Spring awakens Sanderson after a wintry slumber

Museum namesake, Rip Van Winkle crossed paths many times

By Linda Banks, Special to The Times

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Christian Sanderson, seen above in costume as Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, was fascinated by the character and story for more than 50 years, after first encountering it as a student at West Chester Normal School.

Springtime in Pennsylvania is guaranteed to bring mixed garden chores, weather, and events.   Old Man Winter never appears quite certain that he wants to shake off his icy coat.  Daffodils struggle to forge through bits of bark and debris as they burst yellow before us.  Just as certain is the opening of the Christian C. Sanderson Museum, which reopens each March and remains open to the public on its usual schedule through November.  And in keeping with all of these vital seasonal events are memories of Chris Sanderson himself as he came to life as Rip Van Winkle.

Christian Sanderson cultivated a broad range of pursuits throughout his long, productive life.  His fertile imagination and deep enthusiasms fostered the growth of many interests.  Small seeds of discovery blossomed gradually into full-blown loves — some nurtured regularly, others following alternating seasons of slumber and renewed awakening.  His life was a succession of Rip Van Winkle moments.

Chris’s earliest mention of Washington Irving’s iconic character occurs in a letter which he wrote to his mother (Hanna Carmack Sanderson) and his brother.  Chris’s attendance at West Chester Normal School stretched the family’s resources to their limit with little left for entertainment frills. In September of 1900, Chris somewhat apologetically wrote to tell his mother that he had spent 10 cents to see a Rip Van Winkle matinee in West Chester.

Two months later he wrote a second letter to ask (somewhat less apologetically) for an advance of $1.75 to watch another Rip Van Winkle performance.  By this time Chris was hooked on Irving.  In equal measure, he was hooked on the acting of 80-year-old Joseph Jefferson, whom he described with hyperbole as “the greatest living actor in the world.”

The $1.75 was reluctantly advanced, but mother and brother gained interest on their money.  Chris gave them vividly detailed accounts of what he had seen.  He summarized the Rip Van Winkle play act by act and boldly described “terrible lightning and crashes of thunder so intense you would swear that a terrible storm was raging outside.”

Just a year later, Chris launched his teaching career at the Garwood School.  When he planned the school Christmas pageant, what did he include? You guessed it . . . Rip Van Winkle to be played be John Bechtel, noted local educator.

Jump ahead to 1937, and the dormant Rip is revived by Chris on the stage of the Longwood Open Air Theater.   He crossed the lines of history and literature, education and drama, past and present to inhabit a place and character that were dear to him.

His mother attended this performance and afterwards wrote that she was “proud of Christie’s ability as ‘Rip’ . . . and was ‘swamped’ by congratulations.”  As late as 1950 (when Chris was almost seventy), he repeated his legendary Longwood performance.  He may have concluded by quoting Rip Van Winkle himself:  “Are we soon forgot when we are gone?”  And the answer to this question for both actor and character would have to be a resounding “No, you are not!”

Irving, the father of the American short story, lives on in his folk lore based tales.  Sanderson lived on in the name of a dorm that once stood on the West Chester University campus, in the name of a Boy Scout camp, in the memories of all who knew him, and most clearly at the museum that bears his name and houses his collection.  To see images of Chris as Rip Van Winkle, as subject of Wyeth paintings, as historian, musician and teacher (He wore many hats!) plan to visit the Christian C. Sanderson Museum.

The Christian C. Sanderson Museum – A Man’s Life, A Nation’s History. An eclectic array of art, military memorabilia, presidential artifacts, local history and collectibles.  History like you’ve never seen it before! Open March through November, Thursday through Sunday, 12pm to 4pm. .  Admission to the museum is $5 per person and free for members and children under 12 when accompanied by an adult.  Visit at 1755 Creek Road, Chadds Ford, just north of Route 1, or at www.sandersonmuseum.org.  Also open by appointment. Call 610-388-6545. 

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Tags: chadds ford, Christian Sanderson, Rip Van Winkle, Sanderson Museum, West Chester Normal School

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