18th Century Home Rises as Beacon of Renewal

BY VINNY MURPHY

Across from an inactive landfill, a piece of history has been restored. In Hillburn’s Torne Valley, students and volunteers have reconstructed a small saltbox house as an educational facility and research center. The house is a monument to the valley’s past and its journey has been an interesting one.

In 1997, Chuck Stead, now Saltbox Environmental Research Center Director of Education, halted the planned demolition of a 200-year-old saltbox house. The house was a small one, originally occupied by a local factory worker and his family. Although the house could not stay in its original location, the decision was made to take apart the home and store it until a new location could be secured.

After deconstruction, the parts were stored for 12 years in a barn in Chester NY, owned by the late Noel Jablonski. Stead has called Jablonski “the angel of the Saltbox”. In 2009, the parts were moved into a facility in Hillburn. It was at that time that Stead proposed a radical idea, to re-build the saltbox not just as a historical exhibit, but as an active research center. The focus of this center is the impact of the “paint sludge” dumps from the now defunct Ford factory in Mahwah, New Jersey.

Though some of his colleagues doubted that this project would ever take hold, Stead found an ally in Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence. After three years of work, supported by the town and organizations such as Americorps, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland, BOCES of Rockland and Antioch’s New England School of Environmental Studies, Stead’s finally realized his vision.

The mood at the opening ceremony was joyful. Many of the volunteers and students (Stead made a point to mention that the facility was “kid built”) who had contributed to the project were present.

Even the uninitiated could enjoy the banter, the thumping bluegrass and exhibitions as Stead showed off such pieces as an 18th century style shaving horse. Refreshments provided included not only standard fare but also a locally gathered stew provided by the Suburban Foragers.

In a brief speech, St. Lawrence not only praised the facility, but also made clear his goal of reclaiming the entire valley. The supervisor said that projects like the Saltbox were “much more appropriate than a power plant.” He also announced that he had recently signed paperwork that will bring Ford back to assist in cleaning up the area’s pollution.

Also present was Chief Vin Mann, of the Ramapough Lenape Nation. A self admitted man of few words, Mann spoke on healing and how this facility is an example of a “unification that’s happening” amongst his people and the other residents of the area.

In his closing remarks, Stead focused on the young men and women who were the true workhorses behind the project, and that it is truly their facility. “This is a story, and we’re all in it,” said Stead, “It’s here, and it’s part of who we are.” The presentation ended with a call to stewardship, a theme that dominated the day. In Stead’s words, we should all seek “something legitimate to give to the next generation.”