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Revolution at Home: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania

Lita Solis-Cohen | May 8th, 2017

The town of Trappe in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, was named for its tavern. The story, told in the journal of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America, is about an English fellow who had stayed too long at John Jacob Schrack’s tavern, had a row with his wife when he got home, and told her he had been in the Trap. From then on Schrack’s popular Sign of the Three Crowns tavern, established in 1717 in a cave, was known as the Trap, and the town, originally known as Providence, was called Trapp and later spelled Trappe.

The kitchen entrance to the Henry Muhlenberg House in Trappe, Pennsylvania.

The Speaker’s House is being restored. You can see the roofline of the mid-18th-century stone house on the front part of the house. It was built in three stages and then given a Victorian mansard roof. It is being restored to the time when Frederick and Catherine Muhlenberg lived there.

Henry Muhlenberg emigrated from Germany and settled in Trappe in 1742 to become the pastor of the Augustus Lutheran Church, built there between 1743 and 1745. He wrote in his journal that the town “did not deserve the name Trapp” and that the Schrack family was important to the early development of the area and provided the red stone for many of the oldest houses along Main Street.

To mark Trappe’s 300th year, a special exhibition, Revolution at Home: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania, fills the Henry Muhlenberg House at 201 West Main Street in Trappe, a house built by Jacob Schrack Jr. in 1750. Henry Muhlenberg bought the house in 1776 when he returned to Trappe after spending 16 years in Philadelphia organizing Lutheran churches and overseeing the building of the Zion Lutheran Church, designed by architect Robert Smith to seat 2500 people, the largest church in Philadelphia.

The photograph to the left shows the Speaker’s House when it was bought in 1925, before restoration began. On the right is an artist’s rendering of what it will look like when it is restored. There are also plans to rebuild Frederick Muhlenberg’s store, a privy next to the fenced-in kitchen garden, and a barn.

Instead of furnishing the house as it might have looked in 1776, Lisa Minardi, the Muhlenberg family historian, has furnished it as it was in the year 1787. That was the year Henry Muhlenberg sold the house to his eldest son, Peter, who had been a Lutheran minister in New Jersey and Virginia before becoming a Revolutionary War general. In failing health, the elderly Henry and his wife, Anna Maria “Mary” Weiser, daughter of Conrad Weiser, an Indian treaty negotiator and Berks County landowner, inhabited the first floor while the young couple and their three children, including a new baby, settled on the second floor. That very year, 1787, Peter’s younger brother Frederick Muhlenberg, whose house was just four doors east (and now under restoration), presided over Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Convention. Two years later Frederick was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and became the Speaker of the House. The Muhlenbergs were the first family of Trappe, and both Peter and Frederick held political offices.

Historian Lisa Minardi, cochair of the Trappe 300 Steering Committee, also serves as the executive director of the Speaker’s House in Trappe. She furnished the Henry Muhlenberg House as it looked in 1787 for the 300th anniversary of the town of Trappe. She also wrote Pastors & Patriots: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania to accompany an exhibition of family portraits and objects held at Ursinus College in 2011.

Minardi, who grew up a few miles from Trappe, has been researching the Muhlenbergs since she was an undergraduate at Ursinus College in Collegeville, just a few miles down the road. She continued her studies of regional architecture when she completed her M.A. in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. Now she is completing her studies for a doctorate in history at the University of Delaware and at the same time is a cochair of the Trappe 300 Steering Committee and serves as the executive director of the nonprofit group that is restoring the Speaker’s House, the house of Frederick Muhlenberg at 151 West Main Street in Trappe.

To furnish the Henry Muhlenberg House, Minardi has borrowed from museums, private collectors, the Dietrich American Foundation, the Wunsch Americana Foundation, the Philadelphia History Museum, and the Muhlenberg family to re-create what she calls a tumultuous year for the Muhlenbergs. It began with the arrival of Peter, his wife, Hannah, three children, and African slaves from Virginia, who began work updating the house. The year ended with the patriarch’s death. Henry Muhlenberg is buried in the churchyard behind the old Augustus Lutheran Church about half a mile up the road; his wife was laid to rest beside him when she died in 1802.

The kitchen table is a Muhlenberg family piece. The sugar cone and powdered sugar refer to the fact that Frederick Muhlenberg’s father-in-law was a prominent sugar refiner in Philadelphia.

This salt-glazed plate matches a shard excavated on Muhlenberg property in Trappe, Pennsylvania, by students from an archaeology field school held at the Speaker’s House, a summer program open to anyone age 15 or older.

