15. Keeping History Alive in Challenging Times

Our current health-related circumstances have obviously impacted the mission of historic sites such as Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) in Pennsylvania, one of the most revered venues in North America. I am grateful to Jennifer Martin, Executive Director of The Friends of Washington Crossing Park (FWCP), for her willingness to explore the subject in this blog post.

In conjunction with its board of trustees, Jennifer oversees the efforts of FWCP to educate the public about the significance of WCHP—the site of George Washington’s fabled 1776 Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River—and to preserve its legacy for future generations. Since 2010, the Friends have worked in collaboration with the State of Pennsylvania to share the inspiring story of that extraordinary event—and since 2015 with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as their partner in this endeavor.

Here are Jennifer’s thoughts on a variety of issues relating to the work of the Friends organization and the historical-education programming at the park:

What has been your biggest challenge in managing FWCP operations during this unsettling time?

The biggest challenge has been finding ways to reach and engage our visitors safely during a time when in-person programming is not possible and funding is limited. The park has always been a community center and an important destination for students looking to learn more about the Revolution and the role that the Christmas night crossing played in the quest for America’s independence.

This year, our staff was challenged by the need to alter programming, and I was very impressed with the innovations that we accomplished. Our monthly book club and lecture series became virtual, and audience attendance grew by five-hundred percent. Our “Colonial Days” field trips and summer camp became virtual, and that allowed us to develop programs for students all over the country that will carry on even after current restrictions are lifted. Our video presentation of the 2020 crossing reenactment has been viewed over twenty-three-thousand times on the park’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, as compared with the six thousand visitors that we typically get for the event—so the virtual crossing has allowed us to share this experience with a much larger audience.

Fundraising was a challenge with the cancellation of such activities as our Spring and Fall Brewfest events and the Summer Winefest. However, our staff had time to investigate and apply for new grants and develop a successful annual giving campaign, which has created new funding sources to help us build capacity as we approach the 250th anniversary of the legendary crossing in 2026.

What are you hoping – and do you think is realistic – for FWCP to accomplish in this new year?

Though virtual programming, I hope we are able to provide resources to all the schools that typically visit the park. I am also hoping that during this time, we are able to reach new audiences throughout the country by providing educational content that will encourage future site visitation and public engagement with the park.

What do you think is most important for the public to know about FWCP and how it is responding to current circumstances?

Our goal has always been to safely provide high-quality programming for the community we serve. We are practicing all safety measures recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and will only resume public programs when it is safe to do so. Until then, we will continue to provide educational opportunities and resources for both the general public and the teachers who depend on the educational value that the park offers.

Can you discuss any plans that the organization has in terms of preparing for the 250th anniversary of the Crossing in 2026?

FWCP is working closely with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to fundraise and execute the implementation of a visitor-experience plan that will prepare the park for 2026. This plan includes new features on our site such as an interactive exhibit, interpretive signage, and tour enhancements. Our hope is that the semiquincentennial will encourage more site visitation and that visitors will enjoy new and enhanced educational opportunities to learn about how Washington’s army made its daring crossing of the Delaware River on December 25-26, 1776.

Are there ways that the related historic sites in this area can collaborate to help convey the story behind the “Ten Crucial Days” specifically or the legacy of the Revolution more generally and has there been any discussion of that among the staff or board at WCHP and with people from the other sites?

WCHP leads a group called the Ten Crucial Days Round Table that consists of WCHP staff and representatives from Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey, the Old Barracks Museum, and Princeton Battlefield State Park. We discuss program opportunities and collaboration among the various organizations. Last year, we created a rack card to encourage tourism at partner sites, and in December 2019 we hosted a Ten Crucial Days bus tour that stopped at three of the four sites. In 2021, if circumstances permit, all four sites will be included in the tour. Our goal is to promote the Ten Crucial Days historic area in such a way as to offer visitors a more comprehensive understanding of the 1776 Christmas night crossing and the remarkable ten-day military campaign that followed it.

What is most satisfying to you about doing this job?

I remember my first trip to the Howell Living History Farm when I was eight years old. Prior to that, I never really cared about history, but there was something different about dressing up in period clothes, playing eighteenth-century games, and touring the grounds. I learned that history can be fun and exciting. I like finding creative ways to make history fun for visitors of all ages so that people can connect with and understand the importance of preserving places like Washington Crossing Historic Park and sharing the important history that took place here.

Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your perspective—and for your leadership.

Home Improvement

Great news! The State of Pennsylvania has committed $8.7 million to a significant restoration project at WCHP that will rehabilitate eleven historic homes and other structures throughout the park, and groundbreaking is to occur this month. The long-overdue effort augurs well for a celebration of America’s approaching 250th birthday at this venerable locale that will be worthy of the occasion.

Let’s face it. If you’re a history buff, the news of this upgrade to Washington’s storied crossing site has to (ahem) float your boat—oar else.