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“Artfully” Crafting New Narratives by Trapeta B. Mayson, Executive Director

February 25, 2016

It has been  remarkable year for Historic Germantown. In June of 2015, we learned that we were one of several organizations selected to receive a prestigious grant from The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. This grant supports our new community art, history and engagement program, Elephants on the Avenue – Race, Class and Community in Historic Germantown. Pairing acclaimed artists and noted historians, Elephants will take us and our community on a two year exploration of race and class –  providing artistic entry into these complex issues or  “elephants”, the things we don’t talk about but they are there, ever present and needing attention and audience.

We are grateful to The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage for this amazing opportunity. As one community member aptly pointed out after the first workshop at Historic Germantown’s member site, Historic Rittenhouse Town, “this workshop is a gift to the community” and indeed it is. There is no doubt that Historic Germantown is a great repository of amazing history thanks to the vast collection and records of the Germantown Historical Society. This organization works tirelessly to preserve the stories of the many families that built and contributed to the German Township. There isn’t a week that goes by that someone doesn’t email, call or ring our bell to query about his or her ancestors. Researchers and family historians alike dig into historical records to add to, confirm or piece together a narrative, a framework for understanding what came before.

As much as we are aware of the stories that are easily accessed, we are also concerned about the ones with gaping holes. Projects like Elephants on the Avenue help us hear, learn and amplify the untold, forgotten, ignored and developing stories. As a Germantown resident, I am in awe of the many layered experiences that lives and breathes in this community. Where else can we learn about the lives of those who labored behind the scenes at Deshler-Morris or the sacrifice and courage it took for the Johnson family matriarch to risk her home and business to participate in the Underground Railroad? We get this and more in this vibrant, beautiful and complex community and Historic Germantown is proud to be a part of it. We see ourselves as a community hub and are committed to a balanced telling of both our history and present day stories.

Y Wisher Elephants workshop 11-15-2015-2423

Germantown in the fall, photographed November 14, 2015 by Tieshka Smith for Historic Germantown. Copyright Tieshka Smith for Historic Germantown, all rights reserved.

Elephants workshop#2

Historic Germantown – Elephants on the Avenue Workshop at La Salle University Art Museum photo by Jill Saull

This spring, we are adding another project to our roster of programs intended to artfully support and highlight new narratives. Historic Germantown is partnering with Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate and Germantown resident Yolanda Wisher and Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice  to pilot a youth led program called Historic Germantown’s Culture Keepers. Over the course of several workshops, high school students at Parkway will explore Germantown’s past and present through tours, geocaching, photography, storytelling, and creative writing. Culture Keepers will build their leadership, teamwork, technical, and creative skills as they facilitate and digitally record community dialogues and write poems and performance pieces based on the stories they have heard. Ultimately, we hope to form Historic Germantown’s first Youth Advisory Board and create a Youth Assistant Docent Assistant program.

HG Face to Face Flier 2015(v2)

We  invite you to stay tuned to learn about our efforts and to continue to support us and our 16 member sites as we tell the remarkable stories from the past and embrace the untold, forgotten and present day narratives.


On Holidays in Germantown, Then and Now by George Stern

December 24, 2013

When I was a boy growing up in a row home on Pleasant St. in East Mt. Airy, some neighbors suggested that, for Christmas, we all install alternating green and red lights outside our doors. My parents hesitated, since celebrating Christmas was not exactly on our Jewish agenda. However, not wanting to destroy the pattern, they decided to conform –and to simply leave that light up all year. Fortunately, our assigned color was green. And for the many years we remained in that house, it was easily identified at night: “Just look for the green light,” we used to tell guests.

 Recently I spent several hours in the Pat Henning Library and Archives of Historic Germantown, poking around in the Germantown Crier and its predecessor, The Beehive, looking for anecdotes about past Christmas celebrations in Greater Germantown. 

 Two themes struck me. First, the commercialization of Christmas was already quite pronounced almost a hundred years ago. An article in the December 1929 Beehive began:

 In these modern times no holy day has been more traduced than Christmas. Instead of observing in a joyful, yet dignified way the birthday of a great man, when truths of the greatest significance should be taught, it has become a season of perplexity and worry to many, while others give but a passing thought, or none at all, to the real meaning of the day.

The article went on to talk about “The Real Meaning of Christmas” as taught to Indians in 1701, including the religiously significant Biblical verse, “God so loved the world (or man, sic) that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever receiveth Him should not perish but should have everlasting life.”

