Before we write the words, papermaking is its own story

20160508_inq_cu1kephart08z-e
The homestead and Bake House of RittenhouseTown, which has a role in the history of paper.

Beth Kephart

is the author 21 books, including "This Is the Story of You" (Chronicle Books)

I may have been an angsty adolescent, but my darkest secret involved nothing more than this: a box of watercolors, a drugstore paintbrush, a Bic pen, and a series of blank books with Naugahyde covers. I painted the pages of those books to buckling saturation. I waited, impatiently, for them to dry. Afterward, alone on my roof or in the shade of a tree, I Bic-scratched into those multitonal hues such awe-invoking grandeur as this:

A daffodil dons her yellow skirt,

Smoothes out the ruffled pleats of the hem,

Places her fringed bonnet on her tiny head

. . . and goes out for tea.

Clearly I was just inches away from a career as the next Jack Kerouac, the future Allen Ginsberg, the once-and-always Emily Dickinson. I was - wasn't it undeniable? - a writer. A writer in love with not just the page, but with the paper itself - its touch, its smell, its lovely imperfections, its endless receptivity, its silence when I failed.

The history of paper, I would later learn, is a history of reeds, tree bark, cloth rags, cellulose, some clarifying lye, absorbing felt, handsome reams. The history of paper in North America, I learned not long ago, can be traced to a wedge of land bounded by Lincoln Drive and Forbidden Drive - a place currently known as Historic RittenhouseTown.

Now just six buildings set along the Wissahickon Creek tributary Paper Mill Run, RittenhouseTown was once home to more than 40 structures - barns, houses, a firehouse, and the first-ever British North American papermills. It was there that old rags were soaked and then pounded by mill-wheel-driven stamping machines into "stuff." There that a vatman scooped the soppy stuff onto a mold, fixed those fibers into place with a deckle, then handed the whole thing off to the nearby coucher, who would shake the mold free of excess moisture before leaving the sheet to dry between layers of felt.

It was there that the dried sheets would be bundled and sent out into the new world, and, especially, right back up the forest roads to Germantown, where printer Christopher Sauer was busy producing the German-language Bibles that were in high demand by the growing population of Mennonites.

The actual milling had begun in 1690, thanks to a partnership between the printer William Bradford and the papermaker William Rittenhouse, and the investments of a handful of others. The operation became the exclusive domain of the Rittenhouse family after a flood in 1700 washed the mill down creek and necessitated new investments and radical rebuilding.

Rags, as has been suggested, were the lifeblood of the operation. Old clothes shorn of buttons and hooks that were collected by rag dealers from near and far. The rags themselves had once been waistcoats, shifts, petticoats, and aprons, among other things - clothing sewn of the linen loomed by textile weavers who relied, in part, on the flax grown in their own backyards. Imagine the backyards of Germantown alive with flax. Imagine the sound of the looms and the sewers. Imagine the new apron, and then imagine the old apron - stained and torn, a rag - returned to the mills and transformed into the paper upon which holy words were pressed.

From seed to seed.

For years and years, it went on like this - through generations of Rittenhouses, through to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Mill workers lived in the small houses of Blue Bell Hill. The Rittenhouse homestead expanded. Children grew up to the sound and smells of the mill.

One such child was David Rittenhouse, born in April of 1732, a boy of absorbing curiosity, who would grow up to chart the course of Venus through a telescope he had built, measure time through the clocks he engineered, solve problems through the rubrics of his own mathematics, redesign coins as the first director of the U.S. Mint, and befriend Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. On the 100th anniversary of his birth and in his honor, Philadelphia's Southwest Square became Rittenhouse Square.

On the day that I visit Historic RittenhouseTown with my husband, it is just us, the confetti blossoms of the cherry trees, a few white butterflies, the six structures, and our knowledgeable host, the site's executive director, Chris Owens. Over the course of our tour we will stand inside the Bake House, admire the cozy birthplace of David Rittenhouse, stare into the face of an original David Rittenhouse clock, note the fidelity of a garden sundial, look for shadow doors, and imagine the original mills, whose walls were lately discovered in archaeological digs. We will stand watching the working model illuminate the process of milling. We will walk along the now-tame creek.

We'll spend time as well with paper itself - watching Owens dig into a vat for "stuff," spread it evenly over a mold, apply the deckle, and shake, then blot, the excess moisture free. You could dye the paper, add leaves and flowers, sprinkle in some un-17th-century glitter. You can invite schoolchildren to do it with you (some 2,000 students do so each year), or make your own wedding invitations or baby announcements, say; many people, Owens says, do.

But the rough-edged sparkling piece that I eventually bring home is lovely just the way it is, I think. An open canvas. A haven. An invitation to the imagination that will, perhaps some day, absorb my mad dashes, my bad metaphors, my scribbles, my scars, my ever-angsty secrets.

My Rittenhouse paper is a gift from the past to the present.

It is a place to start.

Beth Kephart will be conducting a five-day memoir workshop in September. For more, visit http://junctureworkshops.com.