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A Living Colonial Museum

Spring 2010
Barn and Fence
Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation
Authentic colonial architecture is present throughout the Colonial Plantation, from barns to fences.

As he was working on the farm in the wee hours of the morning, Joseph Pratt made a mental note of the chores he had to do that day: tend to the animals, shear the sheep to make more clothing, saw and split wood, mend the fence, and plant some more crops. It seemed like a tiresome list, but he knew that all of this had to be done before the approaching storm settled in. His wife also had a large “to-do” list: open hearth cooking for the family, spinning and sewing fabric to make warmer clothing, making cheese and butter for their meals, and making extra candles in preparation for the dark, stormy nights ahead. Joseph knew how hard it was for their family to survive, especially being an ordinary farmer in the wake of what the papers were calling “the American Revolution.” Completing his day’s work to serve his family, however, was rewarding enough for him. Little did Joseph know, his “ordinary” work was going to be would be commemorated centuries later.

Within the borders of Ridley Creek State Park located in Delaware County, lies the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation, a nationally recognized, authentic representation of the early American lifestyle, just like the one Joseph Pratt led. Modern history books frequently depict colonial times using wealthy, elite individuals such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin as models. However, in colonial southeastern Pennsylvania, people were mainly farmers who struggled to care for themselves and their families from year to year. This reality, the struggle of the ordinary colonial American, is what the Plantation illustrates. Originally acquired from the well-known Quaker, William Penn, the Pratt’s owned the Plantation from 1720-1820, working diligently each day to provide shelter and food for their family. Their home now provides students, educators, and the general public with a place to learn about the hardships and rewards that went along with living in that era. According to the Plantation’s website,

The plantation’s modest role—as a working farm operating with the methods and implements of colonial America – belies its significance as a living example of that period. Consistent with the findings of local research into religious and tax records, wills, and letters of 1760-1790, the Plantation represents a broader view of early American life, an authentic demonstration of how most people in this area lived during colonial times.

People of all ages, races, genders, and backgrounds are amazed at the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation’s ability to accurately depict the lifestyle that our ancestors lived centuries ago.

Plantation Workers
Eric Lyons
Actors portray outdoor workers, two discussing the day's plan and one working on a wood project.

The Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation started in 1973 when it was acquired by a group that made a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the property to its original condition. In the early years, the Plantation property was part of a greater plan to restore the entire Sycamore Mills community within the state park. According to the Plantation’s website, financial support for the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation project came from the Bicentennial Commissions of Pennsylvania and Delaware County, in addition to funding from the private sector. Each renovation included restoring an existing structure that replicates the way it would have looked in the 18th century. As each structure progresses, visitors are able to see the making of the living museum. Today, the Plantation hosts over 200 students and teachers and thousands of visitors each year to observe this museum-in-the-making. Also, according to the Plantation’s website, “the concept of creating a facility dedicated to the ‘ordinary people’ of the Revolutionary era - and at the same time allowing visitors to observe and even participate in the process of creation - was unique.” Renovations, as suspected, are ongoing and follow the guidelines set forth by the Chester county inventories from the late 18th century. According to an article in the Reading Eagle, before restoration, the outward appearance of the buildings was from the 1830s, but during renovation many of the 19th century changes were removed. The interiors of the buildings have furnishings from as far back as 1775, and in addition to the 18th century setting, all of the duties and chores are carried out by people wearing clothes that resemble those from 250 years ago.

Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation
No such thing as a microwave to make tea; any tea on the Colonial Plantation will be brewed in the old-fashioned way.

Even the current historic farmer, David Nielsen, dons colonial era garments when doing various tasks relating to the upkeep of the plantation. Trained at Colonial Williamsburg, Nielsen came to the Plantation in June of 2009. In addition to preparing and planting the crop field, tilling and maintaining the kitchen garden, and caring for the animal population of the farm, he also makes many of his own tools.

Furthermore, after an interview with the office manager and education director of the Plantation, Renee Rapp, it’s apparent that most of the work done is to benefit students. In fact, the Plantation was approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as an “Act 48 provider” in 2009, granting credit to teachers seeking to keep their licenses current through continuous training in their fields. During the week, the Plantation is solely for students and teachers to experience. The Plantation also hosts outreach programs in which the workers travel to schools that request their presence; these outreach programs are provided for pre-school and kindergarten students, as well as a general outreach for older students and adults. Rapp stated that the experience is high quality and research-based, perfect for a school environment. Additionally, the Plantation provides activities for students, including cooking a colonial dessert over an open hearth stove, making a craft of their choice (candle-making, colonial toys, etc.), completing farm chores, excavating a site for archaeological finds, a tour of the facilities, and demonstrations of various tasks that people engaged in during the 1700s. If a school chooses to do an outreach program, a tour is given via PowerPoint slides along with other activities, and these activities allow for the student to experience colonial life hands-on, a highly effective way of teaching. Conveniently, the Plantation even offers birthday parties for young children, as well as after-school programs, mainly for groups such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Yarn being wound into skeins
Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation
After being spun into yarn, it must be wound into skeins for eventual weaving into cloth.

On weekends when the Plantation is open to the general community, the public can view this living history museum through an assortment of events that the Plantation schedules; one can attend the events as either a member of the Plantation or just as an individual visit. As a member, one may enjoy the Plantation’s activities and events throughout the year, all of which occur from April through November, as the Plantation is not open to the public during the winter months. The events are mostly themed around the time of the year, such as the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Some events scheduled for 2010 included Farm Days with Sheep Shearing, Revolutionary War Skirmish and Camp, French and Indian War Skirmish and Camp, Reading of the Declaration of Independence, Colonial Market Fair, Civil War Battle and Camp, Medieval Days, Ghost Tours, Halloween, and a Holiday Feast for the Animals. One of the most interesting, according to the plantation’s education director, is the Ghost Tours event; there have been numerous sightings of apparitions at the plantation, and these are used as the basis for the ghost tours. According to Town Talk, visitors follow a torch-lit path through the farmhouse, hearing a different story in each room about bizarre events and deceased people. It’s with events like these that the Plantation captures the interest of the general public and educates them at the same time; says one visitor, “[Ridley Creek State Park] is a gem of a park, with lots to do for everyone. The hiking trails are terrific…and now we know how interesting the Plantation is.”

Joseph Pratt and his family may have been ordinary for their time, but their extraordinary way of life in such difficult times is what the Plantation workers are aiming to portray to students and the public. Perhaps visitors to Ridley Creek State Park who plan on hiking, biking, picnicking, or sight-seeing on its 2,606-acre land will venture over to the little 112-acre plot that is the home of the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation and fall in love with it the way the Plantation owners have. And, hopefully, not only will they love it, but they will learn a little something along the way.

The Center’s thanks go to the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation and to Eric Lyons for their support in the completion of this article.