Created on Wednesday, 27 February 2013 10:18 Last Updated on Wednesday, 27 February 2013 10:18 Published on Wednesday, 27 February 2013 10:18 Written by Christian Morrow - Courier Staff Writer Hits: 1622
IN IT’S PRIME—The Dennis farmhouse as it looked c. 1939. Plans are to stabilize and restore the building to this condition for use as an historical education and research center.
When she was young and would vacation at her family farm in late summers before heading back to school, Denise Dennis didn’t think it was a big deal. She was just “going up country” to visit her grandparents.
But, as she later learned, it was, and is, a big deal. Initially purchased by Prince Perkins in 1793, and is the oldest surviving farm founded by free Blacks in the state. It’s located approximately 20 miles north of Scranton, Pa. On Feb. 26 Dennis was the guest of honor at the African American History Museum event sponsored by members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
Dennis spoke on the farm’s cultural, agricultural and environmental history and discussed plans for its stabilization and restoration made possible in part by a shale gas lease she signed with Cabot Oil in December that will help fund Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust.
“It’s amazing how you meeting the right people, in the right place at the right time,” she said in a phone interview a week earlier. “I’d been getting offers from oil companies for at least 10 years, and just kept throwing them away because my focus was on preserving the land.”
Dennis established the land trust in 2001 to do just that after her aunt Hope, who had inherited the farm, asked her to make sure it “didn’t leave the family on her watch.”
By then, Dennis had done extensive study on historic trust and preservation, and had already been told by historians and archeologists that the property was unique.
“I was initially thinking to preserve the farmhouse, the barn, but they told me, no, it’s the whole property,” she said.
Dennis traces one side of her family back to Framingham, Mass., to an ancestor who served as a bugler in King George I’s army in 1721. The 153-acre Perkins/Dennis farm in its current configuration dates to 1818 and remained a working farm for 100 years.
The land is sectioned by stone walls recalling the New England roots of both the Perkins and Dennis families. One of these delineates the family cemetery and the remains of four generations of the family, and also includes a civil war veteran from a neighboring Black family.
“There are reputedly the remains of some runaway slaves there too,” said Dennis. “The farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but that would be difficult to confirm.”
In 1939, her great aunt Edith modernized the farmhouse, installing bathrooms and utilities.
During those visits, her grandfather Norman would tell her about the farm’s history. But she was young, and after he died, the family stopped going there in the summer.
“The love my grandfather had for that property, he relayed to me, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I grasped its real significance,” she said.
The farm has gained the attention of, and lured experts and students from, the Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the University of Pennsylvania and Binghamton University in New York. Dennis said she initially held off on seeking the donations and grants needed to realize her vision for the property because of the shale gas boom occurring throughout Susquehanna County.
She asked a European geologist she’d met about hydraulic fracking and he suggested she look into it further.
“So, I did what all idiots do, I went on the Internet. And oh my God. Oh my God. It was all horror stories. So, naturally, I got involved with the anti-fracking movement. But then my interest in protecting the farm was getting lost in the fracking story.”
So Dennis continued doing research, finding less one-sided evaluations, and then met with some folks from Cabot Oil, who came to ask if they could do some seismic studies related to the neighboring properties, all of which they had leases with. She threw them out at first saying she was not signing anything.
“Long story short, I eventually met (Cabot Director of External Affairs) George (Stark) and I told him about the farm’s history and the restoration and education pieces I’d planned, and he got it,” she said. “In fact he got it so well he said he thought he could help, but it was above his pay grade. So he asked if I’d meet with the CEO.”
They met twice, company officials also showed her all the safety features in their well pads—all of which would be located off-site on adjacent properties and which would drill horizontally to the deposits a mile or more beneath the farm. She granted them the lease.
Now plans are moving ahead to stabilize and historically restore the farmhouse as the Dennis Farm Education and Research Center, and to build a conference center enclosing the stone foundation of the old barn, which collapsed in the late 1970s. It would include a library, a lecture hall, gallery space and a bookstore.
Dennis said the vision, which also includes landscaping, trail markers, a marker for the cemetery and “doing something” as yet undecided with the silo—only the stone base remains, will cost about $10 million, which she hopes to raise in the next five years.
Stark said the charitable trust did receive a signing bonus, but that amount is being kept confidential at Denise’s request. Royalty payments will commence once the new wells begin producing, which he projected will be in about 2 years.
“I can’t give you a figure but, per a Department of Environmental Protection issued last week, nine of the top 10 producing wells in the state are Cabot wells in that vicinity,” he said. “So production there is astronomical. The Dennis Farm is very fortunate to be located where it is.”
“They are vested in our success now,” she said. “When we first came here we exploited the timber, now it’s natural gas. It’s all part of the same trajectory. And from the industrial revolution to the shale revolution, free Blacks have held this land. That’s history.”
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