Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wyckoff-Garretson House (Franklin Twp)

Writing this post actually upsets me. But I took on this endeavor with the intent to record an honest account of the typical visitor experience at historic sites across New Jersey. And unfortunately, this one got off on the wrong foot.

The Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission organized a Weekend Journey through the Past. Working together with local historic sites – many of whom hosted special events for the weekend – they devised three driving tours of the county (which are still worth noting if you live nearby and want to visit these sites at another time).

We decided to start the weekend at the Wyckoff-Garretson House in Franklin Township. Unfortunately, this was also where our weekend ended.

The Wyckoff-Garretson House is part of the Meadows Foundation, a privately owned and managed collection of historic – mainly Dutch colonial – buildings in Franklin Township. If it weren’t for the Foundation’s valiant efforts over the past 30 years, many, if not all, of these structures would have been demolished. And that is why it pains me to relay what was a needlessly negative visitor experience.

The Meadows folks were hosting a Living History weekend in conjunction with the Colonial Living History Alliance. This involved a number of re-enactors, including a small artillery regiment, open hearth cooking and 18th century music. Just the kind of thing to keep both a historically agnostic spouse and a 6 year old first-grader interested, right?

And so it seemed when we pulled into the parking lot to see groups of re-enactors mulling around the grounds. We went up to the information table and were told that the house tour would start in a minute. “OK,” I thought, “this should be a short overview of the property and its significance in early colonial life before we get to interact with the re-enactors.”

As soon as our guide, the Meadows’ executive director Mark Else, started talking – and we spent nearly 15 minutes outside the house before going in – I knew I was sadly mistaken. The “tour” turned out to be a blow-by-blow description of the architectural restoration of the house, right down to the nail heads.

Again, I have to point out how distressing it is for me to write this. Mr. Else is very passionate about the painstaking detail that went into the restoration, and rightfully so. It’s a handsome property. However, this is not the right subject matter for a general public tour, especially one with children (although even if I was on my own, I would have been bored – and I generally don’t get bored by architectural detail).

More importantly, history “works” best if you connect people to people. For example, Else pointed out the exposed “wattle and daub” material in the wall of one room and gave some basic description of how that was used in domestic construction of the time. But it took the master carpenter, who happened to be in the room, to convey how 18th century homeowners would tell their neighbors where they could find a good deposit of clay for this purpose – and then pointed in the direction of a creek a few hundred yards away. Aha! A tangible connection between 1701 and 2009!

By the time we got into the second room and the tour was already well over 30 minutes, my daughter had been squirming and was getting visibly cranky. Here she is listening to stuff which means absolutely nothing to her while she can see actual activity going on in the other rooms. My wife not so discreetly asked “What’s wrong?” a few times, but the hint was not taken. Finally, I stopped Mr. Else as he was talking about fireplace construction and pointed out that we had a six year old who was really more interested in seeing what the re-enactors were up to. And thus, I ended the tour. [My wife later told me that I had saved our marriage by doing it!]

Look. If you want to highlight the restoration, pick just a few items that spark interest (e.g. digging the dirt away from the front of the house to reveal the foot-print for the front stoop, taking off the outer cedar shakes and finding the outline for a porch bench, flipping the inner staircase over to change direction).

But here’s the larger problem. My daughter was now cranky and I had to try to reel her interest back in. She enjoyed going into the kitchen (for a bit). And she sat still for 20 minutes to listen to a really great harpsichord/violin duo play period music (I suggest you find these two recent college grads and have them at your site!!). But she never really recovered her good humor. She was ready to go.

We didn’t visit any of the other Somerset County sites that day. And when I suggested on Sunday that we visit a different site that advertised 18th century children’s games, both my wife and daughter looked at me as if I suggested we sit through a six hour German opera.

Part of the Meadows mission is “encouraging public appreciation for local heritage and vernacular architecture.” Unfortunately, my family didn’t leave there feeling “encouraged.” And this is not an uncommon occurrence, especially with privately managed sites where resources for the development of appropriate interpretive strategies and training of staff – usually volunteer – are limited or non-existent.

I tell this story because I am concerned this type of experience happens too often. Not only is my family predisposed against re-visiting this particular site, but they have developed a negative reaction toward any site. The bad experience at one site has a negative impact on every historic site. My family will be back on the history trail because I will make them. But what of others who only have a passing interest in history? Perhaps they would simply decide to spend their next free weekend at the mall or the shore.

If you run a visitor site or other historical organization, you really should think of yourself as an Ambassador for History. How you interact with the public reflects not only on your own site, but on all historical sites. And just like diplomatic ambassadors, while it’s important to know all the details of your home site, it’s even more important to understand and speak the language of your audience.

The overall mission as caretakers of our history is to get the public to place value on site preservation and truly appreciate our shared history. But the first step in this processs is to have visitors leave each site with a desire to return and recommend it to their family and friends. If you falter at the first step, you’ll never reach the ultimate goal.

Friday, September 18, 2009

William Trent House

I had a meeting in Trenton today, so I decided to stop by the 1719 William Trent House before heading home. I have never been here before (unlike the Old Trenton Barracks – which is a must-see site that I’ve promised myself to revisit sometime this year to blog on).

The Trent House is kind of a peculiar addition to this blog. While the building is most certainly coincidental with the Revolutionary War period, the interpretive strategy focuses more on illustrating early 18th century domestic life rather than any role it played during the war. It is basically the birthplace of Trenton, so you’ve got to take a look.

