After their victory at Brandywine, the British went on to capture the American capitol at Philadelphia (while the Continental Congress escaped to York to the west).
I grew up in Chester County. Most of my family and our ancestors have lived near the Brandywine Battlefield for the last 150 years. My grandfather told me he learned to drive, at the age of 12 (in about 1913), on what now is part of the battlefield.
However, I haven’t been to the battlefield for many years, so I decided to enjoy a day off last December and travel to Brandywine.
It was a cold day – about 35 degrees outside with a hint of snow on the way. I could see my breath as I got out of the car and walked into the Visitors Center. What I wasn’t prepared for was how cold it was inside the Visitor’s Center. I noticed that the woman working there was wearing her winter coat. After I spent a few minutes looking at the artifacts, I saw that she was joined by two other women – also wearing their heavy coats – and I overheard the words “budget cuts.”
After introducing myself as a journalist from the public TV and radio station in Harrisburg, I asked why it was so cold inside the building. All three indicated the state had required the facility to keep the thermostat at 65 degrees, but they were quick to point out that it was only 58 degrees in the Visitors Center. I have to admit – it felt colder than that.
I thought to myself, “This is the site of the largest battle in the war in which America won its freedom from Great Britain and even though we lost the battle, it is a significant place in American history. This is hallowed ground. Why are visitors like me freezing and trying to stay comfortable when we come to learn more about that history?”
Of course, I knew the answer. Brandywine, like virtually all of Pennsylvania’s historic sites and museums, had been impacted by cuts in last year’s state budget. When the budget was approved last October, about $7 million was slashed from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. That translated to a budget reduction of more than 35% and resulted in the layoffs of about 200 employees.
Brandywine would have been shutdown if it hadn’t for been for a group of volunteers that have worked to keep the site open. The Friends of Brandywine Battlefield are looking for donations from visitors, foundations and local governments. Delaware County (which is very close to the battlefield grounds) had committed to some funding, but Chester County has not.
Brandywine wasn’t alone. Hours were cut at many sites. For the first time, visitors to the State Museum in Harrisburg were charged an admission fee. Other sites were closed altogether.
Meanwhile, funding for historic sites is flat in Gov. Ed Rendell’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The state once again faces a budget deficit that will reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. As we’ve heard many times over the past year and a half, Pennsylvania and the nation have not seen an economic downturn like the one we’re going through now since the Great Depression. Rendell and legislators have had to make very difficult decisions on how to spend taxpayer money and most have decided that history takes a back seat to some of the programs that pay for the health, safety and well-being of today’s Pennsylvanians.
An email to the National Trust for Historic Preservation makes the argument, “While I too dislike the fact that many parks are being closed, the fact of the matter is that states simply don't have the budgets to do everything that they traditionally have and hard choices have to be made. The annoying part of the whole discussion is that the people who are decrying the closing of the historic sites are the same people screaming the loudest that states need to curtail spending. Sorry, my friends, you can't have it both ways.”
Some say there is irony in the fact that Pennsylvania First Lady, Judge Marjorie Rendell has made it her mission to campaign for expanding civics in the state’s schools and beyond to ensure that Pennsylvanians become more engaged in their governments and communities. Knowing ones history and learning from it have to be key elements in any discussion of civics.
I’m left asking myself, “Do Pennsylvanians find their history valuable enough to pay for it?”
Not that money is the cure all but there may be people asking themselves in the near future, “What was the Great Depression and what did we learn from it?”
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Guests: Barbara Franco, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission and John Fea, Associate Professor of American History, Messiah College
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