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This time of year it can be pretty chilly in Flag Hall, the headquarters of the Patriotic Order, Sons of America.
Harvey Stoehr, the organization’s state secretary, makes faint puffs of breath as he points out the Easton flag, a curious, early interpretation of the stars and stripes in a corner section where one generally finds stars.
Flag Hall occupies most of the second floor of a building at Valley Forge National Historical Park just west of Valley Creek in Schuylkill Township, which serves as the National Headquarters and Service Center of the Patriotic Order, Sons of America (the POS of A). Twenty-seven reproduction flags are displayed there and 23 more are in storage. They represent the flags flown in America from the earliest days of European colonization.
The flags also bring bright colors to this oldtime lodge hall, where other furnishings recall fraternal life in an ealier era. Benches handmade by a member line the walls. An altar-like structure is positioned in the room’s center where it holds a hefty Bible. And there is room for marching.
The POS of A is a national society that was organized in Philadelphia in 1847. Its original goals were to promote patriotism and good citizenship, to protect American institutions, and to defend and protect the American flag. Stoehr also notes "Fraternal life was very important. That was before TV. The lodge was where people got together in those days."
The organization’s early growth was cut short by the Civil War. It is still pointed out with pride in POS of A literature that most members joined the armed forces during the conflict, except for a group of disabled men in Reading who kept the order alive.
The POS of A was re-established after the Civil War and continued to grow. In 1892, The Daily Local News reported, "The order in Chester County has never been in what you would call the best condition but ... is now in better shape than ever before and rapidly gaining ground."
Many men joined the order in the years just prior to World War I, as Americans enlisted to serve their country. POS of A literature notes, "This order altogether had 27,413 of its members enlisted." More than 500 of them perished in the first World War.
Since then, membership had declined - although according to Stoehr, there is still a member in each state except Montana, where the last member died.
The POS of A is organized into a National Camp within which there are State Camps and Subordinate Camps. The local camp at Valley Forge is called Washington Camp #150, chartered in 1871. It has 14 active members and is looking for more.
The POS of A has done a lot for Valley Forge. In 1886, POS of A leader H.J. Staget presented a check to a local group called the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge, enabling that organization to pay off the mortgage at Washington’s Headquarters. The Centennial and Memorial Association had been formally chartered in 1878 to commemorate the Valley Forge experience and purchase Washington’s Headquaters to serve as lasting memorial to this historic event. Patriotic ladies, organised under Anna Morris Holstein, has failed to raise enough money until the POS of A got involved.
POS of A members then joined with the Centennial Association in administering this landmark until Valley Forge State Park took it over aound 1905.
Washington Camp #150 originally occupied anothr building in the village of Valley Forge, but the state park condemned this earlier lodge hall in 1918 and demolished it in 1920. The Park offered the POS of A a property then known as the “Riddle Mannsion.” The park commission minutes noted that “Patriotic Associations are very helpful in many ways and set an example of reverence for the historic field which is very acceptable and congenial to all visitors to the sacred shrine.”
The “Riddle Mansion” was really a remodeled multi-unit tenement housing orginally built for workers at the mills that once operated along Valley Creek. Stoehr recalls that one man who later became active in the POS of A lived on one of its units. The POS of A gentrfied their building with the addition of a two-story colonnade which made it look like Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, who spent the memorable winter of 1777 - 1778 at Valley Forge.
In nearly 150 years of existence, the POS of A has supported and defended the public school system. In 1887 its mebers initiated the practice of presenting flags to public schools.
Members also petitioned for teh establishmnet of Flag Day and erected various historical monuments and markers. POS of A literature records that members worked to save the Betty Ross House around the turn of the century and honored Betty Ross’s grave with a memorial in 1923.
When the POS of A was founded in the mid-19th cntury, Irish and German immigrants, many Catholic, were flooding America. These newcomers tended to cluster themselves in seperate communities, making older-stock Americans suspicious and fearful that they posed a threat to American society. Feelings of nativism, of “America for Americans,” were very strong.
In one of their brochures, the POS of A is still subtitled, “Our Nation’s Oldest Patriotic Society of Native Americans.” Stoehr acknowledges that the term Native American is now generally used to those who were formerly known as Indians; however, the POS of A has been using the term to mean those born under the American flag.
Among the speeches made when the POS of A held a quarterly convention in Coatesville in 1893, one member stated “We ar enot opposed, as some peole think, to forgein immigration but we are opposed to those who com here and criticize our flag.”
Over the years, the POS of A has supported certain limitations and restrictions on immigration and still does. The organization’s current attitude is expressed in its literature with the statement, “We cordially welcome all foreigners who come to this country with the honest desire of this becoming loyal American citizens, and who sincerely disavow all allegiance to foreign governments.”
The POS of A still requires that its own members be born under the American flag. One must also be at least 16 and male to join.
Interested women can join an affiliated group called the Patriotic Order of Americans or participate in the organization of a “ Defenders Unit,” a group of at least eight peole who meet regularly at various locations.
Members must also subscribe to the POS of A’s “Platform of Principles” which includes some tenets as belief in God, allegiance to the flag and responsible citizenship. Stoehr reports that the POS of A has not been politcally active since around 1910 or 1911.
Today, the POS of A supplies American flags to Independence Hall, Washington Crossing Historic Park, and Valley Forge National Historical Park, where the flags taht its memebers donate fly at the National Memorial Arch. For the use of schools and other groups, the POS of A prints materials like its recent booklets on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And sometimes POS of A members take flags from their collection to schools where they discuss the flags’ meanings and symbolism.
In 1993, as Valley Forge celebrates the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the park, POS of A will participate in activities on the June 19 and will open Flag Hall to the public on Sunday afternoons around 2 pm through June.
According to Harvey Stoehr POS of A members will plant a trail of little flags up the driveway to the building with the white columns perched above Valley Creek. Visitors will be able to mount the steps to Flag Hall and step into a perfectly preserved and still functioning lodge, enjoy the flag collection and sample the aura of fraternal life of yesteryear.