Let me start by saying that I found the focus on this as an exemplar of 18th century a bit amusing. William Trent was a very wealthy Philadelphia merchant who was looking for a place to build his country home. Imagine this huge Georgian house going up in the middle of nowhere, basically 100 years after New Jersey was first being settled. Then building a village (“Trent’s Town”) around it to serve the needs of the inhabitants.

Now, imagine 300 years from now, people going on tours of Donald Trump’s Manhattan Penthouse to show them what life was like in the early 21st century. That’s what I was picturing as I toured the Trent House.

A recent college grad named Diedre gave me the full tour even though I was the sole visitor on this Friday afternoon. Like the Donald, William Trent had unfashionable taste in furniture. He favored the chunky, overbearing Jacobean style for his tables and chairs – not exactly au courant in 1719. However, the house itself is light and airy, with high ceilings on both floors and lots of “wasted” space on the landings (nice if you could afford it).

Look for the floorboard that is about twice as wide as the others. It’s called the “King’s Board.” Supposedly, this board came directly from the King of England’s personal forest and was an obvious sign that the homeowner was tight with the royal clan. Either that, or the board was contraband and the owner was simply rich enough to pay off the tax inspector. Either way, old Bill Trent clearly wasn’t hurting.

The house tour is really set up to accommodate school groups. There are 18th century games and toys that visitors can play with in the children’s bedroom. And there is an archeological “dig” activity in the cellar. So, this is a decent place to take the kids.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Summer Recap

Labor Day seems as good a time as any to recap where I’ve been so far. While all the sites I visited this summer are intriguing and worthwhile in their own right, a few really stand out in terms of their appeal for the casual historical tourist. These include:
-- East Jersey Olde Towne and the Cornelius Low House, just across the river from New Brunswick with its own Revolutionary War connections (not to mention bevy of great restaurants); and
-- the City of Burlington, which offers a veritable smorgasbord of historical sites spanning both the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Proprietary House in Perth Amboy and the Wallace House in Somerville are also worth a visit when they are open, as the cities in which they are located offer other attractions as well.

Some of the other sites may only be worth a visit if you are in the area and can verify they are open when you plan to go. However, I’d also like to see more visitor information available for places that are infrequently open – please see my Middlebrook entry for more on this. I think simply providing better, or indeed any, exterior interpretive signage can greatly enhance the experience of the serendipitous tourist, and thereby increase their desire to return again to the site.

OK, so I didn’t get to as many sites as I had hoped this summer. But if the Continental Army could hunker down in New Jersey for the harshest winter it experienced, I can certainly forge ahead with my own travels during the oncoming cooler seasons. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Indian King Tavern (Haddonfield) Plus One

I squeezed in a two-fer on this trip. In addition to the main attraction – the Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield – I also stopped by Gabriel Davies Tavern in Glendora.

My wife and daughter were attending a bridal shower nearby today, so I agreed to drive them down and then set off on my own. I headed a few miles up the Kings Highway and I was soon at the Indian King Tavern.

The Tavern, built in 1750, was designated a state historic site in 1903, New Jersey’s first! This was also where the New Jersey legislature met in 1777 and declared the Colony to be a State. They also adopted New Jersey’s Great Seal while they were at it. The town of Haddonfield was also occupied by both British and Continental troops around the time of the Battle of Red Bank in late 1777. The British made their last pass through here after they evacuated Philadelphia in 1778.

I once visited the tavern as a school boy. At that time, the rooms were sparsely furnished and the highlight was the vast and spooky cellar. Today, you can no longer visit the cellar. However, the rooms are well-recreated as a typical up-scale 18th century tavern. An old tavern bench was found on site and has been reproduced with authentic booths to equip the main eating room. Those booth set-ups reminded me of the quintessential Garden State eating establishment. Had I stumbled upon New Jersey’s first diner?

While the on-site interpretation is not as detailed as the Indian Queen Tavern in East Jersey Olde Towne, it’s well worth a visit if you’re in South Jersey. Haddonfield is a pleasant town and the tavern is located on the main shopping and dining strip. You may notice a seemingly incongruous bronze dinosaur amid the shops. It’s the Hadrosaurus, New Jersey’s state dinosaur, whose skeleton was unearthed just a few blocks from the Indian King. There’s a small park at the discovery site, but there’s not much to see, as it’s difficult to get down into the small quarry where the remains were found.

After my Haddonfield excursion, I decided to make a quick stop off at the Gabriel Davies Tavern, not far from where I grew up. This house was built in 1756 – the date is clearly marked out in brickwork design on the side of the house. When I was growing up, the home was privately owned. As pre-teen boys, my friends and I prowled the wooded trails near Timber Creek, but we made sure to give “Shooky’s place” a wide berth. Legend had it that the old man who lived there would sit in his attic with a shotgun ready to take out any trespassers.

I was fascinated by the place, knowing that its history coincided with the Revolutionary War. I had heard it referred to as Hillman’s Hospital, being that George Washington designated it for potential use as a Continental Army field hospital, if needed. The house may have even cared for some of the injured from the Battle of Red Bank – there are claims of blood stains on the attic floor.

I actually never heard the name “Gabriel Davies” attached to the house until Gloucester Township opened it as a museum after the owner, William Schuck, died in 1976 and left the property to the town. I wish I had overcome my unfounded fear as a kid and actually knocked on the door while Mr. Schuck was still alive. By the time I actually stepped foot inside, the interior had been restored to resemble an 18th century home. The house is usually open every other Sunday afternoon, but I couldn’t find a good web site to help the potential visitor. [Interesting coincidence: A colleague of mine at Monmouth University recently told me that he laid out the curbstones there as his Eagle Scout project about 10 years ago.]

