Overlooked History-makers

America’s history is as rich and diverse as the people who have built and inhabited its vast landscape. So too is the material culture they created, which reminds us of our ancestors and their connections to other cultures. In honoring those traditions, each August we celebrate the artisans who study the craftsmanship of our forebears and add their artistic sensibilities and skills to achieve something distinctly new.

This year we showcase some of the work chosen for the Directory of Traditional American Crafts at the 1736 Henry Antes House in eastern Pennsylvania. A National Historic Landmark, the restored house is a pristine example of early Germanic architecture, virtually unaltered through more than two centuries of family living.

A group of dedicated preservationists and folk life researchers—who eventually coalesced as the Goschenhoppen Historians—studied the house in its cultural context as well as the importance of its designer, Henry Antes, who worked to spread the tenets of the Moravian faith.

The sparsely furnished house provided an unusual but compelling backdrop for works that might have been owned by subsequent generations of such a prosperous family. The site also welcomes visitors in August for the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival, staffed by hundreds of volunteers who share the authentic folk ways and life skills of the area’s German settlers.

This issue also looks at another restoration farther south. Although they had hoped to live indefinitely at the historic farm they restored in Virginia years ago, Max and Carol Sempowski found it prudent to move closer to family. Their “new” farm in Maryland, built in 1792, offered a compromise location between Virginia and Pennsylvania and the solidity of stone walls that Carol preferred. Best of all, their lifelong collection of antiques suited this farm too—and they can still raise sheep.

Well into the 1800s, our ancestors had only letters as a means of doing business or keeping in touch with distant family. We trace the early origins of the postal service, which relied on everything from transatlantic ships to post riders to deliver mail across a continent with conflicting sovereigns and few passable roads.

Named Postmaster General by both the British Crown and later the American Congress, Benjamin Franklin brought order to the postal system. Interestingly, stamps didn’t become mandatory until 1855, leaving the post office responsible for all costs associated with transporting and delivering letters, even if the recipient couldn’t be located or refused to receive the letter, or the letter was lost through theft or natural disaster.

Franklin also makes an appearance in our story about the development and eventual restoration of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works, the first steam-powered water works installed in the world. Most historians credit the ingenuity of Frederick Graff, architect Benjamin Latrobe’s engineering protégé, for designing and building the original water works along the Schuylkill River and for adding landscape plantings that turned the site overlooking the city into both an engineering marvel and a pleasure garden open to all.

For nearly a century, the water works (which later reverted to more efficient, less expensive water power) provided relatively clean drinking water to residents of the rapidly growing city. By the early 1900s, the works had succumbed to a lack of understanding of waterborne diseases and the river’s growing pollution. But in the 19th Century, Fairmount was the place for travelers from across the world to visit.

It is still worth seeing, with the restoration of part of Graff’s original architectural and mechanical works, still set within an expansive park. Preserving such attachments to our past helps inspire—and ideally guide—future improvements for the benefit of all.

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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