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Living and working — with history, nature, ghosts, and water snakes — in a 300-year-old Wissahickon Valley Park house

Philadelphia Inquirer 11/27/2022 Kevin Riordan, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Wissahickon Creek is about 100 feet from the front door of Glen Fern, the historic house that Carol Adams and Craig Johnson share in Northwest Philadelphia. © Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Wissahickon Creek is about 100 feet from the front door of Glen Fern, the historic house that Carol Adams and Craig Johnson share in Northwest Philadelphia.

As resident stewards of the nearly 300-year-old house known as Glen Fern, Craig Johnson and Carol Adams are immersed in the many splendors of Wissahickon Valley Park.

The couple live on a Mount Airy lane that plunges into the valley through thick woods, curving to an end at the 15-room assemblage of locally quarried stone they call home. The front door is less than 100 feet from the Wissahickon Creek.

“We listen to it sing,” said Johnson, a naturalist who designs signage, interpretive panels, and educational programs for parks and historic sites.

Adams, a retired literacy teacher in the Philadelphia public schools and now a mentor for instructional coaches in Bucks County, said: “The creek is a constant presence ... and the house itself has a deep presence. It brings us calm.”

Johnson’s design studio, Interpret Green, signed a 15-year lease with the city in 2011. In addition to the $160,000 in repairs the company has made to what he said was a “barely inhabitable” house, rent is about $1,900 a month.

“Philadelphia Parks & Recreation has 15 sites similar to Glen Fern with long-term leases through the Fairmount Park Conservancy [enabling] nonprofits and businesses to adaptively reuse historic properties,” Maita Soukup, the department’s communications director, said in an email.

Craig Johnson, Carol Adams, and Rise, their standard poodle, live at Glen Fern, a historic house on the Wissahickon Creek in Northwest Philadelphia. © Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Craig Johnson, Carol Adams, and Rise, their standard poodle, live at Glen Fern, a historic house on the Wissahickon Creek in Northwest Philadelphia.

“Glen Fern is a wonderful place,” Johnson said. “But it has its complications.”

Ghosts, reptiles, and a dream

Among those complications are falling trees, seven ghosts of Hessian soldiers in the cellar — although they eventually were persuaded to depart after a visit from a spirit clearer — and northern water snakes along the creek. The snakes are numerous, but not venomous.

Craig Johnson and Carol Adams, who live in Glen Fern, a historic Wissahickon Valley Park house along the Wissahickon Creek, built a habitat for the northern water snakes living along the creek. The snakes are not venomous. The sign was created by Interpret Green, Johnson's design studio. © Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Craig Johnson and Carol Adams, who live in Glen Fern, a historic Wissahickon Valley Park house along the Wissahickon Creek, built a habitat for the northern water snakes living along the creek. The snakes are not venomous. The sign was created by Interpret Green, Johnson's design studio.

Adams said that when visitors learn there are snakes in the vicinity, “a lot of them want to leave. But I’m thrilled they’re here.”

The couple built a habitat for the reptiles after a park visitor put one in a jar and offered to sell it to them for $5. On another occasion, a visitor seemed about to kill a pregnant water snake.

Soon afterward, Johnson had a vivid dream in which the reptiles were pleading for help. “The next day I realized that wasn’t like a regular dream,” he said. “It was like instructions. So we asked if we could build a refuge for the water snakes.”

Carol Adams and Craig Johnson are tenants and stewards of Glen Fern, a historic house in Northwest Philadelphia's Wissahickon Valley Park. They've also built a habitat for Northern Water Snakes between the house and the nearby Wissahickon Creek. © Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Carol Adams and Craig Johnson are tenants and stewards of Glen Fern, a historic house in Northwest Philadelphia's Wissahickon Valley Park. They've also built a habitat for Northern Water Snakes between the house and the nearby Wissahickon Creek.

The fenced-in arrangement of creek-side rocks, as well as an interpretive sign, seem to have reduced disruptive interactions between visitors and snakes, Adams said. When she and Johnson are outside, the snakes will sometimes sun themselves — or even form a “mating ball” of males and a single female — in plain sight, despite being “not the friendliest snakes,” said Ned Gilmore, a collections manager at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Gilmore helped conduct a wildlife survey in the park and praised the couple’s efforts to protect a native species.

“With the pandemic, and people putting lists of [places to visit] online, you get more people coming to these places, and the habitat begins to degrade,” Gilmore said.

Glen Fern is just downstream from Devil’s Pool, a scenic spot that in recent years gained so much social media cachet that hordes of visitors have threatened to overwhelm the 2,000-acre park.

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“There were people coming from all over the place, you could tell by the license plates — New York, Maryland, D.C.,” Johnson said. “We got a lot of people coming who seemed never to have been in the woods before.”

Park buildings need TLC

Although they are neither park rangers nor tour guides, Adams and Johnson are deeply knowledgeable about the history and ecology of Glen Fern and its environs, said Ruffian Tittmann, executive director of the Friends of the Wissahickon. The nonprofit group, 3,000 members strong, raises money and provides volunteers for Wissahickon Valley Park.

“The city has come up with mechanisms to preserve Glen Fern and other great pieces of Philadelphia’s past and keep them active and usable,” she said. “Craig and Carol are in the park every day because they live there. If there’s a concern, or if a tree falls, they let the city know. It’s great for the park to have these lines of communication.”

Maura McCarthy is executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that raises money and organizes volunteers to support the entire 10,200-acre city park system, including East and West Fairmount Park, as well as Cobbs Creek and FDR parks. But Philly has historically underfunded its parks when compared with other American cities.

“These parks are all peak public assets, including about 200 buildings, many of them considered historic, like Glen Fern,” McCarthy said. “People come together around these public assets, and it’s really important for us to keep the buildings part of the park experience.”

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Despite the obvious appeal — plenty of trees and quiet — McCarthy said living in an old building in a city park isn’t for everyone.

“It’s not necessarily easy,” she said. “You have to have a clear idea of why you’re there.”

Such is the joy Johnson and Adams take living in and working from their home at Glen Fern that, depending on the time and circumstance, they will allow a visitor a glimpse of the interior of the house, the oldest portion of which was built in 1735.

The original structure consisted of a single room with an enormous hearth that remains a centerpiece of today’s much larger house. Glen Fern was originally known as the Livezey house, for the family that bought the house and corn-grinding mill on the property — one of many mills along the creek in the second half of the 18th century.

Johnson said that as he understands the story, during or after the Battle of Germantown on Oct. 4, 1777, seven Hessian soldiers foraging for food brutally attacked several women who were alone at the Livezey house and were afterward executed by the British there.

Despite descriptions on some vintage postcards, the Livezey house never served as a headquarters for Gen. George Washington in 1776. “This false legend was made [up] by early-19th-century postcard makers in Germany,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of lore and legends around this house, along with the actual facts.”

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Adams described living at Glen Fern as “cohabiting with nature” and as a source of connection.

“I feel rooted,” she said. “Rooted in the land and in the house. Which we treat as a member of our family.”

Johnson said Glen Fern “is both a teacher and an inspiration because of its resilience ... to be nearly 300 years old and still full of vitality, and beauty, is for me the biggest gift.”

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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