Perhaps the lament of the author was brought on by an in the December 1927 Beehive that gushed: “All the Germantown kiddies are invited to call and meet the ‘King of Gifts’ [Santa Claus] in person. Toytown is overflowing with Dolls, Toys and Novelties of all kinds. Don’t miss it.” Many readers might recall the department stores on Chelten Avenue, one of which placed this ad in the December 1955 issue of the Crier: “Enter into the Spirit of Christmas Thru the Doorway of C.A. Rowell Germantown…”

 A second theme also jumped out at me. The notion that “all the kiddies” were invited to Toytown, and the ease with which the first article I cited apparently presumed that everyone reading it would agree with its religious sentiments, reminded me how easy it is for people to simply assume that their ways and their beliefs are universally shared. Even in 2013, when we have learned to be more sensitive to America’s diversity, many of us – maybe most or indeed all of us – are not immune from expressing “innocent” notions that in fact marginalize others.

My parents, way back in the early ‘50s, figured out a creative way to honor both our neighbors’ good intentions and our own desire – and right – not to be like them in every aspect of our lives.

Today’s Northwest Philadelphia is a pretty comfortable place for almost anyone of good intentions to put down roots. Whether you celebrated Chanukah already or are looking forward to Christmas and Kwanzaa, Solstice, or just the New Year, I hope these weeks will prove to be times of happiness, enlightenment, and communal strength.

While the Battle Raged by George Stern

October 3, 2013

October 4, 1777, wasn’t the best day for the Patriots here in Philadelphia. On that day the Battle of Germantown, fought around the house at the corner of what we know as Germantown Avenue and Johnson St., put a halt to Washington’s hope of retaking Philadelphia, the “capital” of the now rebelling colonies. The battle was the prelude to the infamous winter at Valley Forge.

Once again this year – on Saturday, October 5, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – the building which as kids we called “the Chew House” (members of the Chew family lived there until the early 1970s) and which is now known by its formal name, “Cliveden” – will once again host activities for all ages and two hundred Revolutionary War buffs re-enacting the battle. The Patriots will undoubtedly try hard to take the house from the Brits ensconced there. Whether nor not they will be confused by fog as were their predecessors 236 years ago remains to be seen. But it’s a pretty sure bet they will once again be forced to retreat.

Recently I chatted with Carolyn Wallace, the Program Coordinator at Historic Germantown and Museum Coordinator at Cliveden. In preparing for this blog, I told her that I really didn’t want to write about the battle itself. Plenty of ink—and artists’ paints – have been spilled doing that (there are two paintings in Cliveden depicting the battle, one romantic, the other probably a bit more realistic). But, I wondered, how were Cliveden and the other historic buildings along the Great Road (Germantown Avenue) affected by the battle? What do we know about how the people in the area fared?

 The American troops tried to flush the Redcoats out of Cliveden by pummeling it with cannon balls. They even tried to set fire to the house, but to no avail. (Last year I was stationed in the house during the “attack,” and I can tell you I am very much alive.) The house did sustain damage, however, as witnessed by the cannon ball marks still visible on the exterior. In addition, once they returned to the house, the Chew family actually preserved some interior damage done on the first floor, holes that you can see when you visit the house today. On the second floor there is also a faint trace of what purports to be blood of a British soldier who was stationed there – a tall tale, perhaps, but a reminder that war is real, and dangerous.

 What else was going on as the battle raged? Most of the Chews themselves, wealthy Philadelphians for whom the house on Germantown Avenue was but a summer home, were already back in the city. But Benjamin, scion of the family and suspected loyalist, was under house arrest in Union Forge, NJ, at the home of an uncle-in-law (yes, even then the well connected were treated with more deference than others – even if their patriotism was suspect). 

Imagine the fright felt by the Johnson family, hidden in the basement of their home (the Johnson House, 6306 Germantown Avenue, at Washington Lane), as a musket ball penetrated the door and walls upstairs. A fence on display at the Germantown Historical Society (5501 Germantown Avenue, on Market Square at School House Lane) shows the pockmarks of musket balls allegedly from the battle itself.


(The fence from outside the Johnson House)

Wyck (6026 Germantown Avenue, at Walnut Lane) served as a hospital for the wounded of both sides. Continental dead were buried in the cemetery next to the Concord School (6309 Germantown Avenue, between Johnson St. and Washington Lane).

 The stain on the parlor floor at Grumblethorpe (home of the Wister family, at 5267 Germantown Avenue, at Queen Lane) is said to be the blood of British General James Agnew, who had bivouacked there, left for the battle, was wounded, stumbled back, and died.

 Stenton (4601 N. 18th St., at Windrim Avenue) was used as headquarters by British general Sir William Howe. He also occupied the Deshler-Morris House (5442 Germantown Avenue, between School House Lane and Coulter St.).

