IN IT’S PRIME—The Dennis farmhouse as it looked c. 1939. Plans are to stabilize and restore the building to this condition for use as an historical education and research center.
When she was young and would vacation at her family farm in late summers before heading back to school, Denise Dennis didn’t think it was a big deal. She was just “going up country” to visit her grandparents.
But, as she later learned, it was, and is, a big deal. Initially purchased by Prince Perkins in 1793, and is the oldest surviving farm founded by free Blacks in the state. It’s located approximately 20 miles north of Scranton, Pa. On Feb. 26 Dennis was the guest of honor at the African American History Museum event sponsored by members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
Dennis spoke on the farm’s cultural, agricultural and environmental history and discussed plans for its stabilization and restoration made possible in part by a shale gas lease she signed with Cabot Oil in December that will help fund Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust.
“It’s amazing how you meeting the right people, in the right place at the right time,” she said in a phone interview a week earlier. “I’d been getting offers from oil companies for at least 10 years, and just kept throwing them away because my focus was on preserving the land.”
Dennis established the land trust in 2001 to do just that after her aunt Hope, who had inherited the farm, asked her to make sure it “didn’t leave the family on her watch.”
By then, Dennis had done extensive study on historic trust and preservation, and had already been told by historians and archeologists that the property was unique.
“I was initially thinking to preserve the farmhouse, the barn, but they told me, no, it’s the whole property,” she said.
Dennis traces one side of her family back to Framingham, Mass., to an ancestor who served as a bugler in King George I’s army in 1721. The 153-acre Perkins/Dennis farm in its current configuration dates to 1818 and remained a working farm for 100 years.
The land is sectioned by stone walls recalling the New England roots of both the Perkins and Dennis families. One of these delineates the family cemetery and the remains of four generations of the family, and also includes a civil war veteran from a neighboring Black family.
“There are reputedly the remains of some runaway slaves there too,” said Dennis. “The farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but that would be difficult to confirm.”
In 1939, her great aunt Edith modernized the farmhouse, installing bathrooms and utilities.
During those visits, her grandfather Norman would tell her about the farm’s history. But she was young, and after he died, the family stopped going there in the summer.
“The love my grandfather had for that property, he relayed to me, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I grasped its real significance,” she said.