HOW THE CIVIL WAR AIDED GEORGE WASHINGTON AT PERRYOPOLIS, PA
For many years now the small community of Perryopolis, PA, located in the foothills of the Allegheny Mts. about 50 miles south east of Pittsburgh, celebrated their town history the first weekend of October each year. The celebration weekend is referred to as Pioneer Days, covering their 200 years of rich history. The town was originally settled by our first president George Washington, when he purchased 1,677 acres of land and named it New Boston. Mr. Washington laid out the streets and built a grist mill here and (which has been restored and is open for tours) many other businesses followed. In 1814 after President Washington died, his estate sold the Grist Mill and tract of land known as New Boston, it was then renamed Perryopolis in honor of Oliver Hazard Perry for his victory in Lake Erie during the battle of 1812 against the British.
Forward ahead many years and the proud residents of Perryopolis wanted to honor Mr. Washington for discovering their beautiful town and all those who along the way helped form it. This brought about the creation of the Pioneer Days Festival. Many local vendors and reenactor groups participated, including local Native Americans, Revolutionary War reenactors and even a costumed version of George and Martha Washington. The festival was a success for several years, until everyone around had been there once or twice and had seen all the history that had been presented about the area.
It has been about 13 years ago that a fellow reenactor Harry Fisher, a member of the 105th Pa Co E and the civil war singing group The Shadows of the Blue and Grey was performing at the Pioneer Days celebration, when he was asked if he and some of his fellow reenactors would come down and put on a small reenactment during the festival. Borough officials thought it may bring in some additional spectator traffic for their festival, which by this time was not drawing many visitors. Harry got in touch with a handful of us local reenactors, union and confederate and the next year we put on a small tactical battle on the grounds back behind Sampey Park the borough community park. While still on Perryopolis property, our reenactment was away from the funnel cakes and vendors of the community park, in an undeveloped area. We had a good time and drew a fairly large crowd, who were now pretty much educated on Mr. Washington’s accomplishments, but were really interested in learning about the War Between the States. Within that year we approached the Heritage Society of the borough and asked for permission to, cut down some of the many trees back where we did the reenactment and build a log cabin. Well, they said ok and we built a two story log cabin, with a stove in it. When it was completed we went back to the Heritage Society and asked if we could clear more land for camps and a battle field, and also build a breastwork for defense of our cabin and again they said ok.
It was within a short period of time and with the help of many volunteers and much of the material used coming from the land or being donated, we started our reenactor park built by reenactors for reenactors.Some money was put toward our project by the Perryopolis Heritage Society and a tractor/high lift/grass cutter/portable moving scaffold/ and crane was purchased, a 1953 Minneapolis Moline tractor. This old tractor may have been used by George Washington when he built his grist mill? But we were just thrilled to have the work saver and now with this good old reliable tractor we could expand and continue on building. The next season we were given permission to build a second cabin on our now expanded battlefield. As each season passed more and more reenactors came for the Pioneer Days weekend and we continued putting on battle after battle, drawing larger and larger crowds. The once lack luster attendance up in the community park, celebrating the history started by George Washington had now picked up and the crowds are stopping at Pioneer Days, on their way to see the civil war reenactment. In time we added the second cabin, constructed much like the first and a breast works at the other end of the field. A local resident who happened to be a licensed Pyrotechnician was added to our group to bring realism to our battles in the park. With the use of metal pots buried in the ground, wired and loaded with powder charges and a lot of peat moss and other materials in them, they were set to be discharged as the artillery fired back and forth at each other, sending debris and smoke high into the air.
We were set a battlefield, cabins, military camping areas, special effects and even a Field Hospital, where many limbs were skilfully removed and wounds treated, for the amusement of now the large crowds of public on lookers. What more could a group of reenactors ask for, our own park and permission to do most anything within reason we cared to. The generosity and support from the people of Perryopolis was something no one in the hobby had experienced before or has since. Then after 5 or so great years of playing in our park, we arrived in the early spring to clean up the site from the winter damages and prepare for the coming season, only to find the entire one side of our battlefield was now the backyards of a new housing division being built, right on our battlefield!
None of us ever bothered to ask and no one ever bothered to tell us, the land adjacent to our great battlefield was not owned by the borough and after all our hard work we would need to move out. Over the summer the contractor built some really fine houses and we got to know some of the new owners, they were not opposed to us using the reduced in size battlefield in their backyards, where once we placed our artillery they now have porches and decks. So with no other choices we put on our Pioneer Days reenactment and the crowds came again, along with the new neighbors sitting on their porches as the action took place. We needed a new place to play, and the officials at Perryopolis came through for us again. They told us there is additional property beyond the trees of our current battlefield, much larger than what we started with 5 years ago and we were given permission to use what we want of the additional acreage.
