Love and lilacs; Living history revealed in the Skinner House
When Gina and Tom Kaufmann share how they met, they evoke a scene from the movie “When Harry Met Sally.” They grew up 20 minutes apart on Long Island, vacationed 20 minutes apart in the Upper Delaware River Valley region and even closer on Long Island, but only first met when they went horseback riding together in their mid-to-late teens. Then, there’s the house. They were dating about a year when they first entered the Skinner House, visiting family friends. Gina recalls thinking it would be romantic to live there one day. As rare as childhood sweethearts who are happily married for 34 years are, it’s equally rare for an off-the-cuff romantic notion like that to come true.
But the Kaufmanns are no common couple, and theirs is no simple house. Known today as the Hickory Lane Farmhouse, on Tammany Flats in Damascus, PA, the Skinner House dates back to 1794, although the site was first home to an earlier building that burnt down in 1788 or 1789. Like a tell, an archaeological mound created by centuries of human occupation and abandonment, the Kaufmanns’ home resembles an excavation, revealing layers of history as they discover artifacts in its walls and grounds, and create new legacies, adding their own 20th- and 21st-century layers.
Place of the Wolf, a Peaceful Chief, and Temperance
The house served as the birthplace of river rafting. Placing the Upper Delaware region on the map, the industry was founded by the Skinners in the 1750s and timber was shipped as far downstream as Philadelphia. First owned by Joseph Skinner, family patriarch and founding head of the Delaware River Company, the house was subsequently acquired by his son Daniel, who took over after Joseph’s death in 1759.
The Skinners named the site “Ackhake,” meaning “place of the wolf” in the language of the Lenape Indians. They also called the area Tammany Flats, a name still used today, referring to Lenape Chief Tammanend, who helped establish peaceful relations among Native American tribes and settlers. The house served as St. Tammany’s Masonic Lodge No. 83 as well.
Thereafter, the house was a temperance inn. Owned by proprietor George Bush and holding “Bush’s Eddy,” the home is mentioned in Clara Gillow Clark’s historic children’s novel, “Hill Hawk Hattie,” as a place where the raftsmen tied their boats and then made off for the more jovial, and wetter, town of Callicoon. One of the Kaufmanns’ findings is an 1853 business card from a wholesaler on Greenwich Street, with a signature stamped on it by George Bush, Esquire.
Hidden History Revealed
Their list of artifacts is long: rafters’ cleats (used horse shoes that secured raft logs together), hand-carved wooden goblets, old coins and pipes, handmade nails, and a plain, marble grave marker that bears the initials D.S. The Skinners were originally buried in a neighboring cemetery that was largely washed away by an 1880s flood, so it’s possible that the marker was for Daniel Skinner himself. They have also found a German bisque doll leg, circa 1890, and pennies that date back to 1826 and 1849. During renovation, they found that their walls were lined with old newspapers and product packaging, revealing details about prior renovations and bearing logos that could be conceptual predecessors to 20th-century icons like Campbell’s soup, Camel’s cigarettes and other brands.
Their biggest discovery remains unproven. Their house was rumored to have a secret room. When renovating their master bedroom they found a hidden entranceway (down in a scuttle hole in a closet’s back wall) that lead to an area of their attic floor that was heavily reinforced and large enough to fit 10 people. Along with being an artist, Gina has served as a substitute teacher for many years and thus taught about how Harriet Tubman led slaves from safe-house to safe-house following the river on the Underground Railroad. Numerous homes in the area have similar secret rooms, and, while they have no documentation, the Kaufmanns believe that theirs was a stop along the route.
The house breathed a sigh of relief – loved again
When they moved in, the house had been vacant for 18 years. Along with being a corrections officer, Tom has a local business doing home repairs and property management, so he brought his professional knowledge home. “Exposing the innards and then repairing it, has made us a part of the structure,” says Tom. “We have really enjoyed the process; not just of renovation but of rejuvenation.”
Once, when painting the living room, the colors pink and green came to Gina, who later learned that indeed the room previously had those very same colors. As she puts it, working on the house is, “uncovering a mystery, like Nancy Drew. As we uncovered things it would tell us more of its history and needs. Our original plans might have been not to have this bathroom here, or that door open there, but we learned as we went and adjusted accordingly.”
In the Jack Finney story, “Where the Cluetts Are,” a couple builds an authentic Victorian house and becomes so in tune to it that they turn into Victorians themselves. When the Kaufmanns talk about their relationship with their house, they sound similarly enmeshed, except rather than going back in time, they have brought their home’s past to life and its future into the 21st century.
For example, when they gut renovated, birds flew to the upper sills at the windows and started nesting, as they had not done in years. Once rid of acorns, corn cobs, rodents, bats, and debris, the house was rejuvenated. The lilacs, seemingly dead from being hacked down, returned. It was, as Gina puts it, “As if the house itself sighed a breath of fresh air…. Someone’s going to love me again.”
Better than Plumb, Level or Square
The house had a reputation for hosting festive parties in the ’50s and ’60s, only to fall into disrepair in the ’70s and ’80s. By the time the Kaufmanns acquired it, it was either going to be razed or renovated. Tom says, “It was doomed, if it wasn’t viewed for its real historic worth and character. Some people said there was too much to be done than worth doing; that it was better to simply put up a new structure because this one would never be plumb, level or square (meaning that all the angles are straight.) We saved the structure because we love it so and because we saw the diamond in the rough.”
The house has loved them back. In 1997, when Gina’s infirm mother moved in with the Kaufmanns, they told their five children to prepare for her imminent death. Yet, as her doctor put it, moving into that house gave Kathleen Carlstrom another lifecycle, seven more years of family celebrations and good times. “At a certain point, we were giving cakes away,” Tom said, describing his mother-in-law, “She baked them for us every day.”
Although the Kaufmanns’ children are now all grown and moved out, the house continues to serve as a site for socializing as their extended families use the grounds frequently. In 2008, their daughter Kelly Kaufmann-McKenzie got married on the grounds with 140 guests. Plus, they turned the back apartment into a rentable efficiency.
“I don’t know who we would be if we lived in the other [previous] house,” is how Gina sums it up. “I feel humbled by it because you find things, treasures. It makes you wonder about history and who was here before—how many other mothers sat on the porch nursing their children or grandmothers holding their babies? Newer homes just don’t have that ancestral connection. In ours, every window has something to offer. Now that value certainly trumps being plumb, level or square.”
[For more information, go to www.hickorylanefarmhouse.com]