Saturday, August 24, 2019

Rediscovering the Arts and Crafts Movement at the Moravian Pottery

A wall of tiles in Fonthill Castle.

No visit to Doylestown, PA would be complete without a visit to the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, adjacent to Fonthill Castle, which local archeologist, collector, creative genius Henry Chapman Mercer designed and built. In fact, both the Moravian Tile Works and Fonthill Castle came out of Mercer's genius.

By 1897, handmade objects were being discarded in favor of new machine-made goods. As an historian and an archaeologist, he sought to collect and preserve the outmoded material of daily life in America, before it was swept away by the Industrial Revolution. That included the old ways of creating things.

A fireplace mantle in Fonthill Castle, depicting the European discovery and settlement of America.

Born in 1856, Mercer had the vision to realize that industrialization was rapidly changing both how things were made, but also our knowledge of how to make things by hand -- the "old ways" of doing things. A proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Mercer was intrigued by Pennsylvania Dutch red-glazed pottery methods -- artistic techniques that were rapidly disappearing -- and taught himself the skills and techniques. He was less successful as a potter than as he was a tile maker, and he soon turned his talents to manufacturing tiles.

Floor tile within Fonthill Castle.
He directed the work at the pottery from 1898 until his death in 1930.

The tiles were almost an instant hit, and a bare five years after he started the tile works, Mercer was tapped to provide floor tiles and mosaics for the Pennsylvania State Capitol building, which was being built in Harrisburg.

Fonthill Castle served as both his home and showcase for the tiles made a few hundred yards away.

The above two photos show detail from tiles above a fireplace in Fonthill Castle's great hall.

Now a living history museum, the Moravian Tile Works is maintained by Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation. Like Fonthill Castle, and the Mercer Museum, which Mercer also built, the building housing the Moravian Tile Works is a cast-in-place concrete structure.

A factory kiln.

Today, handmade tiles are still produced in a manner similar to what Mercer developed. Tile designs are reissues of original designs.

Old tools, such as this wheelbarrow, are preserved in the factory museum.

When the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation took over the tile works as a working museum, all tiles made by the museum were impressed on the obverse with a stylized "MOR," the words "Bucks County" and the year of manufacture.

As you tour the museum, which is a combination video presentation and self-guided tour, you learn that the reproduction tiles made today still use Mercer's original molds, clay that is obtained locally and has properties similar to those of Mercer's original source, slips and glazes that closely follow Mercer's final formulations.

Getting there: 130 E Swamp Rd, Doylestown, PA 18901

Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. - 4:45 p.m.; closed selected holidays.

Old techniques are still employed to create tiles (which can be purchased in the Tile Works shop).

Newly made tiles.

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Made possible by Visit Bucks County

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Malvern Hill Battlefield - Seven Days Battle

Now, birds nest in cannon that once sought to kill.

The Battle of Malvern Hill, which took place July 1 1862, was the culmination of the Seven Days Battles, which were the climax of the Peninsula Campaign, in which the Northern Army of the Potomac, sailing around Confederate lines, landed at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula southeast of Richmond, and headed inland toward the city, which was serving as the capital of the Confederate States of America. The Confederates fended off repeated attempts to take the city, slowing Union progress on the peninsula to a crawl. General Lee, newly in command of the Confederate troops, launched a series of counter-attacks, collectively referred to as the Seven Days Battles.

Malvern is noted for being a rare Union tactical victory, although the Confederates were able to prevent Federal troops from entering Richmond.

The ruins of chimneys is a stark reminder of the toll the war had
on civilian populations as well.

Over four hours, a series of blunders in planning and communication caused Lee's forces to launch three failed frontal infantry assaults across hundreds of yards of open ground, unsupported by Confederate artillery. Undefended, these troops charged toward firmly entrenched Union infantry and artillery defenses. Union forces inflicted heavy casualties.

A Confederate division sought safety in these woods before
joining the battle dangerously close to the Union artillery.

McClellan, then in command of the Army of Potomac, turned the victory into a defeat regardless.

Despite the strength of Malvern Hill, continued his planned withdrawal to Harrison's Landing, despite his generals' protests that the army should remain on top of Malvern Hill -- or even continue to advance toward Richmond. But McClellan believed three things that eventually dictated his movement:

  • he believed the Confederates had superior numbers;
  • he believed he couldn't protect Harrison's Landing from Malvern Hill
  • he feared being cut off from his supply lines at Harrison's Landing

This portion of forest provides valuable habitat for a diverse community of birds, including acadian flycather, Carolina wren, Carolina chickadee, red-eyed vireo, tufted titmouse and red-bellied woodpeckers.

