If These Walls Could Talk...
Historic Dennisville Christmas House Tour Set for Dec. 15
By Marybeth Hagan
The Jonathon and Sarah James House, built in 1860.
The Rev. John Goff Homestead
While Seven Mile Beach is rich in its own history, a historical treasure trove of buildings sits in its offshore backyard. Members of the public will once again be privy to exploring these local gems during the Historic Dennisville Christmas House Tour on Saturday, Dec. 15.
In the Yuletide spirit, Dennisville and Eldora residents will once again open their homes, churches, schoolhouse, firehouse and other historical buildings to the public that day from 4 to 8pm. During tours, community members will share their passion for local history by pointing out structural features of historical interest within these buildings, which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, and noting other intriguing tidbits.
Twelve historical buildings will be open to tour participants. Tickets cost $15 and may be purchased in advance at www.DHHOA.org or on the day of the event at the Dennisville Post Office. Also available for purchase there will be copies of “Historic Dennisville: A Walking Tour,” a book by Dennisville’s resident pioneer historical preservationist, author and illustrator Alice Belanger McGuigan. Refreshments will be served and comfort stations provided at the Dennisville United Methodist Church Social Hall, Dennis Fire Company Station 18 and the Dennis Township Schoolhouse Museum. The sweet sounds of the Middletones Carolers will fill the air with seasonal harmony.
Interior photos of the James House.
This festive holiday, sponsored by the nonprofit Dennisville Historic Home Owners Association, is now in its 29th year. Homeowners are as enthusiastic about it as ever.
One of the most enthusiastic among them, Corinne Crist, is delighted that her and her husband Steve’s Dennis Township home – just two short miles down the road in the hamlet of Eldora – will be back among tour houses this year. Their house has come a long way. The couple purchased it in 1985 “when it was rough,” she notes with a sigh.
Today, the Crists’ handsome abode – the Rev. John Goff Homestead, which was built in 1773 – contains a wealth of original features, documents related to the house’s history, and the results of Corinne’s and Steve’s meticulous, hands-on preservation efforts.
“Historical preservation is near and dear to my heart,” Corinne says. Since Corinne, Steve and other family members are also Civil War reenactors, historic house tour-goers will be treated to a reenactment of a Civil War ball, complete with music and period-costumed dancers.
From the welcoming brick walkway into the Crists’ home – an entry built with handmade bricks that once were the components of the home’s original chimney – to its many historical elements within, visitors will sense the couple’s respect for their home’s past.
Some of the beautiful historic décor to be seen inside the homes.
The Goff Homestead seems to be three houses in one due to additions added by industrious owners in 1810 and more recently by the Crists. The original house sits within its core. “The oldest part [historically] is usually in the center of the structure,” Corinne notes.
Before it was relocated roadside, the house’s core sat on the banks of nearby East Creek. There, John Goff set up his store within the home and conducted business related to the late-18th-century sawmill and shipping industry. Lumber, especially cedar, was shipped to Philadelphia in exchange for gunpowder, molasses and other supplies, according to information from the Dennis Township Old Schoolhouse Museum and History Center.
As she stands under the low, beamed ceiling of the original room in her home, the room that was once Goff’s store, Corinne displays documented evidence from Goff’s account book that he also sold fabrics like linen and more. Not only that, Goff’s store ledger reveals that in 1790, he conducted business with John Grace, one of George Washington’s scouts.
That same room housed the East Creek Post Office from 1842-75. Postmaster and Cape May County Sheriff John Wilson then owned the Goff Homestead. By 1929, its owner was William Dahl, who operated a gas station and café there with his family members. A photo of the Dahl family from that era indicates that gas sold for 18 cents a gallon.
Civil War reenactors Corinne and Steve Crist, owners of the Reverend John Goff Homestead.
The homestead also has rich religious history. When circuit riders traveled across the land on horseback to spread the Methodist faith from 1788 through 1814, the Goff home was one of the stops on the Salem Circuit, Corinne says. Goff was a convert to Methodism. So, the roots of Eldora United Methodist Church, founded in 1854, were planted in her home, she adds.
Eldora United Methodist Church, just down the road from the Crists’ home, will join both Trinity United Methodist Church and Dennisville United Methodist Church in being open to house-tour participants this year, Connolly notes.
Like the Goff Homestead, this year’s Historic Dennisville Christmas House Tour’s featured house, the Jonathan and Sarah James House, circa 1860, is owned by enthusiastic, active preservationists. Past Times Present singers John and Jan Haigis, who perform 18th and 19th century music and conduct living-history workshops, purchased the James House in 2016.
The home’s namesake, Jonathan James, owned a lumber mill and thousands of acres of forest land where he harvested wood for the mill, according to bits and pieces of local history. The James family members were prominent businessmen, farmers and builders.
Past Times Present singers John and Jan Haigis, owners of the Jonathan and Sarah James House.
“One of the reasons we fell in love with the house was that it still had its original features, including wavy glass windows,” John says of their historic home that he and Jan intend to restore.
Its open beams, hardwood floors and exquisitely detailed woodwork added to their infatuation. When the couple first viewed the flora-filled, three-quarter-acre property, spotting the cottage that sits kitty-corner to the home was love at first sight for John, he muses. As owners, he says, “We sense a palpability of the people who loved the house over the years.”
“We feel very blessed to have a house from the 1800s,” Jan says of their hidden treasure, tucked discreetly behind high roadside hedges. “Ours is the work-in-progress [tour] house. The Jonathan and Sarah James House is not a fussy Victorian but more like a comfortable farmhouse.”
Adds John: “We encourage ways for people to see the treasures we have historically.”
Since music is one of the Haigis’s history teaching tools in Dennisville, Darby, Pa., and beyond, they will likely sing original songs about their home and tell jokes during the house tour.
As a couple of verses from John’s poem, “Old Buildings,” further explain:
So like us old buildings are born, grow and die.
Like us old buildings may fade.
But those that remain tell their stories again
And remind us of currents that were once in the mix.
But unlike us, old buildings may continue and live.
Unlike us they don’t have to die.
Telling stories of craftsmanship, stories of skill,
Stories of songs sung in brick.
More stories of remarkable landmarks in Dennisville and Eldora are waiting to be told during the 29th Historic Dennisville Christmas House Tour. Why not come and hear their stories?
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