I wanted to mention the house here because it holds a very prominent place in my childhood. It was my daily reminder that “history” need not be a static museum experience, but a continual connection between our own era and the past. And it’s one of the main reasons why this blog exists today.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wallace House (Somerville)

Well, they say the third time’s the charm.

I had made two previous attempts to visit the Wallace House in Somerville, which George Washington used as his headquarters in 1779. The first was on a Friday afternoon, when I decided to head over after a meeting I had in town. It was about 20 minutes before they were scheduled to close and no one was there. OK. Maybe they closed up shop early.

The second attempt was during my Middlebrook Encampment mini-tour (see my July 19 entry). I had actually called the phone number that morning to check and got a recording that gave the normal operating hours and a warning to call ahead in case the site may be closed. Uh-oh! I did call ahead, but no one answered the phone. Maybe they were giving a tour? Is it closed? Is it open? I was heading out anyway and decided to risk it. Alas, it was closed!

At any rate, my wife and daughter were heading to Somerville today to shop and wanted me to come along. I agreed, under the condition that we make one more attempt to visit the Wallace House. My hopes weren’t high as we pulled into the empty parking lot. However, I was pleasantly surprised as we walked down the path to find Jim Kurzenberger, the site’s interpreter, standing outside ready to greet us.

I mentioned my previous attempts and Jim sincerely apologized. I understand that, as a state historic site, it is severely underfunded and understaffed. Basically, if Jim is absent or at a meeting, the site is closed. I don’t want to use this blog to get into a debate over funding priorities. I’ll only suggest that perhaps setting an alternate voice mail greeting for such occasions could be looked into.

Enough about my tribulations. On to the house tour. John Wallace was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who sensed the oncoming war and wanted to build a country house away from potential action. He got that wrong!

Wallace bought land from the Hardenbergh family who lived at the nearby Dutch Parsonage. This house is also part of this state historic site, but has been closed for renovation – so we didn’t get a chance to visit it.

Wallace’s house was the biggest home built in New Jersey during the war, so naturally it was chosen as the site for Washington’s headquarters. Unfortunately, the Wallaces were only willing to allow him to use half the house, so it wasn’t quite as roomy as he had hoped for, I’m sure.

This is one of the most impressive and intriguing 18th century homes I’ve visited. The woodwork detail in the central hall is fantastic. This is one house where you don’t feel like you are walking into a furnished museum, but an actual home where the residents have just stepped out. (It was fairly hot the day we visited, so I think the stuffiness may have added to the aura of authenticity).

Jim is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable and did a great job with the tour. I’d say the Wallace House is well worth a special trip to Somerville to see it (and there are truly great restaurants in town and a few worthy antique galleries as well). But call ahead and schedule an appointment before you go, so you won’t be disappointed.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Twin-Lights of Navesink

My brother-in-law’s family rented a house in Sea Bright this week. So while the kids played, I decided to take a quick ride across the bridge to the Twin-Lights in Highlands, NJ – another site I have passed by innumerable times, but never stopped in.

While the current lighthouse (circa 1862) is not Revolutionary War era, the spot on which it stands was an important vantage point during the war. At 200 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point along the United States’ eastern coast. There was some sort of beacon on this site at the time and it’s likely that the hill was fortified by whichever forces controlled the area. In fact, a 17th century Dutch cannon was found on the grounds during work on the buildings.

From the top of the lighthouse, you can see over to Sandy Hook, and on a clear day all the way to Manhattan. In early July of 1778, sentinels on this spot would have watched Sir Henry Clinton lead his forces onto the Hook after the Battle of Monmouth to board boats back to New York. Look at the photo above (block out the houses) and try to imagine about 10,000 British soldiers plus cooks and wives as well as horses and artillery all making their way along the narrow path up the inlet. Part of the path had actually been washed over by a strong storm and so a makeshift "floating bridge" of small boats was strung together to allow the army's passage.

Today, the light house is a fun place to visit with school-age kids. There is a small museum and plenty of picnic tables on the grounds. But make sure you pick a sunny day for your visit. When I arrived, there was thunder in the air and access to the tower was closed as a precaution. Fortunately, the storm passed and I was able to go up to the top.

The Twin-Lights also boasted the largest-ever Fresnel lens, which is on display. The light was so bright that it kept local residents awake at night and eventually the west-facing windows of the lighthouse had to be covered.

In case you are wondering, there are twin lights so that approaching ships could distinguish it from the light on Sandy Hook a few miles to the north. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse actually dates to the colonial era and is open to visitors. But since the Hook was packed with beach-goers today, I decided to leave that trip for the off-season –yet another place where I’ve been on the grounds, but never inside the building.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rockingham (Rocky Hill)

Today didn’t start out as another installment of my Garden State Revolutionary War travels. Since it was such a nice day, we decided to head to Somerset County’s Colonial Park to see the award-winning rose and herb garden in bloom. This is something we usually do at least once a summer. But when we got there the garden was locked – they had closed it the week before for renovations!

So, to make something of our day we decided to take River Road down the Millstone River to Rockingham, which was General Washington’s last war-time headquarters (and where he wrote his farewell orders to the army in 1783).

I knew the tours began on the hour and we still had some time before the last tour, so we made a quick stop at the Franklin Inn not far from the park. Colonial Park itself saw some action during the war when the British used it as a staging area for their attack on the village of Somerset Court House (now the borough of Millstone). British commander, Lord Cornwallis, occupied the Franklin Inn, then known as Annie Van Liew’s house – it wouldn’t become an inn until after the D & R Canal was built – for five days in 1777.

