Like sausage and legislation, the creation of national parks is best not witnessed. The 1929 eviction of William M. Stephens and his family from the home where they lived for seven generations proves that.
The problem seems to have been that the Stephens house was new, which didn’t fit the parks’ faux-colonial aesthetic. Plus, the family ran a hot dog stand. “I walked up to the sheriff and started to denounce him,” Stephens’ wife, Emily, later wrote of her interaction with the leader of a team that broke into the house on May 1 and carried the family’s possessions to trucks. “I remember calling him a dog and a coward, and [saying] ‘Shame on you to hold such a job.’ He retaliated by throwing out his hand and telling the men to ‘do their worst.’”
Stephens was born in Valley Forge in a house that descended from his great-great-grandparents, David and Elizabeth (Edwards) Stephens. Elizabeth was the daughter of Welsh Quaker Morris Edwards, who built the house sometime between 1711 and 1735. It came into the Stephens family around 1747, when the couple married.
Stephens was the grandson of Welsh settler Evan ap Evan (“Evan, son of Evan”), who’d come to America with the 1680s William Penn migration and purchased a large tract in what is now Valley Forge National Historical Park. Evan’s son was Stephen ap Evan, whose son, David, called himself David Stephens.
When Washington’s army arrived in 1777, David Stephens, his wife and their three children lived in their stone house on Valley Forge Road, just west of where the Washington Memorial Chapel now stands. The surrounding land was their farm.
Armies needed housing, and the troops built and occupied log huts, each holding 12 soldiers. Officers also lived in log huts, but with fewer roommates.
Members of the top brass headquartered themselves primarily in local farmhouses. Artillery commander Henry Knox dwelled in a house off Route 252. The Marquis de Lafayette lived at Yellow Springs and Wilson roads, in a house that belonged to Samuel Havard, a bachelor. Washington rented Isaac Potts’ house.
The Stephens’ house was occupied by Rhode Island’s Brig. Gen. James Varnum. A native of Massachusetts, Varnum attended college in Rhode Island, where he later married and settled. At the outbreak of the war, he was commissioned by that state’s legislature as colonel of the First Rhode Island Regiment, and was later promoted by Washington after distinguished roles in battles at Long Island, White Plains and elsewhere. Varnum advocated the enlistment of African-Americans, and, as a result, his regiment became an all-black unit.
The Stephens family seems to have welcomed Varnum. They continued to live in the house, which was rented rather than confiscated. Quakers, in particular, refused to accept money for their property and profit from military.
Stephens had been a Quaker until 1758, when he was “read out of meeting” for marrying a Baptist and for being “a frequenter of taverns and places of diversion, and too often overcome with strong liquors.” Had he still been a member, Stephens would’ve also been in trouble for aiding the military by providing shelter for officers.
In her account of the events of 1929, Emily Stephens later recalled: “The Stephens family gave liberally of their supplies and money to the army, and stories that have come from one generation to another showed that Washington held this fine old Quaker family in high esteem.”
After the troops departed in June 1778, most evidence of their presence was wiped away. Huts were demolished, became farm outbuildings, or rotted and fell down. When Philadelphia antiquarian John Fanning Watson visited in 1828 in search of remnants, he found only the Potts house and traces of a defensive redoubt nearby.
Industry returned. The Potts family built a new iron forge and dam. After the War of 1812, a new factory for domestic hardware and later one for saws were constructed. The Rogers family built a steel furnace. Valley Creek was humming with mills. “From the time of the Revolution until Watson’s own day, Americans had taken surprisingly little interest in their own history, possibly because the Revolution that created the nation was perceived as a deliberate break with the past,” wrote historian Lorett Treese. “History had not been stressed in the schools of the early republic, and even Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia—so fascinating to historians today—received little attention from his contemporaries.”
Franklin’s house had been demolished in 1812. Washington’s presidential mansion in Philadelphia would follow in 1832.
According to Treese, Valley Forge began to attract more attention in the mid-19th century as Romantic-era historians and poets rediscovered the encampment experience. Things accelerated in 1876, when thousands of Americans visited Philadelphia’s centennial exhibition at Fairmount Park.
The Valley Forge story appealed to Victorian moralism, which saw the encampment as a lesson in sacrifice. Washington’s troops arrived beaten and starving. They paid the penance of camping and drilling in the snow and, in the spring, marched out stronger to win victories.
Soon after the centennial, several affluent suburbanites launched what became the Valley Forge Centennial Association to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the day the troops left. That morphed into a permanent memorial association, which raised money to buy Washington’s Headquarters and surrounding land. In 1893, the area became a state park, empowered to acquire or “condemn” land on which encampment facilities had existed and to interpret them by building roads and erecting markers.
The great-great-grandson of David and Elizabeth, William Stephens was educated at local public schools and Norristown’s Treemount Seminary boarding school. In 1891, he married Martha Taggart, daughter of a local farmer and state legislator. The couple had five children. Martha died by 1920, and Stephens married Emily Duggan.
After his first marriage, Stephens went into farming. A 1904 collection of biographies of Montgomery County residents called him “one of the best-known farmers of Upper Merion Township.”
The Stephens family was acutely aware of the history of its property and was a source of intimate details that became part of park lore. In a posthumously published article, Stephens recalled an uncle’s stories about a spot not far from the house at which 600 men had been buried. Curious, Stephens dug a trench. “I came to the bottom of a grave that showed a layer of black mold,” he wrote. “The mold was about three feet from the surface and about a foot or more deep.”
That, plus the fact he found no buckles or buttons, convinced Stephens that the dead at Valley Forge had been buried naked.
According to Treese, the park began to impinge on Stephens’ property in 1897, when a monument to Varnum’s Rhode Island troops was proposed for a site east of his house. The monument would require an acre in the center of Stephens’ farm. Stephens sued to stop condemnation efforts, and the matter dragged on until 1902, when a jury awarded him $2,100.
In 1918, the park took the 18th-century house, which seems to have been unused. In 1898, Stephens had built a new house to the west at Route 23 and Baptist Road. Treese described the condition of the Colonial structure at that time as “falling into ruin,” but did not indicate whether Stephens sold it willingly. The building was restored and is still marketed to tourists as “Varnum’s Quarters.”
At the same time, the park was chasing away other private-property owners. But the crowds of tourists offered some undeniable benefits. In front of their new house, the Stephens family erected a hot-dog stand that, according to Treese, “did enough business during the summer months to support the entire family. The park commissioners never noted exactly whether they found the modern house or the hot-dog stand inappropriate for Valley Forge.”
Nevertheless, they condemned it in 1918, along with Varnum’s Quarters. Stephens continued to resist for the next decade, until the trucks came.
Emily Stephens’ sister, Effie, noticed them first. “When he turned and sat down again, I realized from the look on his face that the Damoclean sword that had been hanging over us and threatening us for years was about to descend,” wrote Emily of Stephens’ reaction.
Stephens told the women to lock the doors and windows, and he ran out to get an injunction. But the sheriff, eight deputies and two black laborers soon kicked in the door. “The events of that day beggar description,” wrote Emily. “I saw my most cherished possessions, the accumulations of years, handled by vandal hands. A cherished steel engraving of Lincoln and Little Tad was jerked from the wall. They pulled the shades from the windows. A fine cake, which had been baked the day before and put in a fancy tin box, was also confiscated.”
By the end of the day, the house was empty, the contents in a warehouse in Norristown and the family living in a hotel in Phoenixville. Stephens fought until 1935, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. The house was demolished the following year, and Stephens died about the same time.
The site is now a picnic area, named for Varnum.