 Philadelphia was home to many Loyalists as well as Patriots. It is interesting to note that Musgrave St., east of Germantown Avenue, is named after Colonel Thomas Musgrave, bivouacked with his men in the orchard behind Cliveden.

 Fifty-seven Continentals and 71 British and their allies lost their lives during the Americans’ assault on Cliveden. Civilians seem to have escaped unharmed, though one can only imagine their trauma. Little did they know that the war would rage on for six more years.




Tom McGuire and the Battle of Germantown

October 1, 2013

This year leading up to the battle we wanted to highlight a few different perspectives from the faithful people who get involved and make this annual event a success. We have great supporters and so we wanted to share some insight into why they keep coming back. This blog features an interview with Tom McGuire who joins us each year to share his expertise about the battle with presentations and narrations of each reenactment.

_DSC00341. What interests you most about the Battle of Germantown and when did you first learn about the re-enactment?
Tom McGuire: I have been interested in the Battle of Germantown ever since I first read about it as a child nearly fifty years ago. The idea of a house being turned into a fortress captured my imagination, and I can still vividly recall my first glimpse of Cliveden in October, 1974. I was a senior in high school, and now with my drivers’ license, I was able to find Cliveden while on my way to watch a football game at Penn Charter one Friday afternoon. The following year I was a participant in one of the first reenactments ever held there, and have participated each year since 1977.

What do you enjoy about the Germantown Reenactment each year?
Tom McGuire: There is a sense of timelessness about the old house. The fact that Cliveden is the original building, and the furniture is the family furniture makes it one of the most unique sites in the nation. The “old house” smell inside–wood, plaster, wax polish–and its cool, dimly lit interiors create a genteel atmosphere. The history there is real, and Battle Day helps to bring public awareness to the site. It is a great honor and delight for me to be part of the event each year, and I always greatly look forward to it.

About: Tom McGuire is a noted historian and teacher.  He is the author of several works on the Philadelphia Campaign during the American Revolution, including
The Surprise of Germantown: Or, the Battle of Cliveden, October 4th, 1777
The Philadelphia Campaign: Volume One: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Campaign: Volume Two: Germantown and the Roads to Valley Forge (Philadelphia Campaign)
Battle of Paoli
Stop the Revolution: America in the Summer of Independence and the Conference for Peace

Come out and meet Mr. Tom McGuire and hear his vivid narration of the Surprise of Germantown at 10:45am and 1:45pm, only at the Revolutionary Germantown Festival on Saturday October 5, 2013 at Cliveden, 6401 Germantown Ave. 10am-4pm


Noah Lewis, Battle Reenactor Edward “Ned” Hector

September 29, 2013

This year leading up to the battle we wanted to highlight a few different perspectives from the faithful people who get involved and make this annual event a success. They join us each year on the front line so we wanted to give you some insight into why they keep coming back. This blog features an interview with Noah Lewis who joins us each year as re-enactor Edward “Ned” hector, a hero from The Battle of Brandywine.

1. What interests you most about the Battle of Germantown?
Noah Lewis: What interested me the most about the Battle of Germantown, was knowing that Edward Hector actually fought there. Reading the account of Proctor’s four cannons fiercely bombarding the front of the Chew House, brings images to mind of Ned Hector in the thick of battle.Noah Lewis as Ned Hector, Chadds Ford Days 2001.

2. When did you first learn about the re-enactment of the Battle of Germantown?
Noah Lewis: I first learned about the battle of Germantown during my research,  I read a report given to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1827 stating that Ned Hector fought in that battle.  A national park ranger named Joseph Becton, later to become a living history mentor for me, felt my attendance of this re-enactment would be a great help in my understanding of this event, as well as aid towards my becoming an effective living historian.

3. What drew you to being a re-enactor?
Noah Lewis: Like many people, my assumptions about colonial black people were faulty. I thought all African-Americans during this period were poor, they all were slaves, and if they were in the military all they were was manual laborers. As I researched into Ned Hector and many other African-Americans living during the colonial period I found the facts to be astounding and far richer than I had imagined. I was angry that I had not been taught these facts in school until, a fellow African-American suggested that we should be on the forefront of teaching our own history. Since there are more African-Americans presenting the Civil War and not as many doing the colonial period, I thought there was a greater need for me to stay in the colonial period as a black living historian. Fortunately I had a lot of support from many historians, re-enactors, historical sites, and the public.

4. What do you enjoy about the Germantown re-enactment every year?
Noah Lewis: What I enjoy about the Germantown reenactment is it is actually done on site, in the very structure the battle took place at. I don’t know many sites that would allow that. This gives a real sense of the true realism to this event. I feel honored to add in this remembrance of those who made us a free nation.

