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.