By Katherine Mansfield

Rachel Gladden is the heartbeat of Bradford House.

After nearly three decades of service to the grand brick home along downtown Washington’s Main Street – a National Historic Landmark since 1983 – Gladden recently retired her post on the Bradford House Historical Association board.

“She has devoted herself to the house for about 30 years,” said Denise Cummins, president-elect of the BHHA. “She’s one of the most sincere, genuine people that I have ever met.”

Gladden first set foot in the Bradford House nearly 30 years ago, after a neighbor invited her to join the board of directors.

“I thought, ‘Oh, do I really want to do this?’ And then there wasn’t any choice. When I walked in the house, I was caught,” recalled Gladden. “It just really caught me off guard at first. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a show place. The best thing of all is that it’s history and it’s right here in Washington, Pennsylvania, and it happened right here under our very noses. That’s what makes me love the Bradford House so much. As soon as you walk in the door, you’re caught.”

Built in 1788 by David Bradford, Deputy Attorney General of Washington County and major player in the Whiskey Rebellion, the Bradford House became a museum under the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1965. By the 70s, the one-time grand home, which through the years also served as furniture and grocery stores, had fallen into disrepair, helped along by financial mismanagement.

“It was kind of rough for a while,” said Gladden. “When I first went on the board, the board was going through some hard times. There were some hard financial times for the Bradford House.”

Government grant money couldn’t stretch as tall as the two-story building needed. So, as legend goes, Gladden donned an apron and baked some pies.

“She is known for baking apple pies,” said Tracie Liberatore, executive director of the Bradford House Historical Association. “She said that there were years … she felt the house would close unless she personally did something, so she would do bake sales. She’s the one who started (the calendar fundraiser) and ran it. She has a tremendous spot in the community. Any time we need something, she was like, let me write a personal note, let me call them.”

Gladden laughs when she recalls that for many years, folks in town called her “The Apple Pie Lady.”

“I don’t know why, but I started to make apple pies. We’d sell them on the street,” she said.

In 2017, Bradford House Historical Association acquired the Bradford House from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, who had owned the building since 1959. It took four years for Bradford House Historical Association to assume ownership, during which time the board worked to implement changes, including expanded educational opportunities and the opening of the Whiskey Rebellion Education & Visitor Center in May 2021.

“Tracie Liberatore has made a big big difference. She’s really brought the house along, she’s moved us into this century and I’m so proud,” said Gladden, who was instrumental in getting Liberatore involved with Bradford House Historical Association. “There’s so many good things happening down there, so many good people. I see nothing but good things ahead for it.”

While she isn’t on site as often as in decades past, Gladden’s warm welcome is felt by all who enter through the house’s enormous white front door – prominent guests include Bradford descendants, and Alexander Hamilton’s great-great grandson, who recently logged his name in the guest book. Her joy for the space reaches every corner, from the original dental molding in an upstairs bedroom to authentic period furnishings to the sea foam green parlor walls, where a new piece of art commemorates Gladden’s dedication to the home.

“This was something she said we needed in the parlor for a long time,” said Cummins, who helped pick the painting. “We didn’t have any artwork in there.”

The piece, “From Nature in the Garden” by American artist Rubens Peale, is situated proudly above the Charles Albrecht & Co. pianoforte, its soft yellows and chalky blues accentuating nearby walls, its rich pinks adding a splash of color to the formal space.

It was dedicated to Rachel Gladden at a formal ceremony held Nov. 7. Past and present board members and family attended the surprise dedication and enjoyed – what else – apple pie following the presentation.

“I was totally surprised about the painting being dedicated,” said Gladden. “They said, ‘We’re going to dedicate a painting and we know you’re going to want to see it.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to.’ When I walked in and saw all those people, including some of my family, I thought hey, there’s something up here. This is too good to be true. It brought tears to my eyes.”

“From Nature in the Garden” is a fitting tribute to Gladden. Peale, who made a career of museum management by overseeing his family’s museums in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, spent the last decade of his life mixing his passions for gardening and art.

Gladden has spent decades swirling the colors of her compassion, service and belief in others with dedication to the Bradford house. The educator – she taught kindergarten full time at Trinity North Elementary School for 16 years and was a substitute teacher for nearly a decade after retiring – and history buff is responsible for recruiting a majority of the Bradford House Historical Association board members and for ushering hundreds of locals and out-of-towners alike through the house’s grand rooms.

“There was a time that we would sit around board meetings and every single person on the board … she asked to join,” said Liberatore. “She brought in tremendous leaders into our organization. She knows a lot of good people.”

Those who know Gladden agree she’s up there with the best of them, and while the house will be quieter without her greeting folks in the foyer – dressed, of course, in the 18th century attire David Bradford’s wife Elizabeth would have worn – Gladden will always be a part of Bradford House, her passion and spirit hanging proudly on the parlor wall – her favorite room.

“The parlor ... tells the story of the house. I can always picture David sitting around that table with his pipe. You walk in and you just say, ‘I just know David Bradford sat here and planned the Whiskey Rebellion,’” Gladden said.

“The original house is here, it’s here right in downtown Washington. I hope that we can get other people in to see that beautiful painting, to see that beautiful house.”

She added, with a smile, “I love history and I love Washington County.”

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