On many late autumn and winter nights, sitting in my living room awash with the glow from the hearth and the sound of icy snow tapping at the window, I've shivered as I wondered about how those who built this house over 250 years ago survived the blizzards up here on Schooley's Mountain with no electricity, snowplows, Fed Ex or pizza delivery services.
I've often wondered if this house could speak what stories would it tell about the people who lived here and the problems and dreams they wrestled with over the last few centuries. Were their desires and fears so different from ours today?
In the summer of 1999 I was on a mission to purchase my first home. I searched three counties and looked at 21 homes, almost all of them historic. When I stepped into this house at 106 Wehrli Road, No. 22 on the list, I felt like I had indeed come home. It felt familiar. It felt right.
As I wandered through its many rooms, it reminded me of a recurring dream; in every direction there were more doors to open and more rooms beyond. And almost every room had a fireplace, several with beautiful and intricate mantels. An enormous old safe in the kitchen held deeds dating back to the late 1800s and the owners told me about John Collver, the man who is believed to have built this house and moved here from New London, Connecticut with 21 members of his family for religious freedom.
According to Theodore Frelinghuysen Chambers' book The Early Germans of New Jersey: their history, churches, and genealogies, John Collver Sr.–also spelled "Culver"–is known to be the earliest settler in the western Morris County area. The graves of seven Collvers were discovered on this property in 1938 according to another source, but in 1973, only three of the stones remained. The stone of Joseph Collver, one of John Collver's sons was found leaning against a tree in 1973.
The Rogerenes, later known as Collverites, were persecuted where they lived in Connecticut for their peculiar practices and beliefs. They did not believe in medicines or physicians, but only in the "laying on of hands" and said no grace at meals because they believed that all prayers should remain in thought only unless the spirit compelled them to speak. They also worked seven days a week and did not observe a day of rest, according to The DeSilva Lineage Project.
Though the township's tax records date the house back to 1760, portions of the house may have been built much earlier.
Eileen Stokes, a member and former president of the Washington Township Historical Society and a Chairperson on the Washington Township Preservation Commission. said that when it comes to historical homes, the tax records are rather unreliable. For homes built before the town was officially established, it's necessary to research county and state records and in some cases, or rely upon oral histories.
Stokes, who lives in the oldest home in Stephensburg–built by Samuel Stevens in 1786–said her passion for historical homes and structures comes from a "love of the mysteries, stories and puzzles to be solved.
"I love going through the nooks and crannies to get information and insight into the minds of the people who lived there," Stokes said.
While owning an old home certainly brings with it moments of discomfort, such as the chill that bores its way through single pane windows and the heaviness of heat and humidity that descends with no central air to fend it off, there are many other moments when I feel the solidity and the strength of the people who once inhabited this sturdy structure.
During some of the most difficult times over the last 11 years, I think of the Collvers and my own ancestors and their strength reaches across time to calm me and assure me. I think there is great value in visiting, studying and preserving old homes – they keep us connected to those courageous people who blazed a trail of freedom for all of us.