“The dynamics of life within this multigenerational household make for great storytelling, and the broad date range of furnishings reflects the elderly Muhlenbergs’ traditional Germanic tastes and the younger generation’s desire for the latest fashion,” said Minardi. Using information from Henry Muhlenberg’s extensive journals and other family papers, Minardi invites visitors to enter the house through the kitchen, the site of Mary Muhlenberg’s horrific fall into a boiling kettle of beets after having a seizure while sitting on a bench by the hearth. In the patriarch’s study is James’s Medicinal Dictionary, which according to his journal, Henry Muhlenberg consulted to see what poultice would make his wife more comfortable after receiving her scalding burns.

The bequest of furniture to the Speaker’s House from the late antiquarian John Snyder has been used in this house while the Speaker’s House in under construction. It includes the desk that fills the niche in the patriarch’s study, a straight banister-back Germanic plank-seat armchair, and an early 30-hour clock in a Germanic walnut case. And in a cupboard are the books that Henry Muhlenberg owned, including the James’s medicinal dictionary he consulted.

A reproduction five-plate stove heats the dining room at the Henry Muhlenberg House.

The dining room is heated by a five-plate stove stoked from the kitchen’s hearth. The table, surrounded by rococo mahogany chairs, is set with dishes and wine glasses, some of which match shards excavated at the Speaker’s House. Peter Muhlenberg’s transfer-printed creamware punch bowl, on loan from a Muhlenberg descendant, is on a side table.

Minardi’s careful reading of Henry Muhlenberg’s journals and architectural evidence indicate that the front room of the house was used by Henry Muhlenberg as his office and library. In his journal the patriarch makes numerous references to a small closet in which he retreated to meditate, pray, and prepare sermons. That is why Minardi placed the desk in the deep space to the right of the fireplace and filled the desk with more books, correspondence, and medical implements. Henry’s medical knowledge made him the town’s doctor and pharmacist.

The cupboard of books that belonged to Henry Melchior Muhlenberg is installed in the front room he used as his office.

In the adjacent bedroom is an inlaid, figured walnut Kleiderschrank or wardrobe, dated 1765. It was made just a mile or two from Trappe for George Rahn. Up the flight of steep stairs on the second floor, the bedchamber above the kitchen is furnished as the servants’ living space with a cooking hearth, a hired man’s bed, a trestle bed, and bedding on the floor. According to Minardi, Henry’s German indentured servant and Peter’s slave did not get on. The two women fought until the German servant was sent to Frederick’s house in order to keep peace.

The front bedchamber over Henry Muhlenberg’s study is furnished as an upstairs parlor. Peter’s wife, Hannah, was known to have hosted neighbors for tea there, which apparently annoyed Henry, who was working in the room below. That is why Minardi placed a tea table and ball-and-claw-foot side chairs directly over Henry’s desk so one could imagine the ladies chatting, to the annoyance of the pastor. The side chairs with their stylish strapwork splats were made by cabinetmaker Leonard Kessler, a German immigrant in Philadelphia, for Henry and Mary Muhlenberg in 1763; they were sold at a Pook & Pook auction. On the tea table is a silver sugar bowl with the monogram “FCM” for Frederick and Catherine Muhlenberg, made by Christian Wiltberger in Philadelphia in 1795, and acquired at the Ruth Nutt sale at Sotheby’s in January 2015. It and the Kessler chairs show how Philadelphians of German descent patronized craftsmen of German descent.

Peter and Hannah’s bedchamber connects with the parlor. It is furnished with a Pennsylvania high-post bed with reproduction indigo bed hangings and a cradle. The chest-on-chest descended in the family and is another example of the fashionable furniture that Peter and Hannah would have brought with them.

A larger room at the front of the house is a museum room with Muhlenberg family portraits and additional family artifacts. Lisa Minardi recently found a long-lost portrait of Catherine Muhlenberg, the companion to the portrait of her husband, Frederick, both by Joseph Wright (1756-1793). After considerable sleuthing, it turned up in the attic of a descendant in Texas. She hoped to have it on view by the time the exhibition opened on April 9.

Trappe is 25 miles west of Philadelphia in Mont-gomery County, halfway between Philadelphia and Reading, along a major thoroughfare once known as the Manatawny Great Road. Main Street is the continuation of both the Germantown Pike and Ridge Pike. The historical society, located in the Dewees Tavern, offers guided tours of the Augustus Lutheran Church, the Dewees Tavern, the Henry Muhlenberg House, and the Speaker’s House. Hours are 1:30 to 4 p.m. on the second and fourth Sunday of the month or by appointment. Call (610) 489-2105, e-mail <[email protected]> for reservations, or pick up a brochure for a self-guided tour at Trappe Borough Hall or Dewees Tavern. The exhibition continues through December 31.

The 300th anniversary celebration in Trappe demonstrates how grassroots interest in local history can keep a passion for the past alive by offering a rich and memorable experience.

Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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