Every Day Displays July 4 History in Somerset Hills
Did you know how much Revolutionary War history is right in your backyard?
Quick—which is older? The United States of America, or the Township of Bernardston, which once included the current Bernards Township, Bernardsville and beyond.
Well, since Bernards Township just celebrated a 250th anniversary in 2010, a rough math calculation puts Basking Ridge, Liberty Corner, Bernardsville (formerly Vealtown), Lyons, and some other surrounding areas as pre-dating Independence Day by a good 16 years.
The result is that readers of the Basking Ridge Patch don't need to go anywhere else to learn about and experience close-up some hot spots of Revolutionary War history.
Just take a stroll — or a drive — and look around. Maybe you'll want to point out some historic locations to children who've been learning about American history in a classroom.
The Presbyterian Church of Basking Ridge, now undergoing a facelift of its facade and regilting of its top, is at the head of the green at 1 East Oak St. in downtown Basking Ridge, right next to a majestic white oak tree believed to be about 600 years old. Whether or not it's really quite that ancient, the tree has been around plenty long enough to have supposedly provided a shady picnic for George Washington — and definitely to stand attention over the graves of Revolutionary War veterans.
According to the church website, "Shortly after the first Scotch-Irish farmers settled in Basking Ridge — about 1717 — they erected a log house of worship on the site of our present church. In 1731, John Ayers deeded to the trustees of this church one and a half acres 'on or near the middle of which now stands a house built and intended for the exercising of religious worship in."
By 1749, the congregation erected a second, wood frame meeting house, enlarged in 1803. "When this became too crowded, the building was sold and removed, and in 1839 a new [current] church in classic Greek revival architecture, was constructed of brick." The sanctuary, church yard and oak tree are listed in the National Register of Historic Places."
Heading just a little further south on South Finley Avenue, a blue sign marks the former location of Widow White's Tavern on the corner of Colonial Drive and South Finley Avenue. After a night at the tavern, American Revolutionary Gen. Charles Lee was arrested by the British on Dec. 13, 1776 — an event some consider a turning point in the war for American Independence since Lee supposedly wasn't always in sync with George Washington.
That event, General Lee's capture, was staged during the 250th anniversary celebration, in a presentation held at Lord Stirling Stable.
Speaking of Lord Stirling, his estate (and the cellar to his home) is open each October during the 1770s Festival held on his former property near what is now the Environmental Educational Center at Lord Stirling Park.
Lord Stirling, William Alexander, served as a Revolutionary War general under George Washington. He supposedly hosted Washington as a guest for a council of war held at his Basking Ridge home.
Despite his prominence during the war, Alexander died before independence was achieved, and according to information at the 1770s Festival, is not as well known as many other military leaders from that historic era.
"I find it thrilling that we have such a rich, varied and well documented history in our back yard," Paige Gilberti, of the Liberty Corner section of Bernards, said at one festival while browsing a display of some of the thousands of historic items excavated on the property.
There also are a treasure trove of historic items at the nearby Jacobus Vanderveer House off Route 202/206 in Bedminster Township, where American Gen. Henry Knox and his family did sleep — all through the winter of 1778 to 1779.
The small brown house was purchased by Bedminster Township when it was on the verge of destruction — and each year since then a dedicated group of volunteers has worked at making the historic site into a living history museum. It's well on it's way by now, with funds coming in from such events at the annual Colonial Christmas celebration.
Move north for a romantic tale, although one of a doomed romance, at the former Vealtown Tavern in the small section of Vealtown — now the shop Meli Melo in what has become Bernardsville Borough.
The building was long a cozy even if a bit cramped library serving Bernardsville, and it still bears a sign identifying it as the "old" Bernardsville Library.
Here, history supposedly really does come alive — or it never really died. The ghost of Phyllis, a simple Somerset Hills girl who fell in love with a man who was later hanged as a British spy, is said by many to haunt the centuries-old building. Indeed, for many, part of the experience of visiting the library was hoping to run into Phyllis. Phyllis now would have more of a chance to update her look if she chooses to shop at Meli Melo.
There are other sites in Basking Ridge and nearby that were around, and thriving on Independence Day, the original day. What are some others readers can think of? Do you know who camped by the English Farm in Liberty Corner during the American Revolution? Hint: a sign marks the spot.
For those who want to read up more on the era's history, the Bernardsville Library has a display of books set up. The childrens' library at the Bernards Township Library also has several volumes on American history set out for young readers.
Please tell us other history about this area that you think may enlighten other readers. And what do you find to be the most fascinating historic location in this area?
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