In 1992, the private owners of the house gave their permission to a non-profit group to run a used bookstore in the building with the intention of eventually buying it. Seventeen years later, Franklin Township decided to step in and negotiating with the owners to preserve it. As a preliminary measure, the township hired an architectural firm to study the structure. A few days after our visit, I read a newspaper report that the bookstore has been shut down. Apparently, the study found that the weight of the books was undermining the house’s structural integrity. So, for the time being you can only view it from the outside.

After spending $2.25 on a couple of books, we headed south along the D & R Canal along tree-lined River Road on its eastern bank. This is a really pleasant drive as you pass the villages of Blackwell Mills and Griggstown – each with a stop for its own historical treasure trove (look for the old terra cotta factory on your left just south of Griggstown).

We reached Rockingham about 2:40, 20 minutes before the last tour of the day. There were already six people waiting outside the door with the notice that said to “wait here.” So my daughter and I wandered through the kitchen garden, most noteworthy for its cabbages. By the time the tour guide came out take the last tour, there were now 18 people waiting.

The guide announced that the tour was limited to ten people, and as this was the last tour of the day, 8 people would have to come back another day. The last two families to arrive, one of whom had just got there and another which had been there for about 10 minutes, were left out in the cold (or heat, as it were). The tour guide encouraged them to come back another day and remarked that the maximum tour size was indicated on the website. The problem is, it wasn’t indicated on the property itself.

Would those other families come back another day? I’m not sure.

I tell this story because it was yet another instance where an incredibly simple communication (i.e. a piece of paper on the door indicating the maximum tour size) could have improved the visitor experience by at least lessening, if not eliminating, the disappointment of those (and other) late arrivers. Considering the amount of public support our historical sites could use, I don’t think risking resentment on the part of the public is a good strategy.

As to the tour itself, it was definitely worth the trip, even though not much of import really happened during those final days of the war – just a lot of parties, from what I could tell. My six-year old daughter was most impressed with the life-sized mannequin of George Washington in one of the rooms.

Rockingham is located north of Princeton, so it could be built into a day trip to that town. The grounds also have a walking trail leading down to the canal.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Middlebrook" (Somerset County)

Many people don't know that the Continental Army hunkered down in Somerset County (twice!). Even if you heard of the "Middlebrook" encampment, you might not realize it was in New Jersey, since there is no such place name today.

I did a "tour" of important sites from the Middlebrook encampment over two days this weekend, although you can easily do it in one. I have to be honest. This tour should have been one of the highlights of my adventure across New Jersey, but it left me disappointed because of the unrealized potential (more on that below).

In April 1777, General Cornwallis marched British and Hessian troops from New Brunswick to South Bound Brook, basically along what is now Easton Avenue. Their goal was to attack the American garrison in Bound Brook, which they did successfully. There is a terrific interpretive sign about the Battle of Bound Brook on the south side of the Queen's Bridge (right by the D&R Canal towpath - park in South Bound Brook and walk to the bridge).

For whatever reason, Cornwallis decided not to fortify his position in Bound Brook and withdrew to New Brunswick. Washington took this opportunity to move his troops from Morristown to Middlebrook (which to the best of my understanding is now the Martinsville section of Bridgewater - there's little easily accessible information that tells you where it is). He used this strategic location to keep an eye on the British in New Brunswick.

One of his key look-out posts is now a state park, Washington Rock. (The park is located just north of Route 22 in Dunellen and includes interpretive signage.) From this vantage point, Washington's troops had a great panoramic view from New York City to beyond New Brunswick. Unfortunately, if his troops were there today, they'd have to cut down the invasive species of trees that have been allowed to grow unabated over the past 20 years or so and now block much of the view. Umm, Boy Scout project?

From this point, I embarked on a tour of the second Middlebrook encampment (some call it "cantonment" - that distinction is for the historians to hash out). The Continental Army returned there for the winter of 1778-1779. The various generals would need headquarters, so scouts fanned out across the area to find local residents willing to let out their homes.

The artillery section of the army was sent north of the main encampment to Pluckemin. Its commander, General Henry Knox, was housed at the Jacobus Vanderveer House, just off Route 206 (it's easy to miss). If you go, there is a metal footbridge in the park just south of the house that takes you back across Route 206 and onto a walking trail along the Raritan River. Head left/north for Bedminster; after the paved trail veers from the river turn right onto the dirt trail that sticks by the river and imagine you're foraging for food for the troops. (By the way, there were two Vanderveer residences on this property at the time - the other one is now in East Jersey Olde Towne, see my last entry)

From there, I headed south on 206 to Somerville, to the headquarters of the big Kahuna himself, George Washington. That would be the Wallace House, on the south side of the railroad tracks. This is a good place to stop for lunch, as Somerville has some incredible restaurants.

I made a little side trip here into the borough of Raritan. There's a really cool bridge there (Nevius) and a nice canal park with an interesting history itself. Of interest to the colonial era- buff is that the Old Yorke Road passes through town. This was an important thoroughfare during the movement of the army across New Jersey and there is a memorial to the Naraticong peoples, who developed this road.

The next stop was the Van Veghten House, where Gen. Nathanial Greene, the quartermaster general set up shop. Despite its improbable location in the middle of an industrial park, this is probably the one spot on the tour where can you can still see the 18th century landscape. Just put your hands up on either side of your eyes to block out the warehouses and you are looking at the Raritan River marshland much as it looked 230 years ago.

