By David O'Reilly
Janet Carlson Giardina handed a large flower pot to Angie Furno, pointed her toward some mums, and crossed once again through the Medford farmhouse she is turning into an education center about James Still, the "black doctor of the Pines."
On Sunday, the Medford Historical Society will inaugurate the center at 211 Church Rd., and on Friday volunteers were planting fence posts, mulching a children's garden, hanging drapes, and setting up chairs for opening day.
Still, Carlson was not prepared for the sight of two contractors jacking a pair of stately white columns into place under the front-door eaves.
"I love it," she said. "This is like a barn-raising."
But even as guides escort visitors Sunday around the century-old farmhouse, teaching about the 19th-century African American whose herbal remedies made him wealthy and famous across South Jersey, some of Still's descendants will be fretting about the dilapidated bungalow next door.
It was there, at 209 Church Rd. - not 211 - that Still, the son of slaves, made poultices and medicines of exceptional efficacy from 1845 until his death in 1882.
In 2006 the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry acquired Still's former office, along with the adjacent property known as the Bunning farm, and announced plans to renovate both.
Yet the Still house, where people came for miles to buy his remedies, today sits boarded up and deteriorating, even as volunteers by the score labor feverishly to turn the Bunning farmhouse into a visitor center.
"It's a concern of everybody" in the Still family, said the Rev. Terrell Person, pastor of Jacob's Chapel in Mount Laurel, where James Still - Person's great-great-grandfather - lies buried.
"I can understand their rationale for doing this," he said Friday during a tour of the three-story, shingled Bunning farmhouse. He will be among the lecturers Sunday.
"But the state was supposed to come up with the dollars for that house," he said, pointing through the woods to the bungalow 150 yards away. "This is one of the only historical properties the state has that belonged to an African American. It's an injustice what's happening."
Valerie Still, another descendant, voiced concern in a recent interview that the Medford Historical Society, which the state has designated as its local liaison to the restoration project, is playing on public esteem for James Still to raise money for a center devoted more to Medford than the story of her great-great grandfather.
"It's got to be Afrocentric," said Still. "It's got to be about James Still."
Her concerns have prompted several tense meetings in recent weeks involving herself, representatives of the Parks Division, and Giardina, the historical society's unpaid project coordinator.
"A rift has clearly developed between Janet and Valerie," said former Medford Mayor Randy Pace, a current member of the township council and its liaison to the project.
He said he understood Valerie Still's concerns, but was impressed that the historical society under Giardina's direction was "busting its hump to get things done."
"There's nothing stopping Valerie from raising money and producing manpower" for restoring the Still house, he said.
Larry Hajna, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to which the Parks Division belongs, last week said the agency bought the Bunning property in 2006 "knowing it is not historic" but could "serve as a portal" to the Still house.
He said he had no good estimate on when the department could start to fund a restoration of Still's house because so much of its resources were going to repair parks damaged by Hurricane Sandy. But he conceded it would be expensive because any restoration must be faithful to the original.
"It will take a lot more than a splash of paint," Hajna said.
In an interview last week at the education center, Giardina was emphatic that "our focus is still Dr. James Still."
She said she and the historical society had no choice but to focus first on the Bunning property because a restoration of Still's house was "totally beyond our reach."
"You can't just put asphalt shingles" on the roof, she said. "You have to research the original shingles and duplicate them. Same with the floors and furniture, the siding, windows."
Estimates for a historically accurate restoration of the Still house range from $500,000 to $1 million, she said. A state-funded architectural survey of the site cost $250,000 in 2006.