Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saving a bit of defiant pluck: the Frazee house and the Revolution

It's a bit disconcerting when you find out a historic place you thought was being preserved is, in fact, not quite there, or not even close. Ivan had that experience when he brought me to Fair Lawn's Naugle House last year, only to discover it vacant and in disrepair. My own experience occurred the other day when I stumbled across the Frazee House on Raritan Road in Scotch Plains. While I'd never visited, I'd heard enough about the house's story to assume that either the county or the township had made it into a museum.

Frazee house Scotch Plains NJ
Look carefully to the left of the white boarded windows,
and you'll see a representation of Betty Frazee,
bread in hand.
The house may be just a simple farmstead, but its story symbolizes the attitudes of local residents during the Revolution. By 1777, New Jerseyans had already gotten a strong taste of what the war would bring them: frequent troop movements, raids on their crops, looting and worse. The previous winter, British troops had come through, stealing, pillaging and physically assaulting women and children, leaving a former Loyalist stronghold both traumatized and poorer. No doubt, the experience prompted many state residents to adjust their sympathies toward the patriot cause.

Surviving accounts suggest that Gershom and Betty Frazee supported Washington's troops by feeding the militia during the Battle of Short Hills in June 1777. It's said that on June 26, following the fight, General Cornwallis led his British troops past the Frazee farmstead. Smelling freshly baked bread, Cornwallis stopped at the house and asked for a loaf. Obviously, asking was a bit of a formality, considering the out-and-out thievery his troops had committed over the past many months, but it's safe to assume he'd have thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do. Betty Frazee likely knew she didn't have a choice, but she made her feelings known. Handing him the bread, she famously said, "Your lordship will understand that I give this bread, not in love, but in fear."

Cornwallis is said to have declined and moved on, but records suggest that his troops availed themselves of other items on the Frazee property, including livestock and household goods.

When I read up a bit about the house, I understood why I'd assumed the property was in serviceable shape. Like a lot of old colonial-era houses in New Jersey, it had been used as a residence for most of its existence, with its occupants making various improvements and updates along the way. The property stayed in the family until the 1890s, when a complex situation resulted in small plots being deeded to several descendants, and the house and a much smaller portion of land being sold to another family. For much of the second half of the 20th century, the property was the home of the Terry Lou Zoo, whose owners lived in the house. Subsequent owners held the site for only brief periods of time, and on 1998 the township of Scotch Plains took it by eminent domain with plans to make it a park.

Fortunately, the property around the house remains undeveloped; the old zoo structures have been taken down, and the immediate neighborhood still has a rustic feel to it. There doesn't appear to be any danger of encroaching McMansions or townhouses. Nonetheless, Preservation New Jersey added the house to its most endangered list in 2000.

State and county historical grants have funded some internal structural work and necessary archaeological study, but the house is far from saved. Fortunately it's also gotten support from the local Rotary Club, which is working closely with the township on the slow process of bringing the Frazee house back to beneficial use.

1 comment:

  1. This commentary about the Aunt Betty Frazee house is substantially correct. Initial restoration steps may have weakened the fabric of the house. During the recent decade more than $100,000 has been invested to ensure the house does not decay or fall down. An internal scaffolding systems supports the roof and walls, with the loads bearing directly on the basement floor, securing the house against disaster in case of a heavy, wet, icy winter. The New Jersey Historic Trust appears to take interest in the Frazee house because it has provided historical management (planning) grants. There is today an attractive plan for appealing to donors and the township to develop park-like amenities on the grounds around the Frazee house. The Frazee house is designated on state and federal historic registries. The previous mayor of Scotch Plains did not seem to value the rare, ancient simple farmstead or the role it could play in keeping alive the stirring story of Aunt Betty and the British generals. Progress in restoration has been slow, yet out of sight, the scaffolding is a great mark of progress in saving a historic treasure that honors Americans' pride in the Revolutionary War.


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