Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Castle that Wasn't: The Samuel Fleming House Museum & Gardens

The Castle that Wasn't: The Samuel Fleming House Museum & Gardens

Flemington, New Jersey is known for its historic courthouse, hundreds of historic homes, and iconic downtown buildings. However, the oldest home in Flemington is not located along its main street. On Bonnell Street, tucked away a little over a block away from Main Street is the Samuel Fleming House Museum and Gardens. This diminutive two-story home, just mere feet from the sidewalk and squeezed between two others, is Flemington's oldest structure. It also happens to have been built on Samuel Fleming's land, for whom Flemington is named after. There is much lore associated with this house and even determining if Samuel Fleming built it or lived in it has troubled historians trying to decipher the home's true history. In this short piece, we will dispel a few myths and let you in on what I discovered.


Samuel Fleming was born April 2, 1707 in County Cork, Ireland. He came to what is now New Jersey as a young man. He married Esther Mournier, whose family of French Huguenots had fled to the "New World." Together, Samuel and Esther would have ten children. Samuel Fleming was granted several tavern licenses, the earliest in 1746 in Amwell. Fleming purchased 105 acres in what is now Flemington on June 11, 1756 from William B. Potter. The original title to the land around Flemington was held by Daniel Coxe and William Penn.

The exact location of Fleming's taverns are unknown. Many historians believe that his Flemington tavern was located on King's Highway, now Main Street. That would have been probable since a tavern's main source of business is travelers on the highway. Despite what may have been said in the past, the Samuel Fleming Home was never a tavern, as no tavern licenses have been found for that property. A room in the home is furnished with tables and chairs to give visitors an idea of what the tavern's taproom may have looked like.

Parlor of the home, now set up as a tavern room.
In 1756, a three-story home (now the Samuel Fleming House) was built on a knoll in a modified German bank house style, meaning that the basement level is partially at ground level on one side, while it is buried on the other half. The home had a gambrel roof and what was originally a lean-to on the right side. The lean-to was eventually enclosed to accommodate what was then and still is a "modern" kitchen. This home, referred to as the "old meadow home," may have been built by Samuel Fleming, although no documentation has been found that clearly identifies him as the builder or his family living there. Fleming owned the house in 1763, when it was sold at a Sheriff's sale. Meanwhile, Fleming continued to operate a tavern for another two years, until 1765.

Interesting to note is the connection with Col. Thomas Lowrey. Lowrey came to America from Ireland in 1747 at the age of 10. He married Fleming's daughter Esther. Unlike Samuel Fleming, Lowrey was an extremely successful businessman, owning hundreds of acres around what was then Fleming Town and operated the community's first store. During the American Revolution he was a Patriot, serving on the New Jersey Provincial Congress and was a militia officer.

In the early 1800s, forty-three acres of Fleming's property was sold to Alexander Bonnell, who owned a tavern on Main Street. The Bonnell family may or may not have lived in the house during their ownership, which lasted until the mid-1850s, but during the period the property surrounding the house was subdivided into lots and sold for homes. Eventually, the road built in front of the Fleming House would be named Bonnell Street.

Lower level of the Samuel Fleming House, where the large cooking hearth was located.
In 1840, the Fleming House was occupied by Charles Miller who worked for the Bonnell family. In 1849, a small lot and the house were conveyed to Charles Miller's son, Robert. About 1860, the Miller family removed a small one-story addition from the rear of the house and constructed a small two-story, two room addition. This addition is more Victorian in style with high ceilings and is interpreted as the Victorian room of the house.

In 1895, Charles and Lucy Miller took in a temporary boarder, two year old Bertha Baker. Bertha's mother passed away two years later in 1897 and Bertha was adopted by the Miller family. She was the the last member of the Miller "family" to live in the house, living there from the age of two until her death in 1986, with perhaps one short absence. Bertha married in 1914 but divorced in 1922. However, it is not known where she and her husband resided during that time.

On May 23, 1906, while the Miller family owned the house, the Lowrey Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) renamed the home "Fleming Castle" and placed two commemorative stone tablets on the exterior of the house, which are still affixed today. It is unclear as to what prompted the DAR to rename the house, except that it is recorded in their minutes from that year without explanation. For many years there was some speculation that it was because "a man's home is his castle," but there is no known documentation supporting that claim from Fleming's ownership of the property. But that is not to say that the home was small by any means as compared to other early colonial homes. It was larger than most during the period.

"Fleming Castle" and stone tablet, circa 1930s.
In 1927, the home was deeded to the DAR and they occupied the 1860s addition to the home while the Miller family had life-rights to the older section. It was in this section that Bertha Baker lived for the rest of her life, until the age of 92. She will forever be remembered for waving to the schoolchildren walking by the house and greeting them when they visited for school tours. During the DAR's ownership, the original hearth in the basement kitchen was reduced in size and rebuilt. A concrete subfloor was also installed over what had originally been a dirt floor, later covered by wood planks. Today the concrete subfloor is covered by faux wood laminate.

To dispel another piece of folklore associated with the house, there is no evidence in George Washington's diaries that he ever stayed at or visited the house, although he did dispatch letters from Fleming's Town while he was headquartered nearby.

In 2005, the Borough of Flemington purchased the property from the Lowrey Chapter of the DAR and the non-profit Friends of Fleming Castle was formed to raise money for and operate the site. In 2009, the board of directors of Fleming Castle were faced with a dilemma - continue using the confusing name "Fleming Castle" or find something a bit more appropriate. The argument was that visitors were often misled by thinking the home was an actual castle (think something along the lines of Lambert Castle in Paterson). It was decided unanimously that year to change the name from Fleming Castle to the Samuel Fleming House Museum & Gardens. It will take many years before locals get used to the new name, and it will forever be a part of the home's legacy, as the stone tablets out front will remain, honoring the work of the DAR members who stepped in over 100 years ago to commemorate the house and in 1927 ensured that Flemington's oldest residence would be preserved for generations to come.


Additional photos of my trip to the Samuel Fleming House Museum & Gardens on Pinterest


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