Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Preserving Central New Jersey in Piscataway: East Jersey Olde Towne

Preserving Central New Jersey in Piscataway: East Jersey Olde Towne
Written by NJ Historian

Shielded by a thicket of trees from busy River Road within Johnson Park in Piscataway is what some may consider an oddly-placed colonial village surrounding a large green in the middle of central New Jersey. However, upon closer inspection, you will discover that this section of Johnson Park is a collection of moved buildings from Middlesex and Somerset Counties called East Jersey Olde Towne Village. An early large-scale preservation project undertaken by individuals who foresaw the need to save the past before it is obliterated, remind us that the modern preservation movement is still relatively young. Today, these restored eighteenth and nineteenth century structures reveal much about the architecture of these time periods and their use in relation to the people who lived in or used them.


During the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of urban renewal was in full force throughout New Jersey. In an effort to reinvigorate cities that had once seen better days, blocks of old homes and buildings were demolished for new apartment complexes and office buildings. In rural areas, old farms and farmhouses were being purchased by corporations wishing to establish headquarters and office complexes on virgin land. This rapid development across central New Jersey did not bode well for those interested in history and historic preservation. One individual in particular, Dr. Joseph Kler of Bound Brook, New Jersey had a strong passion for American history and preservation. Dr. Kler was born in 1903 in Wisconsin but later spent over half a century in New Brunswick, New Jersey as a physician. In 1929, he was the first staff physician and first team physician for Rutgers University. From his office at Rutgers, Dr. Kler broadcast a weekly health radio show on WOR. He was also on staff at at Middlesex General Hospital (now Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital) and was chief of ophthalmology and otolaryngology at St. Peter's Medical Center for thirty years.

In 1971, the Parkway Hotel (Indian Queen Tavern), was boarded up and awaiting demolition for an expansion of Route 18. Upon learning of this, Dr. Kler sprang into action, gathering a group of dedicated volunteers. He sought to save the building by moving it to a new location, where it could be the centerpiece for what would eventually turn into a village of moved structures that represent the diverse history of central New Jersey. Dr. Kler gained the approvals from the New Jersey Department of Transportation to relocate the building for the sum of one dollar, and brought in experts to document and dismantle the structure until it could be reconstructed. That same year he founded founded East Jersey Olde Towne, Inc., a non-profit organization which would be responsible for reconstructing and maintaining the tavern. Dr. Kler recruited friends, associates, business leaders, and even his patients to join the cause!

Six Mile Run House (left) and Williamson Wheelwright Shop (right).
Ultimately, he negotiated the use of twelve acres on the northern end of Johnson Park in Piscataway to place the tavern building. Shortly thereafter, more buildings pending demolition for a variety of reasons found their way to the village from Piscataway, North Brunswick, New Brunswick, Pluckemin, Warren Township and Franklin Park. The first building to be reconstructed at the Village was the Dunn House, which was moved from its original location on Stelton Road in Piscataway in 1973. It took much cooperation between owners, skilled craftsmen, and volunteers to figure out a way to move eleven structures. One barn did not survive its time in storage and was not rebuilt. In 1978, two structures, the Church of the Three Mile Run and the New Brunswick Barracks, were constructed on-site as replicas from plans and drawings. A corn crib, outhouse, herb shed, and farm implements were also moved to the site. The non-profit had many ambitious plans to add additional buildings and create a Colonial Williamsburg-type atmosphere. While their dreams may not have been fully realized, this early effort in historic preservation paid off, saving these important structures for future generations to learn about and experience what life was like for early settlers in central New Jersey.

By the early 1980s, the historic buildings had been moved to the site and reconstructed. The collection included the tavern, a blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, wheelwright shop, barn/granary and five homes. Six years after Dr. Kler's death, the structures were donated to Middlesex County by the non-profit in May 1989. They are now under the care and stewardship of the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission in conjunction with the Parks Department. All but two structures have been fully restored (with complete ADA accessibility) and open to the public. The Jeremiah Dunn House and the barn/granary await restoration to begin in 2014.

In this article, enjoy a sampling of just a few of the many buildings at East Jersey Olde Towne Village.

The Indian Queen Tavern
The Village is flanked at its eastern end by the Indian Queen Tavern, a New Brunswick mainstay. The Tavern is believed to have been built circa 1720 as a home at the corner of Albany and Water Streets in the waterfront district of New Brunswick. The home was subsequently expanded and served as a tavern during the Revolutionary War period. According to records dating to 1780, the tavern was owned by James Drake, who operated a ferry between New Brunswick and Highland Park. From the late 1700s through 1818, it was either Drake's Tavern or the Indian Queen. After 1818, it was known as the Bell Tavern or Bell Hotel.

Indian Queen Tavern today (above) and 1971 (below).
The Indian Queen Tavern hosted a few important leaders during the American Revolution. On September 9, 1776, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge were en route to Perth Amboy, New Jersey. They had been sent by the Continental Congress to meet with Lord Howe in Staten Island. Because there were so few rooms available in New Brunswick, Adams and Franklin were forced to share a room at the tavern. Generals George Washington and Baron von Stuben visited on December 9, 1783 when a party was hosted in his honor. That evening, thirteen toasts were given. Although accounts from the period do not specify the tavern as the site of the event, it is assumed it happened there because it was one of the most well-known and appropriate sites for this type of celebration.

