MILLVILLE — Bob Francois and Gloria McLaughlin have been the sole residents of a pristine lakeside vacation property for most of their lives.
The two live in separate, 100-year-old houses just a short distance apart and just down the road from the Union House, a more than 300-year-old vacation home that’s older than Millville.
For most of their lives, the pair have served as caretakers for the Wawa tract, maintaining a piece of the property known as the head of the lake for the landowners, the Wood family, and they will probably be the last to do so.
The site has gained attention because it is part of a 400-acre plot of land that is prized by both environmentalists and developers. Next to the land on one side is residential development and on the other is commercial development.
For the Wood family, which has history in Millville dating back nearly 200 years, the Union House has been a vacation home, passed down through the generations and still enjoyed by brother and sister Richard Wood III and Lisa Wood.
For Francois and McLaughlin, however, this is home. It always has been.
“I was afraid to come out here at first,” McLaughlin, 70, said. “There was this house they couldn’t rent to anyone because no one wanted to live all the way out here. I got over it. Now, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
McLaughlin has lived at her home and served as caretaker for 51 years.
Francois, 65, is the third generation of his family to live at the head of the lake. He too, except for a jaunt in the U.S. Navy, has spent most of his life looking after the lake and the property.
How the two ended up here is a different story.
McLaughlin was 19 years old and just hours removed from giving birth to a child. Her then husband told her — as she sat in a hospital bed — that there was a house available near the lake. The first time she saw her home — former quarters for the manager of a failed poultry farm — was the day she moved in.
Francois was more or less born into the role of caretaker.
Nearly 100 years ago, Richard Wood was looking for someone to teach him how to fish. Francois’ grandfather, a worker at the Wood textile mill along the Maurice River, was especially proficient at catching the big ones. The two spent months out on Union Lake and became friends.
Eventually, Wood offered Francois’ grandfather a place to live and the position of caretaker.
It’s a job that eventually found its way to Francois.
Before the Wood family sold Union Lake — the entire lake, plus a good portion of property, about 4,600 acres — to the state in the 1970s, Francois was in charge of looking after the lake, which included selling tags to boaters and monitoring the old dam.
“It was a very popular spot,” he said of the lake. “Boats were all over, people would come from Trenton and Philadelphia. Picnicking was a really big thing then.”
When Francois entered the Navy, the Wood family at the time — McLaughlin still refers to Richard Wood Sr. and his wife, Margaretta, as Mr. and Mrs. Wood — asked McLaughlin if she would take on the role of caretaker, mostly for the Union House. She accepted, forging a friendly relationship with the family responsible for the largest convenience store chain in the region.
“The Wood family took great care of us,” she said, noting that the kindness of that generation of Woods she knew first has been passed on. “They’ve always supported us.”
The Wood family also had an interest in the history of the land they owned. Led by Margaretta Wood, the Union House was restored. Along the way, artifacts detailing hundreds of years were discovered. McLaughlin, in charge of keeping up the house, suddenly became a historian of sorts.
Some years later, when the Union Lake dam was vandalized and broken, causing the lake to drain substantially, McLaughlin found what she believed to be an arrowhead. She took it to the Woods, who agreed that it might have been and hired archaeologist Alan Mounier to find more.
Together, Mounier and McLaughlin scoured the banks of the lake for artifacts. They discovered dozens of arrowheads and other ancient tools — some of them thousands of years old — used by American Indians who once inhabited the area.
So, her career arc took on some new directions over the years: mother of three sons, landscaper, Union House caretaker and amateur historian, among other jobs.
“Eventually, they hired someone to cut the grass,” she said. “Thank God.”
Now she and Francois split caretaker duties. McLaughlin mostly tends to things inside the house while Francois sees that the infrastructure of the property and its houses are maintained. The two share a friendly relationship, much like that of two neighbors who exchange pleasantries with each other from over a fence, Francois said.
“We get along fine,” he said. “It would be a real problem if we didn’t.”
The city is currently deciding how the property should be rezoned. At least 100 acres of the property, and possibly more, is being considered for open space. That preserved land would most likely include the head of the river site.
Francois, president of the Millville Historical Society, has fond memories of growing up on the property, though his interest in preservation isn’t selfish.
“It’s just such a historic site,” he said. “Before there was any Millville or Vineland there was the Union House and Kings Road, which ran through and went to Cape May. I want to see it preserved, I think it would make a great nature preserve.”
Both Francois and McLaughlin said that they were informed by the Wood family that their homes are safe, regardless of what path the rezoning plan takes. Both would like to see the land preserved, though they don’t expect there will be a need for caretakers once they’re gone.
The attraction for preservation on the site is the Union House and the natural surroundings, not the two houses they live in.
“I know whenever I’m gone they’ll tear my house down and I don’t blame them one bit,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin’s three sons have grown up, moved away and have their own families, though she still entertains visits from them often. Francois has no children. The third generation of his family to live at the site will be the last.
“I’ve been told we’re safe there and as far as we know we’re staying,” Francois said. “We won’t be part of the development.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t see into the future, but I don’t think anyone will be living there after I die.”
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