by Roy Wilson
Our historic Abolition Hall property in Plymouth Meeting has been the focus of much commentary, not all of it accurate.
My wife, a descendant of the abolitionist Corson family, and I have lived here and maintained the property since the early 1980s, as one-third owners along with Ann’s two siblings.
Our property was selected by the Township for high density housing back in 1977 when it was zoned Attached Dwelling for townhouses. In 2008, the Township changed our zoning to Village Commercial, which also allows townhouses. In 2012, we approached the Township to consider buying our eight acres of fields for open space, to reduce our high property tax burden, which is currently nearly $24,000 a year.
After several meetings, the township was unable to offer an acceptable amount for the eight acres, so the owners, faced with unsustainable costs, signed an agreement of sale for the entire property to K. Hovnanian Homes.
The group opposing the developer has made numerous statements that our historic buildings “might” be in “neglected condition.” Currently, there are three abandoned buildings owned by others that border our property. But while our buildings do date back to the 1700s, and constant costly attention is required, ours are in no way neglected.
In 2016, the owner of a neighboring property made the absurd claim that tunnels ran from his basement to Abolition Hall, well over 150 feet away. A TV news reporter repeated the claim as fact, and now others cite this newscast as proof. There are no tunnels into Abolition Hall.
A fresh claim states that escaping slaves hid in cornfields next to Abolition Hall. This claim is an insult to the memory of the abolitionist Corson and Maulsby families. Persons escaping bondage were not left hiding in fields here—they were protected in the houses and barns of the family, where they could rely on their white and black conductors to move them northward from station to station.
Further, there is no evidence whatsoever that “cornfields” were then adjacent to Abolition Hall, as that field was pastureland for the horses needed for carriages, and cows, as depicted in photos from the 1880s. Cornfields were planted in the 1980s, to avoid the cost of mowing the grass fields.
The historic marker on our land resulted from an application Nancy Corson and I wrote, at the suggestion of Nona Martin, in 1999. We cited documentation from noted author Charles Blockson and others. When the marker was approved by the state, Nancy paid the cost, I installed the marker, and we provided the reception open house to dedicate it.
Since the 1980s, Ann and I have used Abolition Hall as artists’ studios, as it has been used since the 1880s. We, as did Nancy Corson before us, have opened this private space on many occasions to the public, school groups, and individual visitors, offering detailed history presentations on the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the later use of the Hall as a studio for Thomas Hovenden, best known for his paintings “The Last Moments of John Brown” and “Breaking Home Ties”.
In several instances large tour groups were dropped off by bus, but most times by van or cars who parked in our driveway. Opponents are now demanding that on-site bus parking be provided here. This is private property, not a school. Even Independence Hall doesn’t have bus parking.
During our years of caring for this site, we have taken great pride in honoring the memory of forebears, who, in addition to their substantial contributions to industry and medicine, were courageous in their support of abolition, human rights, as well as temperance and women’s suffrage.
The Township and local citizens have played no role in the preservation of the property, it has all been done by the family at its own expense. But the combination of land taxes, insurance on all the buildings, and high maintenance costs is not sustainable. Just as my wife and I have done for nearly four decades, we expect that this history will continue to be recognized by future owners of the property.