Season 6 started out with the building of new facilities and that included a two story barracks 30 ft. long 18 ft. wide with 2 stories, this is plank structure for the barracks. The plank structure was made possible; thanks to the donation from a local saw mill and another volunteer with a portable band saw. We then built the General store with the intent of selling items to generate more funds to put back into the park. This is also a 2 story log structure and will eventually have a picnic pavilion built behind it. We erected a new 18ft. tower for the switch box, batteries and Pyrotechnician, giving him full views of the entire field. Also underground wiring was installed running to both sides of the field to detonate the charges. There are 27 charges and pots set in the ground surrounding the 100 ft. long earth works and the wooden fortress structure we built on our battlefield. The ground pyrotechnics we use along with aerial bursts adds a sense of realism like you have never seen at any other events, including national events.
We had to leave much of what we had built on the old battlefield; however, we took what we could and reused it on the new site. Unfortunately there was no moving the first two great cabins we built, but we still use them for housing historical instruction and demonstrations for the public. The next structure we built was a large 2 story log cabin in the confederate camp for the confederate commanders, this cabin can accommodate many officers and staff of course it also has a fine wood stove. All the cabins and barracks we have built have wood stoves for heat and are used year round for drill and training.
The cost and inconvenience of renting and then having to look at several little blue plastic structures throughout our period camp just did not seem correct, so with some financial help from the borough and funds from first time spectator ticket sales, we purchased a running $500.00 antique bulldozer. With the help of one of the parks full time volunteers John (Marty) Martinak, who had lots of experience on a dozer he started to dig. Carving out 2 large holes, in those holes we placed 2 very large fiberglass collection tanks and built period looking Privies on top of them in both camps. These are special Privies, 2 holers, built with our ladies in hoop dresses in mind, not some small box with no room to move around. These permanent facilities are maintained just as the porta-johns are, as we have no septic system however they can be and are used year round, by the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and any of Birney’s Division members who wish to use our camp. Once we had our camps established and in place, we needed to add some aesthetics to the battlefield, so 80 feet of split rail fence was constructed at the road, giving the appearance of a farm field, it also gives reenactors a fortification to shoot from hallway across the battlefield. A second smaller tower was built to accommodate a PA system, batteries and a narrator, to explain to the spectators the movements and tactics that are used on the field and of course the history of the battle being portrayed.
Now into our 10th year more housing was needed to accommodate the growing number of troops and so another 2 story cabin was constructed, this one the largest of any we had built previously, with a grand porch on the front thanks to our retired carpenter friend Ralph Lynn who volunteers his time and talent to help build our camp. At this same time also a stable was built behind the new cabin, not to be used for animals, but for the Field Surgeon to perform his duties tending to the wounded and injured, while giving demonstrations and educating the spectators on the techniques and medicines used during the civil war. The camp continues to evolve and grow; we have built a large plank cabin for the union commander and his staff across from the barracks. There is a period built brick oven under construction, to bake bread on site. An 18th century log cabin was donated and has been dismantled and brought on site and is being reconstructed in the confederate camp.
Thanks to the generosity of our one of our dedicated benefactors, Jim Gibson a local resident, non reenactor who supplies us with backhoes, building materials, tools and his labor, we now have running city water brought in from the borough park almost ½ mile away. Jim has been a very vital and important part of our success.
Our ideas and dreams started 13 years ago and we have developed that into one of the most beautiful and peaceful areas in Fayette county (excluding the battle weekend). The reenactor park is now used by many of the residents and local scouting groups. The area developed by us now finds many people walking, biking, or just enjoying the rustic setting over the many acres, as they watch the deer eat the grass on the battlefield and listen to the many sounds of nature. There are no modern intrusions with the exception of electric poles running along the road. The popularity and attraction of this park just may be the comfortable feeling you get as you look back in time to a place with no pressures or crimes.
Birney’s Division and their fellow reenactors from both north and south are by far a most fortunate group of reenactors, who enjoy a situation no other reenactor group has now or had in the past experienced. Our relationship with this beautiful small historical town in western Pennsylvania and its fine citizens and their leaders, is a lesson in cooperation, friendship and an interest in history. It would take me several more pages to thank all those involved in permitting, building, donating and operating our reenactor park. Although, most of the work was done by Birney’s Division, special recognition must be paid to the members of 105th PA Co. E and our friend’s in grey at the 5th Virginia, who have worked so diligently on this project and continue on today. In the 13 years that we have toiled here I have enjoyed every day I spend at the park and I know I speak for many others who feel the same satisfaction and pride for all our accomplishments. We will continue to build and develop and maintain the park, for as long as the borough permits us and we can scrape up the funds and material to do so. Futureprojects we hope to build, include a picnic pavilion, a church and possibly some period businesses.
Pioneer Days are always the first weekend in October, come out and visit George Washington’s historic town and grist mill and then follow the crowd back to Birney’s Division Camp and annual reenactment, you won’t be disappointed.
(Shuttles are available to transport those who need a little help)
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Brig. Gen. Michael D. Maffei
Commanding Birney’s Division