in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
Urban Farming at a Historic Germantown Homestead
This season marks the fifth year of an urban farming experiment at Wyck Historic House and Gardens. The 18th-century homestead, located in the heart of upper Germantown in Philadelphia, has been a museum since the early 1970s. With the help of an extensive collection of artifacts and documents, the house relates three hundred years of history – the daily trials and tribulations of one family of Philadelphia Quakers. Except it hasn’t always been clear who’s listening.
Historic houses are struggling. Many of us don’t feel connected to the house on the hill; our ancestors came in through the servant’s entrance, if they entered at all. We want museums to be relevant, to connect to our own lives and experiences. That can be a tall order, of course (and maybe one that some historians feel uncomfortable serving), but the staff at Wyck knew they could find a way to interpret history and build a stronger relationship with their visitors at the same time.
The Wyck Home Farm was born. In the face of a growing movement to eat local foods and support sustainable farming practices, many historic sites have been embracing their agricultural past and exploring the farm as a rich interpretive arena. But few have expanded upon that idea in the way that Wyck has. By developing a small urban farm in Germantown, Wyck is providing a crucial service to its neighbors. The Home Farm is both an agricultural and an educational space. The weekly farmer’s market – Fridays throughout the summer (starting this Friday!) if you’d like to stop by and pick up some local produce – is one of the only local options for fresh fruits and vegetables. When I visited last August, women were appraising late-summer tomatoes while their kids waited impatiently to visit the chickens. This neighborhood is particularly in need of such a service; there is no supermarket within walking distance and access to healthy foods is limited. Wyck ensures that the products it sells are accessible to everyone, both by controlling price and by encouraging conversations about creativity in the kitchen. The Home Farm allows the staff to work with the local community to address issues of nutrition and equitable access to fresh foods.
The farmer’s market is only one piece of the Home Farm’s mission. Wyck’s most vibrant school programs are now about nutrition and growing food. The farm is a sort-of laboratory where kids raised in urban environments can begin to make sense of the path food takes from the field to their lunchbox.
And, it doesn’t end there. The house is open for visitors to wander through after they do their shopping at the farmer’s market. The kitchen and pantry are a particularly popular area; visitors can see an excerpt from an early receipt book and get a glimpse of the family’s 19th century china. In this way, the history of these distant Quakers seems less remote. Even if we can’t relate to their religious beliefs, or their political passions, or their community status, we can all understand the struggle to feed a family. And once that common ground is established, the door is open for public historians to find creative ways to tell the rest of the story. Wyck has managed to enhance the site’s history by renewing its agricultural past in a way that is relevant today.
What struck me (well, in addition to the black raspberries I couldn’t wait to get into my kitchen) was the atmosphere. On market days, the double lot – a full block of Germantown Avenue – feels a bit like a county fair. People are wandering through, swapping recipes, ogling the harvest, and making a connection between their kitchen and the efforts of farmers, from the earliest Quaker residents to the 21st century farm crew. Here is an 18th century property brought back to life by an urban community.
Wyck Historic House and Gardens
6026 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19144
Admission: $5/$4 senior citizens
Guided Tours: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. from April 1 to December 15.
Home Farm: Fridays, 1-4 p.m., May 27, 2011 through early November.
Gardens and Grounds: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. year-round.