A short hop north and east and I arrived at the Somerset Patriots' field (which, by the way, is a fun place to take kids for a baseball game). A game was about to start, but my interest lay across the street, with the Van Horne House, where General William Alexander, better known as Lord Stirling, was stationed.

I then headed east to Bound Brook and turned right to back across the Queen's bridge and made my final stop at the Abraham Staats House in South Bound Brook (basically making a complete circuit on my tour). This home was headquarters to Baron Von Steuben, who can take credit for turning Washington's rag-tag troops into a well-disciplined army. And there ended my tour.

Readers may notice that I've said nothing at all about the houses themselves. That's because none of them were open. The Staats house is open by appointment only (although I had the opportunity to tour the interior when my colleague Rich Veit was doing an archeological dig there a few years ago - see my Bordentown entry). The Vanderveer house is open only occasionally and the Van Veghten house is undergoing renovations. The Van Horne house is open during weekday business hours only as it is used as office space (there is a small museum inside). The Wallace house was supposed to be open, but wasn't (more on that in a later post).

Each house is actually operated by a different entity (state, county, or private), so I understand the resources needed to provide ready access are not available. The disappointment for me was not that these houses were closed, but that there was no information about their history at the site itself. The casual visitor who may have spotted a sign for the house from the main road would have come across no more than a locked building. And the chances are they would not be coming back.

The Somerset County Historical Commission actually sponsored a "5 Generals" bus tour in February. They also published a brochure so you can do the tour on your own. Terrific idea. The problem is you can only find this brochure at one of the sites!

This could be a great experience for the casual history buff and/or tourist, even without the homes being accessible. Here are some ideas:

1. Each site should have a big interpretive sign on its grounds explaining both the history of the house itself and how it fits into the larger history of the area, particularly the Revolutionary War. The signs should have a common look and logo, a timeline, and an area map.

2. Each house should post its public hours and contact information (phone and website) on the OUTSIDE of the building (Not one of these five houses posted this crucial information).

3. Each house should have a small literature rack, so visitors can pick up maps and the Middlebrook brochure. While this may be more difficult to maintain, parks are able to do it with their trail maps.

4. The state should fund, or at least allow some other entity to place, wayfinding signs throughout the area (e.g. along routes 28, 206 and 22, and major county roads) identifying it as the "Middlebrook Encampment" and identifying turn-offs for important sites. In fact, there should be signs throughout the state (all with a common look and logo) identifying important New Jersey sites as part of the Crossroads of the American Revolution.

This is a great opportunity for increasing tourism and Jersey pride that's sitting unrealized on our doorstep. It reminds me of the musical 1776 when John Adams sang, "Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?" Well, I do, and I know I'm not alone.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

East Jersey Olde Towne (Piscataway)

My visit to the Cornelius Low house inspired me to put East Jersey Olde Towne next on my list. Like the Low house, it is managed by Middlesex County, and also like the Low house, I had stopped by the grounds a number of times, but never been inside the buildings.

Conveniently located in Johnson Park in Piscataway, this collection of 18th and 19th century buildings were erected here to preserve some typical structures of central New Jersey from that time period. The "towne" was the brainchild of Joseph Kler, who was concerned about the destruction of the area's historic structures and started this project in 1971. Some of the buildings were actually moved here from their original locations, while others are reconstructions of known buildings using authentic materials.

I decided to use a weekend visit of my wife's family from Virginia to suggest East Jersey Olde Towne for an afternoon outing. While my daughter accompanied me on my last two trips, I now had my wife, parents-in-law, grandmother and aunt to keep happy. We arrived just in time for the 1:30 guided tour. This had better be good.

Each building represents a different aspect of early American life (blacksmith shop, farmhouse, etc.). Because some of the structures are not original, you can actually have a hand-on experience in some. For example, you can sit in the desks in the schoolhouse and take out the slates.

The highlight of the tour, though, has to be the Indian Queen Tavern. The tavern was built in the early 1700s near the ferry landing in New Brunswick (a couple miles downriver from Raritan Landing). It was considered to be one of the more "upscale" taverns in town and hosted the likes of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, who stayed here on their way to peace talks with the British in New York. Apparently, they were not the most compatible of roommates (as you will hear about on the tour).

One room of the tavern is set up to show the proprieter, James Drake, making preparations for a dinner party given in honor of George Washington at the end of the war. He may not have slept there, but Washington certainly drank there.

The upstairs portion of the tavern (which is wheelchair accessible via elevator), highlights some of the later history of the tavern, which was used well into the 20th century. [In case you were wondering where the tavern is located, go to the Route 18 ramp at the corner of Albany Street and Johnson Drive in New Brunswick and try very hard to picture it].

Doug Aumack, the assistant curator, gave a terrific tour. I believe our tour ran quite a bit longer than usual because three of us (from different groups) asked a lot of questions about different aspects of the property and its history. However, the great thing about this site is that you can leave the tour at any point, wander around the grounds, and then rejoin the tour as it enters another building.

The entire family, ranging in age from 6 to 86, really enjoyed visiting this site. As we left, my wife Allison said, "You know, you could really make this area a vacation destination." Exactly!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cornelius Low House (Piscataway)

I've driven by the Cornelius Low house numerous times, but never stopped in before today. I have, however, visited the neighboring Metlar-Bodine House (which is unfortunately now closed after a devastating fire). These two houses are all that remains of the once thriving community of Raritan Landing - a port established at the farthest navigable point on the Raritan River.

