Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Zerns Wagon House: A Dutch-like Barn in Mannington

I began fieldwork under my latest New Jersey Historical Commission grant in August, assisted by my colleague Maria Cerda-Moreno. We focused on elevations and sections (more easily done with two people than floor plans) until we could be joined by our third crew member Stephanie Long Fazen in September. Those were some hot days!

The Zerns Wagon House is an example of a ubiquitous outbuilding type that had multiple uses, such as housing a farm wagon, drying and storing corn on the cob for use as animal feed, storing grain in a loft, storing potatoes in a cellar, and miscellaneous storage of implements and animals. Crib barns or wagon houses assume a number of different forms in the area however, though most have one or more drive bays and one or two side aisles, and some have cellars and lofts. Some were built of a piece; others were additive. 

Janet looking. Photo by Maria Cerda-Moreno.
The Zerns Wagon House was built of a piece with a central drive-in runway, adjacent side aisles, a loft, and a stone-walled cellar under the drive bay. It has the form and shape of gable-ended barns from other regions, such as the Dutch barn of northern New Jersey and New York, and those found in the Chesapeake region. This one, however, does not share the structural logic of a Dutch barn, which is built of a series of H-shaped frames called anchor bents. The Zerns barn is framed in the English way, as a principal post box frame.

Maria Cerda-Moreno and I measure the roof projection.
Janet records as Maria measures.
The farmstead was established in 1849 by John R. and Lydia Bassett Zerns. John Zerns was from Pennsylvania and Lydia was a daughter of Joseph Bassett, who was of a large, landed Quaker family in Mannington. The wagon house and the dwelling are the last standing historic buildings.

The farmstead is now unoccupied though the land is actively farmed by a local farmer who lives elsewhere. The last occupant, Ruthann Wright, sold the farm after her husband George, who was the third generation Wright on this farm, passed away in February 2009. Ruthanne has generously shared with me many family photos that chronicled the family and the farmstead since 1904. They will help me visualize the farmstead as it was and how it functioned. I have learned that there was once a three-bay basement barn with a dairying wing and milk house, a free-standing corn crib, a labor house, and an equipment shed. An Italianate-style house still stands, but is now vacant, unfortunately. Here in this wagon house, these farmers sat and cut the eyes out of last years' stored potatoes for planting this year's crop.

Maria, Stephanie and Janet in the wagon house, posing on the steps to the loft.
The wagon house bears evidence of two corn cribs, both within the central aisle at the side walls. A stair accesses the loft above, where we found possible evidence of bins for storing grain. We cautiously made our way down the cellar stair (sometimes they are very deteriorated from dampness), but it was actually quite sturdy. The cellar was floored with brick, and the runway floor framing had a closed-up hatchway which allowed produce such as potatoes to be lowered to the cellar from the runway floor. With headlamps, we recorded a plan and section. Like most such runway floors over cellars, this one had been shored up with many helper posts.

This wagon house was rehabilitated at least twice in its life. George and Ruthann Wright gave this building a complete new skin, including the exterior wall framing. Nevertheless, there was much original historic fabric to see, record and interpret, such as the main timber frame, floor joists, the double-thick wood floor, wood board walls complete with graffiti, staircases, and stone foundations. The crib slats were long gone, but shadows of them on the posts and beams, and empty stud mortises evidenced the former existence or corn cribs. These owners were natural preservationists, practical farmers who tended to save what they had and make it do.

The Wright's wagon house circa 1920.

The John and Lydia Zerns House, a farmhouse no more. The porches and third floor window grilles contribute greatly to its character.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

MOA for the Proposed New Salem Nuclear Reactor Open for Public Comment

Imagine two more, larger cooling towers on the horizon. This was considered an "indirect adverse effect" on three historic properties in Elsinboro Township.

The draft Memorandum of Agreement among interested parties of the Sec 106 process for the Salem Nuclear Plant Early Site Permit application is now posted and open for public comment.

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires federal agencies (in this case the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to account for, and avoid, minimize, or mitigate impacts to properties that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

This MOA is the culmination of that process, and the public has the right to comment (by October 5). It details the eligible properties discovered in the vicinity of the plant, in Elsinboro and Lower Alloways Creek Townships, and how the process will continue in the event that a construction and licensing permit for a new reactor is ever applied for (BIG if). 

Because I inserted myself into the process as an interested party, I was able to help identify eligible properties, and weigh in on mitigation strategies. This is how preservation (at the federal level) happens!

Link to the Federal Register entry on this MOA.

