Appalachian Basin

Dennis Farm: Natural Gas Helping Preserve American History

Pennsylvania played an important role in our nation’s history and the Dennis Farm in Susquehanna County is one shining example. Now, thanks in part to a natural gas lease with Cabot Oil and Gas, this piece of American, African-American, and Pennsylvania history is being preserved and restored. It’s a story worth hearing and a project worth supporting.

If you are from Pennsylvania, chances are that you are aware of the profound role our state had in shaping the United States of America. From Independence Hall and the birth of our nation in Philadelphia to the rise of the steel industry in Pittsburgh and the Drake Well which launched oil exploration in the United States.  These examples, and many others, make it abundantly clear that Pennsylvania has been a part of major achievements, advancements, and creations that have literally shaped our nation.

If you couldn’t tell, I am very proud to hail from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that sentiment was even further reinforced Tuesday night when I had the privilege to attend an exhibit at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and learn about the rich history of the Dennis Farm in Susquehanna County.

The Dennis Farm

The house still standing on the Dennis Farm.

Over 200 years ago, when our country was young – almost a century before the Civil War which freed American slaves – Denise Dennis’s family was already making astounding leaps and bounds for African Americans, and quite frankly, Americans everywhere. Their property was one of the first free black properties in the country, bought just after the Revolutionary War, and continues to stand as a symbol of freedom in a country developed on the premise that all men are created equal.

It’s both a moving and important part of our history as Pennsylvanians and Americans, nestled in Susquehanna County (but bought before Susquehanna County existed). And, it was the reason about 200 people gathered in the African American Museum in Philadelphia Tuesday night for an exhibit put together by Cabot Oil and Gas and the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Given this property’s unique place in history it’s important for everyone to hear the history of the property and the family that owns it. No one could tell this better than Denise Dennis herself which she did recently on Cabot Oil and Gas’s “Well Said” blog:

Denise Dennis: Public records in Massachusetts confirm that the Dennis family dates back to Concord, Massachusetts at the dawn of the American Revolution. Americans and even non-Americans are fascinated to learn that there were free black landowners–in the North–more than a half-century before the Civil War began and that the same family is steward of the land in the 21st century.

So the farm represents a family that has had a front row seat to American history from April 19, 1775 right up to the current revolution in energy alternatives. Natural gas extraction in the early 21st century is now a part of the story of the farm.

We’ve received requests from schools (elementary, high schools, colleges and universities) who want to visit the Farm, from historians and researchers and from people who are simply fascinated by the story of the property and the people who lived there.

Our objectives include restoration of the nineteenth century farm house and construction of an interpretive center on the site of the old barn complex.  That way, visitors to the site can learn about the farm’s more than two-century old history as they experience the site.

The above barely scratches the surface of the history of the farm and family. To really get the full history, one needs to listen to Madam Dennis’s account, and I strongly encourage everyone reading this to take the 30 or so minutes to watch the following video and hear her story. Dennis is lively, the history is rich, and you won’t be disappointed.

Members of the Dennis family on the Dennis Farm.

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State Representative Vanessa Lowry Brown of the 190th Legislative District was present at the event in Philadelphia, among many other elected officials, to honor Madam Dennis and her family’s legacy.

I had the pleasure of riding the bus to Philadelphia and along the way I spoke with Sherman Wooden, president of the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies in Susquehanna County. He took some time to discuss the event, the Dennis Farm project and how Cabot played a role in helping to preserve Susquehanna County’s history.

A Difficult, But Rewarding Decision

Madam Dennis and her family’s decision to lease this historic property was not an easy one. In the following interview with Cabot Oil and Gas, Dennis describes the activities on the farm in the five years prior to signing the lease with the company.

In the five years prior to signing a least with Cabot, we were continuing with our plans for the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust (DFCLT).  An architect who specializes in historic structures assessed what is required to restore the farm house (which pre-dates the Civil War), prepared plans for achieving it and gave us an estimate of the cost.

In 2008 and 2009, we had a partnership with the State University of New York (SUNY) Binghamton’s Department of Anthropology.  SUNY Binghamton held an archaeological field school at the Dennis Farm in the spring/summer sessions each year.  The doctoral candidate who directed the field school wrote his Ph.D. dissertation about the Dennis Farm and family, the artifacts they uncovered at the site and what the artifacts revealed about the daily lives of my ancestors.  His dissertation was a success; he now has his doctorate and continues to write about the farm.  His dissertation was the first study of free African American landowners in the rural north throughout the 19th century and it broke new ground in academia.

Through the Binghamton field school, we acquired the archaeological studies required for our National Register of Historic Places nomination (we were designated eligible for the National Register).  The partnership with Binghamton is also consistent with DFCLT’s educational mission.

The Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust is involved with the Smithsonian Institution, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) that placed the farm on its list of the most rare African American historical sites in the northeast US; the Endless Mountains Heritage Region (EMHR) and Preservation Pennsylvania.

In the last five years representatives from NTHP, Preservation Pennsylvania, EMHR and the University of Delaware are among those we’re involved with who’ve made field trips to the farm.   In 2006, I was a guest speaker at Keystone College and the University of Scranton; we are interested in working with them, as well.  – Denise Dennis

Wade Catts of John Milner and Associates describes the restoration process in more detail in the following video, because while the farm has withstood the test of time, time and the elements have still taken their toll on the property.

Denise Dennis on the Dennis Farm. Copyright © Michael Forster Rothbart, 2010

The decision to lease such a rich piece of her family’s history, of African American history, of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and America’s history, wasn’t something Dennis decided on a whim or jumped into head first. It was a decision she researched for years and one she never took lightly. Once she was able to sort through the misinformation she negotiated an agreement that would preserve property, and it’s legacy, for generations to come.

