Pennsylvania town lacking historical battle makes up one for re

Sunday, August 18, 2002

DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. -- To mark the 225th anniversary of the Revolutionary War, one Pennsylvania town decided to celebrate its heritage with a re-enactment of their hard-fought skirmish against the invading British.

Trouble is, it didn't happen.

Nor was there any record of a British loyalist being captured, tried or sentenced to death. But that, too, is to be shown for Saturday's celebration, dubbed "Milltown -- Washington's First Line of Defense."

Roger Grigson, president of the Downingtown Area Historical Society, has searched for any record of military activity in Downingtown, formerly Milltown, during the climactic Revolutionary War years of 1777 and 1778. Grigson's conclusion: "There wasn't."

Other communities in the area are busily observing key Revolutionary War events from the fall of 1777 that left George Washington and the Continental Army struggling to survive their winter encampment at Valley Forge.

"We have all these other 225th anniversary celebrations going on around here," Grigson said. "The Battle of Brandywine was Sept. 11. They are having a very, very large re-enactment. The Paoli Massacre was Sept. 21. They are having a big re-enactment."

But little went on that autumn in Milltown, where a heavily Quaker community, numbering around 100, operated mills, limekilns and inns for stagecoaches traveling between Philadelphia to Lancaster. Among them was Thomas Downing, the man Downingtown was named after.

The only military presence was a unit of Continental soldiers who passed through the area after the Paoli Massacre and a surgeon who operated on some of the wounded at The Ship Inn in Downingtown, Grigson said.

But Jane Davidson, historic preservation officer for Chester County and author of a history of Downingtown, said the town did have a supply depot for the war effort where locals stored up 900 barrels of flour, 26 hogsheads of liquor, and supplies of pork, bass, soap and candles.

They also disagree on whether Washington, fearing a British attack from the west, ordered the militia to the town on Aug. 23. Grigson said the British never arrived. Davidson said they did.

Either way, "Milltown -- Washington's First Line of Defense," is being billed as a living history of the Revolutionary War era, rather than of any particular event.

The event will include demonstrations of traditional day-to-day activities like wool spinning and gun-smithing, as well as portrayals of colonial tavern life. Then there is the mock skirmish, capture and trial, and another event, "General George Washington to address the troops," that Grigson also said is also fictitious, since Washington was never in Downingtown at the time.

No historical inaccuracy is intended, Davidson said.

"It's an observation of 18th century Colonial living, because Downingtown -- Milltown -- was a colonial village halfway between Philadelphia and Lancaster," she said.

Grigson refused to take part in preparations for the re-enactment after he saw how things were shaping up at the first planning meeting. But he said the historical society will have a booth and sell calendars at the event to help raise $2 million to restore the Ashbridge House, built by Thomas Downing before 1709 as a wedding present for his daughter.

"I'm certainly not a perfectionist," Grigson said. "I don't really need half of Downingtown mad at me."


On the Net:

Downingtown Historical and Park Commission: http://www.eddiejames.com/milltown

Downingtown Area Historical Society: http://www.downingtownhistoricalsociety.org

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: