Category Archives: Historic Places

Cycle the Erie, Day 3: Seneca Falls Hails its Role in Birthing Women’s Rights

The “First Wave” statue, by Lloyd Lillie, in the lobby of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park visitor center puts you in the march toward the first Women’s Rights Convention, in Seneca Falls, July 1848 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We finish our 62-mile ride on this third day of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour in Seneca Falls, renowned as the birthplace of Women’s Rights, where the organizers have arranged for the major sites, including the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, to stay open for us, and for a shuttle bus to take us from our campsite on the grounds of the Mynderse Academy into the downtown.   

My impression of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, operated by the National Park Service, has not changed from my first visit two years before: It is an absolute dud, especially when you consider the innovations in museums – especially compared to Fort Stanwix National Historic Site in Rome and the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse (both of which we will see in coming days). What is more, the NPS rangers who run the site know how antiquated and uninspiring – even disrespectful to women and the struggle for equality – the exhibit is and revealed a frustration in their inability to improve it.

There are no new insights or inspiration to be gained. The exhibit doesn’t have a clear theme, point or focus: is it about how and why the Women’s Rights movement started here in Seneca Falls (the influence of the Oneida Indians, which allowed women to become chiefs, have property and retain custody of their children, on Melinda Gage, for example; the prevalence of Quaker women among the early women’s rights leaders who had roles in their church; and the number of factories, spurred by the Erie Canal, which in turn employed women who subsequently wanted equal pay and to control their earnings)? Is it about the leaders of the movement, the courage they needed and how they persevered?   What about exploring why it took 80 more years for women to get the vote, even after former slave men got their (theoretical) right to vote after the Civil War? Nor does it confront the controversies behind the continuing fight for women’s rights: why women still don’t earn as much as men for the same work, what is the “glass ceiling”. What role does the lack of affordable, accessible child care and healthcare play, and the mother-of-all controversies: why are women’s reproductive rights still so tenuous? And, oh yes, why are women still so underrepresented in elected office, including the highest office in the land, the Presidency?

What is glaringly obvious is that the exhibit reflects the 1980s Reagan perspective – more Phyllis Schafly than Gloria Steinem – a half-assed, slap in the face, disrespectful, condescending lip service to women’s rights and the ongoing struggle. If there is a theme, it is that women should be grateful for the opportunity to work in fields beyond teaching, secretarial and nursing – but nothing about pay equity or glass ceilings or sexual harassment. To Reagan (and now Trump), women’s rights are simply a way of supplying more workers and keeping wages low.

No discussion of how laws and the lack of anti-discrimination laws helped keep women down: How a woman could be raped, beaten, killed by her husband – was not much more than property (as were children) – and how a woman’s property became her husband’s. How women could be fired from jobs once married or pregnant or had children or reached a certain age or weight, or not hired at all merely because of gender. How insurance companies could charge women more (preexisting condition for being able to give birth). How landlords could refuse to rent to a woman without a husband’s signature; banks would not loan money for a home or business; how women couldn’t get a license to practice law. Sexual harassment”? The phrase was only invented in the 1970s, as the modern Woman’s Movement came into flower.

What did not having a vote mean for women in society? What happened when women were widowed or divorced? Why were there certain professions that women were steered into – like teaching, secretarial work, factories and nursing, positions which as a result tended to be woefully underpaid?

The spartan interior of Wesleyan Methodist Chapel where the women’s Rights Convention took place in July 1848, part of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What was the role of the Church in suppressing women’s rights? That is, except for the Quakers who were the earliest advocates of women’s rights.  What was the influence of the Oneida Indians, which gave women property rights, custody of children and the ability to become a tribal chief, on the early feminists including Melinda Gage (the mother-in-law of Frank Blum who wrote Wizard of Oz).

Where is the discussion of the women who opposed suffrage, equal rights (ie. Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Shafly), even the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt initially was not a supporter of women’s suffrage (until happened), and the women today who oppose a woman’s right to choose (then and still today)?

Instead of “women’s rights”, (and this is pretty typical of women’s issues generally) the exhibit goes off track into the bigger topic of civil rights (Abolition, the Underground Railroad). This should be seen in the context of how women were the backbone of the movement to end slavery, but after the Civil War, fully expected to win the vote along with freedmen, but instead only black men got the right to vote (such as it was, before Jim Crow). Also, it gives a nod to Jacksonian Democracy but doesn’t answer the question how white men without property got to vote without the need for a Constitutional amendment, but women didn’t get the vote until the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920.

The exhibit is largely devoid of the heroic women (except for the sculpture) who fought for suffrage, and what the fight was like (locked up, force-fed).

There’s copy of Lily Ledbetter act signed by Obama in a case in the lobby, but no explanation or context.

There is a film in a lovely auditorium, “Dreams of Equality,” (delightfully cool and relaxing after biking 62 miles in the hot sun) which dramatizes the early internal debate over breaking out of the constrained role women were relegated to, is woefully and pathetically outdated – the historic elements aren’t bad but the pseudo “conversations” between girls and boys is frankly stupid and archaic.

But in the film, one of the main characters loses her husband in the Civil War and one woman says to the other, “If a woman had a say in making laws, there would be no wars,” to which the other woman replies, “If we had a say, who would listen?”

And in another bit of dialogue, the woman wonders, “Don’t women also have rights?” to which her brother responds, “What men most prize in a woman is affection.”

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, a simple structure, was the setting for the first Women’s Rights Convention in July 1848 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You also visit the Wesleyan Chapel where the first Women’s Rights convention was held in 1848 and the “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The structure’s history can be a metaphor for the ambivalence of American society to women’s rights: From 1843-1871 it was chapel, then an opera house/performing arts hall; then a roller skating rink, a movie theater (in 1910s), then a Ford dealership, and ironically enough, was a laundromat before facing a wrecking ball.

Women fought to save the building, and in 1982, during the Reagan Administration, it was turned into a national park.

(Womens’ Rights National Historical Park, 136 Fall Street, Seneca Falls, NY 13148, 315-568-0024, www.nps.gov/wori.)

To put faces to the women’s movement, I walk down the main street to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. It is still in a ground floor storefront in a former bank building, awaiting its move into the factory building that was the Seneca Knitting Mill across the canal. This is most appropriate because the mill was where a number of the early feminists came from (they had a taste of earning their own money and were fired when they asked for wages equal to men).

This massive factory, which dates from 1844, was owned by two men, Charles Hoskins and Jacob Chamberlain, who were among the 32  who supported women’s right and signed the Declaration of Sentiments which came out of the Women’s Rights Convention. That is saying something because out of the 300 people (40 of them men) who attended the convention in the Wesleyan Chapel in 1848, only 32 people signed the Declaration. The Seneca Knitting Mills, which operated until 1999 (can you believe it!), manufactured heavy woolen socks for 150 years, and then went the way of 50,000 other factories in the US.

The plan is to turn the 170-year-old limestone building into the hall of fame, research center and museum celebrating women and their accomplishments, to be called the Center for Great Women.

The Seneca-Cayuga Canal brought factories, like the Seneca Knitting Mill, which employed women who questioned why they couldn’t keep their own money, igniting the women’s rights movement in Seneca Falls. It will soon house the Center for Great Women © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I was in school, I could count on one hand the number of women who were presented as heroic figures – Madame Curie, Molly Pitcher (who I learn may have been fictional but still representative of women who took up the guns when their husbands were killed in the Revolutionary War), and the reporter, Nellie Bly.

I am thrilled to find Nellie Bly among the honorees. Her real name was Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (1864-1922, honored in 1998), and was a trail-blazing journalist considered to be the “best reporter in America” who pioneered investigative journalism (hence the pseudonym); Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, (1813-1876, honored 2002), who headed the committee that organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA in 1850, helped found the New England Women’s Suffrage Association and established Una, one of the first women’s rights newspapers; Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), the first woman to own, operate and edit a newspaper for women, The Lily (first published in 1849 in Seneca Falls) and whose penchant for wearing full-cut pantaloons under a short skirt (as a protest to the way women were expected to dress), gave birth to the term “bloomers”.

It turns out there were dozens and dozens of women, going back to Colonial times, who did really important things. The women who are honored here are not necessarily honored as feminists, but for their accomplishments.

“Women’s stories are not told,” the organization notes. “Less than 10% of the content of history books references women. Students cannot name 20 famous American women through history, excluding sports figures, celebrities and First Ladies. Only 20% of news article are about women. A society that values women values all of its members. By telling the stories of great American women through exhibits and educational resources, the Hall will make a future where all members of society are valued a reality.” (Indeed, the New York Times, during this year’s Women’s History Month, began publishing obituaries of women who were overlooked in their own time.)

The bank building on Fall Street where the Women’s Hall of Fame is currently located in Seneca Falls could easily be the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan from Frank Capra’s film classic, ”A Wonderful Life.” There are many connections between Seneca Falls and the mythical Bedford Falls © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Founded in 1969, the Women’s Hall of Fame actually predates the Women’s Rights National Historic Park (one could say it even was at the very cusp of the Women’s Movement which really emerged in the 1970s). And when you contemplate the timeline of the biographies, you get a better understanding of the historical context of the Women’s Rights Movement.

Looking around: Abigail Adams, what a pistol she must have been!  She had such a strong influence on her husband but clearly was frustrated in the lack of opportunities women had to utilize their potential. (“Remember the ladies” in forming the new government,” she admonishes her husband, John Adams, in 1776).

Secagewea, Annie Oakley, Harriet Tubman. Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Margaret Bourke-White, Pearl S. Buck, Rachel Carson. Frances Perkins (Labor Secretary under Franklin Roosevelt), Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Sullivan, Rosa Parks.

Of course, there are the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony (there is a Susan B Anthony bench which came from the Ontario County courthouse in Canandaigua), but I also discover women identified as being early feminists (most you never heard of), and you realize that the struggle goes way, way back.

As you go through the timeline, the women honorees in the National Women’s Hall of Fame are less about struggle and more about achievement in a plethora of professions and activities. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For example, Anne Hutchinson who lived 1591-1643 (honored 1994), was the first woman in the new world to be a religious leader and for it, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony (there is a parkway in the Bronx named for her); Sarah Grimke, who lived 1792-1873 (honored 1998), who published papers championing abolition and women’s rights, and with her sister Angelina Grimké Weld, 1805 – 1879 (honored 1998), were southerners, born in South Carolina, who became the first female speakers for the American Anti-Slavery Society; Fanny Wright, 1795-1852 (honored 1994), the first American woman to speak out against slavery and for the equality of women; Mary Lyon, 1797-1849 (honored 1993), who founded Mount Holyoke in 1837, the first college for women, which became the model for institutions of higher education for women nationwide; and Maria Mitchell, 1818 – 1889 (honored 1994), an astronomer who discovered a new comet in 1847 and the first woman named to membership in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women.

Walking around (you can also peruse the website to find these biographies) I am introduced to all sorts of women I had not known, that fill me with pride: women on the front lines of science, civil rights, labor rights, education, human rights.

Mary “Mother” Harris Jones, 1830-1930 (honored 1984), a labor organizer and agitator who worked on behalf of the United Mine Workers and other groups; Sarah Winnemucca, c1844-1891 (honored 1994), Native American leader who dedicated her life to returning land taken by the government back to the tribes, especially the land of her own Paiute Tribe; Susette LaFlesche, 1854-1903 (honored 1994), a member of the Omaha Tribe and a tireless campaigner for native American rights; Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 (honored 1998), suffragist and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” a lecturer on religious subjects, a playwright, an organizer of a women’s peace movement and advocate for women’s equality in public and private life; and Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887 (honored 2009), famous for authoring the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and an important forerunner of the Zionist movement.

There is the famous flyer Amelia Earhart but also Bessie Coleman, an aviatrix of  the1920s, who was the first African American woman to have pilot’s license (at a time when women, let alone a black woman, were not allowed to have a license; Coleman went to Europe to get her license, what does that tell you?).

I so appreciate the diversity of the women represented, especially in the 20th century, when women do have more educational and professional opportunities: astronaut Sally Ride; tennis player Billie Jean King who broke through for women’s athletics; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor. Madeleine Albright, Bella Abzug, Oprah Winfrey, Lucille Ball, Dorothea Lange, Lilly Ledbetter, Margaret Sanger.

(Go to the website to see the most recent inductees as well as search all).

Susan B. Anthony beside the bench which came from the Ontario County courthouse in Canandaigua, and the Women’s Hall of Fame © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We commiserate over the life-size portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was already in the Hall of Fame as First Lady and New York Senator, the first woman to be a presidential candidate of a major political party, but should have been the first woman President.

It is remarkable to look at the faces and read the short biographies of women who have made such important contributions, going back to colonial times.

(National Women’s Hall of Fame, 76 Fall St, Seneca Falls, NY 13148, 315- 568-8060, www.womenofthehall.org)

WomanMade Products shop on Fall Street, Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Across the street, I stop in at the shop, WomenMade Products (how can you not?).

I have time to wander around. I try to get to the “Wonderful Life Museum,” but it is closed. It offers a brochure for a self-guided walking tour. Seneca Falls is supposed to have been the model for Bedford Falls in the James Stewart classic movie, though it is hard to recognize today. (See: “Seneca Falls History and Connections,” www.wonderfullifemuseum.com/seneca-falls-history-and-connections.)

I wander over to the canalside park just in time, 7 pm, to enjoy an old-fashioned band concert by the Seneca Falls Community Band (33rd season!); there is a stand selling the absolutely best ice cream in the world. Perfect.

Seneca Falls evokes images of Bedford Falls, the fictional town in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There is even an “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our campsite tonight is on the grounds of the gorgeous Mynderse Academy, which even has a flat-screen TV where a few of us gather around to watch the All Star Baseball Game.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next: Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, Crossing Half-way Mark of 400-mile Biketour

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Cycle the Erie, Day 2-3: A Sequence of Charming Canaltowns, Pastoral Landscapes, Punctuated by City Birthed by ‘Mother of Cities’


A remarkable near 90-degree turn on the concrete bridge out of Medina on the Erie Canalway. A new form of mortar had to be devised to build this part of the Erie Canal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2: Medina to Fairport, 53 Miles 

Immediately upon leaving Medina on Day 2 of Parks & Trails NY’s 19th annual 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour, which transverses New York State from Buffalo to Albany, we reach one of the highlights of the Erie Canalway: you ride over a concrete embankment that goes over a waterfall which turns at a hard angle. You marvel at the construction as much as the view – the quaint Industrial-era town on one side, the dramatic forest and falls on the other. I stop at one of the many historic markers that are along the trail to learn about the special mortar they had to devise to accomplish this engineering feat.

Riding out of Medina on Day 2 of the Cycle the Erie 8-day, 400-mile biketour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just a little further is another remarkable feature of the Erie Canalway, the multi-use trail built mainly upon the original towpath that makes biking so pleasant: the culvert. We leave our bikes on the trail and climb down an embankment to where this tunnel has been cut under the canal. Here you can really appreciate just how shallow the Erie Canal is  – really just a bathtub. This is the only place on the 353-mile long canal where a road is built under the canal – and is quite a dramatic scene.

The culvert just outside of Medina is the only place where cars travel under the Erie Canal; it shows just how shallow the canal is © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Walking through the culvert under the Erie Canal, just outside of Medina © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

This is also one of the more scenic parts of the trail, at least to an urban Downstater like me: here we see sprawling farmland. I later learn that the Erie Canal does not just play a role in transportation (now more recreational than commercial), but in irrigation and flood control.

Some of New York State’s prettiest pastoral scenery is on this stretch of the Erie Canalway. The Erie Canal doesn’t just provide a water transportation artery, but serves the purpose of irrigation and flood control © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We come into Albion, one of the charming canaltowns we travel through, so rich in history, where you see in the stunning architecture, and the opulence  that the canal and the Industrial Revolution created – civic buildings, churches, banks.

Because I had been here before, I knew to ride a short distance up Main Street from the canal where there are churches and a Town Hall on four corners.

One of the churches, Pullman Memorial, has drop-dead magnificent Tiffany stained glass windows. I meet Bill Lattin, a church volunteer, and here is one time that my tardiness in leaving our campsite is rewarded: he wasn’t informed (as usual) that the 750 Cycle the Erie riders (a record) were coming through this morning, so no one was at the church to open it up for visits, but as he was coming in to town, he saw us and opened the church just in time for my visit.

