Keeping Local Historic Sites Alive

Posted: July 06, 1986

Josephine Hull spends Wednesday afternoons in a one-room schoolhouse that was built in 1759. She sits in a corner by the front window, leafing through the faded pages of an 18th-century almanac or arranging stacks of souvenir postcards.

It is a lonely job.

"Some weeks it's so slow, I could practically fall asleep here," Hull said. "If we get five or six people in here, we're doing pretty good."

On this particular day, a half-dozen people had come to tour the Old School House in Mount Holly before Hull closed its door, ending her three-hour volunteer shift and the site's weekly visiting hours. She pointed to the column of signatures in the guestbook and smiled. "It was busy this week," she said. "I had a pretty steady stream - about six."

Ten years after the hoopla surrounding the U.S. Bicentennial, administrators of Burlington County's historic sites are settling in for the long - and often quiet - haul.

The attention of countless schoolchildren, the speeches by public officials, and their moment in the local spotlight are long gone. Nevertheless, those who voluntarily maintain the Bicentennial's legacy say it was invaluable in spurring public interest in historic restoration.

Despite a low profile and limited operating hours, historic sites in Burlington County still manage to attract hundreds - and in some cases, thousands - of visitors each year. Tourism is steady, and officials report that the number of visitors to most sites has remained constant in the last decade.

"Nothing did more for this country's historic sites and for preservation than the Bicentennial," said Rhett Pernot, administrator of the Burlington County Historical Society. "And I think that ever since, there's been a substantial interest in things historic."

Pernot said the Bicentennial inspired a resurgence of patriotism that revived interest in American heritage. "People really became aware that (historic) things are valuable, and that made a difference," she said. ''People today are proud of their heritage."

*

The three teenagers from Mount Holly had passed the Old School House before. They had read the sign outside and even peered in the windows once or twice.

Curiosity finally led them in.

On the kind of brilliantly sunny day that seems to beckon people outdoors, they stepped inside the tiny schoolhouse and looked around wide-eyed. Desks were pushed together in a neat queue. The accompanying benches, backless and low to the ground, looked uncomfortable. At the front of the room, the podium- like schoolmaster's desk looked imposing.

"This is terrible," said Tracey Williams, 16, as she entered the schoolhouse, which is the oldest in New Jersey that is still standing on its original foundation. "Imagine sitting at those benches."

Gingerly, she pulled one out and, with a grimace, satisfied herself that the metal and plastic chair-desks at Rancocas Valley Regional High School were an improvement over those used by students two centuries earlier.

Watching the age of home computers clash with the age of quill pens, Hull smiled. "There are some absolutely fascinating old school books over there," she told the young people. "And see this map of the United States? It's from 1839. There were only three states west of the Mississippi in those days."

But James Hayes, 18, seemed more interested in the tricorn schoolmaster's hat. He put it on, prompting giggles from Williams.

Their companion, April Del Valle, 16, shook her head. "I think it's neat to visit places like this, because there's a lot we don't know about the way things used to be," she said. "I think this is a part of America a lot of people overlook."

Hayes looked at her impatiently. "You ready to go?" he asked.

The visit had lasted about 10 minutes, but Hull was not surprised. "The young people stop in periodically, but they have other interests," she said. ''A lot of them are interested in sports these days.

"Me, I think this place is fascinating," continued Hull, a member of the National Society of the Colonial Dames, which restored the schoolhouse in 1959 and conducts the tours. "But it's a matter of who likes what, I think. Some people like to go fishing and hunting, and some people like history and antiques. I look at it this way, if we get one or two interested people in here, it's all worth it."

Patchwork quilts, carefully stitched by women of centuries past, covered most of the furniture in the 18th-century farmhouse at Peachfield Plantation.

Laurence Del Voll was not impressed.

"Everything in there was interesting, but the quilts," he said, after touring the house with his granddaughter Debbie. "I didn't care for them especially."

But that reaction is unusual, according to Doris Alaimo, who conducts tours of the site. "I really think the quilts have made a difference," she said. ''A lot of people have come in specifically to see them." The exhibit ''Patterns and Stitches" is one of several changing exhibits designed to attract visitors to the stately two-story farmhouse, which members of the Colonial Dames have carefully furnished with 18th- and 19th-century antiques.

Along Burrs Road just outside of Mount Holly, it is an out-of-the-way place, and its supporters would like to change that. "There are lots of people that do not know we're here," said Sewell Wallace, vice president of the society. "We really have to work to bring people in."

The group, made up of women whose ancestors held public office in colonial times, funds its restoration and preservation efforts through an endowment, donations and membership dues.

Peachfield Plantation and the Old School House are open from 1 to 4 p.m. each Wednesday from May through October.

Each year more than 5,000 visitors pass through the doors of the restored historic buildings on High Street in Burlington. But Rhett Pernot is still not

satisfied.

"It's a constant struggle to keep in the public eye," she said. "People have to know that we're here in order to come in."

Pernot said the biggest challenge of her job as historic society administrator is attracting and sustaining public interest. It is not an easy task, she said. But neither is it an impossible one.

"It's a good time (for historic sites) right now," Pernot said. "I think there is a real pride in American heritage that came with the Bicentennial and carried forward with the celebration of the birthday of Lady Liberty."

Like other groups, the historical society is attempting to convert patriotism into tourism.

"Unfortunately, we don't get the kind of tourist influx that the shore areas do," Pernot said.

"We have to really work to bring people in, but there's been a definite increase."

Each year, she said, more people tour the James Fenimore Cooper House in Burlington. Cooper, who is best known for his books The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, was born in the house.

Built in 1780, it is decorated with 18th-century furniture, including some of the Coopers', and the bedroom suite of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's older brother. Bonaparte, who once was king of Spain, lived in voluntary exile in Bordentown after the Battle of Waterloo.

The historical society also offers tours of the Pearson-How House, an early 18th-century structure that was home to colonial clockmaker Samuel Pearson

from 1710 to 1749 and, later in the century, to Burlington County Common Pleas Court Judge Samuel How Jr.

A collection of artifacts from the War of 1812 and changing exhibits of costumes and quilts may be viewed at the Capt. James Lawrence House, while an assortment of early farm tools, kitchen utensils, dolls and costumes is on exhibit at the Aline K. Wolcott Museum.

Tours are available from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday. A $1 donation is requested.

The Mansion at Smithville and the Historic Burlington County Prison Museum are attracting throngs of visitors this year, but program coordinator Rosann Hickey said, "All is not roses."

The popular historic sites, open Wednesday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m., need more volunteer tour guides. "We're at the point where after every tour we give 'the pitch,' " Hickey said. "We say this is a lovely site that stays open only because of the generous contributions of time by people like yourselves.

"In a way, we're suffering from our own success," she continued. "What happened is that the Bicentennial got people interested in these places, but the economy has changed since 1976, and all those milk-and-cookie mommies who used to volunteer their services are out working to make ends meet."

The county-owned prison museum and mansion each attract about 3,200 visitors annually. The prison was built in 1810 by Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument. The Greek Revival mansion is the former home of H.B. Smith, an inventor.

Both sites are overseen by the staff of the Burlington County Cultural and Heritage Commission and operate on an annual budget of about $40,000, exclusive of staff salaries, according to Carter Jones, administrator of the

commission. An additional $8,000 is raised by nonprofit volunteer groups, Friends of the Museum and the Prison Museum Association.

"Things could be better," Hickey said. "We could always use more money, and one of the hardest things to get is people's time. . . .

"But we're lucky in Burlington County because we have so many sites worthy of attention and we literally have thousands of people come to see them."

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