An evening of tracing South Jersey village's history - house by house

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Volunteer Kathy Smith, wearing a dress reflective of 1800s attire, walks from the restored 1830s Abraham Hoy House. It was one of 25 properties on the 30th Candlelight House Tour by the Mauricetown Historical Society.

MAURICETOWN, N.J. - Usually around June, work begins on the honey-do lists in this tiny Cumberland County maritime village.

Porches get painted, new bathrooms are installed, floors are replaced, and any number of other renovations are completed over the ensuing months, so that by December - on one "magical" night - the historic homes and "museum buildings" here glow in candlelight and holiday spirit for an annual house tour that began more than 30 years ago.

"The tour has kind of created its own home repair industry here. Even homeowners that don't have homes on the tour kind of get into the frenzy," said Judy Moore, who with her husband, Robert, is a member of the Mauricetown Historical Society, which hosts the tour. "The town comes alive. . . . It's kind of magical."

Among the homeowners who participate directly in the event, the frenzy is palpable.

"My husband has been racing to get the shutters on our home repainted," said Julie Gandy. She and her husband, John Nardone, own the circa 1847 Seth Sharp House. "From Nov. 1 on, it has been a mad dash inside to take down all the Halloween decorations and decorate for Christmas. I want every room to be decorated."

Moore said planning for next year's tour will begin almost as soon as this one ends. About 100 people volunteer to help - as docents in the houses, baking Christmas cookies for tour-goers, directing traffic.

"It certainly does take a village," Moore said.

The most difficult job the historical society has each year may be finding new participants willing to open their homes to hundreds of visitors.

With only about 150 homes in this section of Commercial Township, the historical society must not only find willing homeowners, but also present a variety to tour-goers.

"We don't want the same houses on the tour year after year either because we want the public to want to come back to see something new and fresh every year," said Moore.

Whether they get a big crowd - they pray for 1,000 tour-goers, but in some years there have been as few as a couple hundred - depends a lot on the weather.

Rain or shine, this year's tour is set for 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday. It will offer a look inside 10 private homes and several museum buildings run by the historical society. Tickets are $20 a person.

While most of the homes on the tour were built in the 1700s and 1800s, the Chief Fred Hundt House - home of the former Mauricetown fire chief - was built in 1986. It features a "storybook character fantasyland" highlighted by extravagantly decorated Christmas trees in every room.

The Hundt family will welcome visitors with a huge miniature Christmas village, an extensive collection of Disney figurines, and docents dressed as Disney characters. The home will remain open until 8 p.m. so visitors can better enjoy the lights.

The house tour will also feature a craft fair and bake sale at the Mauricetown Fire Hall.

The Moores' restored home, part of the tour for 25 years, is not on Saturday's itinerary. They opted this year to help prepare the historical society's museum house for the event.

The society's circa 1864 Edward Compton House - one of three surviving examples of Victorian Italianate architecture in Mauricetown - happens to be a twin to the Moores' own home, the Isaac Peterson House, which was built by the same local carpenters, Griffith Pritchard and Samuel Cobb, a year later.

The tour is being held for the 30th time. It has skipped some years since it was first held in 1982.

"I'm quite familiar with the honey-do lists involved in this endeavor. . . . Some years they can be very long," said Robert Moore.

Instead of making repairs to his home, Robert Moore focused this year on getting the stoves and the fireplaces operating in the Compton House and its adjacent dependency buildings so that tour-goers may see the primitive cooking and heating operations that occurred in homes in the region in the 18th and 19th centuries.

"The things you learn by working with the various tools and implements is quite interesting," Moore said last week as he stoked a wood-burning cast-iron stove inside the Compton House's summer kitchen, which is actually in a separate building from the main house.

He has also been working on the fireplace in the tiny Abraham and Ann Hoy House, a circa 1830 dwelling that was saved from demolition and moved to the historical society's grounds adjacent to the Compton House in 2005.

Also featured on the tour this year is the Caesar Hoskins House, owned by Deanna Arnold. The house, dating to the 1600s, is believed to be the oldest inhabited building in Commercial Township and one of the oldest in South Jersey. Known locally as the "Swedish Cabin," the modest clapboard home features unique plank construction and is believed to have been built by Swedes for Capt. Caesar Hoskins.

Hoskins was among a cadre of merchant sea captains who were among Mauricetown's early settlers. By the mid-19th century, the development of the Mauricetown Shipyard, the arrival of daily railroad service, and an increase in sailing traffic along the Maurice River and Delaware Bay had fostered a rapid expansion of the village.

Prosperity among its inhabitants - mostly expert shipbuilders, carpenters and captains - brought a kind of golden age to the town, which once boasted fancy shops and hotels and a spurt of ornate Victorian homes, some of which are on the annual tour.

"It is a lot of work to host so many people in your home, but it's also a lot of fun to have the chance to share an evening with our neighbors and others who come from other places to learn about the history of our town," said Gandy, whose home has been on the tour for the last three years. "We really love being a part of it."

The Mauricetown Historical Society's 30th Candlelight House Tour takes place from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20. The tour starts at the society's Edward Compton House, 1229 Front St., where tickets and maps may be obtained. For more information, call 856-785-1372.

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