8:42 AM / Monday February 6, 2023

12 Nov 2015

Germantown, Stepping into History

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November 12, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Meeting House and Cemetary

By Renée S. Gordon

“Will, I hear, has made his escape to some other country but the hardship he must experience from a different way of living than that in your employ will sufficiently punish his ingratitude.”    –Benjamin Chew II (1778)

For centuries prior to Penn’s granting 5,700-acres in what is now Chestnut Hill, Germantown and Mount Airy to German Mennonite and Quaker immigrants in 1683, the area was the primary fishing and hunting grounds of the Lenapé. Thirteen families from the lower Rhine Valley, the “Krefelders,” arrived aboard the Concord in October 1683 and became the original settlers. There is some debate as to whether large villages were established in the area but we do know that the Lenapé, also known as the Delaware, left a language legacy in many place names. Germantown Township, a town completely separate from Philadelphia, was established the same year and within 50 years the natives were no longer in the area. In 1854, Germantown was incorporated as part of Philadelphia.

Germantown, a mere 6-miles from downtown Philadelphia, in addition to being one of the most historic districts in the nation, is the country’s longest National Historic District and nestled within its boundaries are 15 historic sites, seven of which have achieved National Historic Landmark status. Visitors can experience numerous aspects of history here, from colonial times through the 20th Century.

The majority of the sites are strung out, like pearls, along Germantown Avenue. The avenue, once an Indian trail, then “The Great Road,” really leads from the Delaware River to Plymouth Meeting and was hewn out as a colonial road project in 1687. Workers were paid .80 daily for road labor on what was known as Germantown Pike. Modern Germantown Avenue, before it turns into a pike, is approximately 7 miles long.

Pennsylvania often cites the fact that the state was the first in America to formally protest slavery and that event took place in the home of Thones Kunders, 5109 Germantown Avenue, the setting for the early meetings of the Society of Friends. Kunders, one of the original German settlers, was a dyer of cloth who, along with a number of others, was morally opposed to slavery. On February 18, 1688, four men signed the first organized protest against slavery in the New World. The document, penned by Francis Pastorius, stated their opposition to the importation, sale and ownership of slaves. The original is held by Haverford College, a copy of the document is displayed in the Germantown Mennonite Meeting House and interested parties can view it at

Sixty-six years later, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) issued “An Epistle of Caution” declaring the purchasing and owning of slaves was inconsistent with their gospel of universal love and peace and was therefore wrong. In 1758, they said that members were forbidden to import or purchase slaves and a committee was established to inspire members to free their existing slaves.

The first Mennonite minister was William Rittenhouse and the Rittenhouse home at 208 Lincoln Drive is the oldest Mennonite home in the Americas. Rittenhouse was also the first papermaker in the British colonies and he and his family founded a paper mill and industrial village, Rittenhouse Town, a fun and interesting way to spend a day. The site is a National Historic Landmark District.

While the settlement was small, Mennonites and Quakers worshipped together. But  because of significant growth, the Mennonites constructed a log cabin meetinghouse in 1708 on land once owned by Arnold van Vossen. In 1770, the log meetinghouse was replaced with one constructed by Jacob Knorr of Wissahickon schist stone. The structure underwent alterations and additions in the 1860s and 19th and 20th-centuries. 6133 Germantown Ave.

Wyck Historic House, Garden and Farm interpret the lives of nine generations of the Quaker Wistar-Haines family. The earliest house on the property was a log cabin built in the 1690s by Hans Milan. The original portion of the mansion dates from 1736 and a stone section was added in the 1770s. In the 1790s, the structures were enclosed to become one larger house with a stuccoed façade. In 1824, the house was significantly remodeled both inside and out by architect William Strickland. Wyck boasts the country’s oldest rose garden with more than 70 varieties of roses. The garden maintains its original design. Tours of the interior include many family items collected through the centuries including a chair that belonged to Benjamin Franklin and literature that reflects the family’s abolitionist leanings. Wyck served as a military field hospital for Hessian soldiers during the 1777 Battle of Germantown. 6026 Germantown Ave.

Upsala stands as one of Germantown’s outstanding examples of Federal architecture. An early owner, Dirck Jansen, probably built what is now the rear of the house around 1740. John Johnson Sr. purchased the land in 1766 and in 1797 Johnson III inherited the estate and constructed the stone Georgian front of the mansion. Upsala functioned as headquarters for the Continental Army during the Battle of Germantown in 1777. The house sits on 2.5-acres. 6430 Germantown Avenue.

John Wister built Grumblethorpe, 5267 Germantown Avenue, as a summer residence, but eventually a Yellow Fever epidemic spurred him to move there permanently. The house was constructed in 1744 using quarried stones and oak from Wister’s property. Period furniture and personal Items belonging to family members are on display including the writing desk on which novelist Owen Wister wrote “ The Virginian”. Brigadier-Gen. James Agnew, who occupied Grumblethorpe during the battle was wounded by a sniper and died in the front room. Bloodstains remain visible.

Cliveden House

Cliveden House

Cliveden was built by Benjamin Chew in 1767 and it would remain in the family for seven generations. The Chew fortune was largely based on slave labor on his Germantown and nine additional plantation properties, including that of Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel Church. The Chews were one of the largest slaveholding families in the area causing Chew, a Quaker, to be read out of the meeting

The American Revolution’s Battle of Germantown took place on Oct. 4, 1777, shortly after the British captured Philadelphia. Washington developed an intricate plan to surprise the British where they were camped in Germantown. When the Continentals encountered British pickets near Allens Lane, they fired on them, lost the element of surprise and Col. Thomas Musgrave ordered some of his 40th Regiment to take cover inside Cliveden Mansion. The soldiers barricaded themselves inside and, firing from all three floors, turned the engagement into a considerable loss for Washington. The house proved to be impregnable and from this battle Washington retreated to Valley Forge. Benjamin Chew missed the battle and the destruction of his home because he was incarcerated in New Jersey because of supposed British sympathies.

