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.

1 comment:

kevin said...

You are beginning to appreciate the challenges. I had to try 4 or 5 times to catch the Wallace House open for a tour. Perhaps digital podcasts with some background tour info or a vodcast would address some of your concerns. Middlebrook is indeed a challange.BTW,there's a Raritan Landing link to the Van Horne Family. Ask Dr. Veit about the Hessian Captain's letters!
Somerset County's 5 generals tour is a great help to appreciate the Middlebrook story. The story of the role Gen.Greene's wife,Caty, played in keeping the morale up during those cold NJ winters is a great read!

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