PHOENIXVILLE >> Until recently, inside an unassuming brick warehouse along the 300 block of Morgan Street sat a collection of artifacts that tells the story of how America was born.
Revolutionary War muskets, cannons, paintings, sculptures, uniforms and much more were housed in secret in Phoenixville for the past 17 years. Next year they will be seen by millions.
This treasure trove of history has been packed up and moved to its new home at the Museum of the American Revolution, set to open April 19, 2017, at 3rd and Chestnut streets, just blocks from Independence Hall, in Philadelphia.
R. Scott Stephenson, the museum’s vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming, offered a sneak peak at some of the items that came straight from the borough that will be on display opening day. Among them included Gen. George Washington’s luggage bag, a Revolutionary War soldier’s foot locker and a pensioner jacket from the 1812 era worn by a Revolutionary War veteran.
Through the carefully curated collection, Stephenson said the new museum’s goal is tell a story that will help visitors feel like they’ve been transported back two centuries in time. The museum will begin by explaining how colonial Americans became revolutionaries in the first place. Then it will move forward in time to look at what kind of nation was created and what it looks like today. The artifacts on display will be an integral part of that explanation.
“They’re devices to get you into these human stories,” he said.
Remnants from the past
Stephenson selected a few items from the collection to talk about during a brief tour of the warehouse, that offered a glimpse at the types of things that will be on display. George Washington’s brown leather portmanteau, acquired in 1909 will be one of them. The bag, still in great condition, was used to store his luggage throughout the war.
“It’s very modern, it’s kind of like a camping stuff sack,” Stephenson said.
Other items include an American officer’s wooden footlocker, acquired this year. It belonged to Lt. James Grant, a Scottish man who served during the French and Indian War. Grant settled in New York colony after that conflict, living right on the border between British occupied New York and the revolutionary controlled area, Stephenson said.
“(The foot locker) is a great piece,” he said. “It allows us to talk about the stories of people who — he was too old to serve in the Revolutionary War, he wasn’t a loyalist or on the patriot’s side. He was stuck in between a situation, like so many other people were.”
Another item includes a linen coat from the War of 1812 era worn by a Revolutionary War veteran named Jacob Latch. Latch, a Philadelphia native, served under Washington during the brutal winter at Valley Forge in 1777 and the Philadelphia campaign.
“He became a pensioner, so he received a pension, so we know a little bit about his service,” Stephenson said.
Beginning in 1818, there were a number of pension acts established by the federal government as a penance for how poorly Revolutionary War veterans were treated.
“To see these Revolutionary War veterans begging was a real national embarrassment,” Stephenson said. “After the War of 1812, the Era of Good Feeling, there were these pension acts.”
An unintended consequence though was the fact that soldiers would have to prove they actually served in the war. Records from the war were badly kept, he said. Veterans would have to recount stories of their service to a court and could bring witnesses to support their claims in order to receive a pension.
“That produced really the first oral history archive of an American conflict,” Stephenson said. “There’s something like 80,000 pension deposition files in the National Archives that give us an oral history of the nation’s founding.”
Keeping a secret
Housing the items in Phoenixville was only supposed to be temporary. In 1999, the warehouse served as the storage facility for the items, which originally belonged to the Valley Forge Historic Society. It was never open to the public and the policy was to keep quiet about the fact that the artifacts were inside. Stephenson affectionately referred to the building as the “fortress of solitude.” The items were kept in the space by the museum’s curators and educators with the intention of only staying for a year before they would be moved into the new museum once it opened. That just took a bit longer than they originally planned.
Stephenson came on the project in January 2007 and said seeing the museum finally start to come to fruition has been an amazing journey.
“So seldom does somebody have the opportunity in their career to create something from scratch,” he said. “So that’s been really exciting.”
Bill and John Davison, who purchased the former knitting mill in 1999, subdivided the building and rented the space to the Valley Forge Historic society.
“As land lords it was an awesome responsibility to have them here,” Bill said. “They wanted to be anonymous. They didn’t want people to know that they were here. But to be around so many dedicated people and to see the end result of their having their own museum on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, it is quite an accomplishment. We’re proud to have our little part in the process.”
“They’ve been excellent to work with,” John said. “Hardly ever saw them. Very quiet in and out. We’ll miss them.”
For more information about the Museum of the American Revolution, visit https://www.amrevmuseum.org/