The following is an excerpt from the book The Scythe and the Hatchet, in which Tom Baust describes his experience of becoming caretaker and then owner of the farmhouse at 115 Middle Holland Road in Holland, Pennsylvania.

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The 1806 Farmhouse
By Tom Baust

Back in the late 1990s I used to drive through the Holland, Pennsylvania area on my music teaching route, and whenever I passed by this one farmhouse, I’d slow down, look, and ponder at what stories it could tell. I had begun looking, for the first time in my life, at a place where I might relocate (a first for me, since I had remained in my parents home in Northeast Philadelphia after their passing and the departure of my siblings). My fantasies took me to a few inquiries of farmhouses in the real estate listings, and I visited a few, only to discover that they were in need of a lot of work or had been renovated at a cost prohibitive for this freelance musician.

One day the father of a student I taught brought up the subject of a house owned by the Township of Northampton that was in need of a caretaker and that, because the condition of the property was in need of attention, the Township intended to repair, and suggested that the rental situation might well be affordable to me. I inquired as to the location of the house. I could hardly believe it when it turned out to be the very one which had so enchanted me! He had a key to the property and we met one day to go through the house. All I can say is that, from the minute I entered the somewhat tattered interior, I somehow knew it was where I belonged.

I submitted my name as an interested candidate for the position of caretaker. The arrangement included the responsibility of maintenance of the Feaster-Van Horn cemetery, which I accepted. And I, along with another prospective renter, interviewed before the Board of Supervisors of Northampton Township. To my surprise, I was chosen for the position because I had a degree in horticulture, was an artist, and had no young children who might tend to be insensitive to the historic value of the property.

I made a plea for a long-term lease, since I was making my first move in 36 years with an 84 year old Aunt and really had no desire to make repeated moves. Township Manager Bruce Townsend offered me a ten-year lease knowing that I had a keen interest in the property and that he preferred not to be involved in having a frequent tenant turnover.

The years that followed were flooded with ideas, hopes, visions, expenses and many hours of hard work and sweat. Having been granted permission to add a Great Room to the rear of the property by members of the Historic Commission, I engaged a semi-retired engineer to draw up plans and begin the laborious work that included many more details than the addition. One of the workers from the Public Works Dept. told me that the electric panel was insufficient and that I could hardly run a microwave without having to make changes. A soil pipe was cracked, the windows were mostly without screens and storm windows, some downstairs windows were rotted, and so on. All these minor issues had to be dealt with to bring the house back to “working” condition.

In the end, the sale of the house was made in 2005 after a grueling legal process including much conflict over formalities and many difficult concessions.

When we finally moved into the house in 2001, I was pleased to see that my Aunt could have her own room on the first floor next to a bathroom on one side and the kitchen on the other. Having to face the side of the cemetery was not exactly what she had in mind, however, and I did, at first, try to conceal the fact that the home had once been called “The Murder House.” But as time went on I realized that as I learned more about the story of the house, grim as some of it may have been, I was actually learning about history.

I owe gratitude to several retired folk who donated time to help with repairs and things I was unable to undertake. And, in between times, I’ve never doubted some amazing divine intervention in terms of making strategic decisions about repairs and visions for improvements.

I am also deeply indebted to the Fesmires, whose restoration from the 60’s to the 70’s yielded pictures that led to a fruitful friendship resulting in an initial return visit to the home where they raised their family, and spoke of many happy years, and yes, the amazing ways in which they too felt a calling to move here at a time when the property was in a poorer state than what I found, which was at that time even said to harbor evil spirits.

“Are there still ghosts in the house now?” you may ask. Everyone wants to know. I remember playing music at 1:00am once in the parlor (before the piano was moved to the Great Room), and having the feeling my music was being heard by a larger audience than myself, but I don’t believe the house is haunted, so my answer to the question about ghosts is always, “Only me and Casper, and we’re both friendly.”

I’ve had no regrets in following my heart to 115 Middle Holland. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Mr. John Long whose love for history in this Township encouraged other Supervisors to believe in my desires to make this property all that it could be. His premature death due to ill health was a tremendous loss and shock.

The late Ginny Geyer, who served faithfully on the Historic Commission for many years and researched the history of the house, was also an inspiration to me. She became a friend, an advocate, and even a tour guide on several occasions. Her final resting place is in Union Cemetery, in Richboro, not far from the graves of Samuel and Leanah Rightly.

Finally, I am indebted to
Eric Stedman for the countless hours of research and thorough work to reconstruct the stories of Samuel and Leanah Rightly and Wallace Burt. I used to feel sad about the old people who lost their lives in such a brutal fashion in the house in 1893. Since having read the results of Eric’s research on the story, however, I have to admit now that I wonder if Wallace Burt was not also a victim of his time and that his repentance his last attempt to declare himself a man in an environment in which many factors worked against his being able to live a happy life.

Recently, on a visit to the house, Eric also pointed out that I have, over the very window that was used by the killer to gain access to the premises that fateful night, hung a colorful stained glass panel, in the the path to that window rolled a handsome grand piano, and, in the former location of the bed where Leanah & Samuel Rightly were killed, placed a charming old pump organ. And suggested that I, consciously or subconsciously, by “accentuating the positive” and placing symbols of art, music, poetry, and song in locations where a gruesome tragedy took place over 125 years ago involving people I never knew, have been making a concerted effort to heal spiritual wounds previously inflicted upon these areas by history.

This may be true, and if it is, as an artist always conscious of meaning and purpose in any activity, I have no reservations about doing so!

I can truly say that I have done my best to live up to every word of my commitment to making something out of this property, and learned a great deal in the process. I tell folk that I’ve really worked on this place and that it has really worked on me, too!

I was truly drawn to it, as others have been before me, and, as, perhaps, others will be who come afterward.

-- Tom Baust, 2017