Learning from Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation’s living-history efforts
Jordan Codispoti, an undergraduate student at Dickinson College, is focused on early American history from the colonial era to the period of the new nation. She is set to graduate in 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in French. During her time at Dickinson, she has taken several classes incorporating multi-media public history projects into her curriculum including web design, archival research, and exhibit creation for the Cumberland County Historical Society. In addition to her love of history, she serves as Director of Fraternity Heritage (historian!) in her sorority, Pi Beta Phi, works on the Dickinson College farm as a student farmer, and is currently studying abroad in Toulouse, France.
Q: What drew you to the study of early American history?
Codispoti: While many people my age ask to go to the beach for vacation, I asked to go to Colonial Williamsburg. For as long as I can remember, studying history has been an integral part of my life. My love of history goes back as far as I can remember but has evolved from a childhood obsession to a career path. I came to Dickinson College because of its strong history department, and there I have focused my interests on the late 18th century and the early republic. My love of the American Revolution goes beyond the classroom, as my favorite TV show is Turn: Washington’s Spies, and I closely follow historian Joanne Freeman on Twitter.
Q: Tell us more about the site where you interned. What did you work on there?
Codispoti: This past summer, I interned at the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation (CPP) as a researcher and program developer. The site is situated within the breathtaking wildlife of Ridley Creek State Park in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. The farm was originally home to four generations of the Pratt family from 1700 to 1790. Joseph Pratt, who first purchased the site and built the original house and farm, was a humble, Quaker farmer. My first two weeks were the most research-heavy, spent acquainting myself with the Pratts and the varying perspectives of Quakers during the revolution, as well as providing information on taxation for a new program. My focus was on revamping the site’s Fourth of July programming which needed better contextualization and nuance. I was able to learn from this year’s event and see how my changes can be implemented for next year. A part of this event was the King’s Taxes Program, a kids' education project, that allowed children to immerse themselves as colonists and decide what side they supported in the revolution. It is a difficult task to share these complex ideologies with adults, let alone create understandable information for school-age children.
Another initiative I was a part of was the slavery project. Although there is much work to be done, CPP is making an effort to address its history of indentured servitude and slavery by better identifying and humanizing those who worked on the plantation. It was fascinating to learn how some Quakers, a group firmly against slavery, could justify this type of labor while others condemned it in the greater Philadelphia area at this time.
One of my greatest achievements while researching was discovering whether the Pratts took a side in the fight or stayed neutral. Through a few documents, I found that Joseph Pratt III was called to join the militia (although unclear if he served) and was read out of Meeting for pledging allegiance to the new government (also for marrying his cousin…). The site was glad to finally have a bit of a connection between the site and the revolution, even if the documents were scarce.
Q: What was the most valuable or interesting part of your summer internship experience?
Codispoti: There were so many educational parts of my time at CPP, but I’d have to say that the most valuable, besides my actual research, was learning the challenges of running a small historical site. My boss, Sarah Lerch, is awesome. Her title of Program Director does not nearly cover the role she plays on the site, because she does it all. She interprets on-site, plans events, and deals with volunteers. I was privileged to have her as my leader and break me out of the library almost every day to take me on an adventure. I got out to the site to do farm chores a few times a week with the animals (very reminiscent of my time on the Dickinson Farm)! This was usually the highlight of my week. Besides that, I shadowed field trips and other education programs, worked with veterinarians to acclimate new sheep, groomed a 2,700lb ox, was on site for meetings with artists, toured venues for fundraising events, dug through random attics, boxes, and bins, and even worked as a camp counselor for Colonial Farm Camp.
Q: How do you think your internship will help you in your graduate studies and beyond?
Codispoti: This internship at CPP has fulfilled the next steps I had hoped to take on my path to a career in public history. I believe this opportunity allowed me to gain valuable hands-on experience in researching and programming, as well as the reality of running a small historical site. Public history is a field that needs members with much flexibility and a wide set of skills to be successful, and I believe that my internship at CPP provided an amazing opportunity to expand my abilities. I learned a lot about critical reading and creating digestible content for a general audience; I learned about project management and planning; and I even learned about the difficulties of being situated within a state park. Spending most of my eight weeks on the site, as well as completing research for my projects, allowed me to deepen my love of history and immerse myself in a period of history I have been interested in for so long. I have developed a rich understanding of colonial Pennsylvania and its complexities concerning the broader narrative of the revolution.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about this experience?
Codispoti: What made this summer so special, was taking the time not only to explore documents and research but learn from the people and environment I had the privilege of working with. My supervisor, Sarah Lerch, provided me with plenty of resources regarding the Pratts, colonial history, public history, and career advice. The whole CPP team was so extremely welcoming and knowledgeable, each specializing in very different things giving me a well-rounded experience. I am so grateful to my advisor at Dickinson College, Professor Bilodeau, for thinking of me when seeing this opportunity to delve into the world of public history on a site that transports you to the period that interests me most. Lastly, I want to thank Farmer Rachel, Education Rachel, Chuck, Ben, Leslie, and of course, Sarah, for sharing this summer with me. Spending time in the Park Mansion and farm with this team was one of the most unique and rewarding experiences in my life.