Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Back to school in Montague: the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse

Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area is loaded with them: old houses and buildings that largely stand empty, the silent tribute to faulty government planning and successful public outcry. Many had been in the same family for generations before the Army Corps of Engineers set out to flood much of the Water Gap as part of the Tocks Island Dam project. In preparation, the federal government purchased acres of farmland and forest plus the structures that stood on them.

Public opinion ultimately trumped the dubious need for the project, but the impact on the area was profound, nonetheless. While the National Park Service assumed ownership and management of the land from the Army Corps, the families were not allowed to return to their ancestral homes. What's left in many cases is the puzzling sight we discovered at the Westbrook-Bell House: a nicely maintained but tightly shut colonial-era stone house with a decidedly 21st century satellite dish. If you're like me, you salivate a little as you drive past buildings like that, wondering how much of the average stuff of daily life is left in them and whether you'll ever get to find out.

More rarely than most of us wish, you may drive past one of the old houses to find it's open. That was our luck as we approached a small stone structure not far from the Milford-Montague Bridge on Route 206. The Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse was accepting visitors, as it does, two Sundays a month in warm weather.

As we discovered from our friendly volunteer docent, farmer George Nelden held the property as early as 1817. It was a schoolhouse until about 1865, one of a handful located in the area in a time before free public education. The Roberts portion of the house's name came from a family who owned a farm across the road; tenant farmers were among the many families that used it as a dwelling until the federal government acquired the property. One gets the feeling that rather than being a beloved homestead, the stonehouse was more like an accommodation that came along with local employment. Still, or maybe because of that status, it has a valuable story to tell.

It's likely that when it was originally built, the building was a lot like others in Montague and surrounding communities, but circumstances have a way of making the ordinary truly special. Vandalism and the loss of nearby Brick House village to the Tocks Island project encouraged concerned citizens to form the Montague Association for the Restoration of Community History (MARCH) in 1979 to save some of the remaining historic properties. A federal grant paid for adaptive restoration, which led to the building's reopening in 1982. MARCH now has an longstanding agreement with the National Park Service to maintain and interpret the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse and the nearby Foster-Armstrong House, a wooden homestead first built in the late 18th century and enlarged in 1820.

They've done an admirable job. Walking into the stonehouse, we discovered a one-room schoolhouse, complete with some of the primers, slates and other items rural students would have brought for a day of study. A small side room was set up like an early 20th century general store that was, no doubt, a very welcome amenity for the rural community.

Upstairs was an attic room for the teacher, large though the walls were slanted. In addition to curating it with spartan bedroom furniture, MARCH uses the space to exhibit other artifacts representing community history. When we were there, it held a World War display saluting local veterans, as well as a number of Native American objects reflecting the area's Lenape past.

With the coming of colder weather, the unheated Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse will be closed for a few months, but it's well worth putting on the to-see list for the spring. Just as important as any "Washington Slept Here" attraction in the state, the stonehouse is a refreshing look into a community's past, lovingly perpetuated by neighbors who see the importance of preserving local history.

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