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Southampton Township

Preservation Pennsylvania adds Shippensburg area homestead of Revolutionary War officer to at-risk list

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Mary Peebles is concerned by the scope of the threat cropping up along the Interstate 81 corridor in Pennsylvania.

“Once those warehouses are built, you can’t go back,” she said during a recent phone interview. “Once you lose that history, you just can’t go back to the way it was.”

A dentist from Bloomfield, Colorado, she visited Cumberland County in late June to see the Peebles Homestead located along Cramer Road in Southampton Township.

Peebles is a direct descendant through her father’s line to the Scotch-Irish family that once lived on the property northeast of Shippensburg.

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“It was amazing to see a house that old,” she said of the stone building constructed in 1775. “I’m in Colorado. … There’s nothing even close to that old around here. To see that and have that connection to it was just amazing. It was in good condition.

“This is an important site,” Peebles said. “The people of Shippensburg and Cumberland County could learn from it. The family would like to see the house preserved.”

Under threat

Situated on 156 acres of farmland zoned commercial, the homestead is one of four at-risk properties added this year to a list of endangered historical resources compiled by Preservation Pennsylvania.

The homestead is flanked by a housing development and 45 acres of farmland to the north, a warehouse to the west, a 61-acre farm to the east and I-81 to the south, said Mindy Crawford, executive director of the statewide nonprofit organization.

“The house is currently vacant and the land is cultivated by a local dairy farmer, who uses the barn and an out-building,” Crawford said. “One warehouse has been constructed on a neighboring property. There are plans to develop another [nearby] parcel into a convenience store and trucking terminal. Numerous historic homes along the I-81 corridor have been demolished for warehouse construction. Without intervention, the Peebles Homestead could suffer the same fate.”

As with other properties on its list, Preservation Pennsylvania could partner with a grassroots effort to identify issues and priorities and provide experts willing to offer their services pro-bono.

“Historic resources are not saved just because we list them,” Crawford said. “They are saved when many people come together, usually at the local level, to change the situation. However, we know that putting a property on a statewide list puts some focus to it and it does make a difference.”

Peebles said she hopes Preservation Pennsylvania could offer guidance to descendants and supporters on what may be good options to preserve and re-purpose the site. In terms of its historical significance, advocates have focused on the association that Alexander Peebles had to the property.

Alexander Peebles

Greg Highlands of Jonesborough, Tennessee, can trace his ancestry back to one of the daughters of Alexander Peebles, a veteran of the French and Indian War who settled with his family in what was then Hopewell Township, Cumberland County, as early as 1766.

A blacksmith and father of eight children, Alexander Peebles managed a farm of about 300 acres that included livestock, but no servants, Highlands said. “One can easily surmise that he was a very busy and industrious man.” The family belonged to the Middle Spring Presbyterian Church in Shippensburg.

On March 17, 1777, during the Revolutionary War, lawmakers passed the Pennsylvania Militia Act that required all men ages 18 to 52 to serve stints of up of two months in the fight against the crown. Two months later, in May 1777, Peebles was commissioned a captain in charge of the Hopewell Township contingent of the Cumberland County Militia, Highlands said.

Three hundred men of the county militia reported to Gen. George Washington in Chester on Aug. 29, 1777. They were assigned to defend Philadelphia during a series of battles that became known as the Pennsylvania campaign. Specifically, they participated in the Battle of Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777, the Battle of Whitehorse Tavern on Sept. 16, 1777, and the Battle of Germantown on Oct. 4, 1777.

Less than two years later, in September 1779, Alexander Peebles was called up again as part of a unit that included three officers and 15 enlisted men, Highlands said. They were sent to Fort Augusta, a stronghold in the upper Susquehanna River Valley tasked with protecting colonists displaced by incursions from British rangers, loyalists to the king and Indian raiders.

“I found no documents telling me why they were being sent or what their mission was,” Highlands said. Fort Augusta is located in the present-day city of Sunbury, Northumberland County, he said.

“A vanishing landscape”

A Shippensburg native, Highlands knew about the Peebles Homestead growing up. “It’s a great thing,” he said about the property being listed with Preservation Pennsylvania. “It’s definitely warranted because of the history there. I don’t know what the future would be. I just hope they will be able to save it.”

David Smith, a former interim executive director of the Cumberland County Historical Society, heads up a group that looks at preservation issues within the county for the Historical Society.

“It’s not a glorious example of architecture,” Smith said of the homestead. “But it’s a good solid example of the kind of architecture that was being built at that time. The Peebles are an important early family.”

The more the public becomes aware of its historical significance, the greater the likelihood that some effort could be organized to protect and preserve the homestead, said Shawn Gladden, the society’s executive director. “It’s definitely a vanishing landscape as we see more industrial construction in that area.”

Brian Fritz of Shippensburg said he hopes Preservation Pennsylvania takes the lead in the effort to bring awareness to the homestead.

“It’s a reputable, respected organization,” he said. “They will bring people to the table. All we’re looking for is options, to sit down with somebody and say ‘Let’s look at this. Let’s not destroy this.’”

Joseph Cress is a reporter for The Sentinel covering education and history. You can reach him at jcress@cumberlink.com or by calling 717-218-0022.

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