Like many couples who buy an older home, Michael and Patty Manerchia expected they would have to do some renovations. What the Delaware County couple didn’t expect was that they’d unearth possible pieces of pirate history in the process.
Or that the town of Marcus Hook would be better for it.
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Or that Michael Manerchia would wind up rekindling his old dream to be a teacher.
In 2004, the Manerchias had unknowingly purchased a rare “plank house” — constructed with wooden planks and other materials harvested from a ship dating from the early 18th century. The couple had planned to downsize and bought the small Marcus Hook home from Patty’s cousin. The property, located on the 200 block of Market Street near the Delaware River, had been in the family for about 80 years.
Their plans took a U-turn when Michael Manerchia, a heavy-equipment operator, fell through part of the kitchen floor, up to his shin.
As he sifted through the dirt between the beams, Manerchia found pieces of old broken plates. He recalled local folk tales that the notorious pirate Blackbeard had buried treasure in the basement of a local home.
He saw dollar signs.
“I thought I was going to get rich,” said Manerchia, who is also a borough councilman. “I thought the legends of Blackbeard’s treasures were all coming true, and we were just lucky enough to find them.”
He asked a friend, a local historian, for advice and was told to keep looking. A hole punched in the plaster revealed five-inch-thick walls made of interlocking wooden planks.
The Manerchias put their move-in plans on hold and sought help from local professionals and university archaeology professors. Members of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, Temple University researchers, and student volunteers began excavating the house and property and found a variety of artifacts, including pottery, coins, buttons, and the roof of a Ford Model T.
Eventually, the Manerchias established the nonprofit Marcus Hook Preservation Society and donated the now-named "Plank House” to it with the goal of converting the one-time residence into a museum.
While the artifacts haven’t made anyone rich, they’re “a really nice little collection that begins to talk about the history of the area and what it was like then,” said Mitchell Rothman, a professor emeritus at Widener University and consulting scholar at the Penn Museum, who helped with excavations.
“They apparently really liked eating oysters,” he laughed, noting that in one area more than 150 oyster shells were found. “They must have had a party.”
Rothman would still like to find the site of the privy — or outhouse — that was once on the property. Traditionally, those pits have yielded complete artifacts — like a porcelain cup a servant accidentally broke, or liquor bottles someone may have wanted to secretly hide. It was a safe bet no one would go look in privy pit for those missing or contraband items.
In 2018, the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which will protect it as a historic and archaeological resource.
With grants from Sun Foundation, Ethel Sgt. Clark Smith Foundation, and the Marcus Hook Community Development Corporation, the society has been able to fix the roof, repair the chimney, add structural support to the side of the home, and make other improvements.
“When they re-did the roof, we found another hidden door in the Plank House that we didn’t know was there,” Manerchia said. Researchers think the door connected the house to an attached addition known as a “counting house," where merchants came to pay taxes on their wares.
Manerchia has added a small building behind Plank House to hold its growing collection of artifacts and to give researchers and volunteers a place to work.
“Maybe 20% of the property has been dug up," to look for artifacts, he said. But all agreed it was time to put the brakes on further digs until they could catalog the 17,000 artifacts already recovered.
On the now long-ago day Manerchia stepped through the kitchen floor, it wasn’t just broken plates he found. He also unearthed his love of history and rekindled a love of teaching.
After graduating from Cheyney University back in 1979, where he majored in Industrial Arts Education, he took a job as a substitute teacher in Chichester Middle School. But at the time, his summer job in construction paid more than a year in a classroom. So he put his teaching career to the side.
Now, thanks to the Marcus Hook Plank House and all it has yielded, he can rattle off the history of the Delaware County river town and its connections to William Penn and to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars as if he had been there. He hopes to expand the museum and build interactive, handicapped-accessible classroom space.
Rothman, too, hopes local teachers will embrace the opportunity to visit Plank House.
“Here you have local history sitting on Market Street; why aren’t you using it?” said Rothman.
There’s no way for sure to know if Blackbeard or — as folklore tales claims, his mistress — ever occupied the Plank House, but the historical timing was right, Rothman said. And pirates were known to stop at the end of Market Street in the borough, take their goods up to the midway, and sell their wares.
“Through the writings of William Penn, we know for a fact Blackbeard visited Marcus Hook,” said Manerchia. “Ben Franklin also talked about pirates along the Delaware.”
He has turned the local pirate lore into an annual fall festival in Marcus Hook that has drawn up to about 9,000 visitors and includes vendors, a beer garden, and pirate reenactors, from as far away as Virginia and Massachusetts, who “live” in a period encampment built for the event. The festival is an economic and morale boost for the struggling town of 2,400, which sits between two oil refineries.
This year’s Annual Pirate Festival is set for Sept. 19.