Bill Lattin gives Cycle the Erie riders a tour of Pullman Memorial Church in Albion, which is decorated with Tiffany windows and gilded organ pipes © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

George M. Pullman (1831-1897), who made his fortune manufacturing the luxurious railroad sleeper cars, was born in Albion. He had long before moved away but remained close to people in his hometown and one of his friends, Charles A. Danolds, in 1890, convinced him to donate $67,000 to build the church.

Shanties were set up to house the stonecutters who managed to complete the building in less than a year’s time and the church was dedicated January 1895. Pullman’s daughter bequeathed $5,000 to maintain the exquisite stainless glass window of Jesus which was created in the Tiffany Studios in New York (look closely to see the Tiffany signature etched in a corner) – an early example of Art Nouveau. There is also a 1,248-pipe organ with pipes of gold leaf decorated by Tiffany Studios. Lattin tells me that there are only 30 people left in the congregation (Albion has a population of 5,000). (10 East Park St., Albion, NY `14411, 585-589-7181, PullmanMemorial.org).

The Tiffany stained glass windows at Pullman Memorial Church in Albion © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

At Mile 21, we come to a small town of Holley, settled in 1812 and established on the original Erie Canal. Originally, this was an enormous and complicated loop that was straightened out when the canal, already hugely successful in its first several years, was expanded, putting the town a few blocks from the repositioned canal. The restored railroad depot (circa 1907) is now a museum. Holley was the center of a community of Italian immigrants who were brought over to work in Medina’s sandstone quarry (the sign says, “affectionately called, Podunk”).

As we ride into Brockport, where one of the State University of New York campuses is located as well as a prison, we are greeted with water, lemonade, and free stamped postcards. Brockport has a charming Main Street. Brockport, it turns out, was where Cyrus McCormick contracted a factory to manufacture his reapers (there is a marker near the dock), seeing that the reapers could be shipped on the canal to the Midwest where he was getting orders from the large farms.

Farm workers in the fields © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We ride passed Adams Basin and Spencerport (recommended for our lunch stop), where a unique lift bridge carries Main Street over the canal.

The part of the ride that goes into Rochester is some of the toughest – a series of up-and-down hills and dales, twists and turns, but from the perches we can see how the canal was sheer-cut into high rock faces.

The Erie Canal crosses with the Genessee River at Rochester © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

We ride over a bridge from which we can have a dramatic view of where the Erie Canal crosses the Oswego River. (I’ve done this by canalboat, a floating RV, which you can rent through Mid-Lakes Navigation, Skaneateles. So much fun to go through the canal locks, under the lift bridges, tying up where whimsy takes you. 800-545-4318, info@midlakesnav.com, midlakesnav.com.)

Our rest stop is here at Rochester (mile 45.8) is at a beautiful park along the Genesee Valley Waterway Center, where the organizers have arranged for us to go swimming, canoeing and kayaking, as well as for escorted bike rides to High Falls – a phenomenal sight – in downtown Rochester. REI has sponsored the stop, as well as bike repair.

Rochester, one of the cities birthed by the Erie Canal. Parks & Trails NY arranges for the Cycle the Erie riders to take an optional ride downtown © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

The Erie Canal, known as “The Mother of Cities,” turned tiny Rochesterville into an American “boom town” and today, is the third largest city in New York State, the brochure says. The canal first went through the center of the city, across an 800-foot aqueduct over the Genesee River – a major engineering achievement at the time. A second, sturdier version, built in 1842 to replace the original aqueduct, can be seen at the base of the Broad Street ridge. Eventually, as Rochester was built up and the canal interfered with traffic, the canal was rerouted to bypass the city.

But as we leave Rochester, we see how the Erie Canal is still the “mother of communities” – along much of the trail, we see new housing developments that come right up to the Canalway.

A few of the 750 Cycle the Erie riders on the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

We now ride along the Great Embankment, yet another engineering marvel. At the evening lecture, we had learned that they actually had to move a creek and flood a town in order to straighten out the canal, but this required engineering that had not yet been invented.

“You can get a lot done when you don’t have to file environmental impact statements. They moved the canal, redirected the creek, to create the Great Embankment.”

They put in floors of concrete and the re-done canal opened in May, 1912. But just a few months later,, in September, there was a break at Bushnell’s Basin and it collapsed.

They managed to keep navigation flowing by creating 70-foot high stilts to support a wooden trough while they rebuilt the Great Embankment from the bottom up (quite literally a concrete bathtub). There is a photo from May 1918 of the men standing in it when it reopened.

New housing development along the Erie Canalway, at Spencerport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

This day’s route has us riding through a sequence of charming canaltowns – Spencerport, Brockport, Pittsford (one of my favorites), and finally, our destination for the night, Fairport (my favorite) – which are experiencing the most marvelous renaissance because of the repurposed Erie Canal: no longer a polluted cesspool of stinky commercial boats, foul water and even fouler boatmen, but pastoral scenes of non-intrusive recreational boats. Indeed, there are charming residential communities – among them, at Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsford and Fairport – that are sprouting up right along the canal. Some like in Rochester are a planned community of single-homes built around a recreation center, and others, like in Spencerport and Fairport, are townhomes that seem ideal for empty-nesters (or people escaping summer heat in Florida).

Pittsford and Fairport are the best examples of this renaissance. In Pittsford (where I tied up one summer in the canalboat to overnight), you can see what was a grain silo repurposed as an office tower, and other structures turned into charming restaurants and boutiques.

The lift bridges are themselves an attraction – Fairport’s lift bridge, which celebrated its centennial in 2014 is a particular attraction because it has no right angles.

The unusual lift bridge across the Erie Canal in Fairport has no right angles © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our campsite tonight is at the Minerva DeLand School in Fairport, and they have arranged for shuttle buses to take us back into Fairport to enjoy the lovely restaurants and shops. But I don’t want to miss the talk by Andy Beers, director of the Empire State Trail about the Erie CanalwayTrail and New York State’s plans to build a new Empire State Trail – for a total of 750 miles of dedicated biking and walking trails. The plan is to complete the Erie Canalway from Buffalo to Albany (long the goal of Parks & Trails NY and this annual Cycle the Erie ride), and also to link and build new trails that will extend from the tip of New York City (the Hudson River trail) north to the Canadian border, making the longest state ‘shared use’ trail in the nation.

Day 3: Fairport to Waterloo/Seneca Falls, 62 Miles

This is my second time doing the Cycle the Erie ride, and I am attuned to the things I did not get to do the first time. So, leaving Fairport to start Day 3’s ride, I am alert to stopping off the trail (crossing over the canal) to visit Macedon, where you follow a nature trail to the end and come to a point where you can see where all three canals – the original 1825 canal, the expanded canal, and the Modern Barge canal – converge together.

At the end of the nature trail in Macedon, you can see where three incarnation so f the Erie Canal come together © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our rest stop is in Palmyra, a 19th century village which predates the Erie Canal (that’s why it isn’t called Palmyraport), which has 200 buildings on the Historic Register in one square mile, and where Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion (you can visit his farmhouse). I take time to ride through Palmyra, which I had visited more extensively on a prior trip, by Mid Lakes Navigation canalboat (like an RV on the water) to enjoy its architecture. (www.palmyrany.com, 315-597-4849).

Palmyra has 200 historic buildings on the Historic Register in one square mile, and was where Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

There is an unexpected treat at Newark, where the community has set up a welcome table for us at the canal park. You walk down to the canalside walkway (excellent rest facilities) and there are the most magnificent murals painted on the base of the bridge that tell the story of life for canalers on the Erie Canal with reflections on the Civil War era, some of which can only be fully appreciated if you come by boat.

Section of one of the murals that decorate the base of a bridge in Newark. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Peppermint Museum 

On my first Cycle the Erie ride, because I was in a hurry to get ahead of the rain (it didn’t work), I missed the Peppermint Museum in Lyons, where a clever food scientist (not sure that is what he was known as), H.G. Hotchkiss, revolutionized the use of peppermint oil, so I was intent to visit this time. Once again, this is a tiny site that you might miss except if you were looking for it, and it proves fascinating in ways you never expected.

Warehouse at the Hotchkiss Peppermint Museum in Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

The Erie Canal is what brought Hiram Hotchkiss to Lyons in 1841. Indeed, there was an oversupply of peppermint oil, an herb that was grown extensively in fields around Lyons. But because of the Erie Canal, Hotchkiss had the idea to export the peppermint oil to Europe. Europe already had its own peppermint oil and his product was at first met with skepticism. But Hotchkiss perfected the process and his product won medals. The long success of H.G. Hotchkiss Company in peppermint and other essential oils made Lyons, New York, the Peppermint Capital of the world for many years. Indeed, at one time, Hotchkiss was responsible for half the annual production of peppermint oil in the United States. Canallers would say they could tell when they were approaching the village by the smell.

H.G. Hotchkiss’ laboratory, in Lyons. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Until Hotchkiss, peppermint oil was used for medicinal purposes and to make tea. But Hotchkiss expanded its use – Beech-Nut (which has a factory in Canajoharie, another town where we will stay) first started using peppermint in candy and gum.

Hotchkiss, who was brilliant at branding and packaging in gorgeous blue glass bottles manufactured at the Clyde Glassworks (another town we visit) became a millionaire. He had a 42-room home a few blocks up the hill, which a couple from New York City purchased.

We get to visit Hotchkiss’ laboratory and warehouse; the parlor offers an exhibit honoring suffragettes. Indeed, we learn that Lissat Hotchkiss Parshall (1840-1913),one of Hotchkiss’ seven daughters, was a suffragette and Anne Hotchkiss (1914-2010),was the company’s fourth president (1963-1984), and one of the first women to become president of a company. This is most fitting because we will wind up this day in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of Women’s Rights.

Suffrage Tea Party: Lissat Hotchkiss Parshall was a suffragette and Anne Hotchkiss was one of the first women to head a company © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Gradually, though, Lyons farmers started planting apples and switched to dairy production; and the peppermint factory closed in 1990. The town just about forgot about its peppermint past and locals didn’t know what the building was until the Lyons Heritage Society reopened it as a museum.

(The Peppermint Museum, an absolute jewel, is open by appointment only; you can arrange a tour by calling Patty Alena at the Lyons Heritage Society, 315-946-4596; 95 Water Street, Lyons, NY 14489,  www.lyonsheritagesociety.com).

Cycle the Erie riders get a tour of the Peppermint Museum in Lyons © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear

I ride up to the Lyons town square and get some feel of the community before continuing on the trail.

Amish Farmers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

We have our afternoon rest stop in Clyde  (the townspeople have gone all out on the Village Green with music and ice cream for us) and then go off the Canalway trail onto country roads through Amish Country (who knew there was an Amish country in New York State?), some of the prettiest farmland anywhere. On my last visit, it started pouring immediately as we left  Clyde, and I was unable to capture these exquisite scenes that evoke Currier & Ives, in photos. This time, I am lucky because it is sunny and some of the farmers are out. I pass the barn where last time we took shelter from lightening.

Cycling the country roads toward Seneca Falls © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear

Our 51-mile ride ends Day 3 of our 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour at another stunning school campus, Mynderse Academy in Seneca Falls.

Because I want to have as much time as possible in Seneca Falls, where the Women’s Rights National Park and other sites are staying open until 8 pm for us, I drop my things in the school gymnasium for “indoor camping,” (the school even has a TV where we get to watch the All-Stars baseball game at night) and rush out to the school bus which is shuttling us into town. Tonight is one of the two during our eight-day trip where we are on our own for dinner, but I occupy my time touring the attractions dedicated to Women’s Suffrage (New York State is making a big deal of the centennial of the 19th Amendment that is coming in 2020) and exploring Seneca Falls.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next:  Seneca Falls Hails its Role in Birthing Women’s Rights

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Lockport is the only place where you can see the Modern Barge Canal locks side-by-side with the original Erie Canal locks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lockport is the best place of all to appreciate the engineering marvel of the Erie Canal and what the Canal meant to propelling the Industrial Revolution and the economy, ultimately establishing the United States as a global industrial power. And it is our first stop on our first day of our eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie journey, an annual hosted ride offered by Parks & Trails NY, that takes us across New York State, from Buffalo to Albany, and with it, through 400 years of American history.

Here in Lockport, you not only see the only original part of the canal that is left – the famous “Flight of Five” locks in a short sequence – but they are literally adjacent to the modern Barge Canal and its only double-locks – two locks, one immediately after the another.

The 200-year old Flight of Five consecutive locks is the engineering marvel for its time which made the entire canal possible – finishing the distance to Lake Erie. Here at Lockport, the planners had the critical challenge of navigating the 60-foot elevation in the Niagara Escarpment. In these days before steel and electric motors, the wooden gates could only hold back the volume of water of a 12-foot drop.

View of the Flight of Five © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Amazingly, they didn’t figure out the solution before they committed to building the Canal and started digging in Rome, on July 4, 1817. This was deliberate: Rome is right at the center of the state where it is the flattest, where the Oneida Indians already had a crossing through the Appalachian Mountains. What is more, since the federal government had refused to provide any funding, New York State was funding the project on its own; Governor Dewitt Clinton felt there would be more likelihood of getting more funding from the state legislature if they had already started building). New York ultimately spent $7.7 million, the equivalent of $18 billion in today’s dollars.

“There were no civil engineers at that time. They had to invent their way across the state,” we are told in one of the evening lectures. (The telling of this story reminds me of the line in “Shakespeare in Love” to describe how everything would somehow work out: “It’s a mystery.”)

By 1822, 300 miles of the Erie Canal had already been dug. But to the west, the canal builders faced their most difficult challenge: the Niagara Escarpment was a 70-foot natural solid rock obstacle, the same mountain ridge over which Niagara Falls joins Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

Nathan Roberts, who had no formal engineering training but had been working on the canal, came up with an innovative solution – still one of the most staggeringly unusual designs for its time: a series of five locks, each one raising or dropping a boat 12 feet. And because he knew it would consume a tremendous amount of time, he built two parallel steps of locks, so boats could go in both directions – an advancement in canal engineering.

“They had to build five levels of locks because each one could only go 12 feet. In the 1820s and 1840s, they didn’t have structural steel. The lock gates are wooden. ”

Even today, the “Flight of Five” locks are still admired as among the most extraordinary in the world. (We get to visit Nathan Roberts’ hometown, Canastota, much further down on the canal where there is a marvelous museum).

Indeed, like the 20th century space program, what was invented for the purpose of digging the canal became new techniques that could be applied elsewhere. The Erie Canal led to the founding of America’s first engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1824, in Troy.

A re-created wooden boat in one of the two restored 200-year old Flight of Five locks on the Erie Canal, in Lockport. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here at Lockport, we get to see how the lock system worked. New York State has restored two of the original 19th century locks, and you can see how the wooden doors (a design that Leonardo Da Vinci had used) were opened manually using a large wood oar (they demonstrate this frequently during the day); the goal is to restore all five locks. The Buffalo Maritime Club built a replica wooden boat that is now in the lock. Here, you can see just how narrow the locks were. (New York State has funded the restoration of the other three locks.)

Indeed, this is the only place along the canal where you see the original and the modern canal locks in operation. And this is also the only set of modern double-locks on the Erie Canal, where boaters consecutively go from one to another.

Erie Canal Cruises

You especially appreciate this on the canal cruise that NY Parks & Trails, has arranged for the 750 cyclists who have joined the Cycle the Erie ride (a record number) on Erie Canal Cruises (210 Market St, 716-433-6155). I race through Lockport to get to the marina just in time for the 11 am cruise. It takes about an hour, and is really fun, especially as you go through the first lock and are spilled directly into the second.

Cycle the Erie riders get a free Erie Canal cruise through the locks in Lockport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The first Erie Canal was 40 feet wide and just four feet deep, stretching 363 miles, from Albany-Buffalo, with 83 locks to take a boat the 565 feet in elevation. There were no motors involved, so a towpath was constructed along side, and mules, led by young boys known as “hoggies,” who walked 15 miles a day, pulled the canal boats along. One of these hoggies grew up to become president: James Garfield, Ben Willis of the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse tells us at one of the evening lectures.

“The effect of the Canal was both immediate and dramatic, and settlers poured west.  The explosion of trade prophesied by Governor Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by Canal, compared with $100 per ton by road.  In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo.  By 1837 this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million. In nine years, Canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction. Within 15 years of the Canal’s opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined,” according to the state’s canals website (www.canals.ny.gov/history/history.html)

Going through the modern double-locks on the Erie Canal Cruise in Lockport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In order to keep pace with the growing demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862. The “Enlarged Erie Canal” was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. The number of locks was reduced to 72.

