Historic Franklin Township farm saved … sort of

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WAYNESBURG – Back in 2001, Murray and Laurine Williams sat in the library of their two-story, brick farmhouse just south of Waynesburg, waiting to see what would be the outcome of their four-year effort to save their historic home.


The walls of the 150-year-old house, three bricks thick and covered inside with a concrete-hard horse hair plaster, insulated the house well from any sounds outside.


But 450 feet directly beneath the house, things weren’t so quiet as the cutter of a longwall mining machine whirled, removing the coal from the 7-foot Pittsburgh seam of coal.


“We’re just here waiting,” Laurine Williams said then while sitting at a table in the first-floor library. “We’ve been told when they go under a house like this, it’s usually two to three days before you get severe damage.”


The Williamses had spent 12 years restoring the historic Thomas Kent Jr. house on Laurel Run Road in Franklin Township. And today, they seemed to have prevailed, sort of.


On Wednesday, Preservation Pennsylvania, a nonprofit statewide educational and advocacy historic preservation organization, released its annual list of endangered historic properties and, not surprisingly, the Thomas Kent Jr. Farm was among them.


Other Greene County sites included were Lock and Dam 7, designated “still at risk,” and Glassworks, a “community” now considered part of Greensboro that was once the site of the first glass factory west of the Monongahela River, also designated “still at risk.” All that remains today of Glassworks are a few former residential properties that were occupied by glass blowers in the mid-19th century.


Washington County sites mentioned in the list from Preservation Pennsylvania are Manchester Farms in Avella, “still at risk,” and Lincoln National Bank Avella, “preservation in progress.”


Preservation Pennsylvania designated the Thomas Kent Jr. farm as “saved (sort of …).” The report noted that the owners still hear subsidence cracking more than 10 years later and worry that the house remains in danger.


Contacted Wednesday, Laurine Williams said, “There are times we do hear the sounds of subsidence, but not very often, maybe one or two times a month at most. I have no proof at this point in time. I am very comfortable.”


She said she is keeping her fingers crossed because the farm is in the center of the coal panel, and that is probably the safest place to be. A neighbor who lives behind her, however, has mentioned hearing sounds and feeling slight vibrations as well.


Williams said the situation is nothing that she is going to give anyone grief over at this point. She credited being placed on the National Historic Register with aiding a 10-year fight with the coal company.


Even with that, it was “still a long hard fight with about 10 years of struggling to get this all together,” Williams said.


Red notebooks line the shelves of a bookcase upstairs in the home. Each is filled with notes from every conversation, whether in person or by phone, that Williams had during the fight.


After things were made right with the home, she moved the bookcase upstairs, where she no longer has to see them and have the daily reminder. When she has been asked what she plans to do with the books, she said perhaps one day one of her daughters will use them to write a book about what happened.


In 2011, a coal operator announced it will not longwall mine under the historic Manchester Farm in Independence Township. Alliance Resource Partners confirmed its subsidiary, Penn Ridge LLC, will not mine under any part of the 400-acre farm near Avella using the longwall method that often results in immediate subsidence and water loss. The company instead decided to apply to the state Department of Environmental Protection to mine in the room-and-pillar, or conventional, method under the property where an early settler built a stately Georgian manor house.


The trust still has concerns about how the mine would impact the property sold in 1797 to Isaac Manchester that has remained in that family for more than two centuries, said its regional director, Walter Gallas. He said he hoped the announcement will lead to a dialogue between the company and property owners Joe and Margie Manchester Pagliarulo.


The farm was placed on the trust’s 2011 list of America’s most endangered historic places because it could be impacted by the mine through such issues as the development of new roads and ventilation shafts, Gallas said.


In 2010, Avella Area Community Association Inc. applied for and received $285,000 for restoration of Lincoln National Bank in Independence Township. The money was part of the 2010 local share of revenue from slot machines at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino.


Preservation Pennsylvania established the annual Pennsylvania At Risk list in 1992, making it the first statewide preservation organization in the United States to have an annual roster of endangered historic properties.


The historic resources included in the recent list are houses, schools, churches, theaters and medical facilities, said Erin Hammerstedt, field representative for Preservation Pennsylvania.


“Approximately 18 percent of Pennsylvania’s at risk properties have been lost, having been demolished or substantially altered,” Hammerstedt said. “Another 32 percent have been saved or are in a condition or situation where the identified threat no longer poses a problem for the historic property.”


Hammerstedt said by monitoring these properties over the past 20 years and working with individuals and organizations trying to preserve them, “we have learned many valuable lessons, particularly that our work is not done.”


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