Debbie Gralley’s “weekend warrior” job is restoring the historic home she lives in with her family. The house is one of the oldest homes in Salem, N.J., dating back to the earliest Quaker settlers in the 17th century.
“One of my employees lived in this house and she invited me to a realtor’s open house. My husband was very reluctant, but we always wanted to see what it was like. We were gobsmacked. We bought it in 2006. We both work for a living so we’re weekend warriors.
The house was built in 1687. It was originally built by Richard Johnson, who came over from England before John Fenwick (the Quaker leader). He worked for the government and he built this really cool house. At an antique store we found this account that said, ‘As far as authentic records go, this is the oldest standing dwelling in Salem County. [Johnson] called [the house] Johnson Hall, but its nickname was Guilford Hall.’ The house was owned by Johnson heirs until 1930.
I came in like a whirlwind and we got rid of every single blind. The previous owners never opened a blind. The neighborhood was intrigued that somebody actually turned lights on.
My husband has done all the woodworking. I do cleanup. There are fireplaces in every room. The fireplaces downstairs were really plain. We were always told that downstairs was fancy and upstairs was plain. You showed off downstairs but upstairs didn’t matter. My husband popped off the very plain mantel in the living room. Embedded in the back was an Indian Head coin from 1904, telling us that’s when that mantel was changed. We haven’t hit on the jackpot of gold, but we’ve definitely found some really cool things. I have a basket of glassware and things we’ve found when digging.
We really enjoy the work. In the six years we’ve been here, we have hired two people. We don’t have to go through a historical society before we do work. The older part of the house is clapboard and the younger part is brick. We uncovered original clapboard, which had been covered with aluminum siding in the good ole ’70s and ’80s.
There are four bedrooms on the second floor. There’s another room that was an office, but someone made it a closet. The closets are the size of a postage stamp. All they had was day clothes and nightclothes. In the closets there are two hooks.
We do not have interior pictures. Those photos were lost somewhere along the line. I would love to see what it looked like in the 1940s before people came in and put mauve carpet in the hallway. Why would you cover up pumpkin pine wood floors?
The city does a really cool historical homes Christmas Tour in December, and we’re open for that. The ones who show up here want to know what we’ve done from the previous year.
Right now we’re working on the mudroom. It’s the only entry to the house that we have a key for. The side door is a big lock and we have a giant key; it’s the size of my hand. It’s a skeleton key. My oldest daughter refuses to carry it. It’s a real conversation piece when you put that on a table.
You’ve got to be crazy to do this. It’s a lot of work. We’re caretakers of a history trove. We own it, but this house is here for everybody.”