Drilling and history intersect in the Marcellus Shale

Architects say they are working to stabilize the 19th century Dennis Farm homestead in Brooklyn, Pa., to prevent further deterioration.
Architects say they are working to stabilize the 19th century Dennis Farm homestead in Brooklyn, Pa., to prevent further deterioration. (ANDREW MAYKUTH / Staff)
Posted: September 18, 2013

BROOKLYN, Pa. - Marcellus Shale money paid to prop up the dilapidated house on a historic African American farm here. But Denise Dennis is learning there are limits to what a natural gas income can accomplish.

"People think we're millionaires," said Dennis, the spokeswoman for the Philadelphia family whose ancestors settled this farm in Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains when George Washington was president.

Aided by the Marcellus natural gas boom, the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust hopes to restore the historic site settled by freed African Americans and owned by the same family for eight generations. The trust held a symposium last week for about 50 guests, a coming-out party for the farm.

"When the nation was new and 90 percent of African Americans were slaves, an African American family of farmers owned and cultivated this land and passed it on to their descendants in the 21st century," Dennis told the visitors.

The aim of the symposium - attended by scholars, students, business leaders and some local history buffs - was to build support to construct a center here for the historical study of African Americans in northern states.

Architects estimate it will cost $1.2 million to restore the two-story house, which dates to the mid-1800s, and $20 million more to build an interpretive center.

Raising money has been hindered by the perception that the trust is swimming in cash since it leased the farm's mineral rights last year to Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., Dennis said.

"A lot of people think we can do everything on the farm with just the gas money, but we can't," she said.

Dennis and Cabot have not disclosed what the company paid for the lease, but no drilling has occurred near the 153-acre farm, so it has not yet earned any royalties from gas production.

Dennis, an author who is writing a history of the farm, went through a difficult two-year public deliberation over whether to lease the land for drilling. She became an ardent anti-drilling activist after learning about hydraulic fracturing, the technique used to extract gas from shale.

But the Texas drilling company convinced her that the process was safe and that it could extract the gas without disturbing the Dennis Farm by drilling horizontal wells from neighboring lands.

"I know the anti-fracking people are disappointed with me," she said. "I made what I feel was the best decision for our property."

For Cabot, which organized and sponsored the symposium, the farm represents a public relations opportunity. Cabot's image was seriously damaged in 2009 by its handling of water contamination complaints in the nearby town of Dimock. The Dennis Farm project has become one of its higher-profile community relations efforts.

"The bottom line is that we want to make this relationship work for the both of us," said George Stark, the company's spokesman.

Natural gas went unmentioned during the symposium, and many of the visitors, including a contingent of Philadelphians, said they were unaware of Dennis' shale odyssey.

"I heard very little about Cabot, which is fine with me," said Larry J. Griffin, the treasurer of Beech Interplex Inc., a North Philadelphia nonprofit group.

What the visitors heard instead was the compelling history of the Dennis family in Susquehanna County, dating back to the 1793 arrival of Dennis' great-great-great-great-grandfather, Prince Perkins, a black Revolutionary War veteran.

Students at the anthropology department at Binghamton University in New York unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts from the land that portray the progress of a family as it toiled, prospered, and eventually moved to the city in the 20th century.

Over the years, Dennis has assembled a widening circle of academics and researchers who have taken an interest in the project. Experts say there are few historic sites that tell the story of freed blacks living the American dream.

"It's not a remarkable story, it's a unique story," said Wade P. Catts, the associate director of cultural resources for John Milner Associates in West Chester, which has prepared an application to list the farm on the National Register of Historic Places.

A Drexel University team is creating a three-dimensional digital reconstruction of the farm as it would have looked 200 and 150 years ago.

Cecilia Rusnak, a landscape architect from Pennsylvania State University, and Patrice Jeppson, a historical architect from Cheyney and West Chester Universities, are planning projects involving their students.

The farm now is largely overgrown with trees. The family farmhouse, a two-story, timber-framed New England dwelling, has been unoccupied for more than two decades and was in an advanced state of decay before Hurricane Irene arrived last year and destroyed the roof.

Work crews removed and stowed the roof, the windows, the doors, and one exterior wall before securing the structure with boards and buttresses. In the coming weeks, they will build a barn roof over the entire structure to act as a protective canopy during the restoration.

"We've basically stopped the deterioration in its tracks, and now we're moving forward," said Philip E. Yocum, an architect with the Milner firm.

Despite a slowdown in drilling in other parts of Pennsylvania, Cabot is moving forward in Susquehanna County, where its wells are among the state's most productive.

Dennis is confident Cabot will be careful around her farm.

"They wouldn't want to draw attention to this if they thought they were going to wreck it," she said.

For more information: http://thedennisfarm.org


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

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