In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt, as Governor of New York, pushed to enlarge the canal again and straighten its route – in many cases relocating the canal altogether – to a width of 125 feet and minimum depth of twelve feet. The “modern” Barge Canal – the one we see today – was opened in 1918 and the motors which still open and close the lock doors are a century old, as well.

Cruising through the Modern Barge Canal locks in Lockport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The cruise gives us a wonderful side-by-side view of the “modern” canal and locks (they still use the original GE motors which are 100 years old to open the large steel gates) against the original Clinton’s Ditch lock system, a town that was one of many along the route literally birthed by the Erie Canal. Only the gates are motorized; the rest is gravity.

Lockport offers insights into more than the extraordinary engineering of the Erie Canal: it is here where you get the clearest understanding of how the canal spurred the Industrial Revolution, and made the United States a manufacturing and global power. By 1830, Lockport had grown to the size of Buffalo and Rochester but was eclipsed after Civil War.

Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride

You really appreciate this when you take the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride, which I did on my first Cycle the Erie trip (absolutely fascinating and I have to believe is fairly unique; Cycle the Erie riders get a discount with our wristband).

Up on the hill above the canal were a string of factories. Before Tesla and Edison, engines used water power which was abundant in Lockport. Birdsell Holly, who had a three-story factory, Holly Manufacturing Company, devised a water “raceway” to power the factory –which involved digging a tunnel to capture the seemingly unlimited flow of water.

Our walking tour starts on the canal, where our tour guide, relates the history. Then we walk down a slope to where the hillside means the canal, passed where there would have been three factories.

We walk passed where there would have been a three-story factory, the Holly Manufacturing Company.

“Birdsill Holly, the owner, was famous in his day. He had 150 patents, second-most to Thomas Edison” who was a friend and who asked Holly to join him at his lab in Menlo Park, but Holly wanted to stay on his own. He was a genius at mechanical engineering and specialized in hydro-mechanical systems.” He also created the system of using the rushing water through tunnel (a hydraulic “raceway”) to power turbines.

Among Holly’s inventions: the rotary water pump, the Silsby steam fire engine, the fire hydrant (he actually reminds me a lot of Ben Franklin). Holly had the idea to build a 19-story skyscraper with a view of Niagara Falls, which he expected to become a popular tourist attraction, but never raised the financing.

Holly, who was born in 1820, came to Lockport from Seneca Falls in 1851. He opened the Holly Manufacturing Company in 1859 to produce sewing machines, cistern pumps and rotary pumps.   Holly built the Lockport Fire Protection and Water System in 1863, which used pumps powered by water-turbines and steam-engines to bring water to hydrants in the city. He patented a fire hydrant in 1869, manufactured in his factory.

At its peak, the factory employed 500 people. Ironically, his factory was destroyed by fire in 1909 (there is a photo of the fire hanging in the tour office).

Next, we walk passed where the Richmond Factory, founded in 1868, would have been – portions of gatehouse can still be seen. It utilized Holly’s hydromechanical system. But in 1993, it too, was destroyed by fire.

The third was the Lockport Pulp factory, which operated from1880-1941, when it went out of business after the invention of galvanized steel. “Their lease ran out in 1941 and they lost the use of the water.”

Walking through the outflow pipe of Birdsell’s hydraulic raceway during the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to a great outflow pipe which we use as our entrance into the cave, which once would have been the “raceway” for the rushing water.

This is the system devised by the privately owned Hydraulic Raceway Company (Birdsill Holly was a major investor) to serve his factory and the others.

It is quite an interesting sight – pitch black except for the artificial light.

The tunnel was cut by Irish and Italian workers. Our guide points out what would have been involved in digging out this tunnel and creating the cave, using the technology they had – sledgehammers and black powder. “They worked long hours doing dangerous work for low wages.” At one point, they went on a labor strike.

Boys as young as five years old would be the ones to plant the dynamite because they were small and fast. Each charge would blast a hole the size of a basketball. There are no statistics as to how many boys or men died building these tunnels.

Holly built his tunnel first, in 1858. It took 1 1/2 years to dig 750 feet. Richer opened his factory in 1868. A third section was opened eight years later, taking three years, until 1880 to finish. The factories would have paid $200 year for access to water.

Now our walk takes us to a wooden boat, built inside the cavern. “Welcome aboard Titanic 2,” the guide, jokes.

A boat ride is the climax of the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride on Day One of the 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is very “Phantom of the Opera”-ish, but here, you really appreciate the physical labor that was involved in cutting through rock to create these mechanisms that made the Industrial Revolution factories possible.

It is really a delightful boat-ride, full of atmosphere, that takes us through the oldest section of the tunnel. You can see some differences in how it was constructed. We can appreciate how long it takes to form a stalactite by how small these are. We see soda stalactites  (they have a hollow interior).

($13 plus tax, but $9 for Erie Canal riders. Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride on the Erie Canal, (5 Gooding St., 716-438-0174, www.lockportcave.com).

There is a lot to see in Lockport, including the Erie Canal Discovery Center, a small museum right at the base of the original five locks, which I visited on my first Cycle the Erie ride; Tiffany windows at the First Presbyterian Church, the Historic Palace Theater, and delightful eateries (www.discoverlockport.com).

Biking on the Erie Canalway from Lockport to Medina © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am anxious to get to Medina, though, which I remember from my first Cycle the Erie ride as being a really charming town (they even have a concert planned for the afternoon, and swimming at our campsite), and last time, I didn’t get there early enough to enjoy it.

We ride through a sequence of quaint canaltowns, Gasport, Middleport, – on our way to Medina.

Mural at Middleport, one of the canaltowns that sprung up all along the Erie Canal, where we have a rest stop on the Cycle the Erie bike tour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Medina is famous for its sandstone, a 19th century building material that was used for the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, the State House in Albany, St. Paul’s Episcopal in Albany and in the foundation of Buckingham Palace. The stones, discovered during the building of the canal, were prized because they were so hard, they were the best for fireproof building material.

Cycle the Erie riders come into Medina, our destination. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Much of Medina is built of the stone. You see it at one of America’s oldest Opera Houses (it is being restored) – a tribute to the wealth that the stone and the Erie Canal brought,.

I arrive in Medina, our destination for the day, at around 2:30 pm, in time to catch a delightful folk concert at the canalside park. The band, Traveling Troubadours, perform on the roof of a rented houseboat. Wearing tie-die, the aging hippies will be spending 6 days, going canaltown to canaltown to perform.

Medina has one of the oldest Opera Houses in the country, a testament to how the Erie Canal brought prosperity to these canaltowns. Building the canal exposed the special Medina sandstone that was used for Opera House, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Buckingham Palace. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I must have had a tailwind because the 54 miles of biking today didn’t feel like it at all.

The architecture is absolutely magnificent – and our ride to the campground takes us through neighborhoods with gorgeous, but fading, Victorian houses.

On the way into the campsite, I stop at Medina Railroad Museum – housed in the former New York Central Freight Depot. Built in 1905-6, and 300 feet long, it is the longest wood frame freight house ever built by NYC Systems. There are over 7,000 artifacts on display covering the history of railroads from the early steam era up to the modern age. Exhibits feature vintage toy trains from Lionel, Marx and American Flyer, as well as extensive firefighting exhibit with 460 fire helmets. The HO model train layout is one of the longest on one floor in the country, measuring 204 feet long by 14 feet wide, and featuring lifelike scenery of Western New York. The museum also offers excursions on vintage trains. (530 West Ave., Medina 585-798-6106, MedinaRailroad.com)

Concert at Medina’s canalside park by the Traveling Troubadours © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As I set up my tent at the beautiful grounds of the Clifford H. Wise Middle School, I think how we have gone from an urban to a pastoral setting. They have arranged for us to swim in the school’s pool, as well as stretching class and yoga and there is a massage therapist as well. This evening after dinner, there is a talk about canal history by Tom Grasso, president of the NYS Canal Society.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next: Cycle the Erie, Day 2: Medina to Fairport, 53 miles

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie riders leaving Medina on Day 2 of the 8-day, 400-mile bike tour from Buffalo to Albany. The 19th Annual Cycle the Erie had a record 750 riders © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

To see how America came to be – and what really made America great – you need only to join Parks & Trails NY’s annual eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie Bike Tour from Buffalo to Albany. Riding the multi-use Erie Canalway, which closely follows the towpath along the original Erie Canal that was built between 1817-1825, transports you 400 miles and through 400 years of history. Unfolding before you, at a pace that flows like a movie, are the pastoral scenes of farmlands, the canaltowns that sprang up to handle the trade, the factories that emerged to manufacture the myriad inventions and innovations spawned by Yankee ingenuity, you cross the Native American tribal areas, the colonial settlements, the Revolutionary War sites. You see the rise and fall of industrialization and urbanization, and now, most marvelous of all, you see before you the reinvention, revitalization and repurposing of these villages, towns, cities and communities that the Eric Canal spawned.

The Erie Canal turned a modest port called New York City into a global trade and financial center, New York into the Empire State, and the United States into a global industrial power, with New York City as its center. It turned a subsistence farmer in the Midwest into a purveyor to the world, and not only transformed geography, but society. The Erie Canal “was the Mother of Cities” – overnight, canal towns catering to the boat traffic sprung up from nowhere and cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse blossomed. The canal was an incubator for innovation and a transmitter for new ideas. It unified the nation, tying together East and West, and was the artery by which pioneers and immigrants made their way to the settle the frontier. You come away from this journey with renewed understanding of what it means to be an American.

Cycle the Erie riders in Lockport explore the Flight of Five– the original canal locks that were an engineering marvel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Besides being a marvelous car-free trail (mostly flat), with gorgeous landscapes (you can’t believe this is New York State!), what distinguishes this bike  trip is that it is so interesting – the sites, and sights along the way. Every day is enlightening, inspiring, serendipitous. We go from urban to rural, pastoral lands and back to urban, from main streets into forest and into neighborhoods “tourists” would never see. There is so much to see, in fact, all along the way you have to make choices, which is why so many people come back multiple times. Indeed, this is my second Cycle the Erie tour.

This is no typical bike tour.

In the first place, it is one of the best managed, organized and supported bike tours you will ever experience – the 2017 ride (the 19th annual Cycle the Erie) which coincided with the bicentennial of  beginning the building of the Erie Canal, July 4, 1817 – had a record 750 cyclists. The bicentennial of the opening of the Erie Canal will be held in 2025 (I’m already making plans.)

Our ride is supported by 90 volunteers and you appreciate each and every one: people who go out and mark the trail for us to follow; truck drivers and baggage handlers; SAG drivers and bikers who are there to help if someone has difficulty on the trail; rest stop crew; food service people; bike repair mechanics; medical nurse; site-set up crew; even a massage therapist and yoga instructor.

Massage therapy after a day of cycling the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is most impressive is how everything seems to be taken into account – texting is with a severe weather alert or some emergency, orientations that let us know what to expect from the trail and what to watch out for and what weather conditions to expect, what attractions to look for along the way, the best places to stop off for lunch and the best ice cream stops and trailside breweries, even cycling safety talks (done with great creativity and humor). Shuttle buses are organized to take us from the campsite into town for the evening; they arrange for indoor camping (typically the school gym) as well as Comfy Campers (a service that sets up tent for you, the closest thing to glamping). There are shower trucks to supplement the indoor facilities; access to swimming pools; charging stations.

Fairport community puts out the welcome mat for Cycle the Erie riders © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The routes are well marked and signed, and there are as rest stops morning and afternoon with water and snacks and restrooms. Very often the towns and villages set up welcome centers for us on the trail with special snacks and bottles of water that supplement the rest stops. Museums and attractions stay open, early in the morning or into the evening to accommodate us; we get discounts on admissions, shopping and free shipping just by waving our Cycle the Erie wristband.

Our tent city at the base of Fort Stanwyx, Rome. For those who don’t want to pitch their own tent, Comfy Campers provides a service that feels like glamping © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail makes for superb cycling – most of the 400 miles are on the dedicated multi-use trail, about 75 miles on roads (that is, until the trail is completed which is in the works by New York State). Much of the trail is crushed limestone; some of it is more rugged or overgrown (making it challenging when it rains); some is paved. The trail is mostly flat except for where we come off and ride the highway overpasses to get to our campsites, most typically on gorgeous grounds of private schools (which amazingly always seem to be at the top of a hill), and then we get to see neighborhoods that we would otherwise be unlikely to visit.

Riding the Erie Canalway. The 19th Annual Cycle the Erie 400-mile ride had a record 750 riders © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And the people! A trip like this brings like-minded people who enjoy camping, biking and discovery from across the country and around the world, and who very soon form a whole nomadic tribe. Sitting around tables at breakfast and dinner, or catching up with people on the trail, and finding people who step up to help with setting up a tent or fixing a broken pole, there is this marvelous sense of community and camaraderie. This year’s ride – with the most riders ever – drew people from 36 states including DC, 15 from Canada, as well as from as far away as Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom; the oldest rider was 84 (doing the ride for her 12th time); the youngest was 3, but the youngest self-powered cyclist was just 8 years old. Three-fourths of us are doing the ride for the first time. There were families, groups like Troop 497 from Baltimore, and lots of solos. One couple rode to the start in Buffalo from Canada and was linking this 400-mile trip to biking down to New York City.

The Demeritt Family with their boys aged 4, 8, 11, from Malta NY. Sam Demeritt, age 8, was the youngest rider pedaling the 400 miles on his own © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The unexpected treat is how fascinating the historic sites are along the way – it is so intellectually and culturally satisfying. In addition to organizing our visits so that attractions stay open for us either early in the morning or into the evening, each day there are lectures or special programs, like music.

Every day’s ride – averaging 50 miles a day but as much as 63 – is special in its own way – the sights, the experiences, the ride and its physical challenge. First timers tend to focus on the ride – making sure they can complete the distance (we travel at our own pace). But those who have done the ride before know they will be able to go the distance, so take more time to take in the sights; third timers or more explore even further afield – take that yellow brick road up to the Oz Museum, go for that farm-to-table restaurant for lunch, stop in at the brewery or ice cream shop.

Cycle the Erie riders get a tour of the Peppermint Museum, the H.G Hotchkiss Essential Oil building, in Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This was my second time doing the ride – I did it two years before. There is so much to do – so many attractions and sites and experiences – that I tried as much as possible to do things I hadn’t done on the first ride. And then there is pure serendipity, like weather, which makes a terrific difference in the experience. Knowing what to expect (and that you have done the distance before) gives you the extra confidence to take more time to explore.

Registrations have just opened for the 2018 ride, it’s 20th Annual Cycle the Erie bike tour, which will take place July 8-15. (If you don’t want to do all eight-days, 400-miles, they offer two and four-day segments but then you would have to organize getting back to your starting place.)

And We’re Off! 

The tour begins in Buffalo and a good portion of us drive to Albany where we pull up to the Visitors Center, drop off our gear, then park in the adjacent municipal lot before boarding buses for the five-hour drive to Buffalo, where we camp at the Nichols School, a magnificent private academy. (If you don’t want to set up your own tent, you can sign up for Comfy Campers, a service which sets up a truly comfortable tent, with air mattress and fresh towel daily; there is also “indoor camping,” typically in the gymnasium at the schools where we stay. There also are recommended bed-and-breakfast inns along the way.)

The bus ride from Albany to the Buffalo start of the 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour gives peeks at the New York State countryside that will be seen from the Canalway © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our journey begins on Saturday night before the start of the ride on Sunday, on the campus of the Nichols School, a magnificent private academy in Buffalo, where we have a welcoming reception and gala dinner, and an orientation about the Erie Canal and our route  (Those of us who are here early enough can join an optional pre-tour ride to Niagara Falls and around historic Buffalo, but those of us who have come by bus from Albany arrive just in time to register and enjoy a festive kick-off reception and dinner and orientation meeting.)

The Erie Canal was the most successful public works project in America. Despite its cost ($7.7 million, the equivalent of $18 billion today), the opposition to the folly of Governor DeWitt Clinton’s “ditch” (nothing really changes) and the fact that the new nation did not even have the engineers nor the technology to build such a canal when the first shovel was put into the ground in Rome, on July 4, 1817, the canal actually quickly recouped its investment. In fact, the original canal only lasted until 1836, when it was essentially rebuilt and expanded, and then again, by President Theodore Roosevelt who redirected and replaced the Modern Barge canal altogether in 1903. No longer a “mom and pop” operation where barges and packet ships were pulled by mules, the new canal involved motorized boats.

