“EMHR and the Historic Dennis Farm: Embracing Our Past to Enrich Our Future”
Keynote Address, Seventh Annual Dennis Farm Symposium
Cain Chamberlin, Executive Director, Endless Mountains Heritage Region
Keynote Address, Seventh Annual Dennis Farm Symposium
Cain Chamberlin, Executive Director, Endless Mountains Heritage Region
I wanted to begin by thanking Denise Dennis, her family and the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust for including the Endless Mountains Heritage Region in this incredible event and inviting me to be the guest speaker for today’s Symposium. I also thank all of you for coming today to learn about this absolutely breathtaking piece of property out in Susquehanna County and the captivating story behind it.
To understand the relationship between the organization I represent, the Endless Mountains Heritage Region, and the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust, you have to know some about what we do at the EMHR. We are a membership-based 501c3 non-profit organization that was founded in 1998 and designated by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (or DCNR) as one of 12 Heritage Areas across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Headquartered in Towanda, we serve the four counties of Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Wyoming.
In serving those four counties – encompassing 2,850 square miles and roughly 140,000 residents – the EMHR is committed to projects and initiatives pertaining to historic preservation, outdoor recreation and trail development, agricultural education and support, land and water trail conservation and tourism promotion for our heritage assets across the region. Plainly put, we’re here to make the Endless Mountains and better place to live and to visit.
We also serve as water trail manager for the Upper North Branch Susquehanna River Water Trail and administer a Partnership Grants program on an annual basis, which utilizes a portion of the funding we receive annually from DCNR to assist heritage partners in our region with various projects. Since the Partnership or Mini-Grants program began, we have brought nearly $2.5 million worth of state funding into the region for dozens of projects. And that’s just our portion as these grants require a full match from the grant recipient.
In Susquehanna County, this funding has helped heritage sites and organizations like the Starrucca Viaduct, Friends of Salt Springs Park, the Susquehanna County Historical Society, Endless Mountains Trail in Montrose, the Clifford Township Historical Society and the neighboring Children’s Garden and the D&H Rail Trail to name a few.
Here in Wyoming County, we assisted with projects like the Tunkhannock Historic Walking Tour, Laceyville’s Oldest House, the Seneca and Iroquois Trails, the Nicholson Heritage Association and Tunkhannock Viaduct, the Dietrich Theater, the Howland Preserve and most recently, a trail signage project here at Keystone College, which is currently in development.
In 2002, just four years after the EMHR’s founding, it found itself an invaluable heritage partner – The Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust. While the property itself dated back to the late 18th century, the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust was only a year old at the time after receiving its 501c3 designation in 2001. The organization applied to the EMHR for a grant, which assisted in the development of a special purpose study that ultimately produced a comprehensive historical narrative about the 1793 African-American settlement in Brooklyn Township as well as a landscape assessment, conceptual site plan and a framework for its interpretive and education programs.
Many years passed along with a couple of executive directors at the EMHR before the Dennis Farm applied for grant funding again in 2017, which would help create an interpretive master plan for the development of the historic site, which would then be open to the public for tours.
I came on board the EMHR in late August of 2018 and earlier this year led the administration of my first grant round with the Heritage Region. Lo and behold, one of our 14 applicants was the Dennis Farm. We were able to provide a grant of nearly $5,600 to the Charitable Land Trust for 10 interpretive signs that would be placed at key locations throughout the property and essentially provide visitors a self-guided tour.
When factoring in year’s grant, the EMHR has contributed nearly $50,000 in matched grant funding to the Dennis Farm and extremely proud to have provided that financial aid and to be a part of the farm’s story.
It wasn’t long before that June grant was administered when myself, the EMHR Staff and Board of Directors as well as DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn visited the Dennis Farm property for a tour, following a board meeting we’d held at the First Universalist Church there in Brooklyn Township. Having heard so much about the Dennis Farm by that time, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to gather the full history through a tour with the family and finally hear bear witness to its intrinsic beauty with my own eyes. It did not disappoint…
Lucas Taylor, who happened to serve as minister for the First Universalist Church and I believe Director of Student Services here at Keystone? Well, he was also our tour guide for the Dennis Farm that afternoon and led our convoy of vehicles from the church to our descent down Creek Road, which included a spectacular view of the Martin’s Creek Viaduct, and finally to our destination. We stood at the entryway next to the Pennsylvania Historic Marker that summarizes the unique story of the Dennis Farm that was settled in 1793 by Prince Perkins, a free African American and Revolutionary War veteran. Over 220 years of family history laid before us and the descendants of that impressive pedigree were there to lead the way.
Denise, her brother Darryl (Gore) and cousin Lonnie (Moore) shared tales of Prince Perkins, who moved to Susquehanna County from Connecticut in Colonial New England and was embraced by the local community, and other family members like his granddaughter Angeline Perkins and her husband Henry Dennis who later expanded the family farm. If you know Denise, you could probably guess she did most of the talking and storytelling, but it’s not difficult to see how passionate they all are about this site.
Standing between the partially restored early 19th century timber-frame farmhouse and the remnants of the old barn complex from the same period, we stood in awe of the property’s splendor and continued our tour of the 153-acre property. We strolled up the trail passed the unwavering early American field stone walls to the site of the early Prince Perkins homestead, where Dennis family friend and archeologist Wade Catts explained his work in deciphering the remains of the old house, garden markings and spring that had been discovered during an archeological dig.
Personally, I feel that’s what I enjoyed most about the site. When visiting historic places, we often expect the tall marble monuments and statues dedicated to prominent figures long-since deceased or elaborate exhibits depicting scenes of the past. But, at the Dennis Farm, we simply find ourselves in the tranquility of nature among the structural remains and impeccable masonry those hard-working individuals actually built with their bare hands two centuries ago. History, in its most pure and undisturbed form.
