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.