Despite the defeat at Malvern Hill, Lee won the more strategic victory of ensuring the safety of the Confederate capital, and was lauded as Richmond's savior. McClellan, in stark contrast, was accused of being absent from the battlefield, a criticism that haunted him when he ran for president 2 years later. His withdrawal, despite the success at Malvern, compounded his broader defeat in the Seven Days Battles. McClellan's reputation was permanently tarnished.

Somewhere in these woods, two Confederate officers almost
dueled because of their disagreement about the troops' performance.

This is an interesting battlefield, and as with most of the Civil War battlefields, there's benefit to getting out of your car. The trails at Malvern Hill enable those who do the hikes to see the entire battlefield. There are a series of informative signs -- but also be sure to grab the guide housed at the two welcome signs -- that help explain the events of the battle and the historic landscape.

The remains of an antebellum mill complex survive somewhere in the undergrowth.

You can start to understand how small ripples in the landscape become hills that cut off visibility. And an incline barely perceptible while you're driving your vehicle suddenly seems like an obvious advantage (if you're the one holding it) when you're on your feet looking down over the rest of the battleground.

Viewing the Malvern Hill battleground from the Union position.

Walk the battlefield alone, and you can be forgiven for imagining fingers brushing you as you move along the trail. You can, without much imagination, hear the guns firing, the cannon booming. It is a haunting place -- you walk along the trail knowing that men died here defending their respective causes. It seems both a terrible waste and a beautiful sacrifice.

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Saturday, August 17, 2019

North Mountain View Trail in George Washington National Forest

After a long and strenuous hike the previous day, we were in the mood for a relatively short and moderate hike, so we settled on the North Mountain Trail. About a mile in from the trail head is a lovely view of the countryside below.

The elevation gain is easy: less than 200 feet for the entire there and back hike. The crest of North Mountain offers good views into both Catawba and Craig Creek Valleys. McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs are also visible.

You're in the heart of the forest, with all that entails, including lack of cell phone service and absolute wilderness. There are no facilities on the North Mountain Trail.

For the first 3/4 of a mile, you head steadily but gently uphill. It's not strenuous but you'll increase your heart rate and stretch your legs. You'll catch glimpses of views through the trees on both sides, as the trail follows the line of a ridge.

Then you reach the peak of the mountain and begin a similarly steady but gentle slope downhill. This continues until the trail veers sharply to the right at about a mile in.

You'll want to stop right there. Through the trees, there's a lovely view of the mountains in the distance and the countryside below. Slip off the trail for 15 feet and sit in the grass at the edge of the cliff and enjoy that view!

We didn't even see other vehicles on the road, much less other people on the trail. This is where you want to go if you seek solitude. It's just you, the deer, the bears and the forest. We had our barking coonhound along so we didn't see any forest critters.

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests stretch along the beautiful Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and into parts of West Virginia and Kentucky.

Know before you go: Wear sturdy hiking boots, as the trail is extremely rocky and uneven -- you'll appreciate the ankle support.

Getting there: GPS or Wayz the Ivanhoe Presbyterian Church at 71 Lower Cove Run Road in Lost City/Mathias, WV. Instead of turning into the church's parking lot, continue on Lower Cove Run Road until it turns into a dirt road, about 5 miles (give or take tenth of a mile); continue on the dirt road (toward Columbia Furnace) for about 2.3 miles. You'll notice a few small parking areas along the road and small signs that have trail names and information. The North Mountain Trail Head is on the right; two trails head back from this trailhead. Take the trail on the right to do the hike described in this article.

Hours: Daylight, or bring camping gear (but practice leave no trace)


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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Mural Surprise in Strasburg VA

More and more towns are creatively enlivening their outdoor spaces with murals -- and what a wonderful trend! Strasburg VA, a sleepy but quaint town tucked into the Shenandoah Valley, about 75 miles west of Washington DC, offers eight lovely murals around town. Rich in beautiful views and history, Strasburg was founded in 1761 and was originally a German speaking farming town that became most well known for its ceramics industry. Now you can find antique stores, a few restaurants, and, of course, murals.

All of the murals are centered around Strasburg’s downtown, on Massanutten and King streets and were commissioned by Staufferstadt Arts, a non-profit organization formed in the fall of 2015.

Origins by Phillip Adams (2018) at 318 E. King St. Origins harkens to the beginnings of the
Appalachian Mountains, which is the oldest mountain range in the country.
The human elements placed in this context challenge us to consider our place within time.

