Pennsauken Citizen-Historians Get Blast From The Past Through Time Capsules

By Robert Fisher-Hughes, AAP Columnist and Amateur Historian

As September is a month of new beginnings and refreshed ambitions, with a return from vacations and schools welcoming new classes, so does a new season of events begin at our historical organizations in Pennsauken. That creates an opportunity to see how far we have come and what is next. It is also an ideal time to become involved in the participatory sport of history!

The surrender of New Netherlands 350 years ago this month, as well as the short assault on a Dutch garrison on the Delaware River celebrated next month, were the birth pangs of the English colony that grew up to be the state of New Jersey. Three hundred years later, the celebration of those events created a widespread interest in local history all over New Jersey, as municipal tercentenary committees exerted themselves to spotlight the surviving links of each town to that founding history. Like the minutemen of yore, citizens of towns all over New Jersey took up the tools of another profession, in this case, that of the historian.

History is the most democratic of the humanities, as every individual is a part of it. So there is something appropriate when citizens of diverse backgrounds take ownership of their heritage to appreciate, protect, and interpret for the benefit of their community. So it happened in Pennsauken Township, too.

Before the tercentenary year of 1964, two old homes in Pennsauken had already been identified as possible sites of the Township’s celebration. Practical by nature, these citizen-historians noted that one of the two structures, having been more recently inhabited, was in considerably more sound condition and could be readied for the approaching celebrations. That was how the Burrough-Dover House came to be first taken into stewardship as a symbol of our collective heritage.

The year after the tercentenary celebration, the Pennsauken Historical Society was founded to become the stewards of Burrough-Dover House and, to the extent of its resources and membership, to preserve our community’s memory. The work of Pennsauken Historical Society will reach the half-century mark next year.

The recent passing of Joseph Fitzpatrick, president emeritus of Pennsauken Historical Society, reminds us of the critical role played by our fellow residents of earnest devotion to our local history, without regard to any specialized background or credentials. In 14 years as president, Joseph Fitzpatrick’s straight-forward belief in the American heritage represented by our own local history led to an incomparable devotion to the care of Burrough-Dover House and the perpetuation of the work of Pennsauken Historical Society. His personal commitment and leadership for all those years gave breath to the Society and its work, though his own background as a high school graduate, an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy and as a commercial property manager, may not have suggested that he would carry on the work of a historian for more than a decade. Nevertheless, that is what he did.

The Griffith Morgan House, though older, had to wait until a second wave of citizen-historians organized to halt its intended demolition and begin a longer process of restoration that has resulted in a second historical gem being saved. The Griffith Morgan Committee, Inc., with fresh volunteers and ambitions fueled in part by the successful example of the old house further up Pennsauken Creek, brought the Morgan home back from the brink and into service to its community.

The loving work of these separate organizations of our fellow townspeople has culminated in the creation of two proud, permanent time-capsules of our community from its earliest days to its most recent. The volunteers who care for these historic houses for us are able to build on the work of the citizen-historians who came before them and make their own statement of ownership of their heritage.

Time capsules are a traditional way for the past to send a message to the future, not unlike setting a message in a bottle adrift to unknown lands. A kind of faith underlies the preparation of a time capsule, a faith in the future that will open it and understand its intent. Unfortunately, there is also a long tradition of failed time capsules, as was recently demonstrated with the opening of the cornerstone of the demolished Central School building. Infiltration of the elements over the decades had irreversibly eradicated the contents and the message from our past that they represented.

Another time capsule, from a less distant time but with better hopes of success, will occupy the attention of the Pennsauken Historical Society at its annual meeting on the evening of Sept. 9 at Pennsauken Library. Twenty-five years ago, members of the Pennsauken Historical Society sealed a small chest and painted a message of dedication on its lid, calling for it to be opened in a quarter century. That time capsule was then placed discreetly and safely in the attic of the Burrough-Dover House to be rediscovered only last year. Presumably, the small chest contains a message from its time in the form of items of ordinary life and perhaps a greeting from our predecessors. What those items are and how they convey the essence of 1989 will not be known until that evening, when the chest will be unsealed.

Suggestions for the new time capsule began to be collected at Burrough-Dover House events earlier in the year and will continue to be received at all Pennsauken Historical Society events until the dedication of the re-sealed capsule later this year.

In the meantime, the success of the much grander time capsules that are the Burrough-Dover House and the Griffith Morgan House continues to depend on the efforts of citizen-historians who care about the future enough to send a message of honest perspective about the past. The willingness of our community to support that heritage, and especially the dedication of today’s citizen-historians, will also speak as a message about our own time.

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