Noah LewisAbout Noah Lewis: Mr. Lewis was born in Heidelberg, Germany and presently lives on the outskirts of Philadelphia in Upper Darby.  He has a degree in biology and worked in the field, but now presents living history at schools, historical sites, and historical events.

Mr. Lewis authored “Edward ‘Ned’ Hector – Revolutionary War Hero”, and is presently writing Ned Hector’s biography. He began presenting the hero Ned Hector in 1996 at Bywood School, where he would attend his daughter’s 4th grade class and do presentations on electricity and biology. His daughter’s teacher asked if he had any presentations for the subject of colonial America. During genealogy research of his family he had learned about a black continental soldier who fought in the Battle of Brandywine and was held in such high regard by his community that they named a street after him in the mid 1850’s. He was amazed and fascinated by Edward Hector and the heritage of other black historical figures who contributed to America’s freedom. He presented Edward “Ned” Hector to his daughters class, in period dress, and just continued presenting. Noah presented Ned in 28 schools that year and 43 the following year.

He feels blessed to have the opportunity to continue with this tribute, and to aid in helping others to appreciate the contribution that Black people made to the freedom of all Americans. He hopes that the souls of these amazing contributors to our freedom will rest peacefully by giving them the honor they were denied for so many years.

Come out and meet Mr. Noah Lewis as Edward “Ned” Hector at the Revolutionary Germantown Festival on Saturday October 5, 2013 at Cliveden, 6401 Germantown Ave. 10am-4pm

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School Bells Are Ringing by George Stern

September 17, 2013

ImageIt’s 8:45 a.m., and the bell in the belfry of Germantown Academy (then at the corner of School House Lane and Greene St.) is calling us to our morning program. Writing a history of Germantown Academy in the second issue of the Germantown Crier, Wilbur Oda said, “The bell has a romantic story. Brought over in the tea ship Polly in 1774, it was turned back with the rest of her cargo and rested in England until 1784 when it again voyaged across the Atlantic and was at last hung in the belfry for which it was cast. Since then it has rung out the assembling hour for many generations of Academy boys.”

With all the agony over the School Distract of Philadelphia, I decided that it would be appropriate for my first blog for Freedom’s Backyard to take a look at Germantown’s earliest schools. Since I graduated in GA’s last Germantown (1965) and witnessed the controversy over the removal of that bell to the Fort Washington campus, I started a little research there. The Germantown Union School House opened in 1761 and was incorporated as the Public School of Germantown in 1784. Students chose either English or German classes. The school was unique in that had no religious affiliation. Its first prospectus said that “the said schoolhouse shall be free to all persons of what denomination soever and wheresoever residing, to send their children thereto, without any regard to name or sect of people….” One of its earliest board members was Col. Isaac Franks, a Jewish military man who at the time owned the Deshler-Morris House (“the Germantown White House”), which he rented to George Washington during his early presidency. Washington’s stepson George Washington Parke Custis attended GA.

An anecdote that I found especially interesting this era of school defunding is the following: “There must have been some merit in his [David James Dove’s] teaching methods, for in December, 1761, the trustees, who regularly sent a committee to visit the classes, gave Dove forty shillings for distribution ‘among the schoolboys in such manner as he may think proper as a gratuity for their expertness and aptitude in their learning, the Trustees present having an opportunity of hearing several of them to satisfaction.’ At the same time, Dove, also, was given a bonus.” Today we might consider such courses as art and music, and the presence of sufficient counselors, as rewards due children.

ImageNot many years later the Concord School was founded, in part because of “the Distance and particular Inconvenience through the Winter Seasons of Sending their Children to the Lower School,” i.e., Germantown Academy, only one mile away. Parents have always been concerned about the location of their children’s schools, even when, as in 1775, safety was not a factor. (Similarly, Germantown High was built a hundred years ago as a result of pressure from families protesting the lack of a high school in the neighborhood.)

Concord School minutes from 1814 attest to the presence of both black and white students. Similarly the Emlen School (which I also attended) was integrated from the day it opened in 1926, as was Germantown High. I’ll share more about often strained race relations at the high school at another time, but the fact remains that racial integration in Germantown schools is at least two centuries old.

Excellent schools, then – often founded at the insistence of parents, — are nothing new to this part of the City. Our challenge today is to keep them that way.

