Who was Christian Carmack Sanderson?

Chris at graduation from West Chester Normal School (1901)
Chris, about age 10 (c. 1892)
Chris, about age 10
(c. 1892)

Christian Carmack Sanderson, aka “Chris” and “Christy,”  was born in 1882 in the little village of Port Providence, along the Schuylkill Canal in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The canal was built between 1816 and 1825, mainly to carry anthracite coal in mule-drawn boats from the coal region at the head of the Schuylkill River downstream to Philadelphia, a distance of 108 miles.  Port Providence was the halfway station where the mules were changed.

The Sandersons were  a typical American family of that era, one strongly devoted to family, church, and country. Chris graduated in 1898 from the Port Providence School, went off to college to prepare for a career as a schoolteacher, and graduated in 1901 from West Chester Normal School (now West Chester University). True to his calling, he taught for the next 28 years in a number of schools in the area. He was, however, always much more than a school teacher. His talent, keen intellect, and forceful personality led him to pursue several other interests, for each one of which he became very well known.


Portrait of Chris Sanderson, by Andrew Wyeth (1937)
Portrait of Chris Sanderson, by Andrew Wyeth (1937)

Born into a historically-minded family, Chris developed an early interest in history, particularly local history. He devoted much of his time and energy in “making history live” for many thousands of school children. His love for history had him tramping the countryside for relics and information and had him camping with the Civil War veterans at Gettysburg on the 50th anniversary of that famous battle. Very few important events occurred in Washington, D.C., or New York that did not see Chris Sanderson as a witness. He attended every Presidential inauguration from Teddy Roosevelt’s (1905) to Lyndon Johnson’s (1965), and to most of those events he took with him school-age boys so that they, too, could witness history in the making. Without a doubt, his love of history, especially American history, drove his passion to collect historical objects — and vice versa.


Chris Sanderson (c. 1935)

Chris started at an early age to collect historical objects, an activity that was strongly influenced and encouraged by his mother Hanna. For over 75 years, he collected a vast array of material that now constitutes the Sanderson Museum. Chris collected whatever interested him, whatever touched him—no matter how quirky—probably for reasons that only he fully understood. The scope of his collecting was truly astonishing—family treasures, music, militariana, sports, American history, art, books, glass, china, photographs, autographs, signs, posters, newspapers, letters, curios, arrowheads, rocks and minerals, and more. He was dedicated to preserving our past, as he perceived it, and as best as he could manage to do it. Moreover, wherever he lived, he always welcomed visitors to see his collection and revel in the American history that it represented. Chris’s idiosyncratic collection of historical relics, artifacts and memorabilia defines and celebrates his singular vision of the American experience. Given the breadth and depth of his collecting, one wonders how he ever had time to pursue the many other activities for which he was equally or even more famous.


The Country Schoolmaster, by Andrew Wyeth (1939)
The Country Schoolmaster, by Andrew Wyeth (1939)

Chris started his formal teaching career in 1901, in a one-room school house at Garwood, Montgomery County. For the next 28 years, he taught at 10 different schools, mostly in Chester and Delaware Counties, Pennsylvania. Many of them were one-room schools where he held simultaneously the positions of Principal, teacher, and janitor. His teaching career ended in 1929, following his tenure as Principal of the Oak Grove School in Elsmere, Delaware. Chris never stayed very long at any one school. He was a firm taskmaster, but his students loved him, because he made school work interesting, rewarding, and fun. His teaching methods were unorthodox, however, far too unconventional to suit the conservative directors of the rural schools where he taught, so he moved frequently from one school to another.

Following his formal teaching career, Chris gained fame—but certainly not fortune—in pursuit of his many other interests, including teaching “youngsters of all ages” the art of square dancing. There, his teaching style reflected his slogan, “If you can walk, you can square dance.” Up to the time of his death in 1966, he was still conducting square dance classes in private and public schools and giving classroom lectures.


Chris at Age 80 (1962)

At an early age, Chris learned to play the violin, and he became a devotee of both country music and country dancing. He played for square dances in Chadds Ford as early as 1905, at age 23. Over the years, he became very well known for his calling of country dances, which included square, round, and contra dances and, of course, he played his violin to accompany the dances. In 1932, he organized his own country band, The Pocopson Valley Boys, to perform with him at dances and at myriad other events.  As time passed, members of the band changed, as did the mix of instruments represented, but the band itself survived into the 1950s.

Album Cover (1950)
Album Cover (1950)

In 1950, Chris and the Pocopson Valley Boys made a record album of square dance music, including calls and recommended music for several of his favorite dances. Chris was exceedingly proud of this achievement. “Valuable to me. The first album of my own,” he wrote on the album cover.

Chris was also instrumental in founding (1928) The Old Fiddlers’ Picnic, which he nurtured and actively supported for the rest of his life. The organization was devoted to preserving and promoting old time fiddling and related musical arts. Annually (88th year in 2016), on a weekend in August, fiddlers and other musicians gather at Hibernia Park (Chester County, Pa.) for music and memories.


Chris was a popular, colorful speaker known for his command of local and American history, the broad range of his lecture topics, and his rapid-fire delivery. His topics included Historic Chester County; Historic Delaware County; Valley Forge; Gettysburg; The Story of Kennett; The Joy of Living; Seeing Things Near Home; and, of course, The Battle of the Brandywine. Brandywine was one of Chris’s signature interests. He lived on the battlefield and was an expert on the conduct of the battle—people, places, fighting units, strategies, anecdotes, and what actually happened at every hill and valley. Chris’s account of the battle, illustrated with a map that he would hand draw for the occasion on a sheet of paper, a napkin, a chalkboard, or a bed sheet, was so vivid, so riveting, and so richly detailed that one might have concluded that he was actually there as a witness! No matter the topic, however, the quintessential context of his lectures was history—reflections on people and events that shaped our Nation or locale. Chris left teaching, but teaching never left Chris.


Chris Broadcasts from WCOJ (c. 1950)

Chris was an inveterate radio performer who was well known for his work. His broadcasting career spanned 43 years and four different area radio stations. His first broadcast was in March of 1923 on station WFI in Philadelphia, for the Boy Scouts of America; his last was in October of 1966 on station WCOJ in Coatesville, less than a month before he passed away. His first orchestra, “The Delmarvans,” performed briefly on station WILM in Wilmington in 1930. His weekly program, “Old Folks at Home,” ran from 1930 to 1940 on WDEL in Wilmington, and was notable because in those 10 years Chris never missed or was even late for a scheduled broadcast. At the time, this was believed to have been a world’s record for continuous broadcasting. This, despite the fact that Chris did not own a car; he lived in Pocopson (15 miles away), then in Chadds Ford (10 miles away); and no matter the season, weather, or other circumstances, he depended entirely on walking and hitch-hiking for transportation. The station figured that over that decade, Chris had commuted 13,780 miles to and from the station with no means of transportation but his thumb and his feet!

Invariably, Chris began every broadcast with a cheery, “Good morning, friends. Here we are once again,” and he ended every broadcast with his signature invocation…

“May the gods above bless you,
The devils of temptation miss you,
And the angels kiss you…with their wings,
In your dreams.”