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WM: Little Place Farm

IN ITS 300 YEARS of existence, my wife, Lura, and I are only the third owners of Little Place Farm.

We purchased the old farmhouse near Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania in 1971. The house was built in 1732 by Enoch Walker 45 years before then-commander George Washington of the Continental Army encamped there in the winter of 1777-78.

The farm originally included several hundred acres, which the Walker family received on a grant from William Penn and King George II. The Walkers were Quaker farmers, and generations of the family resided there until 1942 when it was sold to an editor of the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper, after which the we bought it from his widow.

The original three-story house was built of fieldstone laboriously collected from the surrounding pastures. It was of summer beam construction, meaning a single huge center timber rested on the masonry walls into which were mortised floor joists. The main load bearing beam, 35 feet long, would have been put in place using horse power and block and tackle rigs.

At the time of the buying the house, which is now situated on six acres of ground, Lura and I were living nearby. We were expecting our third child and found ourselves in need of more room for the growing family. We were searching for a unique home with personality and figured it probably had to be an older residence surrounded by ample land.

RAISING OUR FAMILY AT Little Place Farm and preserving it for posterity has certainly been a unique privilege and honor for our family.

One of Lura’s favorite memories is from when the children were still moppets, and I was busy working long hours in the ‘rat race.’ Friday evenings were special, she explains, because the family got the chance to celebrate two whole days of complete freedom and Daddy being home.

“We would have a family party,” says Lura. “The kids and I spent the afternoon decorating the dining room with crepe paper and balloons. Dinner was always all anybody wanted of my country fried chicken, my mother-in-law’s recipe for kidney bean salad, and was followed by either ice cream or apple pie.

“Then we would play recordings of ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ acting out the various parts of Peter, the wolf, grandfather, the duck, or hunters. Many friendly arguments arose over the assignment of various roles,” she says. “We also enjoyed musical parades with appropriate hats and the American flag, marching around the dining room table multiple times and into the parlor.”

The evenings concluded with horseback rides up the stairs to bed.

“Dad proved to be a very capable and adroit ‘horse’ in those magic days,” says Lura.

LITTLE PLACE FARM is on the local register of historic sites and eligible for the national designation.

We are restricted from undertaking any alterations to the exterior, so we had to obtain permission to replace the roofing, add a breakfast room and large porch, plus build two new stalls onto the barn.  The layout of the house is what’s known as the Swedish plan, which features a triangular-shaped chimney with multiple flues to provide diagonal corner fireplaces for heating each room on all floors. The kitchen was, in all probability, a separate small building with its own chimney. It is now connected to the main house. It has no cellar but rests on chestnut beams laid directly on the ground, with chipped rock between them. These are surprisingly intact, no rot or termite damage.

A two-story expansion was added around 1820, nearly doubling the size of the house. It included an addition to the basement, and greatly increasing ceiling heights to preserve the roofline. It also featured a few minor touches of elegance. To facilitate this addition, the entire north wall of the old house was demolished so its stone could be reused in constructing the new part.

Despite having installed modern necessities such as electricity, bathrooms, and hot water heat, the house is mostly unaltered from the time it was built.

OUR THREE NOW-ADULT children happily grew up at the farm. They all have great interest and respect for artworks and antiquities. In their schooldays, many class projects were penned about various aspects of their home, pets, possessions, and related experiences.

One experience that stands out in memory comes from the 1976 Bicentennial.

On the evening of July 3rd, the Bicentennial Wagon Train had already arrived for the celebration with its many, many Conestoga wagons that traveled for weeks from all across the United States.

The National Park Service, which had just been gifted Valley Forge State Park from the State of Pennsylvania, was responsible for contributing a well-promoted fireworks extravaganza to the festivities. The firework show was billed as the “best ever,” and it truly was.

We had invited about 30 friends to watch the show with us, which started at 11 p.m. and lasted until midnight. Our guests and their children bunked all over the place, filling all the beds, cots, sleeping bags, and the hayloft in the barn.

The house is furnished with antiques and artworks throughout, even in necessary workaday spaces like the kitchen. Visitors often comment that the place looks like a museum. I started collecting while I was still at Wabash, and Lura enthusiastically shares my interest.

A large and enthusiastic crowd was anticipated, but nothing like the more than two million people who actually showed up for the celebrations. The park rangers, state troopers, and local police were overwhelmed early on and forced to abandon trying to control traffic. They let people park wherever they could find a spot.

I encountered one fresh-faced young man who said he and his buddies had bicycled all the way from Boston but could not find any place to camp because the park campground was already at capacity and closed. I gave him directions to our house and instructions to pitch his tent by our stream.

Returning home after the fireworks, we were surprised to see around 30 tents with bare feet sticking out and bicycles parked nearby! Word had gotten around. When we roused everyone bright and early the next morning to attend the sunrise service in the park, people were still walking past our house about five abreast to retrieve their cars. Some of these young men stayed on for several days to visit sites in Philadelphia. A few kept up with us by mail for a few years.

It was an unforgettable night for our family. We were happy to welcome all to Little Place Farm, to our home.