Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Valley Forge's time travelers

Storytellers and actors interpreting colonial history in the region live lives in the here and then.

At Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in August, Philip Jacobson will portray bank robber Willie Sutton.

But at Valley Forge National Historical Park on other days this summer, he will be, among others, Martha Washington.

In 21st-century shirt and trousers. No cross-dressing, please.

Down the lawn about 50 yards from George Washington's headquarters, Jacobson is a modern storyteller, dipping into 18th-century moments.

Channeling a colonial infantryman, a German general and, yes, Martha.

At the same time, up at Washington's Headquarters, Carol Spacht was portraying only Martha, in Southern accent and colonial costume.

"I have five assigned stories" from which to choose, Jacobson said in an interview, "and several from last year."

Jacobson and Spacht are actors who will bring to life the second Valley Forge season of Once Upon a Nation, meant to create commonplace moments of history through brief acted episodes.

Once Upon a Nation is a production of Historic Philadelphia Inc., which began offering such actors and storytelling at Independence National Historical Park on Memorial Day weekend in 2005.

This year, the Valley Forge offerings began yesterday, but on weekends only. They will begin daily on June 14.

It was a rainy afternoon as Jacobson spoke.

But, during a pause in the drizzle, several actors had a moment to show off their work for a group of officials and donors.

"Every winter" during the Revolutionary War, Jacobson was telling his visitors, Martha Washington visited her husband "in February, just before his birthday."

Even at Valley Forge, he said, "she wanted to have a party," however modest, especially after the string of 1777 defeats - Brandywine, Germantown, Paoli.

And for a moment, Jacobson was Martha.

Then he was a starving Valley Forge rifleman, complaining, "I hate turnips, [but] what I would not give now for turnips."

And then, simply by putting his right hand behind his back and standing a bit more upright, he was German Gen. Friedrich von Steuben, drilling untrained soldiers at Valley Forge into a military fist that, historians say, finally had some punch.

Jacobson began with Historic Philadelphia in 2005 as the storyteller at City Tavern, the reconstruction of the 18th century watering hole at Second and Walnut Streets, for American insurgents like Adams and Jefferson.

During his times away from Valley Forge this year, Jacobson said, he is acting in dinner theater murder mysteries at Bistro Romano, near Head House Square in Philadelphia, a couple of weekends a month.

Jacobson lives in Elkins Park, Spacht in Blue Bell.

She began acting with the Germantown Theater Guild in the 1970s, she said, but absented herself from the stage to raise four children.

This is her fifth year with Historic Philadelphia, for whom she is also working this summer at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. Yes, as Betsy.

Historic Philadelphia Inc., president Amy Needle said, "began 14 years ago as an initiative of Ed Rendell when he was mayor."

At that time, she said, "it was just a colonial presence," actors performing small plays in colonial costume around Independence National Historical Park.

Today, the nonprofit organization has an annual budget of $5 million, including city and state money, but no federal funds, she said. "We raise money through foundations and individuals and companies."

Historic Philadelphia now employs 30 storytellers and 50 colonial actors around Independence Hall, with 13 storytelling locations.

It runs two other Philadelphia sites, she said, with "12 to 15 part-time (workers) at Franklin Square," which it began running on July 31, 2006 and "about 20 part-time at the Betsy Ross House."

At Valley Forge, there are seven costumed actors and eight storytelling actors in modern gear.

Storytellers, Needle said, "also serve as tourism ambassadors." If visitors ask an actor in modern dress how to get to the Reading Terminal Market for lunch, "the storyteller can help.

"Our colonials don't break character and wouldn't be able to tell you."

If You Go


and when

: The Once Upon a Nation season at Valley Forge runs on Saturdays and Sundays, starting this weekend, through June 8. After that, it's daily from June 14 through Sept. 5, then on Saturdays only through Oct. 25.

The storytelling locations - at the Welcome Center, the Memorial Arch, Varnum's Headquarters and Washington's Headquarters - operate from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on all such days, free to all who walk, bike or drive to them.

Bus tours

, which visit Washington's Headquarters, the Valley Forge chapel, and the colonial soldiers' huts, leave from the Welcome Center at Valley Forge National Historical Park at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. on weekends through June 8.

From June 14 through Sept. 1, they leave at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30, 2:30, and 4:30 p.m. They revert to the weekend schedule but on Saturdays only, from Sept. 6 through Oct. 25.

Bus tickets cost

$15 for adults; $12 for students, seniors and members of the military; and $7 for children 11 and younger.

Valley Forge After Hours bus tours

leave from the Welcome Center at 6 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 25. After visiting Washingon's Headquarters, the tours offer dinner at the nearby bakehouse and campfire storytelling with troops near Varnum's Headquarters.

Tickets - for the tour, dinner and tips - cost $50 for adults, $45 for all others.

For more information

, phone Historic Philadelphia Inc. at 215-629-4026 or go to