Day One: Sunday, Buffalo to Medina, 54 Miles

Unlike my first time doing the Erie ride, when we all left at once with great fanfare, this time, we leave the campsite as every other morning, at our own pace (except that we have to get our gear on the trucks between 6 and 8 am and have breakfast (5:30-8:30 am).

Every morning during breakfast there is an orientation to that day’s ride (given twice, once for the early birds, 6:30 am and once for the rest of us, 7 am). They prepare us for road conditions, the weather forecast, alert us to any safety issues in the route, tell us about upcoming attractions we will come upon. We ride at our own pace.

We form a line of cyclists on the five-miles we ride through Buffalo’s streets before we get to the entrance to the Canalway The streets are well marked and there are police to help us through thoroughfares. It is exhilarating to be setting out.

At the start of the Erie Canalway in Buffalo, where the bike trial has brought new housing and revitalized communities © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride a new section of the Canalway into Lockport – indeed, the goal of this annual 8-day, 400-mile ride is to raise money and awareness to close the gaps. And it’s worked! New York State now has an ambitious program to not only complete the entire Buffalo-Albany trail, but to create a new north-south trail, the Empire State Trail, that will link New York City to the Canadian border – 750 miles of off-road trails all together. This would be the longest state ‘shared use’ trail in nation.

Blue paint along our route points the way to a historical/attraction (for example, the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village); orange paint on road shows us the way to bike to our destination. There are markers before and after each turn.

We reach a rest stop at 17 miles before coming into Lockport.

Biking into Lockport on our first day of the eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This day brings us into Lockport, where they have arranged for anyone who wants, a free 1 ½-hour-long cruise on the canal through two locks.

Here in Lockport, you get to see in the most compressed amount of space, the entire history of the Canal, with the original Flight of Five locks just next to modern locks (the only place where there is a double lock, one after another), combined with the story how the Erie Canal spurred America’s industrialization.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000,www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next: 

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

72 Hours in Philadelphia: A Visit to the National Constitution Center Exposes Contradictions in ‘We the People’

The National Constitution Center puts life into this founding document. In Signers Hall, walk among life-size statues of the 42 Founders who hashed out the framework for ‘We the People’ government © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a cold, institutional feel to the National Constitution Center – as if you fell into a law book. And oddly, even though this place more than any other, recognizes the impact of words on paper – the decisions, pronouncements, laws – on each and every person’s everyday life, there is that struggle between the “rule of law” without fear or favor, that objective, dispassionate application, and any sense of what is right and good for ordinary people. What emerges is a sense that law and government, like evolution, is not good or bad, but reflects politics and power: look at the restrictions on voting to “white men over 21;” the Dred Scott Decision based on 5th amendment property rights; the evolution of rulings that elevate corporations to the status of people (despite fact “corporation” is not mentioned in the Constitution) including Citizens United which established that cash is equivalent to speech and corporations have a right to spend as much as they want on political speech regardless if it is corporations spending the cash or a person (so speech is not really “free”, but whoever has more cash has more speech) and Hobby Lobby which determined that corporations could possess religious “conscience” in order to deny their female employees access to contraceptives.  You realize that the progressive change on behalf of ordinary people occurred during brief episodes.

I used the opening of the brand new Museum of the American Revolution as the theme for my three-day visit to Philadelphia – a really deep dive probe of the Revolutionary War era, a return to understanding the founding of the nation through, as it were, original documents, materials and artifacts, at a time when we need to be reminded – everything from the off-hand comment by Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly that the Civil War could have been averted if only there were compromise (he should go to the National Constitution Center), to the quixotic amazement of a US Treasury official pining on his research into what’s this thing, “The American Dream,” all about before adopting the biggest redistribution of wealth since the Gilded Age, to the pronouncements by some politicians that America is a Christian Nation, to Trump’s remarks about immigrants coming from s-hole countries. I felt a driving need to go back to the beginning, the foundations, remind myself of those values and debates and compromises and circumstances.

So far, during my three-day visit to Philadelphia, I have visited the new Museum of the American Revolution, the National Museum of Jewish American History, the Ben Franklin Museum, the Betsy Ross House, the Old Burial Ground – each one adding to my understanding and appreciation of the founding values of this nation – and now I have arrived at my last stop, the National Constitution Center.

The National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003, is on federal land but is a private, independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan institution. It is the first and only institution in America established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” Its mission is to spark constitutional debates that impact citizens and inspire active citizenship.

“As the Museum of We the People, the Center aims to bring the Constitution to life for visitors of all ages through interactive programs and exhibits that include coming face to face with original documents, rare artifacts and hearing personal stories. As America’s Town Hall, the Center brings the leading conservative and liberal thought leaders together to debate the Constitution on all media platforms. As a center for Civic Education, the Center delivers educational programs and online resources that inspire, excite, and engage citizens about the U.S. Constitution.”

I arrive just in time for a multi-media orientation experience, “Freedom Rising” in a theater that has the metallic feel and design of a 21st century dystopian gladiator arena. For some inexplicable reason there is a live person who is not so much a narrator as a ringmaster as video images flash around the ceiling so you can’t fully see them or process them.

‘Freedom Rising’

“Freedom Rising” is intended to highlight the primary themes of the main exhibit gallery, making an effort to tell the story of “We the People” in two senses of that phrase: First, the Constitution’s vision of “popular sovereignty,” or rule by the people; Second, how the definition of citizenship has expanded over more than 200 years of American history to gradually include those who were left out in the 18th century – white men without property, women, African Americans, other people of color.  It rang hollow to me.

‘Freedom Rising’ is presented in an arena-like setting at the National Constitution Center © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You walk out of the arena to the Richard and Helen DeVos Exhibit Hall, which is designed as two concentric rings. The outermost ring is presented chronologically with 13 sections which relate American history through the lens of the Constitution from 1765 until today and a central ring focused on civics and how government operates.

Exhibits along the outermost ring use multiple techniques to bring the story to life: a short general video introduction to each section; text-and-graphic based story panels and reading rails; maps and images; game-like computer interactives; video and audio segments focusing on specific historical moments; selected artifacts; and walk-in immersive environments that render key ideas, moments, and stories in three dimensions.

For instance, you enter a re-creation of the floor of the Senate during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson and listen to the debate; you can step into a 1940s living room and hear one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats playing on the radio.

A device that is used to fairly good effect is presenting a major Supreme Court decision or milestone event as if told as a news story that day, making it more immediate and relevant.

The “Founders’ Library,” presents a sampling of the books that the Library Company of Philadelphia made available to the delegates during the Constitutional Convention – giving visitors a sense of the intellectual origins of the Constitution and make it more accessible.

What’s on that bookshelf that helped shape the Constitution? Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, King James Bible, Magna Carta, Machiavelli, John Locke, Cato’s Letters, Baron Montesquieu, David Hume, Sir William Blackstone, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, John Dickerson, among others. What’s missing: anything about the Iroquois Confederacy which provided a framework for democratic leadership and a confederation of states, not to mention women’s rights.

Other features include the Civil War alcove, an exploration of the turning point year of 1863, which features a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln as well as pages from an autograph book with the only-known Lincoln signature from the day that he gave the Gettysburg Address. Here I encounter a docent who lets us handle some artifacts from the Civil War.

I pose to him my theory that the Civil War could have been avoided had the slave-holding states accepted the entreaty from Zachariah Kingsley, a plantation owner in Florida, which was part of Spain until 1845 when it became part of the United States and subject to its laws regarding slavery; he entreated Congress that the United States use the Spanish model of slavery that was much less cruel (if any form of slavery could be less cruel), that provided a pathway to freedom and did not automatically enslave future generations. It was ignored. (I saw a copy of Zachariah Kingsley’s letter to Congress at Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island near Jacksonville, Florida which stuck in my mind, “What if…”.)

You also can see a fascinating display of archeological artifacts from the late 1700s that were uncovered at the site of the National Constitution Center between 2000 and 2003, only two blocks from Independence Hall where the Constitution was drafted. These historic treasures illuminate daily life in Philadelphia as a new nation was being born.

The Central Ring through the main gallery explores how the constitutional system works through a series of immersive, interactive exhibits designed with families and school groups in mind. Visitors have the opportunity to learn about the great rites of democracy, such as serving on a jury or voting.

Role-playing is a key component of the central path. In one of the most popular displays, you can stand behind a presidential podium and take the oath of office. You can try on a judge’s robe, sit at a replica of the Supreme Court bench, and decide landmark cases selected to illustrate the broad range of constitutional issues that come before the court: Katz v. United States is a wiretap case involving the Fourth Amendment and issues of privacy; Texas v. Johnson, the flag-burning case, tested the protection of the First Amendment; United States v. Nixon, the Watergate tapes case, involved separation of powers and executive privilege.

The American National Tree, another prominent exhibit, tells the stories of 100 Americans – a few of them well known, but most of them unheralded. By selecting their faces streaming by on touch screens, you can read and hear how these noteworthy Americans have shaped constitutional history.

The recent discussion on the Senate floor over the government shutdown was reminiscent of this scene in Signers’ Hall at the National Constitution Center © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

People really enjoyed Signers’ Hall, where you walk into a stylized evocation of the Assembly Room in the Pennsylvania State House, known today as Independence Hall, where the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The room is “peopled” with life-sized bronze statues of 42 men: the 39 delegates who signed as well as the three present on September 17, 1787, who refused to sign. We are encouraged to walk among them and to consider them as real people, imaging the dilemma they faced in creating the framework for a new nation founded on “We the People” –  choices that still impact the nation, the oldest continuously surviving democratic republic. You also can add your name to a digital version of the Constitution alongside the Founding Fathers’ signatures.

Notably, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, signers of the Declaration of Independence, are not represented in Signers Hall because they were both serving as ambassadors overseas (Jefferson in France and Adams in England) during the Constitutional Convention. Several other famous Founding Fathers who were not signers of the Constitution include John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry.

The statues in Signers’ Hall were created by some 50 artists – sculptors, designers, costumers, mold makers – at Studio EIS in Brooklyn, who used numerous historical sources, including portraits and written descriptions, to create the most accurate likenesses possible. The project began in early 2001 and was completed in May 2003.

Unanswered Questions: How Democratic are We?

I come away with a few new insights, but few answers to long-lingering questions I have harbored:

Everything George Washington does as president sets a precedent, including doing the unimaginable of stepping down after two terms when many wanted him to be president for life. (But having visited the Museum of the American Revolution, I wonder what would have happened if Washington had been younger and not so anxious to retire to Mount Vernon, if he would have been so interested in giving up presidency.)

We learn that slander and scandals have always been a part of the political process: A Federalist called Jefferson “a Godless man whose election would lead to reign of terror, like France.” Republicans claimed John Adams was “a British-led tyrant bent on enslaving us.”

The Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott Decision was based on a ruling which found that Congress in its 1820 Compromise deprived slaveholders of their 5th Amendment property rights.

I learn that 1824 was the first presidential election that counted the popular vote (though I don’t really understand what that means, to “count” the popular vote.) On the other hand, it renews a question that I had ever since visiting the Women’s Rights National Monument in Seneca Falls, NY: Without any change in the Constitution that gave voting rights only to “white men with property,” suddenly, in that election, white men without property were allowed to vote. And yet, it took the 15th amendment in 1870 to give Black men the vote, and the 19th amendment in 1920 to finally give women the vote. I’ve never seen anyone question how without any change in the Constitution, all of a sudden, white men were allowed to vote, and it enabled –Andrew Jackson, who lost in 1824 to John Quincy Adams, to win his election in 1828.

When freed black men also turned up to vote, states passed laws restricting voting to “white men over 21”.

Benjamin Franklin, “The Sage” is the only Founding Father to have signed all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance (1778) with France, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution (1783) and the United States Constitution (1787), though he was sick and suffering in pain during the Constitutional Convention and died shortly after, in 1790 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I learn that the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791 (itself a compromise because there were states that would not ratify the Constitution without a Bill of Rights, which are the first 10 amendments) only applied to federal law. In recent decisions, the Court ruled that their protections apply to states because certain rights are so fundamental, they are incorporated in amendment guarantee of due process.

“Like the preamble of Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights at the time of ratification was largely a promissory note. It was not until the 20th century when the Supreme Court vigorously applied the Bill of Rights against the states that the document becomes centerpiece of the contemporary struggle over liberty and equality. It defends the majority against an overreaching federal government but also against overreach by the state.”

What you appreciate, though, is that through all of American history, there have been “firsts” – challenges or unsettled issues of the Constitution. It was never fixed or complete. The Founders designed the Constitution to be a “living” document. So-called “originalists” who pretend to divine what was in the mind of the Founders are just that: pretenders.

A new display is an “Interactive Constitution”, where you can click on the freedoms of the Bill of Rights to see the documents that were used.

There are hands-on materials. For example, you can try on a black robe of a Supreme Court justice.

When I am visiting, I am lucky enough to see an original copy of the Bill of Rights on view in the George H.W. Bush Gallery before it was sent back to New York. It is one of 12 original copies that survive. (North Carolina’s was stolen during the Civil War but was returned in 2003 with the help of the National Constitution Center, which  informed the FBI after being told they could have it back for $4 million ransom). This copy, is shared by New York and Pennsylvania which alternates every three years (it now has gone back to New York, where you can see it on camera).

There is also a first-edition Stone Engraving of the Declaration of Independence and an original copy of the US Constitution.

The National Constitution Center has some cavernous spaces; from the picture window, you can see out to Independence Hall where the Constitution was signed in 1787 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m not sure that what I came away with was the message that the Center intended: Instead of assurances that the Framers created mechanisms – fool-proof checks-and-balances – to insure a democratic republic would withstand every challenge, I am shaken by the realization of how wrong those in power, with the ability to set laws, decide laws and implement laws, have been (think Dred Scott, Citizens United). It seems that it has been a matter of luck that has let us survive this long, but one wonders how would we survive a “perfect storm” of various levers breaking down against threats that the Framers could never have foreseen, like an election that was stolen by a foreign adversary, or a president who used his office to personally profit, who sold favors to a foreign government and then defied a subpoena. Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court’s ruling that his Indian Removal Act was unconstitutional, daring the court to bring its army to force him to do its bidding.

I went in wondering if it would address some of the questions that I have long harbored: did the Salem Witch Trials play any part in the Founders’ interest in preserving Religious Freedom? What role did the Iroquois Confederacy play in the writing of the Constitution? How does the notion of “originalism”  – the pretense of knowing what the Founders intended – carry sway since the Constitution was clearly not perfect, the Founders were not omniscient and could not predict technology of today, were not Gods, knew their own human fallibilities in devising a system of government that had never been seen before, as well as the need to compromise on such issues as slavery in order to forge a union and the fact we have already adopted 27 amendments?

The Constitution already has provision for impeachment (for “high crimes and misdemeanors”), already has an Emoluments clause, more recently adopted a 25th Amendment to provide for a President who is “unable” or unfit, but what provision is there to “re-do” (or nullify) an election that is stolen – votes literally being switched in an e-ballot box – using the advanced technology of today? I wonder about the changes that need to be made in light of expanded population and new technologies, but that are resisted.

For example, the Founders never imagined the powerful role that political parties would play – indeed, had to immediately change the procedure for “electing” the President and Vice President – but the present system almost guarantees a President elected by a minority of voters. The Electoral College, which functions mostly by tradition and not by law, but was created as a check against populism at a time when communications were slow, voting confined to a small elite, has already been demonstrated to be obsolete in its function by twice selecting as President a candidate who lost the popular vote, not to mention that it nullifies the ideal of “one person-one vote” because it gives so much unequal representation to small-population states over high-population states (as does the Senate). The Founders never imagined the fire power of an assault weapon at a time when the most sophisticated personal weapon was a single-ball musket.

I don’t find the answers to my questions.

Constitution Heritage Act

A permanent memorial to the Constitution was first proposed around the celebration of the centennial of the Constitution in 1887. It did not begin to take shape until the idea was proposed again 100 years later during the document’s bicentennial celebration in 1987.

President Ronald Reagan signed the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 on September 16, 1988. The act directed the establishment of the National Constitution Center, an institution “within or in close proximity to the Independence National Historical Park” that “shall disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a nonpartisan basis in order to increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.”

