Off the interstate, into history …

Ivy covers the gray stone walls of Gray Towers, Gifford Pinchot's childhood summer home.
At about the mid-point of a 450-plus mile journey home, we crossed the Delaware River westbound from Port Jervis, N.Y., to Matamoros, Pa. ate at the Perkins, and decided to see whether there might be less expensive gasoline if we followed U.S. 6 for a bit. We found the less expensive gas, but the real treasure was on the way uphill from the center of Milford back to the interstate.

An unobtrusive marker points the way to Grey Towers, the summer home of one of the nation’s leading conservationists.

Gifford Pinchot, whose ancestors left France in 1816 to escape Napoleon in the late 19th Century, was the first head of what became the U.S. Forest Service and twice governor of Pennsylvania. His fingerprints are all over millions of acres of national forests. He was a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, who also earned a reputation as a conservationist. And he was fired from his forest service post by Pres. William Howard Taft, who thought Roosevelt’s ideas about conservation were too anti-industry, and maybe unconstitutional. The differences came to a head over commercial access to mineral rights in Alaska, and Taft fired Pinchot.

His father, James, built Grey Towers with mostly local materials, and local labor, as a summer home, augmenting the family homes in Washington, D.C. and Gramercy Park, N.Y. What the family would call a “modest hunting shack” was completed in 1887 — 19,000 square feet on three floors, modeled after La Grange, Lafayette’s home in France. It had 44 rooms, 23 fireplaces, 19 bedrooms, four bathrooms, and no closets.
In France, property tax was based on the number of rooms in a house, and closets counted as rooms.

First floor was for welcoming guests, and had a library and billiard room for after-dinner fellowship, men and cigars in one room, women in the other. The second floor was for adult bedrooms — it was a sign of wealth that James and Mary had individual bedrooms. Children, their maid and nurse had rooms on the third floor.

There actually are three towers on the L-shaped home. The formal dining room is outdoors, as is a large swimming pool and a narrow, shallow, hundred-foot long pool Pinchot once use to practice fly casting.

The story goes that James decided he should have been kinder to the environment, and charged Gifford with a conservationist mission.

“I’ll take care of Milford,” the elder Pinchot reportedly told his son. “You take care of the rest of the nation.”

In recognition of his success, Gifford Pinchot’s name is on a Pennsylvania state park near Dillsburg, and a national forest in Washington State.

When Pinchot died, his son, Gifford gave Grey Towers to the U.S. Forest Service to be used for various conservation-related purposes — meetings, classes, and, the day we stopped by, Envirofest 2010 and the Black Bear Film Festival. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to participate in the festival.
Maybe next year.

But we got to explore the second and third floors of the “modest hunting shack,” a privilege only available Saturdays and Sundays during the regular tour season, when Grey Towers is not being used for more formal functions. And dogs are welcome to accompany their humans on the grounds, among the Black Walnut trees.

There’s a reason a sign just north of Harrisburg, Pa. tells New England-bound truckers to use interstates 81 and 84. Going through New York City is OK when that’s the destination, but for just plain smooth sailing … The trouble with “too-smooth sailing” is it’s too easy to just follow the dotted line for hundreds of miles. So I’d never stopped in Milford, Pa.

The U.S. Forest Service has more about Grey Towers, Milford, Pa., but it’s worth getting off the interstate for a visit, and to find how dessert once was served — Baked Alaska, replete with active volcano — on a six-foot deep water table.

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