The house sits on a bluff overlooking River Road in Piscataway, right by the Rutgers football stadium. You actually park by the tennis courts on campus and follow a winding path to the house. The Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission (which is headquartered in the building) has made the stroll interesting with interesting signs and a cellphone information system that you can listen to while you make the walk.

The interior of the house is unique in that it is used as a museum to highlight aspects of life in New Jersey through the centuries, rather than simply a showcase for 18th century furniture. The exhibit changes periodically and the current one focuses on "New Jersey's Gilded Age" and each room contains information and artifacts illustrating the lives of New Jerseyans during this time, from the richest to the poorest. I was throughly impressed by the quality of the exhibit - informative, interesting, and manageable. (And there is a pamphlet describing the house so you can also learn about the architectural details in each room).

My daughter Daphne was impressed by the old Victrola on display. Next to it you could press a button to hear a recording played on that very instrument. Daphne asked why there was a picture of a dog with his head in the horn. As I was explaining the "His Master's Voice" logo (and mentally noting to myself that we have to go see the stain glass windows of the logo in the old RCA-Victor building in Camden), one of the museum curators came out of his office and offered to give us a live demonstration of the Victrola.

He opened up the drawer and made a selection from among dozens of cylinders, each containing the etching of one song. To put it in perspective, the drawer had about 30 cylinders. You could actually fit about 50 CDs in there (each with 15 songs = 450 songs total). And if you filled the drawer with MP3 players, it would hold thousands of songs.

The cylinder was fitted on the spindle. The Victrola was wound up and voila - some very scratchy music. Very neat.

Outside the house you can look down on the road leading to the river and Landing Lane bridge. There was a bridge on this same spot when the Continental army made its retreat from New York to Pennsylvania in 1776. George Washington ordered the bridge burned, but the British arrived in time to put the fire out. However, this afforded Washington's troops enough time to cross into Pennsylvania to safety. Less than a month later the Americans made their famous Delaware crossing to fight the battles of Trenton and Princeton, sending the British troops back to the occupy New Brunswick for the winter.

Standing on the steps of the Low house, it's fascinating to imagine the hordes of Revolutionary War soldiers, both British and American, who crossed this spot, not just once, but multiple times between 1776 and 1780.

(And if you have young kids, you can head right across the street to the Johnson Park Zoo to feed the goats.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Perth Amboy (Proprietary House)

With July 4 approaching, I thought a visit to the home of the last Royal Governor would be appropriate. So I headed out to Perth Amboy, accompanied by my 6-year old daughter, Daphne.

I have been to Perth Amboy many times, but only once before did I pass through the oldest part of town (on my way to a waterfront restaurant). Our main objective was the Proprietary House, but we ended up spending the entire afternoon wandering through the historic part of town.

Amboy was originally the capital of East Jersey. Although East and West were united as New Jersey in 1702, the colony retained dual capitals. However, neither Amboy nor Burlington (the western capital) had a true royal residence. The East Jersey Proprietors decided to build one in 1761.

When William Franklin (son of Benjamin) was appointed royal governor of New Jersey in 1762, he preferred to live in Burlington at first and did not move into the Perth Amboy residence until 1774. Within two years, he would be arrested in the house by a group of patriot militia.

The Proprietary House has not been fully restored. The stairs are very creaky, it's only partially furnished, and the paint is peeling off the walls so that you can literally see the layers of the past two and a half centuries.

Some renovations over the years - it was later a hotel and retirement home - destroyed the 18th century character (e.g. the central staircase was removed). However, I actually liked that atmosphere. Rather than walking into a sterile snapshot of an 18th century residence, you actually get a sense of the life this building has had and continues to have.

For example, you can have afternoon tea here on Wednesdays, in a crypt-like room in the cellar. We happened to be there on a Wednesday and witnessed a large group of women in very interesting hats. But I think my daughter was more impressed by the fact that the SyFy series "Ghosthunters" taped an episode here.

The docents at the Proprietary House were very enthusiastic (the tour cost only $1 or $2). They also pointed me to a brochure with a walking guide of "Old Perth Amboy." The brochure highlights more the 50 buildings or locations.

We focused mainly on the 18th century ones. And that meant starting with Market Square (which actually dates back to the late 17th century). Around the square stands some fascinating buildings, including City Hall - the oldest continually used public building in the country. Part of the exterior dates back to 1714. The interior, though, dates back to 1968 (using what appears to be the same plywood paneling my father installed in our rec room when I was a kid).

In and around the old square are a statue of the Earl of Perth and a replica of the Liberty Bell (which Daphne particularly liked, having seen the original in Philadelphia).

We also went out of the way to see the Kearny Cottage (1784) at the end of Catalpa Avenue, which serendipitously brought us to the waterfront. We discovered that Perth Amboy has an attractive waterfront with pleasant beaches on the Raritan River and an active water park.

Following the waterfront north onto Water Street, the strategic location of Amboy becomes clear. It's literally a stone's throw from Staten Island (the old Tottenville Ferry terminal is worth a visit). It's no wonder that the British used this as a supply depot during their occupation of New Jersey in 1777. Today, the waterfront is home to fishing piers and a handful of restaurants. Daphne and I stopped for ice cream here and watched the fish in the water.

Even with the modern industrial landscape, it's easy to see why 17th century settlers chose Perth Amboy as the spot to build their capital.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Each summer, my Monmouth University colleague Rich Veit takes his a class of archeology students on a “dig” somewhere in New Jersey. I first visited one of his dig sites four years ago, at the Abraham Staats House (which will be featured here in the coming weeks).

