In Medford, house restored draws attention to one that isn't

Jim Wehner works on the Bunning house in Medford, being renovated as an education center focusing on James Still. Backers including Still's descendants now want Still's own house next door restored.
Jim Wehner works on the Bunning house in Medford, being renovated as an education center focusing on James Still. Backers including Still's descendants now want Still's own house next door restored. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 19, 2013

Janet Carlson Giardina handed a large flower pot to Angie Furno, pointed her toward some mums, and crossed once again through the Medford farmhouse she is turning into an education center about James Still, the "black doctor of the Pines."

On Sunday, the Medford Historical Society will inaugurate the center at 211 Church Rd., and on Friday volunteers were planting fence posts, mulching a children's garden, hanging drapes, and setting up chairs for opening day.

Still, Carlson was not prepared for the sight of two contractors jacking a pair of stately white columns into place under the front-door eaves.

"I love it," she said. "This is like a barn-raising."

But even as guides escort visitors Sunday around the century-old farmhouse, teaching about the 19th-century African American whose herbal remedies made him wealthy and famous across South Jersey, some of Still's descendants will be fretting about the dilapidated bungalow next door.

It was there, at 209 Church Rd. - not 211 - that Still, the son of slaves, made poultices and medicines of exceptional efficacy from 1845 until his death in 1882.

In 2006 the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry acquired Still's former office, along with the adjacent property known as the Bunning farm, and announced plans to renovate both.

Yet the Still house, where people came for miles to buy his remedies, today sits boarded up and deteriorating, even as volunteers by the score labor feverishly to turn the Bunning farmhouse into a visitor center.

"It's a concern of everybody" in the Still family, said the Rev. Terrell Person, pastor of Jacob's Chapel in Mount Laurel, where James Still - Person's great-great-grandfather - lies buried.

"I can understand their rationale for doing this," he said Friday during a tour of the three-story, shingled Bunning farmhouse. He will be among the lecturers Sunday.

"But the state was supposed to come up with the dollars for that house," he said, pointing through the woods to the bungalow 150 yards away. "This is one of the only historical properties the state has that belonged to an African American. It's an injustice what's happening."

Valerie Still, another descendant, voiced concern in a recent interview that the Medford Historical Society, which the state has designated as its local liaison to the restoration project, is playing on public esteem for James Still to raise money for a center devoted more to Medford than the story of her great-great grandfather.

"It's got to be Afrocentric," said Still. "It's got to be about James Still."

Her concerns have prompted several tense meetings in recent weeks involving herself, representatives of the Parks Division, and Giardina, the historical society's unpaid project coordinator.

"A rift has clearly developed between Janet and Valerie," said former Medford Mayor Randy Pace, a current member of the township council and its liaison to the project.

He said he understood Valerie Still's concerns, but was impressed that the historical society under Giardina's direction was "busting its hump to get things done."

"There's nothing stopping Valerie from raising money and producing manpower" for restoring the Still house, he said.

Larry Hajna, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to which the Parks Division belongs, last week said the agency bought the Bunning property in 2006 "knowing it is not historic" but could "serve as a portal" to the Still house.

He said he had no good estimate on when the department could start to fund a restoration of Still's house because so much of its resources were going to repair parks damaged by Hurricane Sandy. But he conceded it would be expensive because any restoration must be faithful to the original.

"It will take a lot more than a splash of paint," Hajna said.

In an interview last week at the education center, Giardina was emphatic that "our focus is still Dr. James Still."

She said she and the historical society had no choice but to focus first on the Bunning property because a restoration of Still's house was "totally beyond our reach."

"You can't just put asphalt shingles" on the roof, she said. "You have to research the original shingles and duplicate them. Same with the floors and furniture, the siding, windows."

Estimates for a historically accurate restoration of the Still house range from $500,000 to $1 million, she said. A state-funded architectural survey of the site cost $250,000 in 2006.

"We don't have anything like that amount of money," she said, adding that the Bunning restoration had received nothing from Medford Township or the state, and only $100 from the Medford Historical Society.

A local ShopRite gave the education center $10,000, a private donor gave $2,000, the Medford Women's Club has made a "generous gift," and the Lumberton Lowe's store designated it this year's "Lowe's Heroes" project. That designation brought with it the labors last week of about 35 Lowe's employee volunteers, along with free mulch and decorations for the children's garden.

While not everything on exhibit in the Bunning property will be focused on Still, "it's important," Giardina said, to understand James Still in the context of the community he called home.

"He chose Medford," she said, and for that reason she wants the education center to teach not only about Still but such topics as the town's abolitionist Quakers, who made Still feel welcome.

Still's Victorian mansion, which once sat between the little office and what is now the Bunning property, was demolished early in the last century.

On a brief tour of the Bunning house, Giardina showed off the former dining room that will become a reading room, with bookshelves stocked with literature devoted to Still and Medford.

The former parlor will serve as a 25-seat conference room for lectures, and the enclosed porch will have a TV screen showing hundreds of images related to Still.

The kitchen, Giardina said, will be used demonstrate how Still prepared herbs as remedies, and she pointed through a window to the boxed gardens outside that already contain thyme and lavender and a dozen other plants of the kind Still once grew.

Upstairs rooms are off-limits for now, she said, but one will serve as the office of archaeologist Marc Lorenc, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Massachusetts who specializes in Still.

Sunday's open house, which runs from 1 to 5 p.m., will include a reenactor portraying Still, lectures by Person on Still's religious faith, by Lorenc on "community archaeology," by descendant Machell Still-Pettis on the Still family women, and by Burlington County historian Joseph Laufer on Medford.

There will also be tours of the gardens, fiddle music, an exhibit of wild animals from the Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, and games for children.

"The house over there," she said, nodding toward the Still house through the woods, "has been sitting like that for years.

"We just can't wait forever to tell his story."

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

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