Spar Hill Farm's future discussed at township meeting08/11/2021 01:57PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
The first steps to not only preserve structures on the historic Spar Hill Farm in Kennett Township but to align them with a grand vision and purpose for their future began as bold leaps at the township's Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 4.
Stimulated by the recommendations of the township's Historical Commission, the 137-acre property on Burnt Mill Road – which the township purchased in the fall of 2018 – the old farm became an incubator for ideas shared between the supervisors, Commission members and audience members that included conceiving it as an educational center to show visitors what agricultural life in southern Chester County looked like during the 1800s and early 1900s.
The back-and-forth conversation kicked off with a remote presentation by Lars Farmer, the chair of the Commission, who gave an historical overview of the property. Named for the feldspar that was once mined there, the farm was originally called the Way Farm, and managed by Quakers for over a century. From 1925 to 1940, the property was known as Shutt Farm and served as a dairy farm, housing as many as 750 heifers at a time. Beginning in the 1940s, the property was renamed the Spar Hill Turkey Farm, where as many as 45,000 turkeys were raised there at its height in 1958.
By the 1960s, however, most of the turkey facilities were demolished. Currently, the farm continues to have limited agricultural use – including the arrival of the Emergent Abundance Farming Collective (EAFC) one-acre vegetable garden in 2021 – but over the last several months, it has drawn fans of the HBO hit series “Mare of Easttown,” which filmed a scene at the farm's cow barn and stable workshop.
During his presentation, Farmer offered the Historical Commission's recommendations for preserving several structures on the farm:
The property's main farmhouse, built in 1848
a carriage house (foundation only)
an ice house
a cow barn, built in 1925
a stable workshop
a cement cattle husbandry block, and
The Commission also recommended that a historic preservation consultant be hired by the township to review various recommendations and develop a final preservation plan for the farm that would include ways to preserve, restore, stabilize and demolish historic resources on the farm – as well as helping to determine the costs of each recommendation.
Farmer said that preservation of the farm is in keeping with the township's Code of Ordinances that calls for the township to preserve its rural and historic character through the recognition and protection of historic and cultural resources; establish a clear process by which proposed changes affecting historic resources are reviewed to mitigate the negative effects; encourage the continued use of historic resources and facilitate their appropriate reuse; and encourage the preservation of historic settings and landscapes.
'Have a focus with a purpose'
Supervisor Scudder Stevens reemphasized the written correspondence he has recently had with Farmer about the Commission's ideas, that called for the Commission and the township to conceive a “ larger picture” future for the farm, namely by honoring its history.
“I originally – and for a long time – have not seen any great value in saving a collection of hodgepodge, rag-tag old buildings that have no direct connection with themselves, much less to the community,” he said. “A worn-out old silo sitting by itself means nothing, but when I look at your presentation and look at the report that was put together by the Department of Transportation, I found it absolutely fantastic and absorbing to read that history, and to find out how all of these buildings came together and worked and how they changed.
“That makes me think that there is something more to this than a bunch of old buildings that are falling down. It occurred to me that we need a purpose – a vision for where we are going with Spar Hill. If we want to just keep it as open space, that's a perfectly good vision, but we have an option for a whole lot more.”
Stevens said that adding a layer of “historic perspective” to Spar Hill would be a “phenomenal possibility” that may take a decade, but will give the township time and resources to obtain the funding to help finance the refurbishing of these structures and develop the farm as a center for history and education.
“Have a focus with a purpose, and highlight the different buildings,” he added. “You can put all of this together, in my mind, into a fantastic series of dioramas that people can then walk around and look at, and they all of a sudden begin to learn what this area is all about.
“If all we are worried about doing is saving an old silo or an 1848 house that's about to fall down, I don't want to waste [the township's money] on it, but if we can do something with an educational purpose, I think that is something that we can sell.”
Potential partnering with local organizations
Township Manager Eden Ratliff suggested that a logical next step for the development of the farm will be to explore methods of remediation for the property, compile a network of advocates and potential partners – including representatives from the Chester County Historic Preservation Network – and elicit evaluation proposals, in order to determine the scope and cost of future projects at Spar Hill.
Calling the Spar Hill Farm “a jewel,” Joe Duffy of the township's Land Conservation Advisory Committee (LCAC) said that there is a need to develop a long-term plan for the farm, “which will meet Kennett Township's objectives to preserve it as open space, protect its historic nature and do so in a financial prudent manner.”
He suggested that the township could issue a request for proposal to non-profit, community-based organizations who may be interested in establishing their base of operations at Spar Hill, and therefore be required to fund the repair of the structures under a “net lease” arrangement with the township.
“At the same time, it would be a long-term lease thereby shifting most of the maintenance cost burden onto the tenant, who enjoys great space with a very reasonable rent arrangement,” Duffy said. “As appropriate, Kennett Township could cooperate with the winning bidder(s) to obtain various state, county and private grants to ameliorate costs.”
LCAC member Michael Guttman said that by partnering with a non-profit, the township will have better leverage in obtaining grants from the county and the state.
“When we look at getting a partner, we ought to not not just focus on the buildings,” Guttman said. “Of course, that's one component of what we want to do – to get someone to help restore, maintain and utilize the buildings, but there may be organizations who may want to use the overall property for their operations.
“We need to think more widely and get more input form different types of organizations about how this property may be valuable to them. It may be valuable to them in ways that we don't think of.”
Township resident Bob Sheedy told the supervisors that he and his wife moved from Lancaster County to the township in order to restore and live at a 1725 farm, a project that included the repair of the property's barn and silo. He encouraged the supervisors to support the preservation of Spar Hill.
“Your ability to preserve what makes you special makes you special,” he said. “We came here because of the community you are preserving, and it is a worthy adventure.”
“When [the township] first purchased the farm, we had the idea of preserving at least the structures [at Spar Hill] in order to tell some of the story, so the question is, how much can we preserve and at what cost, in order to be able to tell that story?” said board Chairman Richard Leff.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].