Historic Home Finds New Owners and New Lease on Life
by Donna Federanko-Stout
As a young girl, she would gaze longingly out her second floor bedroom window at the wonderful house just across the street. That large white Victorian
with its’ many windows, beautifully painted shutters, meticulously cared for lawn and its’ “oh so” inviting wrap around porch. This grand old home and its’
warm and friendly owners had captured her imagination and her heart.
The stately Victorian, situated on the corner of Delaware Avenue and Pitman Street in Penns Grove, was built sometime in the 1880's or 90's by Captain
Samuel Denny. It is believed that he was the captain of the steamer, “The Admiral.” Making a generous living transporting the great catches of shad and
later sturgeon that came from the rich and bountiful Delaware River, Denny built his home with a perfect view of the river he roamed. Originally, the house
was more in an Italianate style with smaller porches on the front and side. It was framed with a quaint, white picket fence all around and many, many
windows on front and side which afforded a beautiful view of the sunset on the Delaware.
Many ship’s captains such as Cpt. David Johnson, Cpt. Thomas Naylor and Cpt. Joseph Forbes and their mates made their homes here, some building
beautiful structures along the river and on other tree lined streets of the borough.
Penns Grove was then well known for its thriving fishing industry which boated canning operations and the one time title of “Caviar Capital of the World.”
The Caviar business in Penns Grove dates back to 1869 when three Germans came to Penns Grove from New York and saw the potential for the sale of
caviar. The resourceful businessmen fished the Delaware then shipped the sturgeon to New York markets where they sold the flesh as “Albany Beef” and
the foe as caviar.
Harry Dolbow of Penns Grove was responsible for perfecting a method of vacuum packing and the product was marketed under the name of Romanoff
Caviar. Harry also operated a cannery for the caviar and in 1914, some $300,000 worth of caviar was packed there.
Freighters, Steamboats and Passenger boats cruised up and down the River delivering produce back and forth from market and passengers to such
pleasurable locations such as French’s Hotel and Grove on the beautiful Delaware in Penns Grove. Visitors would stroll leisurely along the Grove’s shady
paths, partake in the fun at the skating ring or just relax on the beach. Penns Grove was quite a popular resort, especially during the summer months.
In the early 1900's, other visitors and townsfolk came from miles around to attend fiery camp-meetings at the Penns Grove Tabernacle on East Harmony
World War I came and with it came the “boom.” With demands for black powder caused by the United States involvement in the war, DuPont called to
workers from around the country with jobs and Penns Grove flourished...its’ people, it’s lifestyle and its’ businesses.
One such business was the R. F. Willis Co., Inc., a Wholesale and Retail Hardware, Lumber and Building Supplies store. The business had been originally
known as E. G. Brick, a coal and hardware business until 1901 when R. F Willis Co. purchased the company. Although it is no longer in the Willis family,
Willis Hardware continues in operation today in the same location and is a viable part of the Penns Grove community.
First begun as a small, two man operation in 1901, the Willis family built it into a prosperous and profitable business. Through the good times of the
“boom,” through hard times during the depression, through peace time and war, they continued to flourish.
As Penns Grove, too, continued to blossom, its’ children grew, they married and they began to raise families of their own.
Ralph P. Willis, a partner in the R. F. Willis Co. Business, and his wife, would come to begin their almost newly married life in Captain Denny’s picturesque
Victorian that looked out to the Delaware. They embraced their new home with the love they would give a new-born child. They pampered, tended and
cared for this place they would call home for all their married life. They kept the lawn neatly manicured, the bushes and shrubs blooming magnificently and
a pleasant, friendly manner which made the place come to be known as “Happy Corner.” And that it was.
In 1920, noted Bandmaster and Composer, John Phillip Sousa was hosted by the Willis’ with a luncheon in their home. A trap shoot enthusiast, Sousa had
become friendly with Mr. Willis, also an trap shoot enthusiast, when Sousa had come to Penns Grove for relaxation and to take part in a trap shooting meet.
Later, whenever asked, Mrs. Willis would gladly recount the stories of their visit with Sousa and she would eagerly show any visitor the room in which he
was served that luncheon meal.
In August of 1979, during the 75th Anniversary Celebration fo the Penns Grove Borough, the Willis’ opened their lovely home to visitors participating in the
Women’s Club Tour of Historic Homes and Churches. What made her stop on the tour most unique, was her unusual collection of souvenir and decorative
roosters, a collection that started with a single gift to her in the 1940's. In 1979, hundreds of unique and unusual roosters lined the shelves and walls of
her “Rooster Room.” Almost every material and art form was represented in her collection of which she was quite proud.
Open house time was not the only time that the Willis’ welcomed strangers, neighbors and friends into their home. A little neighbor girl, oh 7 or 8, was a
frequent visitor. The little girl shared Mrs. Willis’ love of that beautiful old house and they became fast friends. Her memories of those days spent at
“Happy Corner” are fond ones.
Often Mrs. Willis would invite her over for a relaxing chat on the porch. And at night, when she looked out her bedroom window at that beautiful house
across the street, she would say to her mother, “Someday, Willis’ house will be mine.” And her mother would always reply, “Well, nothing’s impossible.”
That was some 28 years ago, and that little girl is all grown up with a family of her own. And last year that little dream came true...she came back to “Happy
Corner” and made the Willis house her home.
“I’m home,” Stephanie Sayers says, “I’ve always loved this house.” As a young girl, Stephanie’s family had lived in the house on the opposite corner of
Delaware and Pitman. Those were three of the best years of her life, she recalls as she thinks about the times she spent at the Willis’. “Their lawn was like
carpet,” she says, “and it was always so peaceful here.”
Stephanie, and her husband, Charles and their children, Charles, Laura and Katie had been living in Cape May for 10 years where Charles was working
for the Cape May-Lewis Ferry. During the time she was away from Penns Grove, dis-repair, vandalism and the weather had taken their toll on the Willis
house. It was almost lost to a fire but for the quick action of neighbor, Bill Mathews. It’s past glory was faded and almost gone.
Ken James and his wife, Mary Kay saved the house from it’s inevitable fate when they bought it and began the process of restoration. They spent several
years painting, repairing and researching.
When Stephanie’s husband returned to a position with the Delaware Port Authority, the family returned to this area, settling in Woodstown. It was during a
visit to Penns Grove, that Stephanie happened to ride past her “dream house.” The dream stirred within her again as she saw that someone had brought
new life back into the old home. From that point on she knew that the house had to be hers.
In June of 1994, Stephanie became Mistress of the Willis house.
There’s still lots of work to be done, with an older home there always is, but with hardwork it will get done. “The Willis’ were always hardworkers,” she says.
She still has Mr. Willis’ old pushmower in the garage as a reminder. And on her porch sits
Mrs. Willis’ rocker. “I like to keep something on the porch that was hers,” she says.
While contemplating the big projects that need to be done, Stephanie tries to focus on the positive things, like adding pretty hanging baskets on the porch
and tidy geranium pots on the wrought iron fencing. Once again the home has someone to love and someone who loves it.
But happiness is the most important thing that Stephanie has brought back to her little corner. “I remember how Mr. & Mrs. Willis would always wave or say
hello to everybody that passed by,” she says. And as I sat on the porch in mrs. Willis’ old wooden rocker and talked with Stephanie I could see it. In her
warm and friendly way, in her dream, in her faith, in her greeting to those who passed by...Happy Corner is Happy once again!
PENNS GROVE DAY