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.

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