Saturday, June 2nd. The day is sunny and on the cool side. Our destinations for the day from suburban Philadelphia are to the north. There are two goals: one has to do with food, the other has to do with history. Our first destination will take us to a green farm the Newtown area. As a great believer in pasture raised and humanely slaughtered animals, I use the listings on “Eat Wild” as my guide to organic farms. Today we will be looking for Birchwood Farm, with its grass fed and pastured cows and chickens. That farm trip will take the morning of our day. From the farm we will move on to our historical quest, Pennsbury Manor, the estate of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn BRI.
So, with map in hand, and sun in the sky, we set out for our day trip. I must say that the dullest part of any day trip is penetrating the suburban belt where I live. The initial leg of any day excursion is something like the lift-off of a spacecraft. Before it can explore the mysteries of the solar system it has to lunge past our own atmosphere. For the day driver to get beyond the suburban metropolitan area you usually have to endure about a half hour on the bleached cement paving and concrete side walls of the highway. For our trip today we had to endure the dull and mindless PA276 from Villanova to the Doylestown exit. To make it bearable, we listen to Car Talk. The highway stretch passes quickly. Does anyone have a better laugh than Tom and Ray? The exit to 611 is on us before we realize it. Of course, 611, is not much better as a drive, but fortunately for today’s trip, we are on a side road almost immediately. Now we are moving from small town communities to areas of “Lease” or “Sale” defunct factories. When you see these vacant properties, and you find them almost everywhere, it makes you wonder about the state of American manufacturing. Where have these industries gone? Are their products now manufactured in China, or are they products that no longer have any purpose? And what became of all the people who worked for them?
Soon, however, we were along the winding and twisting roads of farm country crossing bridges over rushing creeks. In the fields folks were picking strawberries, cows were grazing and chickens flittering. In Wrightstown, on 2nd St. Pike, we came upon a wonderful farmers’ market set up in a parking lot. Easily the brightest stalls of fresh vegetables was offered by Blooming Glen Farm (they also have a stall at Head House Square on Sunday in Philadelphia.) Other venders offered pork, chicken, mushrooms and breads all at reasonable prices. We made our simple purchases of chicken, pork, greens and bread. From there we continued on to our first selected destination, Birchwood Farms. As soon as you drive onto the property, you see the chickens running free outdoors, doing things chickens are supposed to do: no cages, no barns. In the same pastures are the cows. The farm’s shop is a little house much as you might find at any farm store. The meats are all frozen as is also usually the case. But the prices are very, very high: so high as to be prohibitive. I, for one, simply cannot afford two pigs feet for forty dollars, or soup bones for close to twenty. Grass fed and humanely raised meats are certainly more expensive than factory animals, but there are also limits as to what one can afford. It was time to get back on the road.
Pennsbury Manor must be one of those “you can’t get there from here” places. While there are signs along River Road that direct you to the manor, they are sporadic, sometimes defaced and usually not at a major turn where it needs to be. Bearing to the left, a slight turn to the right, following our Google map, we were so close yet so lost. Pennsbury Manor is on something of a peninsula, but a peninsula studded with ugly semi-industrial plants that seem to contradict the pristine riverbank setting and the historical mindset where I was dwelling.
The drive to the manor required some counter intuitive turns that the poor signage does not facilitate. Actually, it was only when I stopped at a car repair shop that I discovered the correct route from an agreeable mechanic. After a good bit of circling and correcting we arrived at the entrance. Even when you finally arrive, the main sign at the front drive is somewhat tilted in a most undignified angle. The approach is also marred by something of a trailer park graveyard. Considering the importance of the site, I would hope that someday someone might contribute to improvements.
As with many historic sites, your first encounter is at the visitor’s center: a modern construction of offices, reception center, video room and requisite gift shop. Most striking, however, was the friendly and even embracing warmth of the staff. Since one of our company has difficulty walking, they brought around a golf cart to escort us to the manor. Now, I first have to say that I was hit by a major disappointment. It seems that the manor is not the original building. The original fell into ruin somewhat early in its existence. The building we tour today was a reconstruction of the 1920’s. Although, the guide assures us that Penn’s written description of the mansion was so detailed that it allowed for a near perfect copy. And speaking of the guide, his name is Tom, rarely have I encountered a so enthusiastic and well informed volunteer tour guide. Clearly he was a man impassioned by the history of William Penn and the manor house. The house itself is quite remarkable. The setting on the banks of the Delaware takes you into a dream world of tall green trees and flowing waters. The interior of the house on a somewhat modest footprint is open and spacious. The high ceilings, broad floor planks and open squares of parallel rooms recalls Penn’s rational approach to community space as seen in his geometric town plan for Philadelphia. Perhaps the more interesting building is the kitchen complex. Here again the space is arranged in a very rational fashion. What befuddles the modern mind, however, is the utmost complexity of the requirements of daily life at the end of the 17th century. Everything in the home from clothing to food was the end result of days and hours of intense manual preparation. The less than admirable aspect of this life was that no small part of the production and maintenance was only possible because of indentured servants and slaves. Yes, William Penn, the devoted Quaker and enlightened mind of the colonies, who created the charter of religious freedom and established an elected legislature, was master to indentured servants and to slaves. But that was a different world whose values and understanding are beyond our capacity to judge.
When we came to the end of the house tour, our guide brought back the golf cart. With continued enthusiasm Tom drove us about on a tour of the grounds. The manor is home to two oxen, several peacocks and a horse rescued from the slaughterhouse. Tom, it turns out, also help out with the animals. The gardens of Pennsbury seem a bit neglected. It would be wonderful to see them in full greenery.
Even though it is a reconstruction Pennsbury Manor takes its visitor into a new world America that we rarely consider. This is America in the time of Charles the Second, an America where the native population still lived along the banks of the Delaware. Pennsbury Manor is Pennsylvania and Philadelphia at the time of their creation almost one hundred years before a Ben Franklin or George Washington walked its streets. It is truly difficult to grasp the reality of this homestead. Pennsbury Manor in 1685 was a regal home and functioning plantation in a remote and unknown colony populated by a daring few who risked all they had for religious and personal convictions.