The National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003, is the first and only institution in America established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Center opened on July 4, 2003, at 525 Arch Street (the date itself was significant, translating to May 25, 5/25, the date that the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia in 1787) in Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, “America’s most historic square mile.” Designed by the architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the building is made of American products, including 85,000 square feet of Indiana limestone, 2.6 million pounds of steel, and a half-million cubic feet of concrete. The limestone used in the building is from the same quarry as the Empire State Building’s materials.

The National Constitution Center owns a rare, original copy of the first public printing of the Constitution. This printing was published in a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, on September 19, 1787—two days after the Constitution was signed. Since the Constitutional Convention was conducted under an oath of secrecy, this printing represents the first time that Americans (“We the People”) saw the Constitution. (The original signed, handwritten Constitution is at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.)

Now is an especially exciting time for visitors because the Center is displaying the rarest handwritten drafts of the U.S. Constitution through 2019.

In addition to exhibits, visitors can enrich their visit with daily museum programs or a Living News performance.

In Living News, today’s headlines are brought to life in a dynamic performance incorporating video, contemporary music, and current news broadcasts. Featuring three engaging actors who play multiple roles, Living News introduces controversial constitutional issues and encourages audience members to explore their own points of view during a post-show discussion.

Visitor amenities include The Delegates’ Cafe, a glass-enclosed restaurant providing the backdrop of historic Independence Mall, as well as a Museum Store, offering a wide range of gifts, books, apparel, jewelry, and toys.

The National Constitution Center also houses the Annenberg Center for Education and Outreach, the national hub for constitutional education, which offers cutting-edge civic education resources both onsite and online.

Constitution Daily Blog: constitutioncenter.org/blog

We the People Podcast: constitutioncenter.org/podcasts

America’s Town Hall Programs Live:  constitutioncenter.org/live

The National Constitution Center is located steps from Independence Hall, where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed.

You need a minimum of 1 hour to visit, but more likely will spend at least two to three hours.

General Admission to the museum and daily programming: Adults $14.50; Youth (6-18) $11; Students w/ID, Seniors $13. Members, active military personnel, and children ages 5 and under admitted free.

The National Constitution Center, Independence Mall, 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106, 215-409- 6700, constitutioncenter.org.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Ben Franklin, America’s Revolutionary ‘Elder Statesman,’ Would Have been Quite at Home in 21st Century 

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Meet Betsy Ross: A Thoroughly Modern Woman

 

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

72 Hours In Philadelphia: Meet Betsy Ross: A Thoroughly Modern Woman

As she sews, “Betsy Ross” chats about her life as a single working woman in Revolutionary America and her experience making America’s first flag in her upholstery shop at the Betsy Ross House in historic Philadelphia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My third day of my deep-dive into Revolutionary War America in Philadelphia is devoted to exploring key figures and sites that I have never visited before: Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center. I especially appreciate what I am seeing after my visits to the newly opened Museum of the American Revolution and the National Museum of Jewish American History in the first two days.

Betsy Ross was a pistol.

The Betsy Ross House, in Philadelphia’s historic district best known for Independence Hall, proved a real surprise.

I realize that all I know of Betsy Ross is that she created the first American flag. But this museum, which is operated as a private, nonprofit attraction, really conveys what a significant figure she was – independent when few women had any independence at all, a true patriot who was courageous in working on behalf of the Revolution. And, like Ben Franklin, what a modern person she was, who I can believe, would have been at the front of the Women’s Marches waving a feminist flag of her own design.

The Betsy Ross House is operated as a private, nonprofit attraction in historic Philadelphia. The small size belies the big picture that awaits inside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Her story would be worthy of a drama: She was shunned by her Quaker family for eloping (at age 21) with John Ross, a man of a different faith (the son of an Anglican Reverend) – imagine running off and marrying for love in 1773. She was independent: soon after they were married, John, who had joined the local militia, was killed and she found herself a widow who had to fend for herself. Because they had no children, she was able to keep her property. She rented a room in this townhouse, as well as a shop on the street level where she had her own business sewing upholstery and throughout her life was a savvy businessperson.

She would have known General George Washington from Christ Church which the young couple attended.

You traipse through the small house – to the room she rented in what was a boarding house (not just women), and realize how unusual this is, and then, as you descend the stairs into the shop, much to my surprise, you meet Betsy Ross herself, sewing some fabric. You get to ask her questions about her life.

The room that Betsy Ross rented where she sewed the flag in secret © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I ask her what the date is – Nov. 5, 1776 – and really get into the spirit of the thing, knowing that she will only answer questions up to that point, when I know what comes next.

She has been working on the flag in secret, upstairs in the room, where she keeps it hidden under fabric.

Why did she take the risk? “My late husband was a patriot. I wanted to support Washington and make something to allow the spirit of my late husband live. We never had a child. [Creating the flag] this was like giving birth.”

She said that she went from father’s house to her husband’s. Now 24 years old, “the heaviness of a loss forces you to grow up in different manner. Being on my own is more difficult than I would have imagined.”

Her husband, John, passed in January and she moved in March. “This is the Widow Lithgow’s home –she rents to individuals. I rent a room and shop space from her. If I remarry, I will go to different lodging.”

She would have lived here between 1776 and 1779.

She relates how General Washington had particular design in mind when he came to her in 1776. He was open to suggestions: his original idea for the symbol for American independence had the shape of square rather than rectangle (that was her idea).

Betsy Ross designed America’s first flag © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Also, Washington had wanted six-pointed stars but Ross pushed to change the shape to five-pointed stars by demonstrating that it was easier and speedier to cut, and how she would sew it in so that the design could be seen on both sides.

She tells me with an appropriate measure of sass in her tone that a trusted messenger brought her flag  to Washington rather than he come himself. “He has heavier things on his mind – to win the battle, not a flag.”

I never considered, before “meeting” Betsy Ross how courageous she was to make the flag – she could have been caught and jailed for sedition.

I ask if she has met Ben Franklin (thinking that his printing shop is nearby), but she says that she knows of him but has not met him. “He’s out of town a lot. I hear he is quite taken with squirrels,” she says with a slight smile as she continues to sew.

She actually had a very good business going during the American Revolutionary War, making flags for the Pennsylvania Navy.

“Betsy Ross” is happy to answer questions about her life with visitors to the Betsy Ross House © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Betsy Ross was born in 1752, and after attending a Quaker-run school, her father apprenticed her to an upholsterer. There, she fell in love with John Ross, a fellow apprentice, the son of an Anglican priest at the historic city parish of Christ Church, and the nephew of George Ross Jr. who was a signer of the Declaration of the Independence. The young couple eloped in 1773 when she was 21, marrying at Hugg’s Tavern in Gloucester City, New Jersey. The marriage resulted in her expulsion from the Quaker congregation.

The young couple soon started their own upholstery business and later joined Christ Church, where their fellow congregants occasionally included the visiting Virginia Colony militia regimental commander who would soon become General of a newly organized Continental Army, George Washington, as well as other visiting notaries and delegates who would become leaders of the rebellion and later, members of the Continental Congress.

They were married only two years when John Ross, a member of the local militia, was killed. They had no children.

She continued working in her upholstery business for the Revolution, repairing uniforms and making tents, blankets, and stuffing paper tube cartridges with musket balls for ammunition for the Continental Army.

On June 15, 1777, she married her second husband, Joseph Ashburn, a seaman. In 1780, Ashburn’s ship was captured by a Royal Navy frigate and he was charged with treason (for being of British ancestry, because the British did not recognize American colonial citizenship) and was imprisoned at Old Mill Prison in England. During this time, their first daughter, Zilla, died at the age of nine months and their second daughter, Eliza, was born. Ashburn died in the British jail.

Three years later, in May 1783, she married John Claypoole, who had coincidentally met Joseph Ashburn in the English Old Mill Prison and had been the one to inform her of her husband’s death. (Ross must have really been something, and the young woman playing the part today conveys that spirit.)

Betsy gave birth to five daughters with John Claypoole: Clarissa, Susanna, Jane, Rachel and Harriet (who died in infancy). With the birth of their second daughter, in 1786, they moved to a larger house on Philadelphia’s Second Street, settling down to a peaceful post-war existence.  Philadelphia prospered as the temporary national capital (1790–1800) of the newly independent United States of America, with George Washington as the first President,

By 1812, John Claypoole’s war injuries had left him disabled; he died in 1817 after two decades of poor health. Betsy’s young, widowed daughter Clarissa moved into their home with her five children and a sixth on the way. With Clarissa’s help, Betsy continued to run her upholstery shop and flag-making business. But after 50 years in the trade, Betsy’s rapidly failing vision led to her retirement at the age of 76. Betsy eventually became blind. She spent the last three years of her life living with her daughter Jane’s family on Cherry Street in Philadelphia. She died peacefully in her sleep on January 30, 1836, at the age of 84.

Betsy Ross’ gravesite was moved to this location in downtown historic Philadelphia in 1975 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Betsy Ross’s body was first interred at the Free Quaker burial grounds on North Fifth Street in Philadelphia (interesting in that the Quaker’s shunned her); 20 years later, her remains were moved to the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia. Then, in 1975, in preparation for the American Bicentennial, the City ordered the remains moved to the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House. Cemetery workers found no remains beneath her tombstone, but bones found elsewhere in the family plot were deemed to be hers and were re-interred in the grave which we tourists visit at the Betsy Ross House.

The museum does an excellent job of revealing the situation of women in Revolutionary times, what it was like for the women and children left behind when their men went to war, and how they provided for themselves when they were widowed. I go down to the kitchen area where another woman interprets what it would have been like to have been a Washerwoman – one of the few professions that a woman who had to fend for herself could undertake.

At the Betsy Ross House you learn about how women lived and worked in the Revolutionary War era © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Working as a laundress was a difficult, low paying job in the 18th century; in early colonial period, many were enslaved or indentured servants; toward the end of the 18th century, most were free black women and widows struggling to support themselves.”

We are introduced to Judath, an African American washerwoman employed by Elizabeth Drinker, a wealthy Quaker woman. Jane Gray, a widowed African American washerwoman, who was a member of the “Black Class” at St. George’s Methodist church and later joined St. Thomas’ African Episcopal church. Susanna Cook, a widow with two children who lived at 3rd & Walnut Streets, whose husband died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 and to earn a living, rented out rooms and worked as a washerwoman earning $3 a week; she fell ill in 1801 and died impoverished in an almshouse.

There are special exhibits: “Stitching the Story Together: Betsy Ross and the American Flag” opens March 1; “Furnishing the Widow’s Chamber (opens March 1).

Allocate about an hour to visit.

Admission: Self-guided tour: $5/adult, $4/seniors, children, vets, students; add $2 for the audio tour (a child’s audio tour is available).

Betsy Ross House, 239 Arch Street. 215-629-5801. Operated by Historic Philadelphia, Inc. 150 S. Independence Mall West, Suite 550, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215-629-4026,  visitorservices@historicphiladelphia.org.

Shopping at The Outrage, a feminist shop that opened appropriately just a few doors down from the Betsy Ross House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I leave the Betsy Ross House, I think how appropriate that other clothing/sewing places are also on this block, and just a few doors down, come upon Women’s Resistence – The Outrage (www.the-outrage.com)

The brand was started 2016 – it was supposed to be celebratory for first woman president, but instead, has become an outlet for outrage and resistance for artists and activists. A portion of sales helps benefit organizations – ACLU, Planned Parenthood, 350.org. The first store oened in DC; this one opened this fall, with other outlets planned across the country.

My immersion into Revolutionary War Americana in Philadelphia continues at the Constitution Center.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Ben Franklin, America’s Revolutionary ‘Elder Statesman,’ Would Have been Quite at Home in 21st Century 

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

72 Hours in Philadelphia: Ben Franklin, America’s Revolutionary ‘Elder Statesman,’ Would Have been Quite at Home in 21st Century

Benjamin Franklin, “The Sage” is the only Founding Father to have signed all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance (1778) with France, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution (1783) and the United States Constitution (1787), though he was sick and suffering in pain during the Constitutional Convention and died shortly after, in 1790 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My third day of my deep-dive into Revolutionary War America in Philadelphia is devoted to exploring key figures and sites that I have never visited before: Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center.

Once again, the best way to connect is to walk because you are quite literally walking “in the footsteps” of these iconic individuals, and in so doing weave together the places and events, create a context. It is exciting to happen upon a site – a historic marker, a building keystone – that you would never have thought to seek out.

I set out again from my hotel, the Sonesta Downtown Rittenhouse Square, walking down Market Street, through City Hall, to Chestnut Street.

I am off to visit the Benjamin Franklin Museum, which is relatively new (open four years) and very close to the very new Museum of the American Revolution. The trick here is that you need to walk up an alley (I missed it the first few times I went by). I enter from Chestnut Street, but you can also come through from Market Street, where there is a row of townhomes (“Franklin’s Neighborhood”) that includes the post office, Franklin’s print shop, and looks back at City Hall.

Ben Franklin is, of course, a native son of Philadelphia, and justifiably the most revered figure, and here we learn why that is so deserved, why the city still has his stamp.

The “Ghost House” frames where Ben Franklin’s house would have stood, in what is now Franklin Court © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You enter a courtyard and come upon the “Ghost House” – the sculptural frame of Franklin’s home (the museum is actually in what would have been the basement) you can peek into the archeologically preserved remains of the foundation of his house. Franklin’s grandkids, unable to afford the “prohibitive” taxes, tore the house down in 1812 to sell to a real-estate developer. Eventually, a rooming house was built on the site. The National Park Service tore that down in the 1950s in order to restore the Franklin site, and after the Independence Bicentennial in 1976, it became a National Park, administered by the National Park Service.

The exhibit area is divided into five “rooms” with each room interestingly focusing on a particular trait of Franklin’s: ardent and dutiful, ambitious and rebellious, motivated to improve, curious and full of wonder, and strategic and persuasive. There are videos, touch screen interactives, mechanical interactives, and artifacts in each area. An additional area called the “Library” presents a video with excerpts from Franklin’s Autobiography.

The exhibit is well presented to give a total biography of this fascinating Renaissance, self-made man, who so epitomizes the American Dream.

I come to Franklin Museum hoping to learn more of this fascinating man, and was richly rewarded. I did not realize his humble beginnings, or fully appreciate the range of his talents, accomplishments.

But my essential question about Franklin – my theory that it was the Stamp Act (not the tea tax) which imposed taxes on newspapers – that was the key to the colonists taking up arms to “free” themselves from the greatest superpower humankind had known. Franklin was not just a printer, but a newspaper publisher who provided seed money to newspapers throughout the colonies and became (what I consider) the first syndicated columnist, sending out editorials that would have been printed in those papers. My theory (as yet unproved) is that newspaper editors were the ones who turned opinion against British rule, gave the colonists the notion that they could actually win their independence, and gave the colonists from Massachusetts to Virginia, who were then (as now) very different,  a sense of unity. Had the British not imposed the Stamp Tax, the newspaper editors may not have been so gung ho for Revolution. If my theory could be addressed at the museum, it was not at all clear to me.

Ben Franklin as inventor: glass harmonica © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

But what is clear is that Franklin lived in the Age of Enlightenment – ideas and innovations were spread by trade and globalism – and people with the wit and wisdom like Franklin – despite having only two years of formal schooling – were encouraged to learn, innovate, invent not just technology (he did experiments with electricity and invented the lightening rod, bifocals, Franklin stove, urinary catheter and glass harmonica and charted and named the Gulf Stream) but civic society (volunteer fire department, the Philadelphia hospital, library, founded what became the University of Pennsylvania) and politics. There was greater willingness to challenge authority and notions of “divine right” – even question institutionalized religion – and class rather than be ruled by them. Colonists – who hailed from many countries in addition to Britain and would not have had loyalty to the Crown – had already lived in the New World for a century, and saw themselves not as British but as Americans. And Franklin knew better than anyone that a person from humble beginnings could ascend the ranks of social status.

I am surprised to learn that Franklin never patented his inventions, believing in the equivalent of what we call “open source.”

He was a key figure in creating the Declaration of Independence – one of the committee of 5 (with Jefferson, Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston); and along with Adams nominated Jefferson to write the Declaration and made some important changes to Jefferson’s draft.

He was a generation older than Adams and was in his 80s during the Continental Congress – near death and in significant discomfort. He was considered a giant, an elder statesman, “The Sage.”

America’s ambassador to France during the Revolution, he secured critical support of the French.

I was shocked to learn that Franklin initially owned and dealt in slaves (it was a time when that was common place, even in the North) but by the 1750s, he argued against slavery from an economic perspective and became one of the most prominent abolitionists.

