"Walnut Hill" came to our township at the cost of one dollar and the lives of twelve of its citizens.
It had been a farm of considerable compass back in the days of William Penn, who had granted the land to Thomas Jeffries in 1701 but the holding had declined in size over the years until all that remained was the house, the barn and twelve acres. A few years back the township took it over in a tax settlement with the intent of preserving the land as open space.
The house was a ramshackle pile that had sat empty for more than twenty years, ever since the last of the Jeffries family had passed away. A trust paid the taxes on it until the money ran out and then Bobby Thompson, whose law firm had handled the estate for several generations, tried unsuccessfully to sell the place; finally relenting and turning it over to the township to settle the tax bill.
Had it not been such a historically significant building, at least according to the county historical society, the house would have been torn down, along with the barn. Then we could have started fresh. Instead, a consortium of local folks, county officials and state agencies raised holy hell, and a great deal of money, with the purpose of returning the house to the condition it had been in at the time of the Revolution.
As township engineer, it's my job to oversee all of the construction and maintenance done on the property we own. I wish we had torn it down. It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.
Chris Adelman had been the county arborist for twenty seven years when I called him to do the tree survey that was mandated prior to beginning any work on the place and he was not what anyone would call a tree hugger. He respected all of the old historical trees that were in the county, especially those that were on public ground but he was also a realist and would mark a tree for culling if that's what he thought needed to be done. In this case there was a huge dead walnut tree that sat right where the proposed parking area was located. There was also an old overgrown orchard on the property that looked like it was going to have to come out. Chris signed off on the orchard right away but he had some funny things to say about the walnut tree.
"It's one of them good news - bad news things, Smitty and I'm not sure which is which. On the one hand, that walnut is by far the largest black walnut tree in the county and maybe in the whole state. It's also by far the oldest."
This was a complication that I didn't need.
"On the other hand, I'm just about certain that the tree has been dead for longer than you and me have been alive; maybe a lot longer. I'd like to send a core sample to the boys up at Penn State and see what they make of it."
"I don't understand, Chris. Are you saying it's been dead for years but we still can't take it down?"
"No, not exactly - what I mean is, of course it has to come down - because it's dead but…but Smitty, the heartwood on this tree is perfect. I don't know how and I sure don't know why but that wood is dry as a bone and it's in perfect condition, not a bit of rot, nor any insect damage near as I can tell; never seen anything like it."
I made arrangements for the Jeff Beiler to come and take the tree down just as quick as he could get there. I didn't want this to turn into a big stone in the road to getting this project moving. Still, I decided to take a drive up to Walnut Hill and take a look at this magic tree.
Although Walnut Hill had been the name of the Jeffries place for longer than anyone could remember most of the local folks called the place Lightning Hill because you could see lightning strike up on the top of it during just about any thunder storm. I figured it was mostly because it was about the tallest hill around but a geography teacher from the high school said that it also had something to do with the mineral content of the ground up there. I do know that several people that lived up that hill had lost their well pumps to lightning strikes over the years. One fellow had gone through three of them in seven years.
Jeff and his four man crew were offloading their gear when I showed up at a little after seven a.m. The ground was still damp from the thunderstorms that had gone through during the night and the weather service was calling for more storms throughout the day.
"I'm a little surprised to see you fellas this morning, Jeff."
"Well, you sounded like you wanted to get her done, so here we are. Jimmy's going to start topping and branching. George and Bobby are going to be the rope men and young Phil over there is going to bounce around wherever he's needed. It's going to take two days just to get her on the ground. We'll buck up on Wednesday and haul away."
The old walnut tree was gigantic. It was well over a hundred feet tall and was at least as wide. The bole was about four feet across at the base but was cloven in two at better than twice the height of a good sized man. From there the branches, which were all bigger around than most walnut trunks that I had seen, went off in three directions. Several branches went left and right in enormous arcs, looking like a giant's shaggy, bow-shaped eyebrows. The rest went skyward, shooting straight up for twenty feet or so before starting to branch out. It must have been a glorious thing in its day but its day had long since passed. Now it was just big and scary looking, like an evil tree from a child's nightmare - and it was in the way.
"Chris Adelman says it's been dead a long time."
"I don't know, Smitty. I guess it's mostly dead but look at them leaves."
Sure enough, there were a few spots of green here and there, as though the ancient tree still had a spark of life hidden deep inside.
"Well, let's get it down before some greenies get up here and start a séance, or some such."
I left Jeff and his boys to their business and went to take a look at the house.