See my other post on this topic.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


The New Jersey Historical Commission today has awarded me a project grant of $13,500 to continue my study of southern New Jersey agricultural outbuildings. This will be my fifth grant from the NJHC since 2008.

The buildings include barns and wagon houses, also known as crib barns, in Mannington Township, Salem County. They date from 1792 through the nineteenth century. I and two crew members will visit each site for several days to measure the buildings. The work will result in architectural drawings and photographs, as well as archival research into their ownership and history. The products will serve as a record of each building, which can then be used by researchers to understand in detail these kinds of buildings and how they might have been used, shedding light on the history of farming, farm people, and rural life in southern New Jersey.

Stay tuned for the start of fieldwork!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Section 106 review for a rural historic landscape: Elsinboro and Lower Alloways Creek

A new nuclear plant is proposed for the Artificial Island site in Salem County, where three reactors and a cooling tower already exist.This is hard to imagine in the light of what happened at Fukushima, but nevertheless, PSEG has put in an application for an early site permit, which is essentially a site plan review. It's a first step, and if granted, the permit is good for 20 years, within which time the utility may or may not actually build it. And further permits are needed, such as for the specific reactor design. So what would earn this a place in my blog on researching the cultural landscape of Down Jersey?

View of the Salem Nuclear Plant at Artificial Island from Mason Point

The reason is that the project requires a permit from two Federal agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Army Corps of Engineer. Therefore, the approval process triggers a review under Section (106) of the National Historic Preservation Act. Potential impacts of the undertaking on properties listed or eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places must be taken into account, and either avoided with alternative designs or mitigated with benefits to the public. The agency handling the Section 106 is the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

On the surrounding landscape, there are a number of such properties, mostly in Elsinboro township, but also in Lower Alloways Creek Township, both lying along the Delaware River. Two kinds of effects have been identified so far.  One is the visual effects of two new cooling towers on this, flat, rural landscape. Another is the effect of the construction and use of a new, three lane highway running north from the Island across tidal marsh up to and following Money Island Road. The new cooling towers will stand next the existing one but rise 40 feet higher. The roadway will run on a 48' wide elevated causeway over the tidal marsh and a 200' right-of-way on Money Island Road, requiring considerable widening of this quiet back road and possibly the addition of other structures such as a drainage system, guiderails, and signals where it would terminate at Mason Point Road. Such structural and operational changes will drastically alter the landscape experience at Mason Point. The increase in daily traffic during construction and during future daily commuting of Island workers is another thing that will change daily life in Elsinboro--noise, fumes, safety--a general disruption of the daily peace in this sleepy township.

Proposed access road from Artificial Island to Mason Point.

Whether or not this scenario will actually happen is a big IF, but if it does, the review process is a powerful way to influence the outcome. Mitigation measures will be negotiated between the SHPO and PSEG. This could result in benefits to or for historic properties that would otherwise not happen. In addition, because the Abel and Mary Nicholson House is a National Historic Landmark, a higher level of review is required and perhaps more extensive mitigation.

I was given "interested party" status for the Section 106 review. I expressed concern to the staff at the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office after the project came to my attention and I read through the Early Permit Draft Environmental Impact Study ( It seemed to me that some resources and impacts were overlooked. So I ended up getting invited to a meeting of PSEG, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and SHPO representatives on January 9.

So, now, the fieldwork! Yes, there was fieldwork. After discussing the permitting process (which is quite complex) we took to the road and visited eligible and potentially eligible properties that came to light during the review. Three of the five were properties we saw were ones I suggested. Four were not initially detected in PSEG's DEIS. The purposes of the visits were to help the SHPO determine eligibility and to assess the visual affects of the new towers from each. This review has a ways to go before it's done. If any readers have information to share on these houses, please let me know by leaving a comment below. Thanks.

John Goodwin Mason-Edward Waddington House, built in the late 18th century, and presently used as PSEG's field office for education and outreach. It would fall within or very near the access road right-of way.
Sarah Mason House on Fort Elfsborg Road, Italianate with a pattern-brick core. Cooling tower is seen left of center.

Morris-Goodwin House, next door, despite modern cladding, dates from the mid-18th century with a log house core and a pattern brick shed addition. It was recorded  by HABS in the 1940s.

Abel and Mary Nicholson House, a National Historic Landmark built in 1722. It was preserved during the PSEG Estuary Enhancement Project in the 1990s.

John Denn House on Poplar Street in Lower Alloways Creek, built 1725.

116 Mason Point Road, probably built late 18th century, and possibly related to the Mason family.

View of the cooling tower from 116 Mason Point Road.

View from 116 Mason Point Road to the John Mason House, built 1695/1704. There, the access road would terminate.