His personal background is worthy of a multi-part dramatic series:

Ben Franklin at 9 years old (artist’s rendering) © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ben Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, one of 17 children of his father. He only attended two years of formal schooling which ended when he was 10; he continued his education through voracious reading.

At 12, he apprenticed to his older brother, James, a printer, who founded the first independent newspaper in the colonies. Ben started publishing columns secretly under a pseudonym (his brother was furious). When James, who was a free thinker, was jailed for three weeks in 1722 for publishing material unflattering to the governor, Ben took over the newspaper and wrote, in the character of his alter-identity Mrs. DoGood, “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”

In 1723, Franklin escaped his apprenticeship and fled to Philadelphia, making him a fugitive. He took up lodging in the Read home, and at the age of 17, proposed marriage to 15-year old Deborah Read. But her mother refused permission for them to marry. Franklin went off to London for several years and Deborah married John Rodgers, who abandoned her, ran off with her dowry and but without a divorce, left her unable to remarry.

When Ben Franklin returned to Philadelphia, he formed a common-law marriage with Deborah who becomes a mother to Ben’s illegitimate son, William.(William grew up to become a Loyalist and self-exiled himself to London; William too had an illegitimate son who became Ben Franklin’s secretary and aide). Deborah and Ben had two more children together, but his son died at the age of 4 of smallpox; his daughter Sarah married, had children, and took care of Ben in his old age

I hadn’t realized that Franklin spent much of his life abroad, especially between 1757-1775, and as Ambassador to France from 1776-1785.

Franklin returned to the United States in 1787 and is the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance (1778) with France, the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution (1783) and the United States Constitution (1787), though he was sick and suffering in pain during the Constitutional Convention.

A civil war reenactor at Philadelphia’s Veterans Day Parade peeks in at Franklin’s grave at the Christ Church Burial Ground © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

When Ben Franklin died in 1790, 20,000 people attended his funeral. Later, I see where he was interred in Christ Church Burial Ground. It is interesting to note that in 1728, when he was just 22, Franklin wrote his own epitaph: “The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.” But the tombstone simply reads, as he specified in his final will, “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”

You leave the museum realizing what a remarkable Renaissance man Franklin was – like Thomas Jefferson in that way – with all the inventions and areas of success. Franklin was very much a modern man; if ever there was a person who could find himself 250 years in the future, he would have been very much at home in the 21st century. And very much Philadelphia’s Favorite Son for good reason.

The Ben Franklin Museum is a very welcoming space that really humanizes and personalizes Franklin. I love Franklin’s witty quotes, the portraits of him that show him throughout his life, even his love letters (to women not his wife).

Fire insurance symbol, one of the civic innovations that Ben Franklin introduced, can still be found on Philadelphia houses © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For children, there is a scavenger hunt for the small squirrel figurines located throughout the exhibits. Franklin delighted in pet squirrels, or skuggs as they were known in his day.

You need at least an hour to visit.

The museum and print shop are operated by the National Park Service as part of the Independence Hall.

Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission $5/adult; $2/children 4-16.

Benjamin Franklin Museum, 317 Chestnut St., Philadelphia 19106, 215-965-2305, https://www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/benjaminfranklinmuseum.htm

Print Shop

From here, I go back up to the court yard and find my way to Franklin’s print shop, where there is a replica of an old-style printing press (not much different from the days of Gutenberg), where National Park Rangers run off documents (you can buy a printed Declaration of Independence though Franklin never actually printed it). If you are lucky, you may visit when the ranger is in period dress.

The Print Shop where National Park Service rangers demonstrate the printing process that would have been used in Franklin’s time © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On the Market Street side of Franklin Court, there is the B. Free Franklin Post Office, where you can get postcards hand-stamped just as one would have when Franklin was the first postmaster. The line of attached buildings are very much the way they were when Franklin lived here. You notice on Market Street and then around the historic district townhouses that still have the reliefs that show what fire insurance company protected the house. On this day, the street is closed off for a street festival. After spending some time enjoying the music and festivities.

I also pass a firehouse with a wonderful bust of Benjamin Franklin.

Philadelphia had just held a Veterans Day parade, and just as I pass the Christ Church Burial Ground where Benjamin Franklin and many other Founders are buried, I come upon Civil War re-enactors from the 3rd Regiment: Sgt  Major Joseph Lee and Corporal Robert F. Houston.

The Franklins’ tombstones – extremely modest – is easily the most visited (and can be seen through the gate from the sidewalk). People throw pennies onto the tombstone – a nod to Franklin’s motto that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” as well as a symbol of good luck.

People throw pennies onto the modest tombstone of Benjamin Franklin and Deborah at Christ Church Burial Ground © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Others buried here include John Dunlap, who printed the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, composer and poet Francis Hopkinson and medical pioneers Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. Philip Syng Physick. Divided into quadrants, the ground is mapped and plots are identified with markers where the original inscriptions are gone. A book of 50 biographies is available for purchase at Christ Church. (There is an admission to the burial ground, $3 adults/$1 child or $8/$3 with guided tour.) (5th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia 19106, 215-922-1695, ext 30, http://www.christchurchphila.org/about-the-burial-grounds/

Christ Church Burial Ground © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk the few blocks to the Betsy Ross House, another Revolutionary character who would have been thoroughly at home in the 21st Century. 

Follow in Franklin’s Footsteps

Take a walking tour and follow in Ben Franklin’s footsteps through historic Philadelphia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

VisitPhilly.org, the city’s convention and visitor bureau, offers a marvelous walking tour to discover historic attractions visited by Franklin himself, sites dedicated to his accomplishments and local restaurants that would appeal to one of history’s most prolific men.

The Franklin’s Footsteps Itinerary starts at the Benjamin Franklin Museum, Franklin Court, the Ghost House, the Print Shop and Post Office and continues:

City Tavern (138 S. 2nd St. 215-413-1443), where Colonial America is recreated at this authentic tavern in Old City

Carpenters’ Hall (320 Chestnut St., 215-925-0167), the site of the First Continental Congress, was once the home of Franklin’s Library Company and the American Philosophical Society (APS), two organizations he founded.

Carpenter’s Hall © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Christ Church (20 N. American St., 215-922-1695), where Franklin and his family attended services, and Christ Church Burial Ground.

Fireman’s Hall Museum, (147 N. 2nd St., 215-923-1438), commemorates the history of firefighting in an old firehouse

The Liberty Bell Center (6th & Market, 215-965-2305), home of the internationally known symbol of freedom (pick up timed tickets for Independence Hall at the Independence Visitor Center, or order them online at recreation.gov).

My immersion into Revolutionary War Americana in Philadelphia, which started with the National Museum of Jewish American History and Museum of American Revolution, continues at Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Philadelphia’s New Museum Immerses You into Drama of America’s Revolutionary War

A mural at Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution depicts George Washington in front of his battlefield tent he stayed in virtually throughout the war; the actual tent is the crowning jewel and centerpiece of the museums extraordinary collection © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I used the opening of the brand new Museum of the American Revolution as the theme for my three-day visit to Philadelphia – a really deep dive probe of the Revolutionary War era, a return to understanding the founding of the nation through, as it were, original documents, materials and artifacts, at a time when we need to be reminded. During this all-too-brief time, I also  visited the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, Betsy Ross House and the National Constitution Center. 

It’s 1770s Colonial America. Anger, resentment against the British Crown is brewing; an independent spirit is growing and spreading among the colonies. Would you have joined the American Revolution and taken arms along with other farmers, shopkeepers and merchants against the most powerful nation that history had ever known with not much more than a musket? The newly opened Museum of the American Revolution, located in the heart of Philadelphia’s most historic district, plunges visitors into the tumult and transformation of the Revolutionary era when colonials took upon themselves a new identity: Americans.

You are challenged to choose sides and it isn’t a simple matter. This was very much a civil war, with families, neighborhoods, villages and towns split in terms of which side they would support: Patriots or Loyalists. But it was a revolution in ways beyond taking arms against ruling institutions: it was every bit a revolution in ideas, in ideals, in the notion of self-governance and civil rights, a revolution the Museum would like you to realize that is still underway.

“We have it in our power to begin the world again,” Thomas Paine, an English immigrant wrote. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he later wrote.

‘No taxation without representation’: At the Museum of American Revolution, explore the reasons that colonial Americans fought for freedom from Great Britain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

With thousands of Revolutionary-era artifacts at its core – the crown jewel of which is General George Washington’s actual wartime tent  in which he lived on the battlefield with his troops throughout the war – the Museum uses immersive experiences, dynamic theaters, recreated historical moments, and interactive digital installations to make you feel you have time-traveled back to the 18th century, giving context and making the events, people, and ideas that created this nation more immediate and relevant.

A private nonprofit institution founded by Jerry Lendfest who put up $50 million and raised $100 million more from thousands of donors, the Museum of the American Revolution goes beyond the Founding Fathers and well known key figures to explore the personal stories of the diverse range of individuals who were part of establishing our nation, including women, native people, and free and enslaved people of African descent.

The experience brings you on a chronological journey from the roots of conflict in the 1760s through the creation of the American republic. Along the way, you learn about the rise of the armed resistance to British taxation, the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the long years of brutal warfare and how the Revolution continues to be relevant today.

Walk beside a life-size re-creation of Boston’s Liberty Tree in one of the 16 galleries of the Museum of the American Revolution © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The museum experience is a journey through time and place and builds to a climax: seeing General Washington’s War Tent, one of the most significant surviving artifacts of the Revolution. (I save this experience for last, and the presentation is so riveting, I sit through it twice.)

It’s not just the history of the war, battle by battle, with amazing detail and with skillful use of multi-media to enhance the dramatic retelling, but even more interestingly, how it overlays the human dimension. These aren’t just places and dates and round numbers, but individuals, some of them heroes whose names are so familiar, and many who were just ordinary people swept up in events. You are able to explore the personal stories of the diverse individuals. There is a wealth of information, but the presentation is so engaging, children of any age will be swept up in the drama.

Witness life-size figures of Oneida Indians debate whether to support the Revolutionary cause, the British or stay neutral © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My favorite gallery is the one devoted to the Oneida Indian Nation, where there are life-size figures who you hear debating (as a video provides a visual context) whether to support the Revolutionary cause, the British or stay neutral. Indeed, the Revolutionary War split the Six Nations Confederation.

At the end of the excellent presentation, there are photos of Oneida who have served in the American military in every conflict since the Revolutionary War.

A section devoted to women introduces us to Deborah Sampson who dressed as a man to join the 4th Massachusetts Regiment and fought in New York’s Hudson Valley where she was wounded in the thigh with a musket ball and took the bullet out herself to avoid being found out by the surgeons (she was honorably discharged in 1783 and later published a memoir of her experiences.); and to Esther Reed who published an essay, “Sentiments of an American Woman.”

Abigail Adams warns her husband, the future President John Adams: “Remember the women.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, urged the writers of the Constitution to “remember the women,” and wrote her husband, John Adams, a Congressman at the time, in March 1776, “If particular care is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” The King’s abuses proved that men were tyrants, she wrote, and only the influence of women could secure reason and liberty. (That revolution clearly is still going on.)

A really interesting character I had never known about before was Baroness von Riedesel who followed her husband into battle and was taken prisoner in 1777 when General Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates at the Battle of Saratoga (a pivotal battle, which had the British won, would have enabled them to separate New York, the breadbasket for the American army, from the rest of the colonies; instead, the American victory enabled Ben Franklin to persuade France to give critical support to the Americans).

Baroness von Riedesel, who followed her Hessian husband into battle and protected prisoners, is lauded for her courage and heroism © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

She is depicted as a hero: “In the final days of the siege, the Baroness guarded the lives of women, children and wounded men. She barricaded them in a basement as American cannonballs slammed the house. She cared for her own children and the most vulnerable members of the army for six days. For most of this time, the firing was so heavy that they could not leave, and the basement filled with excrement. But she probably saved dozens of lives.” She was taken prisoner along with her husband and nearly 5,000 British and Hessian troops who were moved frequently to prevent their escape or rescue and were not freed until the war ended in 1783.

(You can continue this immersion into women during the Revolutionary War era at the Betsy Ross House a few blocks away.)

The museum does a yeoman’s job of humanizing and personalizing war, revolution and nation-building. For example, we learn that “Hessians, portrayed [by propaganda, which was waged by both sides] as cruel and inhuman but were a lot like Americans: King George hired 20,000 German special troops who came from six European nations and most were poor farmers with families.”

Displays at the Museum of the American Revolution confront the issue of slavery and give voice to freed and enslaved black Americans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In “Finding Freedom”, you can explore the different experiences of enslaved African Americans in Virginia in 1781 through a multi-kiosk touchscreen interactive based on the lives of five men and women who followed different paths to freedom during the Revolutionary War. The Museum worked with a historical illustrator who used diaries and letters to animate these stories.   

You have an extraordinary opportunity to look into the faces of the Revolutionary generation in a fascinating display of photographs of 70 people who lived through the American Revolution and survived into the age of photography.

Faces of the Revolutionary generation © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Throughout the museum, there are immersive, multi-media experiences that put you into the action: in the Battlefield Theater, you find yourself on the Continental Army’s front lines facing an attack by British soldiers (with appropriate sound effects, smoke and rumbling floor); you walk beneath the branches of a realistic, life-size replica of Boston’s Liberty Tree and can touch an embedded piece of the Annapolis Liberty Tree, a Tulip Poplar that sheltered Maryland colonists in 1775 which survived until 1999; you can climb aboard a large-scale replica of an 18th century privateer ship like the one on which 14-year-old free African American James Forten volunteered. In the Declaration of Independence Gallery, which evokes Independence Hall, you sit in your own Windsor chair to witness the unfolding debate and decision-making as delegates to the Continental Congress decide whether to declare American independence, then view authentic printings of the Declaration of Independence on display.

You get to thoroughly engage with the Museum’s rich collection of original historic artifacts. One of the premier collections of its kind, it includes several thousand objects from the Revolutionary period, and includes George Washington’s personal belongings, as well as an impressive assortment of weaponry, soldiers’ and civilians’ personal items, fine art, letters, diaries, and manuscripts. You can examine child-sized slave shackles, an intricately carved woman’s busk (corset piece), and a signed 1773 volume “Poems on Various Subjects” by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first published black female poet.

Arms of Independence: Nearly 50 Revolutionary War-era weapons and artifacts are on display and below them, a multi-kiosk touchscreen interactive enables you to virtually handle them and learn more about their uses, owners, and makers. Using the latest ultra-high definition photography, you get a 360-degree view of the glass-encased weapons and artifacts, most of which have never been displayed before.

The statue of King George III as it is about to be torn down by an angry mob in New York City is one of the historic moments depicted with life-size figures © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are more than 20 re-created historical moments with life-like figures, tableaux intended to broaden our view of the people who were central to the Revolution. One of these scenes is a brawl among Revolutionary soldiers that George Washington broke up in Harvard Yard; another portrays the statue of King George III as it is about to be torn down by an angry mob in New York City; another features artist Charles Willson Peale reuniting with his brother James on the banks of the Delaware River in December 1776; there is a view of Independence Hall in disarray during the British occupation of Philadelphia; a pair of Loyalist cavalry troopers in the South; and a conversation between enslaved Virginians and a black Loyalist soldier in 1781.

There are opportunities to participate in the story which is why the exhibits are so engaging for children as well as adults. You can mix-and-match pieces of a soldier’s uniform to learn about how soldiers displayed their loyalties; learn about the common soldiers and their families who endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge with flip-doors that explore the complex workings of a war camp; assume George Washington’s role as President of the Constitutional Convention by sitting in a reproduction of the “Rising Sun” chair; and try hand at an early American stitching lesson through an interactive sampler station in a gallery on the role mothers played in educating children as citizens.

Costumed educators offer a deeper understanding of the lives and times of the Revolutionaries: at the Battlefield Theater, learn to muster before marching into battle; on the Privateer Ship, discover how to load and fire one of the ship’s cannons; at Discovery Carts, handle replica artifacts to learn more about how they were made and used.

Children will be engaged by the many opportunities to handle materials at the Museum of American Revolution © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Climax: Washington’s War Tent

All of this builds to the climatic experience: and the crown jewel of the Museum and the original artifact which led to the creation of the museum to begin with: General Washington’s War Tent.

