I live in Chester County, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. Independence Hall, Carpenters' Hall, and the Liberty Bell are forty or so miles to the east, and Valley Forge National Park is the proverbial stone's throw away.
Although the county is a region almost embarrassingly rich in 18thc. history, there aren't as many surviving buildings as you might think. Part of this is the nature of that past - most of 18thc. Chester County was farmland - plus the usual hazards to old structures of fire and strong weather, but the largest threat has always been progress. Just as that 17thc. developer William Penn looked at the colonial wilderness and envisioned his famous "Green Countrie Townes" replacing forests, so his later counterparts were - and are - every bit as eager to wipe out yesterday for the sake of a more profitable present.
The photograph, above, shows the Covered Wagon Inn in Strafford, PA, built around 1780 as a way station for travelers and commercial traffic on the busy road between Philadelphia and Lancaster. Beyond that, it's not famous. It doesn't have landmark status. It's not even a particularly striking example of vernacular architecture, and besides, the interiors were gutted long ago to convert it into a modern restaurant (it's currently the showroom for a furniture maker.) But the Inn is a tangible link to a long-gone Chester County, and a vivid reminder that, however fast we're whizzing along Route 30 today, we're only about seven generations removed from the 18thc. Pennsylvanians who stopped here for a meal and to water their horses.
It's also a reminder that may soon be gone. The Covered Wagon Inn has the misfortune to sit on a valuable corner lot, and there are plans to replace it with a CVS drug store. Although the lot is large enough to work around the Inn, the CVS representatives are adamant: they want that corner so the new store can have a drive-thru window. They can't see an imaginative way to incorporate the old Inn into their plans. Their architect promises to honor the memory of the old inn by incorporating a stone wall into the store's design.
That's not enough. Surprisingly, local preservation laws to save the Inn don't exist. But people who care about local history are trying to persuade the town supervisors, the real estate company holding the property, and CVS to change their plans and save the Inn. No one expects a historically accurate restoration or recreation, but rather a historically sensitive plan to preserve and incorporate the Inn into a modern commercial use for the corner. You can read more about the efforts here. You can follow the Inn on Facebook here, and you can sign the Change petition here. I'd appreciate it if you do.
But more importantly, I hope you'll take a long look at the links to the past in your own neighborhood. So many need your help, and perseverance and creative thinking are the only ways to keep the past as part of the present, and the future. Because once that old house, or shop, or tavern, or mill, or bridge, or whatever it may be, is gone, it's gone forever. UPDATE, 5/20/16: The Covered Wagon Inn looks like it has had a reprieve - read more here.
Above: The Covered Wagon Inn, photograph via Google street view.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.