "doing local" this year to celebrate Independence Day as they walked through the main residence of the National Trust's Cliveden, the 5 1/2-acre estate that was occupied by British soldiers during the American Revolution and attacked by rebels in the Battle of Germantown in October 1777, and where actual battle scars remain visible.

"This is a little different, there's original furniture in here, you can feel the spirits [of past inhabitants] here," said Ford, pointing a reporter toward a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk said to date from the late 1800s.

The trunk belonged to Anne Thompson Chew, a descendant of Benjamin Chew, a chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania. Cliveden, built in 1765, was Benjamin Chew's summer retreat.

Story has it that Chew was supposed to be on the maiden voyage of the Titanic but the steamer trunk didn't arrive in Britain on time from Cliveden and she passed up the ill-fated voyage.

Visitors to Cliveden on Wednesday were treated to a brand-new exhibition, "Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness?" as well as a tour of the house.

Stenton, on 18th Street near Windrim, which is actually in Logan, also attracted visitors. An elegant 18th-century Georgian-architecture house, it was built by James Logan, who came here from Britain with William Penn and served as his secretary.

Logan also amassed one of the largest private libraries of the day, and it was here that a young Ben Franklin came by for advice on purchases for the Colonies' first public library.

On Independence Day, families chowed down on hot dogs, played Colonial games and were serenaded by the Run of the Mill String Band.

Others, like Bill Holscher, a retired air-freight worker from suburban Atlanta, were soaking in the history of Stenton, which was completed in 1730 and where 25 percent of the furniture and the walls are original.

Holscher was fascinated by a "whispering closet" in Stenton's dining room, where a servant could be stationed to listen to visitors before the Logans joined their guests.

"It's quite amazing to see such an old, distinguished property," Holscher said, adding: "We don't have anything like this in Atlanta, which is a much newer city. Philadelphia is so well-preserved."

Holscher said that he and his wife are thinking about relocating to the area, to be closer to his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, who live in Fishtown. n

Contact Michael Hinkelman at 215-854-2656 or hinkelm@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @MHinkelman.

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