You line up for the timed show in a dedicated theater built to house one of the most iconic surviving artifacts of the Revolution: General Washington’s War Tent, which served as both his office and his sleeping quarters through much of the war. It was within the folds of this tent that key decisions were made that changed the course of history.

I was expecting to walk into an exhibit of the tent. Instead, it is dramatically revealed after a powerful 12-minute video. The movie screen rises to reveal a gauzy sheet which rises to show the tent. With surround-sound track, theatrical lighting, video projection on a front scrim and screen, as well as on a scenic wall behind the tent you see the tent, in different times of day, months, seasons, years as if marching in time.

The presentation makes you really appreciate the meaning of the tent and why it is so iconic – it is a physical link to the man who was, as Henry Lee said, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Indeed, the tent has its own dramatic story which lives on beyond Washington.

The tent was created for use as a mobile headquarters during the Revolutionary War. It was made in Reading, Pennsylvania, while Washington was encamped at Valley Forge in 1778. He used it until 1783, including throughout the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, the last major land battle of the war. Indeed, throughout the war, Washington spent only a few days back at his Mount Vernon plantation.

The tent covers an area about 23 feet long and 14 feet wide, comprising three small chambers – a central office, a half-circle sleeping chamber for the general, and a small area for luggage and for sleeping quarters for his enslaved African American valet, William Lee, who traveled with Washington through the war.

But the drama of the tent doesn’t end there. After the war, the tent was eventually acquired by Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, and was stored at his Virginia estate, Arlington House. It passed to Custis’ daughter Mary Anna, who was the wife of General Robert E. Lee (how ironic was that? – both a revolutionary like Washington, but in pursuit of destroying the nation that Washington won and lead), only to have it seized by federal troops at the start of the Civil War when they took over Lee’s plantation. The tent remained in federal possession for 40 years before it was returned to the Lee family. Mary Custis Lee put the tent up for sale to raise money for Confederate veterans.

In the early 1900s, an Episcopal minister, Rev. W. Herbert Burk, dreamed of creating a museum to tell the story of our nation’s founding. He began collecting historical artifacts, beginning with General George Washington’s War Tent. He raised the $5,000 to purchase the tent from hundreds of ordinary Americans. The acquisition began a century of collecting – a collection which eventually came under the ownership of the Museum of the American Revolution.

George Washington’s battlefield tent is an iconic link to the man who was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Textile conservator Virginia Whelan spent more than 500 hours restoring the priceless hand-stitched, linen tent. “Losses” – small holes which could fray – needed to be stabilized so that original material wasn’t lost. The process involved inserting an extremely fine needle and thread between the fibers of the tent’s weave and using virtually invisible netting to stabilize the holes. The conservation effort also entailed using digital inkjet printing to reproduce new fabric that matched the original material. The new fabric swatches were then used to repair holes, rips, and a large piece that had been cut away. For this, Whelan partnered with faculty from Philadelphia University’s textile design faculty.

One of the challenges of displaying the tent was to keep the drape-like effect of the fabric without putting tension on it. To design a system that would support the artifact without inducing stress in the delicate fabric, the Museum commissioned Keast & Hood, a structural engineering firm that is a nationally recognized leader in the preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation of historic structures.

To protect the centuries-old canvas from rope tension, Keast & Hood worked with a team of conservators, historians, and craftsmen to design an innovative umbrella-like aluminum structure and canvas sub-tent membrane, creates an illusion of the tent draping naturally. The ropes that originally tensioned the tent are now purely aesthetic and representative of the earlier form.

The tent is set behind glass in a 300-square foot climate-controlled object case.

The presentation is so powerful, I watched it twice and both times, the audience applauded at the end.

The museum does an excellent job of tackling complex ideas, the span of history, the intricacies of the battles, while also bringing in a human scale. There is so much to see and absorb, it is a really good idea to take advantage of the fact the ticket is valid for two consecutive days.

Located just steps away from Independence Hall, the Museum of the American Revolution is housed in an impressive three-story state-of-the-art building. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Located just steps away from Independence Hall, Carpenters’ Hall, and Franklin Court, the Museum, housed in an impressive three-story state-of-the-art building, serves as a portal to the region’s many Revolutionary sites, sparking interest, providing context, and encouraging exploration. The Museum is a private, non-profit, and non-partisan organization.

Guided Tours: While most visitor tours are self-guided, the Museum does offer several guided tours, including: Early Access Guided Tour, a 60-minute guided tour before the museum opens (Tues, Thurs, Sat at 9 a.m. $50 non-members; limited to 10 people). Guided Highlights Tour, a 60-minute guided tour of key artifacts and stories (daily at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; price of admission plus $12; limited to 15 people). Book online or at the museum.

General admission tickets to the Museum can be purchased here and are $19 for adults; $17 for seniors, students, and active or retired military; and $12 for children ages 6 and up. Children ages 5 and under are free. All tickets are valid for two consecutive days. Group tickets for parties of 15 or more are currently available for a discounted price by calling 267.858.3308. Memberships are also available for purchase here or by calling 215.454.2030.

Museum of the American Revolution, 101 South Third Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215-253-6731, 877-740-1776, info@amrevmuseum.orgwww.AmRevMuseum.org.

My immersion into Revolutionary War Americana in Philadelphia continues with visits to the Betsy Ross House, the Benjamin Franklin Site, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration House, the National Museum of American Jews, and the National Constitution Center.

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com. 

See also:

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia 

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

National Museum of American Jewish History is Unexpected Revelation in Philadelphia

National Museum of American Jewish History, located within Philadelphia’s Independence Park historic district, is the only museum of its kind in the nation that tells the whole expansive story of Jews in America going back to colonial times up to the present © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I used the opening of the brand new Museum of the American Revolution as the theme for my three-day visit to Philadelphia – a really deep dive probe of the Revolutionary War era, a return to understanding the founding of the nation, through, original documents, materials and artifacts, at a time when we need to be reminded – everything from the off-hand comment by Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly that the Civil War could have been averted if only there were compromise (he should go to the National Constitution Center), to the quixotic amazement of a US Treasury official pining on his research into what’s this thing, “The American Dream,” before adopting the biggest redistribution of wealth since the Gilded Age, to the right-wing meme that America is a (white) “Christian Nation.”

Philadelphia is like hopping from time-capsule to time-capsule because you go from one authentic site where events happened, where the Founders and builders of this nation actually stood, to another. Come, time-travel with me. And the best way to appreciate it – and be wonderfully surprised at ever twist and turn– is to walk. That’s how you come upon things you never considered – the historic markers which point out where Wanamaker’s Department Store was, the Ricketts Circus, the American Philosophical Society (founded by Ben Franklin). I see an Art Deco “Automat” sign; the stunning Art Deco architecture of a building, gorgeous giant murals that pop up out of no where. I practically fall over what closer inspection tells me is the very townhouse whereThomas Jefferson stayed when he wrote the Declaration of Independence (called “Declaration House”), a short walk from Independence Hall.

Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is why it is so terrific that my hotel, the Sonesta Downtown Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square is so well located (1800 Market St. Philadelphia 19103, 215-561-7500).

It’s the afternoon when I arrive at the Sonesta Hotel on Market Street (a parking garage is adjacent) and after checking in, I have just enough time to explore one attraction on my list.

I am headed to the Betsy Ross House, walking down Market Street, literally through Philadelphia’s magnificent City Hall. Walking, you get to see the markers which discuss the history of this site and how the city was planned out. You also can stand on a podium and have a photo taken of yourself as a monument.

As I walk passed the lawn that is just opposite Independence Hall, I spot a huge banner proclaiming the George Washington’s famous words, “Happily the Government of the United States Gives to Bigotry no Sanction, to Persecution No Assistance,” and a statue, in commemoration of the nation’s centennial, “ dedicated to “Religious Liberty. Dedicated to the People of the United States by the Order B’nai B’Rith and Israelites of America.” Then I see a small banner advertising the National Museum of American Jewish History and realize I am standing in front of it. Who knew there was such a thing?

“To Bigotry No Sanction. To Persecution No Assistance” reads the banner on the National Museum of American Jewish History; the statue outside proclaiming Religious Liberty commemorates the nation’s centennial © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In point of fact, the museum has only been in this building in a prime location in the historic district since 2010; previously, the original collection which formed the basis of this grand museum was housed in Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue, Congregation Mikveh Israel, known as the “Synagogue of the American Revolution,” is the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia, and the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the United States. It dates back to 1740 when Thomas Penn granted land to Nathan Levy for a burial plot for his son. The current incarnation of the synagogue, a modern building, is only about a block away from the Museum, tucked behind (appropriately enough), the Bible Society Building which is directly across the street from the National American Jewish History museum, and across the street, as it happens, from the National Constitution Center. It all fits together and is most appropriate for my visit to Philadelphia this weekend timed for a family Bat Mitzvah.

I have a little less than two hours before the museum closes, and you need a minimum of 2 ½ (good news: the ticket is good for a two-day visit).

The National Museum of American Jews was a revelation to me – beginning with why it is “National”: it is the only museum of its kind in the nation. That’s why.

I have seen parts of the story in other venues – notably Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (www.tourosynagogue.org), the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida; Ellis Island and the Jewish Museum in New York City– but none presented such a comprehensive unfolding of the epic Jewish experience in America that dates back nearly as far as the Puritans in Plymouth (though Jews first settled in the New World since Columbus).

Its exhibits and galleries, the artifacts and commentary brilliantly presented to express complex concepts – the sweep of history, in effect – but taken down to very personal levels of a person, with a face, a name and a genealogy.

It comes down to legitimacy – much as the museums which speak to the Jewish people’s history in Israel – and the illegitimate notion of the United States founded as a Christian nation (See New York Times, Jan. 6, 2018: The Museum of the Bible Is a Safe Space for Christian Nationalists.)

Non-Christians were part of this country’s founding and the Founders, who were humanists, globalists and men of the Enlightenment – among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin – were not only tolerant of other religions but open-minded about philosophies. But what is painfully clear are the strains of anti-Semitism and racism that have persisted throughout American history despite George Washington’s assurances to the Touro congregation (“To Bigotry No Sanction,”), despite the Bill of Rights and the Naturalization Act of 1790 which bar the establishment of religion, an issue as relevant as today’s headlines.

There are four floors which wrap around a huge atrium, each floor devoted to a different era and theme. The displays, including multi-media , interactive stations, and artifacts, are well presented to convey complex, even nuanced concepts, intertwining real people with places, historical events and cultural movements. In some instances, it is the sheer numbers that impress.

Foundations of Freedom: 1654 – 1880

I start on the top floor, “Foundations of Freedom: 1654-1880”. Do most Americans realize that Jews were already settled in the New World colonies from 1654? A giant map shows the trade routes that coincided with Jewish migration, especially after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, which drove many into the Caribbean islands. (How many people realize that the first white settlement were of Marrano Jews in Jamaica?) Then, when the Spanish took over, a group fled Barbados where they had lived since the 1620s, to Newport, Rhode Island in 1658.

Family Tree of the first Jewish families in America includes the Sulzberger family who owns the New York Times © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

You gaze at a family tree of the first Jewish families, most of Portuguese background.

Asher Levy came to North America in 1654; look down his family tree and you come to Arthur Sulzburger (1881-1964), whose family publishes the New York Times.

By the 1600s, a small group of Jews settled around Charleston, SC; a 1669 constitution, written by John Locke, granted “Jews, heathens and other dissenters” the freedom to worship.

Throughout the displays, there is a kind of running count which puts into perspective Jews in America:

“European laws excluded Jews from most trades except finance and commerce, so they settled in port cities. In 1700, there were 250 Jews among the population of 250,000 white settlers in colonial America; zero synagogues. The population grew slowly, from a mere 250 out of a population of 250,000 to 2500 out of a population of 3.9 million by the end of the 1700s.

In Savannah in 1733, there were 42 Jews – the largest single Jewish group to arrive in colonies up to that time. Among them, was a Jewish doctor who arrived during an epidemic and began caring for ill and dying.

Jews arrived in Philadelphia in the 1730s; by 1760, there were close to 100 Jews.

We learn that Jewish Americans were split (like the colonists) over whether to side with the Patriots or the Loyalists in the American Revolution, based on livelihood, families and aspirations, but “most Jews stood for independence.”

New York’s Jews collaborated with British Loyalists; Jews who sided with Patriots escaped to Philadelphia.

The US Constitution made American Jews citizens in 1790, but some states had laws lasting well into the 19th century  barring Jews from holding public office (despite the Bill of Rights’ first amendment which prohibits the establishment of religion).

“To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” George Washington wrote in 1790 to the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, founded by Portuguese Jews in 1763 who fled their settlements in the  Caribbean when it appeared the Inquisition would be imported there from Spain and Portugal.

Of the 3.9 million population in the fledgling nation, 2,500 were Jews; 9 of 13 states required public officials to be Christian even though the 1790 Naturalization Act contained no religious requirement.

A theme that runs through is of what it means to perpetually be a minority in America.

Innovation & Expansion

A section themed “Innovation & Expansion”  is part of the timeline of Jews in America usually ignored entirely, but Jews were very much a part of the Westward expansion and the march to the Industrial Revolution.

From 1820-1870, the United States doubled in physical size, the population quadrupled and the Industrial Revolution transformed society.

For Europeans, America beckoned as a land of opportunity; millions of immigrants crossed to be the laborers that built the factories, railroads, roads, including 200,000 Jews, attracted by promise of economic and political freedom.

The population of Jews during this period mushroomed, from 2500 to 250,000.

Here we see the photos and effects of families, personifying the experience.

There is a large map spread out on the floor where you can play a video that shows the expansion; and a whole room where you see, city by city, how Jews populated them, and particular highlights.

In New York City, in 1823, for example, the first Jewish periodical, “The Jew” began publishing. During the 1800s, New York City became a center of political, economic and cultural life of American Jews. By 1840, a majority of American Jews lived in the city; the population grew to 60,000 by 1860.

Baltimore saw its total population increase from 120,000 to 320,000 during the mid-1800s, with its Jewish population increasing from 100 to over 10,000 by mid-1860s.

Jewish Americans settled first in port cities but spread out across America © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other cities: Cincinnati, where Hebrew Union College opened in 1875;

Trinidad Colorado was where the B’nai B’rith was founded in 1843, modeled after the Masons, Odd Fellows and other fraternal organizations.

With each display, there are specific people who are associated and here, we learn of the “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West: Pioneering female Jewish revivalist” (she gave up preaching when she married).

The Civil War was as traumatic for Jewish Americans as it was for the rest of the country.

The Menken brothers of Cincinnati were among 7000 Jewish Americans who fought for the Union; 3000 Jewish Americans fought for the Confederacy © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just as Jewish colonists were divided over the issue of joining the Revolution or remaining loyal, there were also splits over supporting Union or the Confederacy, largely based on where they were living and their livelihood. In the section themed, “Union & Disunion,” the Civil War era, it notes, “Jews never unified on issue of secession or slavery: 10,000 Jews fought in the Civil War: 7000 for Union, 3000 for Confederacy. Which side depended largely on where they lived as well as their livelihood.

3rd floor — Dreams of Freedom: 1880 – 1945

You can easily spend two hours just on the fourth floor alone, but I see how limited my time is and go down to the third floor: themed “Dreams of Freedom: 1880-1945”, chronicling the migration of millions of immigrants who came to the United States beginning in the late 19th century who profoundly reshaped the American Jewish community and the nation as a whole.

The first section of this floor considers immigration and integration: getting to America, making a home, the reception immigrant Jews received, and learning to negotiate American society. The second section takes up life after Congress legislated the end of free and open immigration in 1924. Through the lenses of the fine and performing arts, political activism, and religious expression, it explores how Jews defined what it meant to be an American Jew during an insecure period of American, and world, history. The final section of Dreams of Freedom delves into how American Jews experienced World War II.

It addresses the strain of anti-Semitism that has existed throughout American history, going back to colonial times – in Newport (when Lopez was refused American citizenship and had to get it in the Massachusetts colony), and New Amsterdam, when Peter Stuyvesant wanted to throw Jews out but the Hudson Bay Company insisted Jews be given rights, even despite George Washington’s pronouncement and the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Anti-Semitism, especially in the US State Department, was a reason that the United States turned a blind eye to the rise of Hitler, fascism and the Holocaust © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

So even though the Constitution provided for religious freedom, states denied Jews the right to hold political office; even after World War II, Jews were denied access to housing, hotels, country clubs, college and jobs.

