Checking Chester

When we were checking out of our hotel in Pittsburgh in preparation for heading on east to my cousin’s house in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we told the young man behind the desk where we were going.

“Oh,” he exclaimed: “Suburban Philadelphia! You’re in God’s hands now!!”

Well, the Good Lord certainly watched over us during our week with my cousin, John Hope, in his native Chester County, because we had just the grandest of times. And, I suppose, it was mainly due to the fact that we left the driving to Cousin John.

That first day of our official tour of the family sites in suburban Philadelphia, I handed John the keys to our Honda Civic and said: “Enjoy.”

And John did, and we really, really enjoyed having a native son drive us along the bucolic back roads of Chester County on the way to one appointment with fellow family members and then on to the next.

After a day of seeing the stately horse farms and 18th century stone homes set back from the curving roads, we said: “We could live here.”

As one of three original Pennsylvania counties created by William Penn on August 24, 1682, Chester County certainly has been a scenic setting for gracious living for centuries.

And, if business or pleasure ever takes you to Philadelphia, you would be well served to spend at least a day tooling around the byways and highways of a gently rolling county that sits comfortably between Philadelphia and the Susquehanna River.

I have been visiting Chester County since before I could talk and walk, and now that I can do both reasonably well, I can say that I am really glad we took my mother back this fall.

Cousin John resolved right from the start to take us to each visit on scenic back roads, and so we truly enjoyed a relaxing visit to Chester County. And each morning, John would ask: “Does this look familiar?”

Not really, we would say, but it sure is beautiful.

And it was truly beautiful when we took Mom to the Dunwoody Home to visit with her cousin, Dody Freeman. A highlight of that visit was seeing that the home was displaying the miniature scene of Hood Octagonal School created by Cousin Dody and her late husband, Bob Freeman. Cousins Bob and Dody had created the miniature schoolroom for competition at the 1983 Philadelphia Flower Show.

And Cousin Dody was oh so proud to point it out as we passed it on the way from lunch to her lovely apartment.

When Cousin John’s daughter Katie came to visit, we took her and John’s dog, Benny the cute little Corgi, to the nearby East Branch Brandywine Trail for a walk through Penn’s woods. We spotted some migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers along our way, and John said he hoped that the trail would eventually be extended all the way into Philadelphia.

Hikers and cyclists in Chester County, you see, are pretty much made to share those aforementioned rolling roads with a whole bunch of motorists, and everyone would get along better if there were more trails such as the one we walked that morning with Cousin Katie Hope, who by the way, is co-founder of an organic, rooftop farm in Brooklyn, New York appropriately called Sprout. For more details about organic rooftop farming in Brooklyn, visit: www.sproutbk.blogspot.com.

And when you are done learning more about that, you will want to come along now for the 71st Annual Chester County Day on Saturday, October 1, 2011.

That was to be the last full day of our stay in Chester County, and we had originally planned to spend it at the Jersey Shore on Long Beach Island where my grandfather had a cottage in Ship Bottom. But Cousin John said such a trip would require way too much driving for one day and noted that we would have to pass through Philadelphia itself on a day that the Phillies were hosting the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League playoffs. So he and his sister, Cousin Anne Anderson, suggested we take a tour of Chester County houses instead.

And that is precisely what we did, starting in Malvern where John and Anne grew up. Mom and her walker were absolutely amazing, and there wasn’t a restored 18th century house she couldn’t conquer. She walked to two of the four houses we toured in the town of West Chester itself, and, at the end of a long day, she was ready to keep on going. But John, Natalie and I were too pooped to do anything but get some carry-out from an amazing grocery story/food emporium called Wegman’s and then repair to John’s living room to watch the Phillies clobber the Cardinals in the first game of their series. Too bad the Phillies did not continue their winning ways, but maybe we can catch them on the way to the World Series next year when we return for the 72nd Annual Chester County Day.

While we did not join the 2011 “Day” early enough to witness the “beauty and pageantry of a Chester County fox hunt,” we did take a detour on Monument Avenue to see the site of the Paoli Massacre of September 20-21, 1777.

Having just read about that infamous chapter in American history and not having enough time to visit Valley Forge, I tapped Cousin John on the shoulder and said: “Do you mind a few minutes here?”

He didn’t mind a bit, nor did Mom and Natalie. In fact, we four were all glad we took the time to reflect at the site of the small, vicious battle during the American Revolution that was fought at midnight in 1777 when British Light Infantry and Light Dragoons fixed bayonets and surprise-attacked General Anthony Wayne’s troops in the dark. We had always known General Wayne as “Mad Anthony” Wayne as kids, and we learned at the site just why he had been so mad.

One of Wayne’s officers, Major Samuel Hay, wrote of the engagement: “The annals of the age cannot produce such another scene of butchery.”

And Colonel Thomas Hartley noted: “the enemy last night at twelve o’clock attacked . . . Our men just raised from sleep, moved disorderly, confusion followed . . . the carnage was very great . . . this is a bloody month.”

Visiting the 44-acre site Washington’s Army called the Paoli Massacre, we gave thanks to those brave Americans who are buried there, and we were thankful for the cooperative efforts of various private and governmental organizations that preserved the site in 1999. And, you should know, a monument was placed on the grave of the fallen in 1817, on the 40th anniversary of the attack. Only the Lexington Monument is older. Caretakers placed a new granite obelisk and a decorative iron face at the grave at the Centennial of the battle in 1877, and the Paoli Memorial Association has maintained the site as a public park ever since.

The site is truly hallowed ground, and every American should visit it. We are certainly glad we did. And we are so very grateful to our gracious guide, Cousin John Hope, for sharing the wonders of his Chester County with us.

While Cousin John might not be available for your tour of his home county, you would be well served to visit the official Chester County website in advance of your visit at: www.chesco.org. And for more about the Paoli Massacre, contact: http://www.ushistory.org/paoli/history/index.htm.


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