Striding through the old farmhouse and out to the barn, Dr. Charles and Kate Tweedy proudly show off the result of five months of hot and dirty work by dozens of volunteers to restore Paws Farm in Mount Laurel.
It took deep scrubbing, gallons and gallons of fresh paint and the filling of nine 25-foot trash dumpsters to reawaken the popular attraction that closed — many suspected forever — 19 months ago after the nonprofit running the wildlife preserve and petting zoo said it couldn't afford to continue to oversee the Township property.
For the Tweedys, the task was déjà vu, dating back 42 years to 1979 when, with their volunteers, they — yes — rehabbed the 1736 building, painted, collected trash and turned an aged dairy barn into a visitor center. The group opened Paws Farm and ran it until 2004.
"It was very, very hard to see," Kate told 70and73.com last week about her visit to the shut-down site in April.
Added Charles: "I shook my head. She looks at it as more of an opportunity."
But the diligence of the Tweedys and a battalion of volunteers, some of whom are third generation from the original 1979 volunteers, now has Paws awaiting its rebirth.
And the Township, which shortly after the shutdown could offer only mixed messages about the future, now appears determined to reopen Paws.
Mayor Stephen Steglik last week told 70and73.com that he expects Township Council on Monday night to renew the property's lease with Volunteers for Paws Farm Inc., the new nonprofit formed to save the farm. The resolution before Council would extend the Volunteers' lease to February 28, 2022.
"If we extend it by vote, then we will have a running Paws Farm sometime in the spring," Steglik said confidently.
He acknowledged the Township's uncertainty of the past, which included attempts to secure operators through requests for proposals. Steglik said Paws supporters now need to know that Council and the mayor "will not give up" on Paws Farm.
"They're passionate," he said of the Paws volunteers. "They bring so much energy and passion for an area of town that makes Mount Laurel unique," he said in the telephone interview with 70and73.com.
The mayor and Council members toured Paws at its worst in April and the Tweedys are eager for them to visit again and witness the progress.
Steglik said the Township is looking for an operational model for Paws Farm "that can be sustainable."
Volunteers alone are not enough to operate Paws. The Tweedys emphasized a paid staff of two full-time employees and four part-timers would be needed. Mayor Steglik said the Township needs to discuss staffing and what it could afford to do "budget-wise."
The Tweedys said Township officials told them that they would like more of a blend of local agricultural history and animals rather than primarily a preserve and petting zoo. Steglik confirmed combining history and animals is the right approach.
The 1736 Darnell Homestead was repainted in colors of that period, Kate Tweedy explained, and the Tweedys at home have mannequins suited up with appropriate clothing just waiting to move in.
They said the relationship with the Township has been a strong one, with crews showing up to mow the grass and provide other support. Kate singled out Jerry Mascia, the Township superintendent of public works. "He has been absolutely wonderful," she said.
When the Garden State Discovery Museum of Cherry Hill abandoned Paws in February 2000, the house, barn and pens were filled with 180 animals, birds and reptiles. When the Tweedys left Paws in 2004, they had, at most, 100 animals, they said.
Volunteers had far more to do than just painting and clean-up duties at Paws since the nonprofit got its six-month lease in May. The Tweedys replaced the HVAC system in the newer building at the front of the site near the parking lots. And the Mount Laurel Garden Club has been restoring the butterfly garden.
As they walked around the grounds, the Tweedys recalled the history and volunteers of the past of the long-standing nonprofit that attracted visits by thousands and thousands of school groups as well as weekend journeys by parents with children enthralled by the animals.
In 1979, Kate was rehabilitating wildlife in her home and decided to look for a center for her work. Around the same time, the farm was turned over to the Township by the Orleans construction company after it secured permission to build the Larchmont development, according to news reports at the time.
Restoring the old farmstead was daunting in 1979.
"It was a run-down old house at a stage where we considered bulldozing it," builder Jeffrey Orleans told The Philadelphia Inquirer when Paws opened in September 1980. "They have really fixed it up. As a builder and developer I was hesitant because I thought they were whistling in the wind."
At its opening, Dr. Tweedy called it "the battle of Darnell Farm."
"It's been like the old time barn-raising with so many people going out and scraping, painting and fixing up the house," Kate Tweedy said in a Courier-Post article in 1979.
The attraction was such a success and community jewel that Kate Tweedy traveled to the White House in 1988 to accept a "Take Pride in America" award from then-President Ronald Reagan.
Both Kate and Charles Tweedy said the founding of Paws was not about them 42 years ago, just as the restoration is not today: It's all about the volunteers.
They each paused their tour of the homestead last week and reflected wistfully on the list of volunteers who got Paws running decades ago and have since died.
One volunteer they recalled with a smile was Harry C. Porter, an accountant whom they discovered in the dilapidated barn replacing and glazing windows. The Moorestown resident said he thought the Paws volunteers could use an extra hand.
"He helped the original crew scrape and sand and spackle…I think he personally replaced every pane of glass in that dairy barn,” Kate Tweedy said in Porter's obituary in March 1992.
Porter served on the Paws board of directors and as its volunteer treasurer. Charles Tweedy said Porter kept the finances of the nonprofit running and balanced. He recalled being summoned to the hospital where Porter was on his deathbed. The volunteer treasurer had a few more financial details to share with Tweedy before the end came, Charles Tweedy recalled last week.
The Tweedys passion for their volunteers was evident last week. As they guided 70and73.com through the property, Kate often stopped and pulled a volunteer by the arm over to meet the reporter. She often would tell the story of the volunteer and how he or she got involved with Paws.
They were volunteers like Zach Barth of Riverton, who like the Tweedys had submitted a request for proposal to the Township to take over the farm. Now he is working with the Tweedys.
"This is where I went every week as a kid," Barth said.
Anne Rosenberg, who is a 30-year Mount Laurel resident and operates a horse farm less than a mile from Paws, said she was compelled to get involved.
"When you're a resident in this town and you have a project this important you get involved," she said.
On the to-do list at Paws last week was the removal of 43 stumps, the Tweedys said. A plea went out on the group's Facebook page last week for "a big chainsaw and some serious muscle" to cut several stumps to the ground so they could be ground down. Later in the week, the post added: "DONE! THANKS, VOLUNTEERS!"
Interest by area residents, many of whom grew up as children visiting Paws, has been strong, the Tweedys said.
The couple was in Home Depot to buy a refrigerator for the Darnell house, chatting with a Home Depot employee and mentioning the appliance was destined for Paws Farm.
Three families overhead "Paws Farm" and came over and wanted to know the attraction's status and if it would reopen, the Tweedys recalled.
The people behind Volunteers for Paws Farm Inc.
President, Dr. Charles Tweedy; vice presidents, Jennifer Brennan Baxter and Benjamin Honeyford; treasurer, Christine Hooven; secretary, Katharine "Kate" Hutton Tweedy; trustees, Susy Berg Chrnelich, Carolyn Ellis, Angelica Honeyford, Diane LaBate, Lt. Commander Henry LaBate, Cecelia Lane, Nicole Morgan Reynolds, H.L. Ransom, Dr. Anne Rosenberg, Graham Slater, Julia Graham Slater, Anne E. Toll and Kristina Viviano; consultants, John Sereduk, Bonnie Sereduk.