Scanning in retrospect in her mind’s eye a number of books on the history of Pennsylvania which this writer has perused more or less thoroughly in assembling the material for this column, few, if any, have for her the warmth of appeal that is contained in “Our Pennsylvania”. Written by our Main Line neighbor, Amy Oakley, and illustrated by her artist husband, Thornton Oakley, often referred to as “T.O.”, it somehow inspires in its readers the desier to traverse the roads the Oakleys have traversed, and to see the sights which they have seen. Certainly this will be done with a deeper understanding of the historic past, and a keen appreciation of the present, if these readers remember what Mrs. Oakley has written.
Nowhere, perhaps, is her deep-seated affection for her native state more manifest than in the chapter on “The Glorious Delaware”. Her pride in the history of “a waterway that, for the early settlers, was a thoroughfare comparable tot eh Saint Lawrence to the colonists of Quebec” is something that she communicates to those among her readers who call this general section of Southeastern Pennsylvania “home”. And from a purely practical point of view this chapter is a concise guide book to point of nearby historic interest accessible to the automobilist.
To most of us the City of Chester is a thriving industrial center famous for its shipyards. So modern is it that perhaps few among us realize as we drive hurriedly along its busy streets that it is the second oldest settlement in Pennsylvania, with still a few reminders in it of those early days in the middle 1600’s when it was called Upland. It was in 1644 that it was founded by the Swedes, just a year after Fort New Gothenburg was erected on neighboring Tinicum Island. “Here at Tinicum”, according to Mrs. Oakley, “were established the first court, church and schoolhouse in present Pennsylvania. The wedding of Armegat, the governor’s daughter, to Lieutenant John Papegoya, commander of Fort Christina, was the first marriage of Europeans within the borders of our State”.
In what is now known as Governor Printz Park the foundations of the fabulous Printzhof, the capitol-residence established by John Printz has been excavated, though nothing has been done in the way of reconstructing that historic building. This foundation with the original steps leading down to the river may be viewed by sightseers interested in the historic past of our great state.
One of the few surviving log cabins of those early New Sweden colonists stands in the borough of Prospect Park, not far from Tinicum. it is known as the John Morton Homestead and belongs to the Commonwealth, as does Governor Printz Park, Morten Mortenson, who arrived in America from Sweden in 1654, was the builder of part of this log cabin, to which was later joined a second log house constructed by his son, grandfather of John Morton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
“As the birthplace of this distinguished Swedish descendant, whose vote, in June 1776 ‘with those of Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson swung Pennsylvania tot eh side of independence by a majority of one’, the building has become a national shrine.” A charming sketch of John Morton’s homestead, as made by Mr. Oakley, illustrtes this part of the chapter on the “Glorious Delaware.”
Other Historic point of interest in Chester are the Penn Memorial Stone, at the northeast corner of Front and Penn Streets. THis marks the first landing place of William Penn in October, 1682. The site of the residence of Robert Wade, where Penn spent his first night ashore, also has its marks. Wade was the first Quaker to settle in Pennsylvania.
Mrs. Oakley’s description of “Pennsburg”, Penn’s manor house built in 1683 and recreated in 1938 by Brognard Okie, should inspire many an automobilist to take Route 13 “which skirts the river from Philadelphia to the Trenton bridge, and has been known since 1677 as the ‘King’s Highway’.” After going through what was once known as “Penn’s Sylvania”, where centuries-old buttonwoods spoke to the Oakleys of a time long past, they came on this “crisp day of early December”, on an inlet of the Delaware where “thousands of ducks, southward bound, floated, rose on the wing, swerved, or settled amid a restless honking host . . . ”
Here in Falls Township, Bucks County, is Pennsburg, William Penn’s country home, built in 1683-1700, now administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. On the left, as the Oakleys approached the manor house itself, are “orchard, vineyard, kitchen and herb garden, ice house, office, smoke house, brew house . . . adjoining are ample kitchen and bakery with ovens so vast that it took two days to heat them. Food, as at Mount Vernon, was carried across an outdoor path to the lordly dining room.”
The description of the lovely interior of Pennsburg is fascination enough to lure any sightseer to this beautifully reconstructed mansion with its authenticated furnishings of the period in which William Penn lived there. “Wrought iron nails are visible in the wide-boarded floors, for which primeval oaks were sought”, according to Mrs. Oakley’s description, which continues: “Elegance marks the mansion furniture and the crimson brocade of window hangings . . . across the hall the wainscoted dining room, with refectory table and massive Dutch chairs . . . above the dining room is a guest room, impressive with canopied four-post bedstead and especially noted for its highboy, one of the original Penn pieces for which millionaires have offered fabulous sums.”
Pursuing their way upriver to Washington’s Crossing, the Oakleys came to the marker that commemorates the spot where Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, the eve of the Battle of Trenton. on their way to Bowman’s Hill Tower, with its view of the New Jersey shore, they stopped to admire the recently restored Thompson-Neely mansion where General Washington discussed plans for an offensive with some of his officers.
Beyond Washington Crossing lies New Hope with its many old homesteads amid the beauty of the surrounding scenery. The settlement is now one of painters, writers and musicians, Here, too, is the quaint old Delaware Canal, construction of which was begun in 1827. Two sketches by Mr. Oakley, one of the “Delaware Canal” and the other of “Mules on the towpath” add further interest to this part of the chapter . . . “New Hope is among the chosen places to which an artist never says good-bye, but always au revoir,” Mrs. Oakley says of this lovely artist colony spot as she passes on to description of more distant spots.
So much of “our” part of Pennsylvania. Before the close of their book, the Oakleys have covered the length and breadth of the State by way of description and illustration. This brief resume of some of the early chapters has been given with the hope that some of the readers of this column may be inspired to see for themselves more of the lovely surrounding countryside and of the many historical sites and edifices in our immediate vicinity.