For the past three summers, his students have been tearing up the turf at the site of the original Joseph Bonaparte House in Bordentown. If that last name sounds familiar, it should. Joseph was Napolean’s elder brother and King of Naples and Spain, among other titles. However, when the “Little Corporal” was dethroned, Joseph went into exile in New Jersey. He bought some property at Point Breeze, overlooking the Crosswicks Creek, and built a grand home around 1817. It burned to the ground in a mysterious fire a couple of years later. Bonaparte built another home nearby where he lived for about 20 years before returning to Europe.

Rich’s team were digging on the original house’s site. On the day I visited, the dig had unearthed some delicate neoclassical pottery decorations. Even more interesting were the remnants of the tunnels leading from the house to the Delaware River – ostensibly for a quick escape should the British happen to show up. (The site is privately owned, so unfortunately not accessible to the public).

OK, I know the Bonaparte stuff is not Revolutionary War related. But it got me to Bordentown. So after visiting the dig, I decided to head downhill and explore the town first settled by Quakers from Burlington in the late 17th century.

Bordentown is a small, easily walkable, quiet town. It’s sort of been gentrified but not really. On the Saturday afternoon I visited, most everything was closed or privately owned. I spent most of my time peering in windows and taking pictures (which is why a police officer pulled over and asked me what I was up to – but he was very nice about it).

My first stop was the Friends Meeting House (1740). There’s a lot of Quaker influence in this part of the world and it’s great to see these places have been kept up and used throughout the past centuries. I decided to head up Crosswicks Road for a bit and then turned left on Second Street until it ended at Bank Street (nothing Revolutionary War here, but I appreciated the old town hall clock and some interesting residential architecture).

At this point, there’s a little park that overlooks the creek and an industrial building (but has some attractive late 19th century/early 20th century homes on the other side). You can also see the marina below Route 295 as it traverses Duck Island.

As I exited the park, I saw the back of a statue in the middle of the street. It turned out to be Thomas Paine! It seems the author of “Common Sense” lived in Bordentown for a while. In fact, it was the only place he ever owned property.

I continued down Farnsworth Street (the main drag) just a couple of blocks to the corner of Park, where a trio of Revolutionary War era houses sit. The most significant of these - in terms of the war - belonged to Francis Hopkinson, one of New Jersey’s signers of the Declaration of Independence and the designer of the Stars and Stripes. (Betsy Ross defenders beware – there is more evidence for the Hopkinson claim!) Generations of the Hopkinson family continued to live in Bordentown after the war, as I discovered when I explored Christ Church cemetary on Prince Street.

There is also a short hiking trail by an old mill run, which I happened to stumble on as I was leaving town (it’s at the bottom of a steep street that looks like a private road, but isn’t). There are also a few remains of the old rail terminal (which is down the tracks from the present station – at the back of the parking lot), which gives you an idea of what a hub this town must have been 150 years ago.

Bordentown has plenty of Revolutionary War history (e.g. 22 moored ships were destroyed by the British in a May 1778 raid). However, the history is not celebrated in quite the same way as downstream in Burlington City. This is probably because most of the 18th century properties here are privately owned. Still it is a very pleasant place to spend an hour or two walking around. It’s also a great place to park and take NJ Transit’s River Line train for an excursion through the Delaware river towns (which I have yet to do myself).

[You’ll note that I have finally remembered to take some pictures.]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Burlington City

Before we get to the historic stuff, I have to say that Burlington City should be nominated as one of the friendliest towns in New Jersey. I spent an entire afternoon walking nearly every street of this Delaware River town's compact historic core. Everyone I encountered, without exception, heatily greeted me and some even started a friendly conversation.

At one point, I spotted a punky looking teenager approaching me on the sidewalk. You know the type -- slouched shoulders, baggy low-hanging pants, oversized baseball cap covering his eyebrows, fuzzy facial hair. I thought confidently to myself that this one would definitely break the streak. But as he closed to within a few feet of me, he opened his mouth: "Hello, sir. How are you today?". Huh?

As I said, put Burlington City on the Garden State Welcome list.

And its historic sites definitely make Burlington a worthy destination for a day out. Much of the downtown area retains it's colonial character. It's kind of like Alexandria, Virginia, but without the pretension.

As a town, Burlington is probably not too much bigger than it was in 1776, so it's fairly easy to imagine what this important 18th century port looked like in both size and style.

For those in the know, New Jersey was originally split into two political entities -- East and West Jersey. Burlington was the capital of West Jersey. A highlight of the town is the Council of West Jersey Proprietors' records office.

Walking into the town Library was a real trip, with portraits of prominent residents through the ages hanging over the iron railings. But what's really great about the place is the room in back, where I saw a bunch of middle-schoolers working (?) on computer terminals. This building has been continuously helping generations of local students for 220 years!

A meaningful highlight for me was the Boudinot-Bradford House on the southern edge of the historic district. The house itself is not much to look at (it's privately owned, I believe), but it has a connection to one of the more compassionate, and rarely told, stories of the Revolutionary War.

I have been reading Forgotton Patriots by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edwin Burrows. It details the squalid conditions experienced by American prisoners of war (mainly in New York), at least 10,000 of whom died in captivity. The Continental Congress appointed a very reluctant Elias Boudinot to be Commissary of Prisoners. His job was to negotiate with the British on treatment of prisoners and to get extra provisions to the captured. When Congress would not appropriate enough money for the task, Boudinot raised the funds from friends and mainly his own resources. Within a year, he was bankrupt. In the book, Burrows calls Boudinot "a saint." Boudinot went on to become President of the Coninental Congress and director of the Mint. It's a reminder that there are New Jersey politicians who do the right thing. He is buried in the nearby St. Mary's churchyard.