We ended our private tour at the sacred site of the Perkins-Dennis Cemetery surrounded by immaculately stacked field stone walls that will surely stand for at least another 200 years. Denise explained that not all of the 50 souls laid to rest there were Dennis or Perkins family members as some were such close friends that they had merited a plot on the cemetery grounds. Headstones and markers dating back to the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War unequivocally show just how sanctified and historically significant this cemetery and the grounds that surround it are to our area. I’d like to say to the Dennis family that as the son, nephew, cousin and best friend of combat veterans, I am in awe of your family’s long line of service this country and thank you for their sacrifices. Given their age and subsequent deterioration, many of the grave markers are difficult to read, but a tastefully crafted memorial headstone listing many of the important names in the Dennis and Perkins legacy was erected just outside the cemetery entrance by the Charitable Land Trust.
While it hasn’t been a working farm since the early 1900s, the existing agricultural connection, fully documented family history, and its association with multiple American conflicts, early African American life and likely even the Underground Railroad make the historical and cultural significance of the Dennis Farm beyond measure. It is imperative and incumbent upon us to preserve heritage assets such as these for they not only represent a means to trace our local or regional history, but the history of our nation.
This is indeed why the Dennis Farm was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Author and first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places William J. Murtagh, who was referred to in his New York Times obituary as “a lion of historic preservation,” once said, and I quote, “At its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”
This is precisely the meaning behind EMHR’s slogan: “Embracing Our Past to Enrich Our Future,” and why our organization does what it does. Aside from the desire to preserve their lineage, I’m sure it’s also the same reason Denise and her Aunt Hope Dennis felt obligated to establish the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust nearly 20 years ago and preserve this remarkable cultural resource.
And it’s not just the history that makes the Dennis Farm important, but also the crucial conversations the members of this organization ignite about our culture, whether it pertains to the past, present or future. These annual symposiums and educational forums are proof of that.
I was fortunate enough to attend a portion of last year’s Dennis Farm Symposium here at Keystone when I first came on as executive director for EMHR. One of the panels that day was entitled, “It Begins with Each of Us: Fostering Racial Understanding.” It was a thought-provoking panel discussion, to say the least, and an important conversation to have at a time when this country seemed to be and frankly, still appears to be, so divisive along the lines of not just certain ethnicities, but religious beliefs, political ideologies, genders and sexual orientation. If you don’t believe me, turn on a major news network or spend a mere 10 minutes on social media and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
But when I reflect upon those differences and the sometimes heated or disheartening tensions that stem from them, I can’t help but think about a true and fascinating story I’d read and heard about while in Georgia on vacation some time ago. My lovely fiancée and I (She insists I call her that), were visiting a member of her family on St. Simon’s Island and, being the history buff I am, we took a tour of the historic island about 45 minutes south of Savannah.
The story goes a man by the name of Neptune Small who was born into slavery in 1831 on the Retreat Plantation, the home of the King family. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Henry Lord Page King and his brothers enlisted in the Confederate Army. Despite their differences in what was then the social order, Neptune and Henry, who was commonly known as “Lordy”, were friends. Neptune accompanied Lordy during the war as his manservant and for almost two years, the pair made their way through numerous battles and hardships throughout West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.
On December 13, 1862, during the battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia, Lordy volunteered to carry a dispatch from Major General Lafayette McLaws to Brigadier General Thomas R.R Cobb. While returning to his regiment after delivering the dispatch, Lordy was shot and killed by Union troops. Neptune waited for King until nightfall, but when he did not return, Small began quietly combing the battlefield and eventually found Lordy’s body. It was said he was able to identify Lordy, who laid face down, by his bright colored hair.
Alone on a dark battlefield less than 130 miles from the free state of Pennsylvania with none of his so called “masters” to stop him and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 making him, in the eyes of the Union, a free man; it seemed plausible that Neptune could have just headed north, leaving the war and his captive lifestyle behind.
Instead, Neptune waited until first light to summon some help in making a pine box to carry King’s body to Richmond, where he purchased a more befitting coffin for his lifelong friend and made the treacherous 500-mile journey to Savannah where he delivered the body to King’s family for a proper burial.
Imagine that? An act of such immense respect and kindness between two men worlds apart in the social order of the time – one, an African American born into slavery and the other, the son of the slave owner who volunteered to fight with the Confederate Army – the army whose victory would have undoubtedly, at the very least, prolonged that nefarious era of slavery in America. Our differences in today’s era suddenly don’t seem so substantial, do they? I mean, if these two entirely dissimilar people could find a common ground and befriend one another, why is that so many of us still cannot?
Trying to put myself in Neptune’s shoes, I don’t know if I personally could have done what he did, but the moral of the story remains clear: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you and don’t let your life be fueled by animosity or disdain for others different from you. Be kind and appreciate our country’s diversity and the progress we’ve made since those days of the Civil War.
By most accounts of the story, Neptune was later given a large plot of land by the King family for his honorable deed. When the war ended in 1865, he went on to live more than forty years as a free man until he died at the age of 75 in August 1907. He was buried in a cemetery that was originally made for Retreat Plantation slaves and their descendants, whom I would imagine he considered family.
You see there is a lot we can learn from history in order to mold a better future. We are so fortunate to have places like the Dennis Farm in our region and to have organizations like its Charitable Land Trust hosting events like this where we can come together for beneficial and intellectual conversation. I consider that piece of land to be a true gem of the Endless Mountains.
Once again, I’d like to thank the Dennis family for having me speak here today and being such a great friend and heritage partner to the Endless Mountains Heritage Region. I hope you all enjoy your tour of the Dennis Farm. Trust me when I say it’s difficult not to.