George Stern grew up in Mt. Airy and, after many years away, moved back in 2002. He attended Emlen and Houston Schools, then graduated from Germantown Academy in 1965, the last graduating class in Germantown. An ordained rabbi, George served a New York suburban congregation from 1972 to 1999. From 2002 to 2011 he was Executive Director of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement (NIM). Currently he is the coordinator of a Friends-based older adult project in Center City and serves as President of JSPAN, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, which seeks to expand its coverage of social justice issues in the city and state and on the national scene. George and his wife, Deborah, the Library Director at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, are parents of two adult children and two grandchildren, one of whom attends Green Street Friends School.

Joe Becton, Battle of Germantown Re-enactor, Celebrating the Heritage of African American Soldiers

August 19, 2013

This year leading up to the battle we wanted to highlight a few different perspectives from the faithful people who get involved and make this annual event a success. Whether they join us each year behind the scenes or on the front line we wanted to give you all some insight into the battle. Our first blog features Mr. Joe Becton, a long-time supporter and African American re-enactor.

1. What interests you most about the Battle of Germantown?
Mr. Becton: The battle of Germantown and the siege of Fort Mifflin are Philadelphia’s two military actions. The Quakers stood for peace, consequently there were only two battles fought here. This is a special Philadelphia story: War vs. Peace!

2. When did you first learn about the re-enactment of the Battle of Germantown?
Mr. Becton: In 1985 I worked as a seasonal at Valley Forge and was introduced to the Philadelphia campaign.

3. What drew you to being a re-enactor?
Mr. Becton: Necessity, There are very few people telling the story of the African participation in the birth and development of this nation and the definition of freedom. The Germantown festival gives us a platform to deliver our Story.

Here is a short list of Africans who served at Germantown in the Continental Army.
Blacks at the Battle of Germantown,

5th Connecticut, Colonel Phillip Bradley’s Regiment
Captain Eli Catlin’s Company
1. Cash Africa- 1775-1776-1777-1783, Litchfield
2. Jack Congo- 1777-1778, Ridgefield
3.Cato Cuff- 1777-1782, Stonington
4. Jack Negro-1777-1778
Captain Abner Prior’s Company
5. Edward Negro (Ned)- 1777-1778, Windsor
6. Phillip Negro- 1777-1782, Simsbury
7. Plymouth Negro- 1777-1779, Windsor
8. Prince Negro- 1777-1779, Wallingford
9. John Bristler (Brister)- 1777-1783, Windsor
Captain Josiah Child’s Company
10. Ceasar Fiddler (Fider)- 1777-1780
11. Jack Green- 1777-1780, Killingly
Captain Ezekiel Stanford Company
12. Ebenezer Jacklin- 1777-1778, Ridgefield

7th Connecticut Colonel Herman Swift’s Regiment
Captain Stephen Hall’s Company
1. Cuff Niger- 1777, Guiliford
Captain Elizur Warner’ s Company
2. Prince Crosley- 1777-1782, North Milford
3. Lemuel Pete- 1777-1780, Waterbury
Captain Phinea’s Beardsley Company
4. Lemuel Cumber- 1777-1781, Wallingsford
5. Call Freeman (Cuff)- 1777-1783, Kent
Captain Samuel Sanford Company
6. Peter Meranda (Morondo)- 1777-1782
Captain Theodore Woodbridge’s Company
7. Robin Starr (Robbin)- 1777-1783, Danbury
Captain Ebenezer Hill’s Company
8. Samuel Phillips- 1777, North Milford

3rd Pennsylvania Artillery Colonel Thomas Proctor’s Regiment
Captain Herculues Courtney’s Battery
1. Edward Hector- 1777, Waggoner
Hero of Brandywine

5th Pennsylvania Lt. Colonel Francis Johnson’s Regiment
Captain James Moore’s Company
2. John Emery- 1777, Philadelphia, Brandywine, Germantown, Whitemarsh and Valley Forge

9th Pennsylvania Colonel
Captain Joseph Erwin’s Company
3. John Nagle (Nagel)- 1777, Dauphlin County

4. What do you enjoy about the Germantown re-enactment every year?
Mr. Becton: I enjoy seeing old friends every year buying books and creating a historic scene to capture the publics imagination and invite epiphany.


Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 3.02.39 PMJoe Becton, a retired National Park Service Ranger, is one of Philadelphia’s finest historic interpreters. He is a member of two re-enactor troops that celebrate the heritage of African American soldiers in both the War for Independence and the Civil War. Joe Becton is a member of the Rhode Island Regiment of Revolutionary War re-enactors as well as of the United States Colored Troop. For more information, please visit his website

Look for more personal stories about the battle of Germantown as we gear up for our Revolutionary Germantown Festival on Saturday October 5, 2013 at Cliveden, 6401 Germantown Ave. Cliveden logo