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Family's dilemma: Gas rights vs. black heritage

At her ancestral farm in Susquehanna County, settled in 1793, Denise Dennis strolls with caretaker John Arnone. Drillers have offered more than $800,000 for access to the Marcellus Shale. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
At her ancestral farm in Susquehanna County, settled in 1793, Denise Dennis strolls with caretaker John Arnone. Drillers have offered more than $800,000 for access to the Marcellus Shale. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
At her ancestral farm in Susquehanna County, settled in 1793, Denise Dennis strolls with caretaker John Arnone. Drillers have offered more than $800,000 for access to the Marcellus Shale. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer) Gallery: Dennis Family Farm

BROOKLYN, Pa. - Denise Dennis' ancestors were among the first farmers who settled in northeast Pennsylvania, in 1793. They were free African Americans, extraordinary because they became integrated in a largely white community, 70 years before emancipation.

Their 153-acre farm has remained in the family for seven generations. The Smithsonian Institution has taken an interest. The National Trust for Historic Preservation called it "a rare and highly significant African American cultural landscape."

But as Dennis strolled last week through the snowy burial grounds that include the remains of her great-great-great-great-grandfather, a black Revolutionary War veteran, her mind was on something buried much deeper: the Marcellus Shale.

The Dennis family farm in Susquehanna County is above the mile-deep rock formation whose prodigious natural-gas reserves have inspired a drilling frenzy across much of Pennsylvania.

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    Dennis, who lives in Philadelphia, is filled with mixed feelings about the gas and its potential for riches, or ruin.

    "How can I preserve this beautiful, historical place I love if I allow someone to destroy its landscape? . . . How can I best protect and preserve the farm and its history in the midst of the drilling around us?"

    It's a dilemma facing many Marcellus landowners: To drill or not to drill? Reap the bounty, but at what cost?

    Landmen have offered the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust more than $800,000 for the right to drill. But Dennis has heard the stories from embittered landowners in Dimock Township, five miles away, where gas drilling is blamed for polluting streams and groundwater, including one water well that exploded.

    For Dennis, the money is tempting. The trust's aim is to develop the farm as an educational and cultural center, where students and heritage tourists could experience the story of an ordinary American black family in the two centuries since patriarch Prince Perkins moved his family there from Connecticut.

    "This place expands our understanding of the African American story in American history," Dennis said as a gentle snow fell among the hemlocks and maples. It dusted the broken tombstones in the plot whose 50 graves include the remains of Perkins, who fought in the Revolution as a Connecticut militiaman.

    "This place is a reminder that we also owned property in the United States - we had a stake in this country," said Dennis. "Not all blacks were slaves from the South. It says to all of us that things weren't as black and white as we are often told."

    But the trust needs funding to develop the farm. Just to keep the place from falling apart requires a substantial infusion.

    The family farmhouse, a two-story, timber-framed Cape Cod dwelling built in 1859, has been unoccupied for more than two decades and is decaying rapidly. The plank walls are exposed, the roof is caving in, and the floors are unstable. Vandals have peeled off the boards covering some windows and heaved in boulders and logs, causing the floors to buckle.

    "It's gotten worse just in the few weeks since I was last here," said Michael A. Falstad, an architect with John Milner Associates of West Chester, who accompanied Dennis on a visit last week.

    Milner Associates is preparing an application to list the farm on the National Register of Historic Places, which will be submitted this month to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. A designation on the national register would increase the trust's access to funding.

    Dennis is concerned that gas drilling on or near the farm could disfigure the property or pollute its water supply. Gas operators need to clear and level a four-acre patch from which they can drill multiple horizontal wells that radiate spokelike under the terrain. They also cut through forests and fields to bury pipelines to carry the gas to markets.

    "The funding from drilling could prove to be a Trojan horse," Dennis said.

    Then there's the disturbing idea of drilling beneath the family's graves, even if the shale formation is a mile below. "I know it's not logical. It's just bones," Dennis said. "But it's where your family's remains are buried."

    Dennis may be able to negotiate a more restrictive agreement than the standard industry gas lease, which allows gas operators nearly unrestricted access to a property's surface.

    Wade P. Catts, an archaeologist and principal at Milner Associates who has worked with Dennis to assemble the national register application, believes a solution is possible.

    "Call me optimistic, but there are probably positives that could be gotten out of this," Catts said. He said drilling from a neighboring property, or a remote part of the historic property farm, might not be incompatible with a national register listing.

    But Dennis is worried that any misstep could wipe out a decade's careful work since she and her great-aunt Hope Dennis cooked up the idea of preserving the family farm. They created the trust in 2001.

    "Hope didn't want the farm to go out of the family on her watch," Dennis said. Her aunt died in 2006 at age 99.

    Dennis, a diminutive Swarthmore College graduate in her 50s, systematically recruited supporters.

    "Everything was bartered," she said. When a neighbor, John Arnone, asked if he could hunt deer on the farm, she enlisted him as caretaker.

    She and other researchers dug through libraries for evidence to support stories she had heard since growing up in Wilkes-Barre, when she visited the farm during summers.

    Dennis contacted the Brooklyn Township Historical Society, which had extensive records of the farm. Society members knew the Perkins-Dennis graveyard as the Underground Railroad Cemetery because of the farm's association with abolitionists.

    Dennis enlisted Elizabeth Watson, a heritage development consultant, who brought in the Endless Mountains Heritage Region, the agency charged with preserving rural culture in northeastern Pennsylvania.

    "The history of African American settlement in Pennsylvania is kind of an untold story," said Phil Swank, the agency's executive director.

    The anthropology department at the State University of New York at Binghamton was invited to help. Students collected 9,000 artifacts from around the farmhouse, and 1,200 more from the ruins of the 18th-century homestead.

    "The people who lived there were really similar to any other pioneering family. They weren't terribly wealthy," said John Roby, the doctoral student who directed the archaeological dig. The researchers found hairpins, pipes, razors, ceramics, milk jugs, and bits of harmonicas and mouth harps.

    "I would say if you walked into their house in 1850, the place wouldn't have looked any different than most other houses of the day," Roby said.

    That the farm has remained in one family's ownership for more than two centuries tells a continuous story of people who struggled, prospered, sent their children to college, and then moved to the city as the industrial age eclipsed rural life.

    "It's kind of an American dream story," Roby said. "That's a potentially powerful thing we can show."

    Along with the family's collection of papers, the documentation is extensive.

    "To find examples of thriving African American families before emancipation, with that amount of acreage and prominence in the community, is unique," said Brent Leggs, a field representative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which included the site on its inventory of historic places.

    Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, looked over the material and declared the museum's "deep interest" in a letter last year to Dennis.

    "The Dennis Collection constitutes the precious material culture of our country's past," Bunch wrote. "We hope that the trust will continue its careful and successful efforts to ensure the preservation and survival of these artifacts for posterity."

     


     

    To see a gallery of photos

    of the Dennis farm, go to http://go.philly.com/dennisfarm


    Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

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