New ways to tell an old plantation's story

The Whitall House, which was on a working plantation in colonial America, is owned by Gloucester County. Interns from Rowan University and volunteers work with Janofsky.
The Whitall House, which was on a working plantation in colonial America, is owned by Gloucester County. Interns from Rowan University and volunteers work with Janofsky.
Posted: February 10, 2014

Jennifer Janofsky doesn't care for what she calls "butter-churn history."

Quaint objects alone don't do justice, she says, to the richness and complexities of the Whitall House story.

The plantation on the Delaware River in National Park is where tales of family, faith, prosperity, plague, and war were lived more than two centuries ago.

With the help of a crew of interns and volunteers, Janofsky, curator of the house-museum since 2012, is bringing more of these stories to light - and finding new ways to tell them.

"This will be the kids' zone," she says, standing in a sunny kitchen where young visitors will be invited to write letters to Job and Sara, two children of James and Ann Whitall (pronounced WHITE-all).

Trained volunteers will answer by snail mail, and their letters will describe what ordinary life was like for a family on a working plantation in colonial America.

(The Whitalls were Quakers and did not own slaves. But the family did have indentured servants, including a young Irishwoman whose life is a subject of Janofsky's research.)

The letter-writing idea came from Caitlin Farley, an intern from Rowan University, where Janofsky teaches when not curating the house - which is owned by Gloucester County, along with the surrounding 40 acres, now a park.

This unusual partnership is named in honor of the beloved previous curator, Megan Giordano, who died in 2011. The arrangement "is fabulous for our students," history department chairman William D. Carrigan says.

"If you're going to have someone in the classroom talk about a career [in the field of history], who better than someone who's actually doing it in the field?" adds Carrigan, an architect of the partnership.

"I really enjoy the work," says intern Melissa Masino, 22, of Williamstown, a Rowan senior, whose duties include helping organize about 300 objects in the Whitall collection.

The 400-acre plantation included orchards, a shad fishery, and a lumberyard, all on a wooded bluff with a magnificent view of the Delaware. But life there wasn't always picturesque; during the Revolutionary War, the Whitalls, who were pacifists, allowed their house to be used as a field hospital for wounded Hessian soldiers.

"The history is amazing," says Janofsky, who previously did work for the National Constitution Center and the Eastern State Penitentiary tourist attraction in Philadelphia.

Exhibits about the battle and the field hospital are on the first floor. On the renovated and reopened second floor, Janofsky has designed new exhibits about the themes of life and death at the Whitall House. The museum is free and open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.

Ann Whitall had nine children, eight of whom survived birth. She and four of her offspring were among those who perished in the yellow-fever epidemic in 1797.

The exhibit includes a "birthing chair" that's uncomfortable to look at, along with primitive (if ingenious) medical instruments on loan from Philadelphia's Mutter Museum.

"The last thing I wanted was to only have period furniture in the exhibit. I don't think it really speaks to people," says Janofsky, 40, who lives in Jenkintown Montgomery County, with her husband, Tom, and their two young children.

Legend has it that, after a cannonball crashed through the wall of Ann Whitall's sewing room during the Battle of Red Bank, she simply picked up her spinning wheel and went down to the basement.

There's little evidence this actually happened, "but we do know from several historical sources that she refused to leave," Janofsky says. "She was a 60-year-old woman who wanted to defend her home. She was incredibly strong, stubborn, and brave."

Ann Whitall, the curator adds, "was a tough old bird."

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