And as the Roaring Twenties was followed by the Great Depression, a virulent strain of anti-Semitism re-emerged leading up to World War II, when many in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet and the majority of Americans content to let Hitler and Nazi Germany begin its murderous campaign against European Jews. “No War for Me” characterized mood of Americans not to lift a finger to help Jews during the Holocaust. (Breckinridge Long, assistant secretary of state, pushed for strict immigration controls that blocked Jewish refugees from escaping the Nazis.)

Choices and Challenges of Freedom: 1945 – Today

The Museum’s second floor begins in the immediate postwar period with stories of migration, from war torn Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Soviet Union. Within the United States, as well, Likewise, between 1945 and 1965, there was a huge migration: about a third of all American Jews left large urban centers and established themselves in new suburban communities like Long Island. For Jews and non-Jews alike, a suburban home became a sign of success, prestige, and security-a “Shangri-La” for the middle class.

A typical 1950s Jewish American suburban home, where “The Goldbergs” is playing on the TV © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After World War II, American Jews felt comfortable with their identity and Jewish communities thrived in the new suburban communities of the 1950s into the 1960s – 60% of Jewish families belonged to synagogue, twice the percentage as 30 years before. Community synagogues were a locus for Jewish life and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs became legendary affairs; Jewish kids went to Jewish summer camps and families vacationed in the Borscht Belt of the Catskills. You walk through a mock-up of a 1950s suburban house, such as you might have found in Levittown, Long Island, where a black-and-white TV is airing an episode of a Jewish American sit-com, “The Goldbergs.”

The Marx Brothers were among the Jewish Americans who enjoyed mainstream popularity; Groucho Marx had a home in Great Neck, Long Island, one of the communities that proved welcoming to Jewish entertainers from Broadway © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here you see how Jewish American culture went mainstream. The museum incorporates multi-media – videos, sound tracks – there is a small theater where you watch performances by Jewish entertainers going back to early films, theater and television (Fannie Brice, Marx Brothers, George Burns, Three Stooges, Eddie Cantor, Bud Abbott, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson); a series of changing images of major figures like Simon & Garfunkle, Carole King.

American Jews felt comfortable enough in American society to emerge as  activists who championed civil rights, women’s rights and social and political justice, including Gloria Steinem and Bela Abzug.

Activist for women’s rights and cultural icon, Gloria Steinem © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame

The first floor houses an Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame honors 18 Jewish Americans – some well known, others less so, and the choices, challenges and opportunities they encountered on their path to remarkable achievement. Through the lives of real people—some well known, others less so—the gallery, utilizing a combination of multimedia, original artifacts and interactive experiences, weaves compelling stories from the past and present with the larger themes of the Museum.

The first 18 individuals featured in the Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame are: Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Mordecai Kaplan, Sandy Koufax, Esteé Lauder, Emma Lazarus, Isaac Leeser, Golda Meir, Jonas Salk, Menachem Mendel Schneerson,  Rose Schneiderman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Henrietta Szold, and Isaac Mayer Wise. Recent inductees include Gertrude B. Elion and Julius Rosenwald.

Sit in a small theater and watch Jewish entertainers of national renown including Eddie Cantor, who built his dream house in Great Neck, Long Island until he lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are also special exhibits: the upcoming one is Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music, which celebrates the centennial birthday of one of the 20th century’s most influential cultural figures, who personified classical music and produced a rich repertoire of original compositions for orchestra and the theater. “Audiences may be familiar with many of Bernstein’s works, notably West Side Story, but not necessarily how he grappled with his own religious, political, and sexual identity, or how he responded to the political and social crises of his day. Visitors will find an individual who expressed the restlessness, anxiety, fear, and hope of an American Jew living through World War II and the Holocaust, Vietnam, and turbulent social change – what Bernstein referred to as his ‘search for a solution to the 20th‐century crisis of faith’.” The exhibition will feature one‐of‐a‐kind historic artifacts, all brought to life through immersive film, sound installations, and interactive media. (On view March 16 – September 2, 2018.)

Free public hour-long Highlights tours are usually offered daily at 11:30 am and 2:30 pm. (Availability is subject to change, so check at the Admissions Desk on the day of your visit for confirmed times.) Space is limited; interested visitors should request tour badges from Admissions to reserve a spot, which are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

More than 30,000 artifacts form the basis of the core exhibition. You can browse selected objects on its site as well as search the Museum’s online collections database, and its Pinterest page.

You need at least 2 ½ hours but the ticket is good for two consecutive days.

National Museum of American Jewish History; 101 South Independence Mall East; Philadelphia, PA; 19106-2517; (215) 923-3811; www.nmajh.org

Mikveh Israel

I am chased out of the museum at closing (they are setting up for a wedding), and am intrigued to visit Mikveh Israel synagogue a short walk away. It is Friday evening and the synagogue, which is Sephardic, is getting ready for Sabbath services.

Congregation Mikveh Israel, known as the “Synagogue of the American Revolution,” the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia and the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the United States, dates back to 1740 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mikveh Israel traces its beginning to 1740, when Thomas Penn granted land to Nathan Levy for a burial ground for Levy’s infant son. There, Levy established a cemetery for the Jewish community. Mikveh Israel’s first house of worship was completed in 1782 with financial assistance from Benjamin Franklin, among others. The synagogue has moved several times before returning to its original neighborhood in 1976, the Bicentennial.

Mikveh Israel follows the Spanish-Portuguese (Sephardic) ritual, introduced by Reverend Gershom Mendez Seixas, who, in 1780, came to serve as Hazzan (Congregational Leader). This relatively modern building, not far from its original 1782 redbrick structure on Cherry Street, is its fifth since the synagogue’s founding. (Limited hours to visit. 44 N. 4th St. Philadelphia PA 19106, 215-922-5446, www.mikvehisrael.org/.)

The Jewish cemetery on 8th and Spruce Streets, part of Independence National Historical Park, includes the grave of Rebecca Gratz, who is believed to be the inspiration for the character Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s  “Ivanhoe,” and memorials to Haym Salomon, who helped finance the American Revolution.

(Read more: http://www.visitphilly.com/history/philadelphia/mikveh-israel-congregation-and-cemetery/)

Just outside Mikveh Israel, there is a monument of Uriah Phillip Levy, born in Philadelphia in 1792, a 5th generation American (his great-great grandfather, Dr. Samuel Nunez, arrived in America in 1733 and was a founder of the city of Savannah, Georgia). Levy left for sea when he was 10 years old, returning to Philadelphia for his Bar Mitzvah. He joined the US Navy in 1812, serving with distinction in the War of 1812. During his 50-year career in the Navy, he was court marshaled 6 times and killed a man in a duel – all related to anti-Semitism. He became the first Jewish Commodore of the United States Navy. During the Civil War, he helped repeal the practice of flogging sailors.

Uriah Phillip Levy, 5th generation American born in 1792, was the first Jewish Commodore of the Navy; an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he bought Monticello and saved it from ruin © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Levy was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson and purchased Monticello in 1834 – at that point, Jefferson’s mansion home was in a terrible state of disrepair. Levy restored and renovated the structure, and opened it for public viewing. but local people were incensed that such a structure was owned by a Jew, they tried to have the property taken away. A World War II destroyer was named in his honor, the USS Levy, as well as the Jewish chapel at Norfolk Naval Base; he is buried at Beth Olam cemetery in Queens (Emma Lazarus is as well).

(Our exploration into Revolutionary War America continues with the Museum of the American Revolution, Ben Franklin Museum, Betsy Ross House and National Constitution Center.)

Visit Philadelphia provides excellent trip planning tools, including hotel packages, itineraries, events listings: 30 S 17th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103, 215-599-0776, visitphilly.com.

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Enchanting Candlelight Evening at Old Bethpage Village Restoration is Like Stepping into a Christmas Card

Santa Claus looks relaxed and casual in the parlor of the Layton Home at Old Bethpage Village Restoration during the Candlelight Evening, having finished his rounds delivering presents to children around the world © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fire light. That is the common denominator – seeing life in the orange-red glow of candlelight, a fireplace, a bonfire. One of my favorite holiday events is the Old Bethpage Village Restoration Candlelight Evening, and even the bitter cold could not keep me away.

I arrive in time for the candlelight procession into the village, to the gazebo where an 1840s brass band is playing, despite the bone-chilling cold.

The brass band entertains despite bitter cold, at the Gazebo in Old Bethpage Village Restoration © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The most wonderful thing about the candlelight evenings at Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, is yes, the sense of stepping back into time, into an idyllic peacefulness such as finding yourself in a Christmas card. But what I love best are the serendipitous moments when you engage the reenactors in conversation- the questions that arise just because you are immersed in that experience.

Performing traditional music on period instruments at the one-room schoolhouse from Manhasset © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the District No. 6 School House, which dates from c. 1845 in Manhasset, there is traditional fiddle music, played on a period instrument, a 150-year old violin that had been made in Prague, that has no chin rest or frets. We learn about the Manhasset School house – children attended the one-room school house six days a week. Music would have been widespread but there were no real professional musicians in Long Island. The school house would have been the venue for music, entertainment, and various gatherings in the evening. He tells me that all of Nassau County used to be part of Queens County, until the residents wanted to separate from New York City. He performs one of the most popular of his repertoire,“The Dancing Man,” to which his wife maneuvers a fascinating puppet-like toy to dance along.

Music was so important to the people of the mid-19th century, the period which Old Bethpage reconstructs. When you think about it, people could only appreciate music live, in the moment.

Max Rowland plays his concertina at the Hewlett House © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Hewlett House – a grand home high on the hill, which was built by the founder for which the town of Hewlett is named – Max L. Rowland regals on a banjo, reconstructed to its period, and a concertina and because I ask, he talks about the instruments . He says that in the mid-1800s, the concertina was the most popular instrument around – because it was relatively inexpensive (costing less than a violin), and compact, easy to carry and capable of such rich sound and complexity.  It was extremely popular with sailors, who could tuck it away in their gear. Rowland can testify to it: this particular concertina has crossed the sea three times with Rowland, who lives on a boat.

There is also popcorn being made in the kitchen fireplace.

Preparing popcorn in the Hewlett House by the fireplace © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the beautiful Manetto Hill Church, 1857, a Methodist church that originally was located in Plainview, there is singing and storytelling – the origin of holly (representing male), ivy (representing female), so the two entwined are a symbol of marriage; mistletoe and poinsettias.

The Noon Inn, which dates from 1850 and was owned John H. Noon, innkeeper, in East Meadow, is where you can get hot mulled cider and cookies, and climb the stairs to hear a string ensemble.

Broom-making at the Luyster Store, where you can buy the broom you watch being made © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Luyster Store, which dates from c. 1840 and was built by John B. Luyster, a storekeeper in East Norwich, you see the rare craft of broom making (and can purchase the brooms that are made here). The fellow works on a machine from 1840, and you can see how much physical effort goes into it. He explains that a home would have had 2 brooms per room, or 18 per household; an ordinary broom might have cost 24 cents – but that was equivalent to half-day’s wages, or about $50 today (so his price of $20 is a bargain). This also was an enterprise that farmers would do to make extra money, and they would raise the special wheat (called “corn”) for that purpose. An interesting artifact here is the massive safe.

The Layton Store was the Walmart of its day © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Layton House is also the General Store dates from c. 1866 and was built by John M. Layton, a storekeeper. It had originally stood in East Norwich. He was fabulously wealthy as you can see by the large rooms and tall ceilings. Here, in the parlor, I meet Santa Claus who seems relaxed after his trip around the world; later, when I come back, there is a choral group. In the next room is the Layton General Store – the Walmart of its day – where you can purchase candy.

Singing holiday songs in the Layton parlor © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Benjamin House, dating from 1829, was built for William Benjamin, a minister and farmer in Northville, where there is a bass and violin playing holiday melodies that would have been popular at the time – like Deck the Halls, which was a Welsh melody dating back to the 1600s. We discuss Christmas traditions of the time (gift-giving wasn’t yet a tradition, but Queen Victoria had popularized table-top Christmas trees as a loving gesture to Prince Albert).

Demonstrating how to spin yarn at the Conklin House © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I stop into the Conklin House last – this house dates from 1853 and was build by Joseph H. Conklin, a bayman in the village of Branch. It is small and I am surprised to see spinning being done in front of the fireplace where there is a roaring fire (so picturesque). She is so patient in explaining how it is done – how common it would have been for a farm woman to have spent some time in the evening spinning, but there were professional spinners (men) and spinsters (women) – spinning, was in fact, one of the ways a woman could have earned money. By the mid-1800s, though, people were importing finished textiles.

The Huntington Militia reenact Christmas in 1775 in the Schenck House © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I usually save the Schenck House for last because each year, because it is here that I come upon the most unexpected encounters and find it the most illuminating. Instead of interpreting the holiday traditions of the mid 1800s, the Huntington Militia re-create a Colonial Christmas in the 17th century. The Schenck House dates from 1765, owned by a Dutch farmer. Here, our presenters speak in the style of the time, and celebrate Christmas of 1775.

I am swept into its history. I am transfixed talking with “Ambrose Everyman,” a fellow from 1775, an American of English descent really troubled by North Hempstead’s succession from the Town of Hempstead over the issue of rebellion against the King and Crown. His loyalties are clear. He raises the question over how the colonists are made so dissatisfied with the King – and questions the veracity of the crimes and accusations designed to foment rebellion. He notes that since the first Continental Congress, the Massachusetts faction of the Patriots have banned women from going to the tavern, banned theatrical entertainment – in effect, installed the Puritan societal structure on the colonies.

And because of the “attack against one of the colonies is an attack against us all,” he questions whether the attacks in Lexington and Concord, portrayed as a British massacre, really happened that way.  “How do we really know?” he tells me (the original “fake news”?).  Mr. Everyman was upset with the upstarts in Massachusetts who caused so much trouble, who dared to pretend to be Indians and toss tea into the sea. He called them cowards for hiding behind their disguise. He said he knew war – had fought in the French and Indian War – but was too old to fight again. If there was a break with England, he says,, his business of building and repairing houses, would be destroyed.

The Town of North Hempstead had recently split from the Town of Hempstead over the issue of whether to support “The Cause” or stay loyal to Mother England. North Hempstead, which had a substantial Dutch population, wanted to break with England, while Hempstead, which was populated mainly by English colonists, wanted to stay.

But, he says, he cannot express his feelings: the local Committee is strictly enforcing its ban on English tea and though it had no force of law, someone who broke faith would be shamed in the Gazetteer as “an Enemy of American Liberty,” would no longer get business, and ultimately be forced out of the community. So he keeps his views to himself. Taxes? What difference does it make to pay taxes to England or taxes to the Congress, he said. And doesn’t England deserve to get repayment for the expense of fighting for the colonies. How would those who would break from England confront the greatest army on earth? Would they get aid from foreign powers like France, when France would want to take over the colonies for itself?

He gives me the sense of what a difficult dilemma this was – the prospect of confronting the most powerful nation the world had never known, the superpower of its time – and how while there had never been consensus (New York patriots fled to Philadelphia), the forcefulness with which the revolutionaries pressed their cause, the violence, a literal civil war within communities.

“Ambrose Everyman” describes how the Schencks would celebrate Christmas with Dutch traditions © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He goes on to show the group of Candlelight visitors that has gathered how the owner of the House, Martin Schenck, would have celebrated St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), when the children put out wooden shoes, filled with a carrot to draw the horse that St. Nicholas rides through the sky on, and leaves them treats – an orange that would have been an expensive treat having been imported from Jamaica, and  skates for the young girl, a pull-toy for the baby.

Members of the Huntington Militia fire the Christmas guns © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here at the Schenck House, the Huntington Militia – a group of reenactors – are dressed in the style of the militia of this Revolutionary War era. This year they fire Christmas guns – demonstrating the painstaking task of loading their muskets.

The Barn, decked out with holiday lights © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then, at The Barn on the fairgrounds, there are a model train show, contra dancing, a brass ensemble and a delightful performance of “Scrooge’s Dream” – a condensation of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.”

A performance of “Scrooge’s Dream” during the Old Bethpage Village Restoration Candlelight Evenings © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This year, the Old Bethpage Candlelight Evenings are only five nights, Dec. 26-30, 5-9:30 pm. Old Bethpage Village Restoration, 1303 Round Swamp Road (Exit 48 of the Long Island Expressway), 516-572-8401; Adults/$10, children 5-12/$7 (under 5 are free); and $7 for seniors and volunteer firefighters.

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