caretaker, who, instead of greeting visitors at the Indian King Tavern's door and leading them on tours, is packing and preparing to desert the museum she has called home for 21 years.
From the wooded hills of Somerset County to a knoll overlooking Great Egg Harbor, American history has been shut down. New Jersey's budget problems are shrouding even the state's own proud past.
"Twenty-one years of my life here," said Scheckler, who - prodded by retirement incentives - is moving with her husband this month to a home in LeisureTowne. As she spoke, her gaze lowered and her light-blue eyes glistened. "It's going to be a very difficult day the day I leave here.
"It's a wonderful accomplishment in anyone's life to be in charge of a beautiful museum. . . . And to live here and take care of it is a privilege. Even though we're going to a quiet way of living, we have to deal with not being here. It's just like a death in the family."
Four retirements and one illness, striking in tandem with a statewide hiring freeze, have closed five historic houses that together were visited by more than 12,000 people last year: Rockingham, Washington's final headquarters while he awaited the signing of the Treaty of Paris; the Hancock House in Hancock's Bridge, the only house left in the state in which a major massacre took place during the Revolutionary War; Somers Mansion in Somers Point, Atlantic County's oldest house; the Walt Whitman House, and the Indian King Tavern.
In most pockets of government, a handful of vacant, roughly $20,000-a-year posts might go unnoticed. But when the job is to live in, protect, clean and receive the public each day, five living chapters of history disappear.
Department of Environmental Protection officials have applied to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to renew the positions, which have been vacated, one by one, since last winter. They say the jobs are a priority and they're confident the sites will be reopened; Gov. Florio's office agrees.
But no one knows when.
So, as Philadelphia-area cultural institutions gear up for the centennial of Whitman's death in 1892, the only home the poet ever owned remains shut for its ninth month. His favorite rocking chair, perched at the same Mickle Boulevard window through which Whitman often chatted with passersby, the bed he died in, and his letters and photographs remain unseen by the very common folk Whitman strove so vigorously to touch with his words.
"It's just outrageous," said Joan Wilmarth, president of the Walt Whitman Association, a support group dedicated to furthering the poet's legacy. ''We're not talking about big dollars, that's what's so incomprehensible about this. The curator position is $25,000 a year tops . . . small change. This is just symptomatic of the state's view of historic sites, which is to totally ignore them."
Poet Allen Ginsberg put it this way in a June letter to Florio: "This represents a signal that we value war celebrations more than celebration of native American imagination, individuality & spiritual activity. . . . If it comes to that there's little official America but boors, fundamentalists, selfish middle-class money grubbers and low-life politicians on the make."
Ginsberg is known for his expressions of outrage, but in the Princeton area, students and volunteers who have contributed tirelessly to Rockingham have similar concerns about the future.
In better times, the 20 Montgomery High School students who make up the Live Historians Society might be stationed at their favorite hangout on fall weekends, explaining to visitors how Washington came to Rockingham to attend meetings of the Continental Congress in Princeton - and while awaiting word of the signing of the peace treaty, entertained the likes of Gen. Nathaniel Greene and Thomas Paine with oysters, smoked ham and imported nutmeg.
They'd also be preparing for the annual Christmas ceremony, with every candle in the house lit, a string ensemble playing colonial-era music, refreshments made from 18th-century recipes, and docents dressed in period costumes.
"I'm really disappointed because I think it's an essential part of the community and New Jersey as a whole," said Ben Dalbey, who with his fellow club members videotaped a plea to Florio's wife, Lucinda, a former teacher. ''It's kind of irresponsible to only look at the monetary aspect - it's worth so much more than money. You're exposing people to their heritage. . . . When you're reading a textbook you seem isolated, but when you think Washington actually stayed at the house and you're standing where it all happened, it's so much more real."
State Treasury Department officials estimate that the early retirement program, under which the caretakers of the Hancock House and the Indian King Tavern left their posts, is expected to save $57.5 million statewide. That's assuming all 1,525 workers who took advantage of it are not replaced.
But there's certainly no celebration among the pristine meadows of Lower Alloway Creek, Salem County, where the Hancock House is about to lose Mary Hewitt, its caretaker, who was raised in the house. Hewitt said she would rather not talk publicly about the matter.
However, a historical advisory committee has asked the township to try to acquire the house from the state and maintain it with local resources.
"There are enough people in town who feel strongly about it and the town fathers will be as responsive as we can," said Lower Alloway Creek Mayor Michael Facemyer, a descendant of Judge William Hancock, who built the house, and who, in 1778, was bayoneted to death inside it by British troops along with about 30 other men. "I'd hope there'd be a groundswell and people would say, 'Let's not stand still for this.' "
Haddonfield Mayor Jack Tarditi has suggested that local volunteer organizations help reopen the Indian King while the state works through its problems. And the Atlantic County Historical Society opens the Somers Mansion on an appointment-only basis.
"Maybe now is the time for communities that care about their historic sites to organize their own support groups . . . to bring these sites back . . . not just for the benefit of the local community but for the benefit of the entire state," said John H. Reisner 3d, chairman of the Haddonfield Planning Board and a member of the New Jersey Historic Sites Council.
When the sites do reopen, the traditional "caretaker" title will itself become an artifact.
In most cases, the positions are being upgraded to "historic preservation specialist," which requires a college degree. And the names Margaret Scheckler, Mary Hewitt, Jeanette Graff - Rockingham's caretaker for 18 years - and Eleanor Ray - who ran the Walt Whitman house for more than 30 years - along with their predecessors, will fade into the background of the sites' own histories, along with the blue and white uniforms once required of caretakers.
Surely Walt Whitman would have found words of inspiration for his fellow man approaching 330 Mickle Blvd. only to see a sign in the window: "Sorry, historic site temporarily closed." Perhaps he would have leaned out the same
window and said something like what he wrote in Leaves of Grass:
Dear friend whoever you are take this kiss,
I give it especially to you, do not forget me,
I feel like one who has done work for the day to retire awhile, . . .
Remember my words, I may again return,
I love you, I depart from materials,
I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.
HISTORY ON HOLD
The following historic houses in New Jersey have been closed:
* Hancock House, Hancock's Bridge. The site where about 30 colonists were killed by British troops during the Revolutionary War.
* Indian King Tavern, Haddonfield. The site where the colonial assembly declared New Jersey a state.
* Rockingham, Rocky Hill. George Washington's headquarters, where he awaited the signing of the Treaty of Paris and wrote the farewell to his troops.
* Somers Mansion, Somers Point. The oldest house in Atlantic County.
* Walt Whitman House, Camden. The site where the poet composed the final revisions of Leaves of Grass.