Editor’s note: During the current COVID-19 pandemic, many people hesitate to travel. But here’s a destination that could be navigated safely with a mask and social distancing, with unexpected small-town highlights along with outdoor beauty and activities.
On long road trips, a mini-adventure can almost always be discovered close to an interstate exit. It may be a mom-and-pop restaurant offering homemade pies, or an architecturally significant courthouse in a town square.
In the case of Milford, Pennsylvania (population 1,000), the town itself and the surrounding area contain enough unexpected memories to overshadow the vacation the interstate was leading toward.
A 10-minute walk from the center of Milford is the entrance to Grey Towers, a magnificent estate that is the only historic property administered by the National Forest Service (versus the National Park Service) and a National Historic Site. Completed in 1886 by James Pinchot, a wealthy wallpaper merchant, it later became the home of his son, Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and a two-term Pennsylvania governor.
The mansion was built in a French chateau style and features three imposing grey granite towers on the façade corners. Richard Morris Hunt, a leading architect of the era, designed the estate as a summer home to utilize both local materials and reflect the French heritage of the Pinchot family, which first settled in Milford in 1818. (Hunt also designed Vanderbilt's Biltmore mansion, a library addition for the Louvre and the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)
The home and 108 surrounding acres were donated to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1963 by Gifford Pinchot's son, Dr. Gifford Bryce Pinchot, to carry on his father's conservation legacy. President John F. Kennedy personally dedicated the residence as the Pinchot Institute for Conservation Studies, which remains located on site and devoted to promoting conservation thought, policy and action.
Recently, the Forest Service undertook an extensive renovation of the 20,000-square-foot home, which consists of 42 rooms and 24 fireplaces. Many of the original furnishings grace rooms that look much like they did in old photographs. The mansion grounds have also been magnificently restored.
Presently the home is not open for tours, but when it reopens, a frequently asked question is always why it has no dining room. The answer waits under a stone arched gazebo covered in wisteria vines over a raised, shallow pool the family referred to as the “Finger Bowl.” Since the home was a true summer house, chairs were placed around the pool, which has a wide rim for plates and silverware, and wooden bowls of food were floated from one person to another, turning the pool into a table without a top.
Elsewhere in town, the Pike County Historical Society & Columns Museum is home of the American flag that was hanging as bunting on the balcony when President Lincoln was shot in 1865, and which was used to cradle his head. Well known among Civil War historians, it is referred to simply as “the Lincoln Flag.”
It is on view in a temperature-controlled display case, with the blood from Lincoln’s wound quite evident. The flag’s owner moved to Milford, and the flag was handed down through the family and eventually was a bequest to the museum.
The boutique, 16-room Hotel Fauchere in town dates to 1852 and features 16 painstakingly restored guest rooms with modern marble bathroom suites. The owner’s original collection from the mid-1800s of paintings from the Hudson River School hang in each hallway, and a lovely front porch doubles as an outdoor seating option where it is easy to social distance.
The hotel has hosted a dozen Pennsylvania governors, U.S. senators and Presidents Roosevelt, Harding, Kennedy and Clinton. Today, it is a popular weekend getaway for residents of New York City, which is 75 miles away.
Milford is also the north gate to the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area. In addition to being one of the finest destinations in the world for viewing fall foliage, the area is a wonderland of natural beauty, offering seemingly unending opportunities for white-water river rafting, canoeing, hiking, boating and fishing, birding, hunting and horseback riding. The Appalachian Trail runs along much of the park’s eastern boundary.
Natural wonders are so prolific, even the guide to the area features two pages in the brochure devoted to the 15 easily accessible area waterfalls, which range from 20 to 105 feet in height. All feed the Delaware River, which forms Milford’s southeastern boundary.
Though set aside as an area for outdoor recreation, the park is rich in history as well. It encompasses significant Native American archeological sites, and a number of structures remain from early Dutch settlement and the colonial contact period.
Milford also claims an interesting history regarding its founding. About 1796, when circuit court Judge John Biddis was making his rounds on horseback, he recognized that the stagecoach intersection in town was perfect for a village site. The judge purchased the land, modeled the town layout after Philadelphia, and named it after his ancestral home in Wales. Then he added a personal touch by naming intersecting streets after his six children.
As an unknown coincidence of what was to become the location of Grey Towers and the town becoming important in the conservation movement, he named other streets after berries and fruit trees.
Today, 75 percent of Milford is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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