Like most of the farmers throughout the Marcellus Shale who have had to decide what was best for the land they love and hope to preserve, Madam Dennis also had to determine what the best course of action would be. In the end she found it to be in the best interest of her family farm to approve a natural gas lease with Cabot Oil and Gas, and she has no regrets about the decision she has made as she made clear recently.

The safety of the Dennis Farm and whether not natural gas drilling would prevent us from proceeding with our plans for the DFCLT were foremost on my mind.   I wanted to know as much as possible about the industry because that seemed to be the best way to protect the property.

On the other hand, when I applied for college and had to write an essay on one of my personal qualities, I wrote about my curiosity and how it inspires me to learn.  I’ve been fascinated by everything I’ve learned about natural gas drilling and feel that I am, in a small way, now a part of an international industry.  I look forward to learning more.

My decision was based on several years of in-depth research on horizontal hydraulic fracturing.  I read and evaluated information about the process and its effects, consulted with scientists, attended public forums in such places as the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Philadelphia Public Library, and talked with people I know in Susquehanna County who have leases.  I arrive at my decision thoughtfully, weighing the pros and cons. – Denise Dennis

Cabot recently conducted an interview with Madam Dennis about the process of coming to this decision and why she eventually decided to lease her historic property for natural gas development, which you can read below.

When you began your research, what were you hoping to learn about the industry? 

DD –    I wanted to learn how or whether the industry understand and respect landowners, I wanted to hear from the industry about why the natural gas drilling,  horizontal hydraulic fracturing, and waste disposal are safe and/or what they are doing to make it safe. I want to be as well informed as possible because the industry is now, not only my neighbor, but a part of my life.

You began conducting research on high-level topics. What made you begin more comprehensive research into the industry and into a prospective partnership with Cabot?

DD —  The more I learned, the more I began to realize that natural gas is an accepted source of energy and one of fuels that will help the US to become “energy independent.”  I learned that natural gas is one of the alternatives to oil available to us.  I learned that the Rendell administration, the incoming Corbett administration, and the majority of the PA state legislature perceived natural gas drilling as an economic opportunity for the Commonwealth and fully supported it.  It seemed to me that the issue wasn’t whether or not natural gas drilling would continue in Pennsylvania, but how to make sure the drilling was safe.

Because I’d read and heard so much on the anti-fracking side of the issue, I thought it was important to learn directly from those most closely involved with natural gas drilling.  I knew that the subterranean pipes have to be contiguous and thought that, since Cabot has leased most of the land near the Dennis Farm, I should talk to Cabot.  In a sense, I believed Cabot was in the best position to help me protect the farm.

What did you hope to communicate to Cabot during your conversations?

DD –    I wanted Cabot to understand why the farm is significant to me, the region and our nation.  I wanted Cabot to understand the farm’s extraordinary history and why we are working to preserve it.  Our goal is to make it possible for the many, many people who’ve asked to visit the site to do so.  I wanted Cabot to understand that the Dennis Farm is priceless so they would be committed to protecting it.

Are you able to recall one point or discussion during the process that made you decide to partner with Cabot?

DD –   My meeting with George Stark and view of the new drilling pads and safety features in June 2011 and my meetings with Dan Dinges in July 2011.  My meeting with Dan Dinges in December 2011 is the meeting that made me feel comfortable about signing a lease.  From that meeting on, I looked forward without regret.

Moving Forward

Also from the above Cabot interview:

What are the plans moving forward with the Dennis Farm?

DD —   The farmhouse was damaged by Hurricane Irene and the roof collapsed.  Under the architect’s instructions, the exterior walls were braced to keep and a tarp was placed over the roof.  The plan is to gut the interior, salvage as much of the materials from the interior as possible, label and store them.  Then, based on the drawing the architect already prepared of the interior, we will reconstruct the interior re-purposing as many of the salvaged materials as possible.  We hope to work with a university to label the historic materials.  Already we have seen the 19th century wallpaper beneath the 20th century and boards cut with saws the pre-date the mid-19th century. 

How will the lease with Cabot impact or aid in these plans? 

DD —    We used some of the funds from Cabot to pay for the stabilization of the house.  The funds are seed money and have given us a great boost.

Five years from now what do you hope to have accomplished with the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust?

DD —    I hope the grounds are safe, that the house is restored, the interpretive center completed and in operation, that visitors come to the site and learn from it.  I hope we have symposia and concerts on the lawn and that learning about the farm and my family teaches people from all over the US and the world what happens when people respect one another and learn to work together.

My ancestors were African Americans in a community where black people were less than one-half of one percent of the population and they thrived.  Also, they fully embraced the promise of America and lived it–through several generations. As the first child of the seventh generation, this effort is personal for me.  This is a legacy that was left to me and it is my legacy to the future.

George Stark of Cabot Oil and Gas describes the need to preserve, educate, and engage others on this topic and how Cabot is helping do so.

What can you do?

To say I was moved by Madam Dennis’s presentation or her family’s history would be a vast understatement, so I’ll cut right to the chase because it’s so important: funding from those who are able is always a welcome and needed donation. You can donate by sending an email here or send checks to:

The Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust
3900 Ford Road, Suite 11-1
Philadelphia, PA 19131

Possibly even more importantly, you can donate your time. As Stark said in the above video, this is a story that needs to be told not only in Susquehanna County, but across the country. So tell your friends about the Dennis Farm, share this post far and wide, and if you’re able, please be sure to mark your calendars for the symposium on May 23, 2013 at the historic Dennis Farm in Susquehanna County to see this amazing piece of history for yourself and learn why Cabot and the Dennis family feel it is so important to preserve.

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