Spy kids at Valley Forge

Ed Kane, in the role of Capt. Joseph Bankson of the Continental Army, helps Julia Kampf, 6, create a spy name at Valley Forge National Historical Park.
Ed Kane, in the role of Capt. Joseph Bankson of the Continental Army, helps Julia Kampf, 6, create a spy name at Valley Forge National Historical Park. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Tour takes youngsters undercover in the 18th century.

Posted: August 04, 2014

In the winter of 1777-78, Gen. George Washington marched his tired, beaten, hungry, and sick army to Valley Forge, where he could keep an eye on British Gen. William Howe's troops ensconced in Philadelphia.

The Continental Army desperately needed to determine the enemy's plans. The Americans needed . . . a spy.

"You, what's your spy name?" asked Washington - also known as reenactor David Scott Taylor - as he plucked a likely volunteer from the crowd during Valley Forge National Historical Park's Secrets and Spies tour Saturday.

The 45-minute show that meets at the train station near Washington's headquarters at the park invites young participants to join a spy network to uncover traitors, as well as learn about 18th-century spy techniques, including invisible ink, counterintelligence, counterespionage, and coded messages.

"Rule number one," said guide Phil Richard, of Pottstown. "Never, ever tell anyone who you are."

The tour, produced by Historic Philadelphia Inc., was a popular attraction at the park before being canceled a few years ago after losing state funds. This summer the tour was revived with a $125,000 state grant and help from the Friends of Valley Forge, the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Valley Forge Park. The tour is offered every Saturday at 12:45 p.m. through Aug. 17.

About 20 people showed up for the free tour, including visitors from as far away as California, a new resident of Philadelphia, and a homeschooling family from Baltimore.

"This is a beautiful place," said Sara Maxwell of Mount Airy, who brought her grandson, Brendan Hogan, 14, who was visiting from California. Maxwell moved to Philadelphia from New York in January, so it was her first visit to the park.

Her grandson loved the show.

"I like history," said Hogan, who is going into ninth grade.

So did Breanna Plast, 11, also from California and also visiting grandparents, who had taken her on a whirlwind three-week tour of the East Coast.

"I like to spy on my sister and brother," she said.

In 1776, Lt. Bennington Trayer and Capt. Joseph Bankson (actors Sean Connely and Ed Kane) helped recruit a young spy to pretend to be a Loyalist and a seller of meat to the British army. Under a ruse at Washington's direction, the spy eventually made his way across the Delaware River to Trenton, where three regiments of Hessian soldiers were under the command of Col. Johann Rall. He told Rall that the Continental Army did not plan to attack. Of course, on Dec. 25, 1776, the Americans surprised the enemy and captured Trenton.

(And if the sequence of events seems off, well, no one noticed. The Battle of Trenton predated the Continental Army's encampment at Valley Forge.)

Those touring learned about another spy, Ma Rinker, who owned Buck Tavern in Germantown. If she noticed British troop movements or soldiers buying large amounts of supplies or overheard conversations, she would write down the information and roll it in yarn that she dropped from a hill in Wissahickon where the "Green Mountain Boys" would scoop it up and give it to Washington.

Alas, Washington had spies in his own troops. Lt. Trayer turned out to be a traitor.


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@kathyboccella

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