To Norristown Garden Club members, the German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum,” an ode to the fir tree, was the obvious theme for the oldest location on its 2016 holiday house tour.
In the late 18th century, the property, then a one-room dwelling in Perkiomen Bridge (now Collegeville), was owned by John Jacob Schrack, a German immigrant who operated a tannery next door.
In the tanning process, Schrack would have soaked animal skins in tannin made from fir, hemlock or beech bark. The hides were then washed with water from the tannery well.
“The smell must have been awful,” says Bridgie Daller, who with husband Walt has owned the property since 1975. (During the tour, only the fragrance of fresh evergreens greeted guests, and in keeping with the tannery theme, garden club members fashioned leather flowers as ornaments for the Christmas tree.)
Over the years, the Dallers' home has expanded. In the 1830s came first- and second-floor additions with a porch. Installed later were a powder room downstairs and a bathroom upstairs. When they purchased the house, Bridgie says, they renovated the kitchen and “scraped and painted everything and refinished floors.”
In 2003, the couple put in central air conditioning, a great room downstairs, and a master bath and bedroom with a deck upstairs. They remodeled the kitchen again and added a swimming pool and a three-car garage.
Today, the house is warm and bright and filled with traditional furniture. The original room is now the dining room, furnished with Windsor chairs and a farm table. An enormous copper tub adorns the stucco-and-brick fireplace.
The library, which features built-in shelves, offers seating in the form of two red-and-white gingham wing-back chairs and red cushions on the window seats — a festive look especially at Christmas.
Walls throughout the house are white with blue-gray or blond wood trim and molding.
In the kitchen, redone only 13 years ago, distressed blond wood cabinets and hardwood counters complement furnishings acquired from antique shops and auctions. Open shelves below the ceiling display Walt’s collection of agate tinware. He also collects old kitchen utensils and tools, ceramic crocks, and toy banks.
The banks line a shelf in the former tannery. “Now it’s my man-cave,” says Walt, 74, who before retiring was president of Harleysville National Bank.
Antlers and animal heads hanging from the rafters there are not tannery byproducts but hunting trophies from family vacations in Potter County. The Dallers have three children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Bridgie, 72, a retired pediatric nurse practitioner, has framed needlepoint, stitched by her mother, herself and others. She collects quilts and treasures one made by a sister-in-law from photos of Parkesburg. A large watercolor of the Chester County borough was a gift to Walt from Bridgie.
The couple were high school sweethearts in Parkesburg, where they grew up. They married while Walt was still attending Lafayette College in Easton, later moving to Montgomery County when Walt became bank branch manager of Harleysville National in Limerick.
By the time they purchased the three-bedroom house in Collegeville, they had three children: Susan, then 4; Greg, 12; and Walter, 14 who took over the dormer in the third-floor attic.
“I wanted an old house. I love history. This house looked like it had been haunted,” says Bridgie.
In fact, neighbors told the Dallers, people reported seeing the ghost of Mary Schrack searching for her husband, who had drowned in a canal while picking up supplies for the tannery.
The Dallers have never seen Mary, but Bridgie says the ghost could be to blame for lost items and mysteriously moved furniture.
Scattered on the 5-acre property are several hemlock and fir trees and one tall old beech. One wonders: Are they descendants of the trees whose bark was used in the tannery?
A budding dogwood by the library door remains bedecked with red leather bows left over from the holiday tour. The birds like the bright color, Bridgie says.