It's a wild life for envied tenants of park dwellings

Dog walkers pass by Tish Mayo's home along the multiuse trail in Ridley Creek State Park. Once in a while, coyotes take a rest on her doorstep.
Dog walkers pass by Tish Mayo's home along the multiuse trail in Ridley Creek State Park. Once in a while, coyotes take a rest on her doorstep.
Posted: March 27, 2011

Never mind the drafty windows, or the sagging floorboards, or the lilliputian closets, or the frozen pipes, or the bugs that creep in, or the occasional coyote on the porch.

Scattered through the woods and across the meadows of Ridley Creek State Park are 24 of the most coveted rental homes in Delaware County, with a list of 500 applicants vying to time-travel back a couple of centuries.

The wait can be interminable. The hardy band of tenants who occupy the historic abodes tend to stay put, viewing life in the wilds not as an inconvenience but as a gift.

"I think I am in heaven every day, and I have been here 24 years," said Bonnie Harper, who lives in a stone abode of just three rooms, one bath, and a closet, totaling about 500 square feet.

Built in 1771, hers is hardly the oldest of the dwellings that the state has rented out since it bought the land in the late 1960s and fashioned a 2,606-acre park.

Some are remnants of an early-18th-century village that sprang up around a gristmill and a sawmill. They include what were once the town library, the mill office, several workers' homes, and farmhouses - all anointed in 1976 by the National Register of Historic Places.

Tenants pay $500 to $2,000 a month, but one month a year is rent-free. In return for the break, they take on the labor and cost of minor maintenance and repairs, such as fixing broken windowpanes and torn screens. Projects the magnitude of bathroom renovations or new roofs require park approval, and they earn rent credits for those who do the work themselves. Improvements must be done out of necessity, however, not in surrender to modernity.

Warren Graham, a 60-year-old beekeeper, and Cecile Mann, 59, are among the rare newcomers. They moved into their two-story stone home in early 2010, just in time for record snows.

In a rookie mistake, they parked their car near the house, rather than the end of their 100-yard-long driveway. "We couldn't get out for five days," Mann said.

The house had been empty for a few years while a small bridge to the property was repaired. Animals made their way inside and left their scent. So the couple's first year has been spent scrubbing the walls and cleaning.

"The house was quite neglected, but we have begun to resurrect it," said Graham, whose never-ending to-do list includes a refurbished kitchen and floor and a garden.

"You wonder if you're crazy," he said. "But then, on a spring day, it's" - he paused - "wonderful."

Many tenants are drawn to the park for the location, close to suburban amenities such as Granite Run Mall, and yet so far.

Telephone service, both landline and cell, is spotty. Septic tanks are the rule. In big storms, power lines felled by trees usually aren't fixed as expeditiously as in the more-populous world beyond.

"You need to be prepared to live here on your own for a few days," said park manager Roger McChesney, who lost electricity to his park home five times last year.

Still, he said, "most people who get here do not move."

When a home does become available, park officials herald it with a letter to the entire waiting list. An open house follows; depending on the size of the place and the shape it's in, the group can shrink quickly. Park officials interview those still interested and then pick the new denizen.

There is one manse in the vast Ridley Creek expanse, and it is both the park headquarters and a venue for weddings and banquets. Built in 1914 around a 1789 stone farmhouse, Tudor-style Hunting Hill was home to Walter Jeffords, a horseman who in the early 20th century cobbled together more than 2,000 acres - at one time the largest undeveloped, privately held swath in the Philadelphia region.

His wife, Sarah, was the granddaughter of the founder of the Dobson Textile Mills and niece of Sam Riddle, owner of the racehorse Man O' War.

The state bought the couple's holdings to form the bulk of Ridley Creek Park, which became a recreation mecca.

A paved trail runs through it, so a constant parade of joggers and dog-walkers passes by some of the homes.

Harper carries dog biscuits in her pocket for the regulars.

"The ones that know me know I have treats," she said, proffering one to a golden retriever tugging at his leash. "Everyone stops to say hello."

And some stop to peek in windows. Crime, however, is not an issue for the park dwellers, McChesney said.

Far more numerous than two-legged interlopers is the native stock - deer, raccoons, opossums - that laid claim to the land long before the Quakers.

"I have found snake skins in the basement," said Elaine Braddock, who with her adult son has lived in the 1683 Worrel House, the park's oldest, for six years.

While she has never seen a snake slither by, she noted an advantage to having them: "They keep the mice away."

A nurse at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, Braddock restored the kitchen and bathrooms and remortared the exterior brick. The house has beamed ceilings, stone fireplaces, and planked floors that rise on the sides and sag in the middle, like a snowboarder's half-pipe.

Braddock opened a wooden door to a third-floor attic, revealing a false wall beside the narrow staircase. "Rumor has it," she said, that "this is where they hid the slaves" on the Underground Railroad. "Loose floorboards gave them access to the attic."

About a century before, in 1777, the home had been used as a military field hospital during the Battle of the Brandywine.

Tish Mayo calls herself the park's "artist in residence." In the five years she has lived there, she has painted nothing but her environs and has sold more than 150 paintings and photographs of the old houses and scenic views from her porch.

Like many, her three-story home was built in stages, beginning in 1730. A kitchen was added in 1810. Water came in the early 1900s and plumbing in the 1930s. Mayo, 65, grew up in the area and remembers seeing an old privy out back.

Before she began some renovations, she had mold, rafters the consistency of "mush," and flying squirrels for roommates.

Ivy still finds its way through the thick stone walls, and coyotes park themselves on her doorstep. But she has named many of the birds and spent dark nights watching "zillions" of lightning bugs with her grandson.

Mayo can't imagine living anyplace else, she said. "I hope I can stay here forever."


Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.

 

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