Untitled by Lula Goce, (2019) on King Street. Goce is based in Barcelona, Spain.

The Fawn by David and Desiree Guinn (2017), at 192 W. King St. Bold arcs
reference the many bends of the Shenandoah River while gradients of vivid
color allude to the beauty, while a delicate fawn is depicted drinking
from the moving water, symbolizing new life and the bounty of nature.

Flourish by Gilf (2015), at 181 W. King St. The first installed in Strasburg, this mural was
designed and painted by Ann Lewis, known for her politically charged work on
public spaces. Can you see the word Flourish in this mural?

Fathers and Sons by NDA (2016), at 154 E. King St. This mural is a portrait of a
father and a son, Charles and Ralph. The father appears in black and white,
painted from a 1933 photo when he was a young man; above him is his son as an
elderly man in 2016. This mural was painted by artist, NDA, from Philadelphia.

Sonner’s Sonnet by Resoborg (2018), at 131 N. Massanutten St. According to Resoborg's Facebook page,
the mural is an abstracted portrait of John Henry Sonner, a local potter in the 1800s. The unglazed
pot in his hands acts as a metaphor for the town and its unseen potential. It is also a celebration of
localism, the independent craftsman and celebrating the power of individuals to shape their own existence.

Poetry in Motion by Alice Mizrachi (2016) at 160 N. Massanutten St. 
Alice Mizrachi is a contemporary artist and art professor in NYC.

Shenandoah by Over Under (2017), at 238 E. King St. This and the baby with an
elderly couple mural in the photograph below are displayed 
side by side on the same building and were created by artist, Erik Burke.

Shenandoah by Over Under (2017), at 238 E. King St. This and the blue river
mural in the photograph above are displayed side by side
on the same building and were created by artist, Erik Burke.

Rooftop Boogaloo by Jessie and Katey (2018) at 183 E. King St. Strasburg’s seventh mural
draws from the colors and shapes of the surrounding landscapes of the Shenandoah Valley,
transforming them into a bold composition, reflecting the vibrancy of the community.

Interested in seeing these for yourself? Sign up for the upcoming Sip and Snack Mural Tour at

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Kayaking Lake Laura

Lake Laura is a mile-long, man-made lake near the border of the Virginia, West Virginia state line, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. The lake is surrounded by mountains, homes hidden in the trees high up on the shore.

We'd intended to launch our own kayak...

Literally up a creek without a paddle but not yet realizing it, we unloaded our tandem kayak at the boat launch at Lake Laura and prepared to launch, and then suddenly realized we were 2 hours away from home and that's where our paddles were!

(We've now named our kayak Charlie, after our sweet elderly beagle who loved loved LOVED car rides and who died a year ago, because all our kayak did that weekend was ride around, just as Charlie loved to do.)

Our daytrip was saved by the Bryce Resort kayak rental, which provided kayaks. Bryce Resort Boat Rental offers several options, in addition to sit-on-top kayaks. Paddleboards, paddleboats, canoes, and tubes are also available.

Don’t feel like swimming, but still want the view? Take a walk on the relaxing nature trail that wraps around the entire lake. The trail is open daily all year long and takes anywhere from one-and-a-half to two hours – an easy to moderate hike for all ages.

The Lake Laura Trail is beautiful any time of year and a fun activity with children as young as four years. Start from the Lake Laura Beach Area, the parking lot at the base of the dam, or the boat launch parking lot on the southern end of the lake.

Getting there: The boat launch is hard to find and I don't have an address for it. So. Get to Bryce Resort at 1982 Fairwview Drive, Basye VA. Then, turn onto Resort Drive, and follow it all the way out to Orkney Grade and turn right. Follow Orkney Grade to Happy Valley and turn left onto Happy Valley. Follow it until it forks (it basically looks like a T intersection) and turn left onto the gravel road. It looks as if you're making a wrong turn. Turn left there anyway. Follow it the gravel road to the lake and the rough boat launch. 

The boat rental at Bryce Resort is at the opposite end of the lake. Get to Bryce Resort at 1982 Fairwview Drive, Basye VA. Then, turn onto Resort Drive, and follow it all the way out to Orkney Grade and turn left onto Orkney Grade. You'll start to go up the hill, but instead you'll turn right onto Arnold. Follow Arnold as it turns into a gravel road and then dead ends into a parking lot, at the base of the dam. To get to the rental place, you'll walk along the gravel path up and over the dam and up the hill on the other side. 

Hours: Boat launch, dawn to dusk or whenever you feel safe on the lake. Bryce Resort Boat Rental is open May 25 – September 2, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday - Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.


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