Other sites worth seeing (and this is just scratching the surface):
--the house where, supposedly, a teen-age Ben Franklin bought gingerbread before hopping a ferry to Philadelphia and fame.
--while not necessarily Revolutionary War, the home Ulysses S. Grant rented for his family during the Civil War (and where he was headed the night Lincoln was shot, after refusing an invitation to join the Lincolns at Ford's Theater).
--the preserved bar from the old railroad hotel.
--and, perhaps most fascinating of all, a number of sites associated with the Underground Railroad.

I happened to be in Burlington today for a Crossroads of the American Revolution Association meeting at the old Friends Meeting House, which is still used for occasional Quaker services. We got a private tour from Carol Strawson, the director, before heading for lunch at the Birches Restaurant (in an old bank building decorated with fake Birch trees -- there's even a table for two in the old bank vault).

After lunch, I decided to wander the streets on my own (fortunately, I was able to get hold of this essential map). As it was a Thursday afternoon when I visited, many of the sites were closed. Even still, I was able to spend nearly three hours walking the streets and not see everything. I'll definitely be back with my family to take one of the guided walking tours offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

This place is definitely worth the drive (or take NJ Transit's River Line right to downtown). Burlington City is not so much a trip back in time, as it is a trip that connects time.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Miller-Cory House (Westfield)

Today is flag day. What better way to start my journey than at a site that advertised a Betsy Ross demonstration. So, my wife Allison, daughter Daphne, and I headed up to Westfield to the Miller-Cory House. We also wanted to check out the Trader Joe's up there (we have none in Central Jersey), so it would be a two-fer.

The house is maintained by a local friend's association, as many of these home are. The main part of the house was built in 1740. While it doesn't seem to have played any significant role in the Revolutionary War effort, it did bear silent witness to the conflict. It is likely that British troops marched past the house as they decamped from the West Fields of Elizabethtown.

The tour, led by one of the friends, was interesting, if a bit hard to follow. The Betsy Ross "demonstration" (which we expected to be a flag sewing demonstration) was actually a "lecture" on flag making given by one of the officers of the friends association.

The house itself has some interesting details. A plastered ceiling in the sitting room, and exposed part of the inner wall showing the posts. The highlights for us, though, were outside the main house. What looks to be a 19th century shed has been modified with a fireplace for 18th century cooking demonstrations. We just missed the home-made ice-cream by the time we got out there, but the spice cookies were a sufficient substitute for my 6 year old.

In the basement of the main house is a large working loom (that someone was operating) and a number of other farm implements on display - although "display" is a loose term here. It was like looking through someone's attic. That was neat.

The house is in a residential neighborhood. It's hard to imagine all the sprawling farmland that would have surrounded this house when it was built.

The Miller-Cory House is an interesting place to visit if you're in the area. The house is open to the public on Sunday afternoons, although I was told they shut down in summer because the docents can't wear the 18th century costumes in the heat (imagine how the Millers and Corys must have felt).

Westfield has a pleasant downtown with nice restaurants. And Trader Joe's wasn't bad either.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Jersey: The Crossroads of the American Revolution

For my initial post, I've taken the text from the Crossroads of the American Revolution guidebook. The guide is a good first step in identifying the major sites across New Jersey -- and I hope to visit all of them withing the year. The guide is online here, but you can also buy a convenient hard copy for $5.00 at pretty much any one of the sites I mention in this blog.

Located between the British base at New York and the rebel capital at Philadelphia, New Jersey was the most war-ravaged of the 13 original states. More than 600 skirmishes and battles were fought on its soil and more than 150 naval actions on its waters.
Then, as now, New Jersey straddled roads connecting north and south. In 1775 and 1776, state regiments marched north. During November and December 1776, the remnants of the main Continental Army fled south across New Jersey, pursued by a British army. Just a month later, they retraced part of their route to defeat German and British detachments in Trenton and Princeton and march on to Morristown. This was the first of three winters that the Continental Army spent in New Jersey.

From July 1776 until November 1783, a British, German and Loyalist army occupied Staten Island, western Long Island and Manhattan, launching expeditions to collect supplies, probe local defenses and attack the Continental Army. Between January and June of 1777, skirmishes were fought up and down the Raritan River, as Continentals sought to limit British foraging and the British attempted to lure the Continentals from the safety of the Watchung Mountains. When Washington eluded them, the British withdrew from the Raritan Valley to attack Philadelphia.

The September 1777, British occupation of Philadelphia brought the war to southern New Jersey. Fierce battles were fought for control of the Delaware River and surrounding countryside. On June 18, 1778, the British army evacuated Philadelphia and began marching toward New York, as Washington led the Continental Army eastward from Valley Forge. The resulting Battle of Monmouth was the last time the two armies met in New Jersey. In 1780, the British moved offensive operations to the south.

The war was not over for New Jersey even then. In June 1780, the New York garrison launched two large probes to test the Continentals at Morristown–probes that resulted in the burning of Springfield and Connecticut Farms. Along the coast, small British and Loyalist units continued pinpoint attacks. One of the American Revolution’s last skirmishes was fought December 27, 1782, at Cedar Bridge, Ocean County.

In August 1781, the French and Continental armies marched across New Jersey toward Yorktown and victory. Two years later, after a peace treaty was signed in Paris, word reached the Continental Congress, assembled in Princeton, on November 1, 1783.