Killing time before meeting another couple for dinner, Ivan and I strolled down Palisades Avenue in Englewood recently, on the off chance we'd find something interesting, or maybe just a store to browse. A few blocks down, the World War monument at Lafayette Avenue caught his attention, while my eyes were drawn just past it. You guessed it -- I spied a blue New Jersey tercentennial marker, with a Bergen County historical plaque next to it. Not far from it was a distinctive 1776 Retreat Route sign.
It was a trifecta I couldn't pass up, even if it meant dodging cars on two busy streets. We've all got our weaknesses, right? Ivan may want to spend hours waiting out a rare scissor-tailed flycatcher, but I'm loathe to pass up a good story.
In my excitement, I'd barely noticed the reason for the signage: a beat-up pole with another marker featuring a profile of George Washington and captioned "Washington's March November 21-22, 1776." We already knew about the American retreat from our visit to New Bridge Landing, but it didn't explain why this precise spot was of any significance.
The marker was a bit cryptic, but it told the basic story. A liberty pole was raised there to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, plus the spot had seen its share of troop movements. Washington had led the Continental Army past the pole during the retreat from Fort Lee, followed by British troops that also returned two years later. The sign also said that Washington had used the area as his headquarters sometime in 1780, accompanied by Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton and General Anthony Wayne.
That's all fine and good, but what makes a flagpole a liberty pole? The answer is in the intent. Englewood's pole was just one of several put up in the American Colonies as a sign of independence after the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766. Legend has it that the pole was raised by the fiercely patriotic owner of a nearby tavern, and topped with a cap reminiscent of the one that the goddess Liberty is often portrayed as wearing. The act is reflected in the New Jersey state seal, where Liberty is holding a staff topped by a floppy cap. If you've ever looked at our flag and wondered why she's grasping a stick with a sock on the top while Prosperity gets to hold a cornucopia, there you go.
During colonial times, the Sons of Liberty or disgruntled townspeople would raise a signal flag to the top of their community's liberty pole to announce that a meeting of those sympathetic to the cause would soon take place. That didn't go unnoticed or unanswered in areas heavily occupied by British troops. New York City's pole was replaced five times over the course of a decade, with patriots putting up a new one not long after the King's forces would take the predecessor down.
It's not clear whether the Englewood pole annoyed the Brits sufficiently for them to tear it down, but it's been replaced several times in the past 246 years. The most recent incarnation, peeling paint and all, is a flagpole that was erected in 1964.