The farm has gained the attention of, and lured experts and students from, the Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the University of Pennsylvania and Binghamton University in New York. Dennis said she initially held off on seeking the donations and grants needed to realize her vision for the property because of the shale gas boom occurring throughout Susquehanna County.
She asked a European geologist she’d met about hydraulic fracking and he suggested she look into it further.
“So, I did what all idiots do, I went on the Internet. And oh my God. Oh my God. It was all horror stories. So, naturally, I got involved with the anti-fracking movement. But then my interest in protecting the farm was getting lost in the fracking story.”
So Dennis continued doing research, finding less one-sided evaluations, and then met with some folks from Cabot Oil, who came to ask if they could do some seismic studies related to the neighboring properties, all of which they had leases with. She threw them out at first saying she was not signing anything.
“Long story short, I eventually met (Cabot Director of External Affairs) George (Stark) and I told him about the farm’s history and the restoration and education pieces I’d planned, and he got it,” she said. “In fact he got it so well he said he thought he could help, but it was above his pay grade. So he asked if I’d meet with the CEO.”
They met twice, company officials also showed her all the safety features in their well pads—all of which would be located off-site on adjacent properties and which would drill horizontally to the deposits a mile or more beneath the farm. She granted them the lease.
Now plans are moving ahead to stabilize and historically restore the farmhouse as the Dennis Farm Education and Research Center, and to build a conference center enclosing the stone foundation of the old barn, which collapsed in the late 1970s. It would include a library, a lecture hall, gallery space and a bookstore.
Dennis said the vision, which also includes landscaping, trail markers, a marker for the cemetery and “doing something” as yet undecided with the silo—only the stone base remains, will cost about $10 million, which she hopes to raise in the next five years.
Stark said the charitable trust did receive a signing bonus, but that amount is being kept confidential at Denise’s request. Royalty payments will commence once the new wells begin producing, which he projected will be in about 2 years.
“I can’t give you a figure but, per a Department of Environmental Protection issued last week, nine of the top 10 producing wells in the state are Cabot wells in that vicinity,” he said. “So production there is astronomical. The Dennis Farm is very fortunate to be located where it is.”
“They are vested in our success now,” she said. “When we first came here we exploited the timber, now it’s natural gas. It’s all part of the same trajectory. And from the industrial revolution to the shale revolution, free Blacks have held this land. That’s history.”
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