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Frontline: A Look at the Historic Morton Homestead

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Sense of Place
Who will claim the Morton Homestead as their own?

In the early days of Colonial settlement in ports along the Delaware River, a certain Mouns Peterson Staeckett and Hans Julian went about antagonizing each other, alternating as plaintiff and defendant. According to court records, the unfortunate incidents involved everything from breaking a helpless calf’s leg to assault and battery.

Things came to a head when Staeckett “rode before Julian’s door and called him saying, ‘You Dog! You rogue! Come out. I will shoot you a bullet through your head.’” Ah, neighbors.

Today another dispute has emerged along the Delaware. Hardly so dramatic, this one involves Finnish Swede Morten Mortensson, who arrived here as a soldier in 1654 aboard the ship Orn (Eagle) on the New World’s 10th expedition from Europe. Mortensson became a farmer on some 700 acres along Darby Creek, built a homestead and lived there with his wife, children and grandchildren until his death in 1706. His great-grandson, John Morton, was a sheriff and judge from Ridley Township. And in the summer of 1776, he was the delegate at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) who cast the deciding vote in favor of independence from Britain.

Located along Route 420 north of I-95 just across Darby Creek, Morton Homestead is among Pennsylvania’s most historic buildings. It was a state-administered site until the summer of 2005, when the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s budget cuts closed it to the public. The site’s 25-year custodial guide, Norah Kienzle, retired in July 2005, after the state cut her weekly hours from 21 to three—a “little nudge,” she says.

“I was the Cinderella of the place,” says the 67-year-old Kienzle, who remains in contact with Morton descendents. “I washed the dishes, scrubbed the floors and saw who was knocking at the door. Now, nothing’s going on there.”

The state, which has minimally maintained the site, is looking for an organization to occupy and assume responsibility for the old log building. Public access is available by appointment only through Beth Rump, the site administrator at Brandywine Battlefield Park in Chadds Ford, who says the place “never had a huge visitation” and is “difficult to access.” She also says its status—no regular hours—isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

For Philadelphia’s Swedish Colonial Society and other organizations interested in its preservation, the homestead links settlement in the region to one of the original Swedish colonists, Mortensson. The Morton log house is the only surviving example of the Swedish-Finnish “dogtrot” style, in which two log houses with a stone go-between form one long building.

Rumors about what might happen to the property have been running rampant, including the claim that it was being considered as a state casino site. “I don’t think that was true,” says Kenneth S. Peterson, color guard captain and associate archivist for the Swedish Colonial Society. He heard representatives of a local Lenape Indian group expressed interest, but “nothing came of it.”

Another possibility is for the Darby Creek Valley Association, whose focus is protecting the Darby Creek watershed, to call the Morton home its headquarters. DCVA is an all-volunteer environmental advocacy organization that sponsors a yearly watershed cleanup and educational and recreational events like the Governor Printz Canoe Challenge. DCVA Board members have been meeting with the state and other organizations to assess what stewardship would entail. “We want it open, which is what the state wants, but the question is: How do you do it?” poses DCVA vice president John Furth, who is chairing the committee. “At the moment, we feel over-committed. That’s been the general tenor of our discussions.”

Since the homestead overlooks Darby Creek, Furth says the scenery is striking. “You can close off I-95 from your mind,” Fruth says. “You can almost imagine the Swedish settlers who had come so far from home.”

Furth would like to capitalize on the site for its environmental value and recreational possibilities. “If a landing was installed there,” he says, “you could canoe from the [John Heinz National Wildlife] Refuge [at Tinicum], then stop at the homestead.”

Furth, who lives in Lansdowne, was a mover and shaker in restoring a circa-1650s Swedish log cabin in Upper Darby/Clifton Heights. In general, though, he says Delaware County has too many sites to maintain.

Furth presents the possibility that a local school district would assume responsibility of the Morton Homestead for use as an on-site history center. And the property should be important to Prospect Park. “It’s in their borough,” he says. “All these little boroughs want individualism and independence, but at the same time they don’t have money or resources.”

All of which leaves everyone in a quandary. “I don’t know why all the people just can’t get together,” Furth says. “It would be a great thing to do something.”

Penn vs. Morton
The way many of us see it, Pennsylvania began with William Penn’s colony. Swedish Colonial Society enthusiasts, however, beg to differ. Their descendents actually founded the region.

“[Penn] came late compared with all the other colonies on the East Coast,” Peterson says. “There was an early colony of Europeans [Swedes and Finns, the only Europeans who ever befriended the Native American Indians] already established in the Delaware Valley [40 years] before our proprietor Penn.” Their house-building style—the use of dovetailed corner notching between closely fit hand-hewn logs—was unique. The Morton Homestead remains the only example left of this pragmatic construction in the United States. Of course, the Delaware Valley was the hearth area for the log cabin, which eventually allowed the Midwest to be pioneered and settled.

According to tradition (and maybe some folklore), in 1654 the south unit was built by Morten Mortensson, listed as one of the original owners along with Jan (later John) Cornelius and Matty Mattysen in records dating to 1672. Mathias Morton constructed the north unit in 1698 as a separate dwelling. His son became the owner in 1703 and remained there until 1758, when it temporarily left the family. Until 1840, three generations of the Morris family provided ferry service between Tinicum Island and the mainland side of Darby Creek. In 1847, a bridge to the island rendered the ferry obsolete.

Under the south unit, the remains of the original cabin were excavated in 1988 by PHMC archaeologists. Peterson, a descendant of original colonist and apparent curmudgeon Mauns Staeckett , calls it a “flawed” study.

“What we rue is the state’s denial that this log house and site is Morton’s and Swedish,” he says. “In their haste to decommission this site and save money, they failed to check the complete historical record. Had they consulted with the Swedish Colonial Society as agreed, they would have had access to the 1693 Longshore Survey and other detailed facts. Should this historical log house cease to exist, a large part of Pennsylvania’s earliest history will be gone.”

Dispute remains as to what the house represents and whether or not it’s the birthplace of John Morton, the critical signer of the Declaration of Independence. Furth, too, says it’s not a typical Swedish design and calls the go-between “an interesting structure.”

The Swedish Colonial Society’s governor, Rev. Kim-Eric Williams, says such skepticism was an invention of the state, which purchased the property in 1937 to get funding to restore the cabin. It did so in 1938. In 1957, PHMC ultimately rejected the connection between the site and John Morton, officially renaming the site Morton Homestead in recognition of its first owners.

Still, the cabin remains unfurnished, Williams says, because the state doesn’t want to pay for period antiques.

“I’m afraid the state is looking for ways to cut its bills,” says the West Chester resident. “It’s not looking for ways to preserve the state’s history. What a disappointment. We pay taxes, but the state’s not fixing our monuments. We just have to be vigilant. It’s up to citizens to speak up, as we have, for the Morton Homestead and other sites.”

Kienzle, the former caretaker, agrees.

“I thought historic sites belonged to the people,” she says. “The bottom line is that the state knows what it’s going to do there. It’s just biding its time until no one’s watching.”

For more information about the Morton Homestead, visit darbyhistory.com.