The tavern operated until 1964 as the Parkway Tavern. In 1971, Route 18 was being extended and the tavern, facing demolition, was dismantled and moved to the site of East Jersey Olde Towne, where it was eventually reassembled, minus the third floor, which was a later addition. The most architecturally significant piece of the building is the curved spiral staircase in the center hall. It was built of mortise and tendon construction, meaning no nails were used. Today the fully restored building features exhibits on tavern life and archaeology related to artifacts recovered from the original site. The "great room" or "large room" which spans the length of the second floor, once used for lectures, meetings, entertainment, and other social events, is still used in the same capacity today.

Farley Blacksmith Shop
The Farley Blacksmith Shop, a simple wooden structure, has the distinction of being the only building moved twice at East Jersey Olde Towne Village. The shop was built circa 1850 by Cornelius Farley in New Brunswick, along Memorial Parkway, present-day Route 18. The Farley Blacksmith Shop operated until 1960, one of the last commercial blacksmith shops in the United States.

Farley Blacksmith Shop, Piscataway, NJ
Farley Blacksmith Shop, circa 1850.
Three generations of the Farley family operated the shop, beginning with Cornelius about 1850. After Cornelius' passing at the age of seventy-two on September 18, 1869, his son Patrick took over the shop's operation. His five sons eventually joined the family business and had varying levels of involvement between 1897 and 1961. By 1960, only three of the five brothers, in their seventies and eighties, were still operating the business. The land on which their shop sat had been sold for the Bishop Street urban renewal project. With demolition impending, the New Brunswick Historical Club took an interest in saving this unique and timeless structure. The group's first effort to raise funds to move the building to a plot of land owned by Rutgers did not generate interest and the group was ready to abandon their effort. However, a real estate broker from North Brunswick, Verdi B. Throckmorton, suggested a public fundraising effort and spearheaded the effort, raising the necessary funds in just a few weeks thanks to heavy publicity.

In early 1961, the building was moved across the Raritan River to Johnson Park, near the horse racetrack. The building was restored and open to the public. In 1976, it was moved for a second time to the East Jersey Olde Towne site on the opposite end of the park. After being closed for a number of years, the blacksmith shop reopened in 2007 with an extensive exhibit featuring an overview of blacksmithing in New Jersey, tools of the trade, the history of the shop, and the efforts to save it.

Church of the Three Mile Run
The Church of the Three Mile Run is one of two replica buildings at East Jersey Olde Towne. Built in 1978 through donations from the Raritan Classis, Reformed Church of America, it is made to resemble the original church structure that stood on Route 27, near the intersection of present-day How Lane. The church was established in 1703 to serve Dutch Reform congregants in the New Brunswick area. Constructed of stone with a tall pyramid roof with cupola, it had just a dirt floor, very few windows, and no heating. The church was served by an itinerant minister, Reverend Guiliam Bertholf. Beginning in 1703, members of the congregation petitioned the synod in Holland for a permanent minister. In 1720, Reverend Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen arrived in New York and soon made his way to New Brunswick as the first resident minister.

View of the newly built Church of the Three Mile Run, 1978.
Frelinghuysen was a controversial minister. He was considered radical in the way he conducted services and is said to have pitted families against one another. He tried to institute changes such as preaching in English, rather than Dutch, invited other preachers to deliver sermons, such as Gilbert Tennent, and prohibited members of the congregation that did not meet his standards from participating in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Disgruntled members of the church wrote to the Classis in Amsterdam (church leadership) demanding his immediate removal. When he was not removed, church members locked him out of the building, forcing him to preach elsewhere and published a pamphlet in 1723 stating their grievances.

Frelinghuysen died in 1748. Many historians have noted that his early influence in New Brunswick during the 1720s was a precursor to the First Great Awakening which peaked during the 1730s and 1740s. After his death, the church was intermittently used and services were discontinued by 1754. No further records of the church have been found and some historians believe the church was destroyed by British troops as they passed through New Brunswick during the Revolutionary War. The church's burial ground still exists with a number of early stones, some in Dutch. In the center of the burial ground is a large square void, believed to be the original location of the church. As of today, no archaeology has been performed to confirm this.

Fitzrandolph House
The Fitzrandolph House, originally located between Hoes Lane and the Ambrose Brook in Piscataway, is believed to have been built by David Fitzrandolph in 1743. David served Middlesex County as a Freeholder in 1749 and as Overseer of Roads. The home is typical of an early farmhouse that would have been constructed by settlers in the region. The Fitzrandolphs were among the first families to settle in Piscataway. Descendents of David Fitzrandolph lived in the home until 1848, when it was sold to Vandeveer Giles. Nine years later it was sold to Randolph Martin. In 1865, the property reverted back to the Giles family and remained so until the 1890s. Between 1894 and 1976, the home changed hands four times. The last residents of the house were Mr. and Mrs. Wilber Duryea. It was donated to East Jersey Olde Towne by the Garibaldi Realty Corporation and reconstructed by the Alpha Phi Omega Fraternity at Rutgers University.

Fitzrandolph House, Piscataway, NJ
Fitzrandolph House, 1743.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the home received at least two, two-story additions, more than doubling the size of the original section, creating a main block five bays wide. When the home was donated to East Jersey Olde Towne, it was decided to leave the newer portion (most likely due to logistical and monetary concerns) and save the earlier section, which retained original floor boards, plaster walls, window and door hardware, and most of the original window panes. The home has elements of Dutch and English architecture. A large cooking fireplace with crane and beehive oven dominate the keeping room. The fireplace is flanked by built-in warming closets on each side. Toward the rear is a storage area and a sleeping quarters. A narrow, steep staircase leads to the upper sleeping lofts. Today, the restored home allows visitors to experience what a typical early farmhouse may have been like in the Raritan Valley.


Additional photos of my trip to East Jersey Olde Towne Village on Pinterest

For More Information
Middlesex County Cultural & Heritage Commission


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