Tours of the 2.5-story Georgian residence are a delight with many family furnishings. Highlights of the tour include a Philadelphia mahogany high-post bed, decorative parlor mirrors and the painting depicting the 1824 reception held for Lafayette. 6401 Germantown Ave.

The Johnson House was constructed in the 1760s in the German-Dutch style. The house remained in the hands of the family of Quaker abolitionists for five generations and served as a documented stop on the Underground Railroad by members of the third generation. Freedom seekers were secreted in the attic and basement and abolitionist gatherings were held on the first floor. Both Frederick  Douglass and Harriet Tubman are believed to have visited the house and tours of the house fully interpret its role as an Underground Railroad  site and the contribution made by the five Johnson siblings to the movement.

During the Battle of Germantown, the family took shelter in the cellar. At the conclusion of the battle, the British raided the house and ate all the food they had on hand. The house suffered damage that is still visible today. In 1997, the Johnson House was designated a National Historic Landmark. 6306 Germantown Ave.

George Washington really did sleep, on several occasions, in the Deshler-Morris House thereby solidifying its place in history. David Deshler moved to Philadelphia in 1733 and 18-years later he purchased a four-room summer retreat in Germantown that expanded into a three-story, nine-room, mansion by the 1770s. In 1777, Gen. Howe established his headquarters in Deshler’s house for the duration of the conflict in Germantown. Deshler died in 1792 and the house was sold to a former Continental Colonel, Isaac Frank. President Washington took refuge in the house in November of 1793 as he sought to escape Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic. Washington met with Jefferson and Hamilton and the house was referred to as the “ Germantown White House.” The president’s rental fees amounted to $131.56 (approx. $2500).

Washington vacationed there in 1794. Interior tours exhibit pieces from both the Deshler and Morris, the last owners, families. Philadelphia craftsmen made many of the items. The Morris family donated the site to the National Park Service in 1948. 5442 Germantown Ave.

Quakers James Logan and William Penn arrived from Europe together and Logan would serve as Penn’s secretary, city mayor, Indian agent, chief justice, mentor to Benjamin  Franklin and tutor to John Bartram. He built the Georgian Stenton in 1730 as a summer residence with a staff of 10 including slaves. The house incorporates stones from the family’s Scottish village. Local Lenapé Indians were known to camp there when traveling. Logan spoke seven languages and owned a library of 2,681 books that upon his death were donated to the city to become the foundation of our library system. 

William Logan inherited the estate in 1751 and is responsible for adding a kitchen and piazza. In 1776, his slave Dinah requested her freedom and Hannah and William gave her full freedom. But, she chose to remain with them as a paid servant. William died in 1776, his son George was in school in Scotland and the staff maintained the house. Oral tradition credits Dinah with quick thinking resulting in saving the house from devastation in 1777 when the British came. George did not return until 1781. A plaque honoring Dinah is located on the property and she is depicted in a community mural.

Tours of the house include Logan family furnishings and artifacts recovered from on-site archaeological digs. Highlights include original floors, woodwork, and dependencies. 4601 North 18th St.

Aces Museum, 5801 Germantown Ave., is situated inside a building that houses a medical clinic and once housed contained slave quarters and a World War II United Service Office (USO) for African American soldiers. The museum displays concentrate on slavery and freedom in the form of minority contributions in the military. Show your support. 5801 Germantown Ave.

Most people associate the book “Little Women” and its author, Louisa May Alcott, with New England. In reality, Alcott was born in November 1832 at 5425 Germantown Ave.

Germantown is full of surprises, but none more poignant than the kidnapping of Charley Ross from 529 East Washington Lane, the first abduction for ransom in the country. Two men took 4-year old Charley and his  6-year old brother Walter from outside their home on July 1, 1874 with the promise of buying them firecrackers. They placed them in a wagon and upon reaching a store they sent Walter inside to make the purchase while the men drove off with Charley. The family was bombarded with 23 ransom notes but, although their father searched until his death 23 years later, it was fruitless. The requested payment was $20,000 ($4-million). Mrs. Ross, who was recuperating from an illness in Atlantic City at the time, learned of the kidnapping from the newspapers. Walter was located and returned and throughout the years several males later came forward claiming to be Charley but were all proven to be imposters.

Spend some time experiencing the history, mystery and adventure that make Germantown unique.

I wish you smooth travels!


On December 1, the post office in Santa Claus, Indiana will begin offering the picture postmark to cancel the postage stamps on holiday mail again this year. Patrons worldwide request the free holiday cancellation. Whether walking in or mailing your items you must follow the stated guidelines:

(1) Leave at least a 2-inch by 4-inch space in the stamp area for the picture postmark. (2) Place postage on cards or letters before bringing or mailing them to the post office. (3) To mail Christmas cards to the post office, package them with postage stamps already affixed, in a sturdy envelope or box, and mail to: Postmaster, Santa Claus Station, Santa Claus, IN 47579-9998. (4) The picture postmark is available on working days December 1-24. (6) The picture postmark must be requested by the postal customer.(7) To ensure a good postmark imprint, do not enclose large or bulky items in your holiday mail. (8) There is a limit of 50 picture postmarks per person per day.

A great Christmas gift is the trip of a lifetime to the carnival in Trinidad, the largest cultural festival in the Caribbean. Port of Spain is party central and it is wise to make reservations early. Complete information is available online.

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