Joan Berkey spent the last two years crawling through dusty attics and basements as part of her search for an important part of Cumberland County’s history.
That search — which also included tedious reviews of old deeds, nails, floorboards, hand-hewn ceiling beams and some fireplaces big enough for a small person to step into — remains ongoing.
But the work has paid off, as Berkey found some of the county’s oldest existing wooden homes, including about 16 built before 1730. A few of those homes date to the mid- to late-1600s. The earliest is the Log Granary, built in the Greenwich section of Greenwich Township around 1650.
While it may seem surprising that those old wooden homes are still standing, Berkey said their existence is a tribute to their sturdy construction and design by the Dutch, Swedes, Finns and other immigrants who settled the area centuries ago. Also helping to preserve the homes is the fact that many of the structures continue to serve as private homes, she said.
“I found more than I thought,” said Berkey, 60, who lives in a more than 200-year-old house in Dennis Township, Cape May County.
Berkey is documenting the old homes as part of a project for the Cumberland County Historical Society. The work is funded by an $11,000 grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission.
The study focused only on wooden structures because they are less likely to withstand the passing of time. Brick and stone homes are easier to find because they last longer than their wooden counterparts.
While Berkey’s search covers all of Cumberland County, most of the homes she found are in the small community of Greenwich. Greenwich is considered to be Cumberland County’s oldest settlement. The course of Greenwich’s main street — Ye Greate Street — has not changed since it was laid out in 1684.
Sarah Hancock, a 52-year-old special education teacher in Bridgeton, lives in the Dixon-Sheppard House on Ye Greate Street. She bought the house, which was built around 1690-1710, a decade ago.
“I saw it and I just fell in love with it,” Hancock said.
Part of the charm of the house, which has been enlarged over the centuries, is that its 7-foot-wide fireplace — originally used for cooking and heating — has the original, massive, hand-carved wooden lintel. The indentation of the remains of a beehive oven used for baking is still visible on one side of the fireplace.
The fireplace was once covered in drywall, which was torn away a few years ago. Hancock said that bit of renovation turned up several pieces of 18th Century cooking utensils that were left in the fireplace when it was covered in the drywall.
Hancock said she was fortunate in that previous owners left the house, which she used to open for tours, in good shape.
However, she said there are some challenges to living in a house that old.
“It’s cold,” Hancock said as she stood next to the wood-burning stove that sits in the fireplace and is used to heat a house with practically no insulation. “It’s very cold.”
And then there are the ghosts that Hancock said not only appear in the house, but sometimes cause quite a racket.
“At one point, I had to come down and tell them to shut … up,” she said.
Reports of ghost sightings at several of the old homes she has found are not unusual, she said.
Berkey’s quest to find old homes began after she bought an old house in Bordentown, Burlington County, in 1975. She was working as an advertising copy writer for a Trenton department store and had a college degree in English and when she decided to find out more about the house. That eventually led to her getting a degree in historic preservation from Goucher College in Maryland in 1980.
The work for the Cumberland County Historical Society is not Berkey’s first attempt to document old and historic homes in South Jersey.
Berkey did a similar project in Cape May County several years ago. That project, which was also financed by the New Jersey Historical Commission, lead to the discovery of about 30 structures built before 1730. Her findings were published in a book, “The Early Architecture of Cape May County,” which was published in 2008.
Berkey is not finished with her work. She intends to continue seeking out old wooden homes in Cumberland Count, and hopes to find a few that she missed during the past few years.
She also intends to write a book about the Cumberland County homes.
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