Our township includes a good sized chunk of what the maps call Valley Forge National Historical Park - what the locals simplify to just Valley Forge. In fact, the Jeffries' place sits in a part of the township called Gulph Mills where George Washington camped out for a few days before deciding to go several miles up the road to where they spent the winter of 1777 - 1778.
There are still a fair number of buildings standing that date back to that time and the house on Walnut Hill was a prime example of a Colonial Era residence.
It was not one of those that started out as a log structure. Apparently, the original Jeffries had made such a dwelling and lived in it until the construction of the main house could be completed. The log building became part of what was now the barn, which was a complete mess. There wasn't enough money in the budget to save the barn, thank god.
The house had started as a stone building of one story, and another story and a half had been added on later. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence the house would have been pretty much as it looked on this day. There were three tall divided light windows on either side of a large door on the first floor front elevation. The second floor had three shorter windows that flanked a bullet window. The attic space had no windows to the front and got whatever light and ventilation it received from small windows on the sides of the house. There was a slate roof with a good number of spots that were tarred, or patched with metal. From the front it was still an imposing building; something that would have fit the status of successful farmers and grain merchants such as the Jeffries family.
The sides and back of the house showed where later generations had added on - a bathroom here - a kitchen extension of one story - a couple of extra bedrooms. I figured that we would tear all that off and get back to the original bones of the house.
I walked up the worn stone steps to where the key lock box dangled from the door knob. The push button combination was 1-7-2-0, the same as the date on the cornerstone on the far right corner of the foundation. That seemed a little obvious to me but what of it. I don't think that the door was original but it certainly was old. The lock itself was a different matter, being a regular Schlage tube lock that probably hadn't been there for more than two decades; maybe the newest thing on the whole damned building.
Old or not the lock worked fine and I swung the door open. There was enough light coming through the windows to see the entry hall pretty well. It was dusty but not particularly cobwebby, and it was empty. The hall had a doorway on either side of it. The one on the right led to what was probably a formal living room. It had a nice fieldstone fireplace in it with a large mantel. There was no furniture. The doorway to the left opened onto an area that looked like it might have been a sitting room. There was another, smaller fireplace. This room too was empty.
There was another doorway at the end of the hallway and this, unlike the others, actually had a door in it. I decided to look back there later. I wanted to go upstairs and see what the underside of the roof looked like. The stairs were wide and sturdy, although not particularly ornate but, I reminded myself, the Jeffries had been Quakers. There were four doors on the second floor. I opened the one on the front left side and looked in to a decent sized room that had a small fireplace and had probably served as a bedroom. It was as barren of any left behind items as the rooms downstairs.
The room on the other side of the stairs was a different story.
I had to use a fair amount of force, hitting the door with my shoulder a couple of times before the door came open. It was almost like it was painted shut. It wasn't, but I swear it was almost like I'd opened a sealed container where the air rushes in to fill what had been a kind of vacuum. This room was not empty.
It was murky enough inside that I got out the little flashlight I carried with me. It seemed to me that it was much darker in here than in the other rooms but it turned out that there were curtains on the windows - drapes really - and they were shut. The room was also full of what looked to be a full set of furniture. I couldn't really tell because everything was covered by white sheets.
There isn't a lot of light from those little pocket flashlights but what little there was showed another difference from the other rooms I'd been in. There wasn't the slightest bit of dust. It looked as though everything had been wiped down just maybe hours before I showed up. I decided to open the drapes to see if I could get a better look - and to chase away the creepy feeling that was starting to grow in my gut.
I grabbed the drapes on one of the windows and I recall thinking how they looked brand new. I spread them apart but this really didn't lighten the room all that much. Looking out the window, dusty as hell on the outside but clean as a whistle inside, I saw that the sky had darkened considerably in what could only have been a few minutes. I figured that the storms that were called for were on their way in. The window looked out onto the walnut tree where Jeff's man, Jimmy, was in position to begin cutting. He pulled on the chainsaw's starter rope and the saw fired up good and loud.
Jimmy'd just started making his first cut when the flash and the bang came. I'd never been that close to a lightning bolt before and hope never to be again. I was literally blinded and nearly deafened. As my eyes and ears started to clear I heard Jeff and his boys screaming and saw them running away from the tree. All except Jimmy. He lay at the foot of the tree. He, or his clothes, were smoking. The chainsaw was on the ground about ten feet from him.
He was about as dead as anyone you're ever going to see.
Tom Watson http://home.comcast.net/~tjwatson1 /