Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mount Holly: more old stuff than you can shake a stick at

Many years of schooling and work in New Jersey have resulted in the happy consequence of needing to visit various parts of the state for personal and business reasons. That's what brought me to Mount Holly for the first time several weeks ago. I didn't have time to do much exploring on that initial visit, but I knew I'd have to make a return trip with Ivan. That's what we did one day this past weekend.

From my trip to Burlington, I knew that it was a good sign that the main road into town is High Street. Maybe it comes from the old British custom of calling a community's primary artery 'the high street,' I don't know, but it's brought me luck on the exploring end in South Jersey.

Burlington County Courthouse. Very stately!
Driving into town from the Turnpike, it wasn't long before we were greeted by the view of several 18th and 19th century homes and commercial buildings on either side of the road. It was only about 10 a.m., so parking was a breeze. Somehow I didn't even notice that I was setting the car by the curb right in front of the Burlington County Prison. Very old (built in 1810) and looking a bit foreboding, it was designed by Robert Mills, the same architect as the Washington Monument.

I was reading the sign that outlines the building's history when I heard a voice behind me.

"You been in there?" I turned to find a woman walking her dog. Uh, no, not yet. It wasn't likely during that visit, either, as the museum wasn't to open until noon. A visit for another day.

"You know, it's haunted!" she said. Come to think of it, I'd heard about that, but ghosts aren't really our interest at Hidden New Jersey. The woman went on to tell me that her daughter claimed her house was haunted, as well. "The ghost ever cause any problems?" I asked. Nope. What's the problem then? Live and let live (or unlive, I guess), I say.

The county courthouse is next door to the prison, conveniently, small but stately with a New Jersey seal and the date 1796 above the door. It was built after the county seat was moved there from Burlington, and it's holding up quite nicely with the years. In fact, some consider its Georgian design to be one of the country's best examples of preserved eighteenth-century architecture.

Ivan waves from one of the meridian
markers. I took this picture
from the other.
Of course, we can't go to a county seat without checking for a meridian marker. You might remember that we first discovered these aids to survey calibration at the Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington, but we've come up short every time we've looked elsewhere. There was nothing on the High Street side of the Burlington Courthouse; perhaps the rear of the building would be more fruitful? It didn't take long for me to locate the first marker, though its veracity is in question. While the location's longitude and latitude are presumably those that are engraved in the granite obelisk, the brass disc on top was partially covered with a duct tape strip that had other numbers scrawled on it with an indelible pen. In any case, the companion marker was a bit more difficult to find, given that it was sequestered hard against another building, next to the natural gas meter.

From there, we walked farther down High Street, following the very helpful historic district directional signs. What to visit next? My curiosity was piqued by the words "Log Cabin." You don't get many chances to visit old log cabins in New Jersey, so we definitely had to check that one out.

The Shinn-Curtis Log House. Parking in front is reserved
for visitors.
We followed the sign's arrow behind some of the buildings facing High Street, down through a parking lot and across a stream to find a small cabin... with storm windows. Only in New Jersey: an energy efficient 18th century domicile. Oh, and a sign directly in front, saying "Log Cabin Parking Only."

There's no interpretive signage nearby, nor was there any information in my WPA Guide, so we didn't learn the story of the cabin until we got home. Known as the Shinn Curtis Log House, it was built around 1712 and went through so many additions and build upons that it wasn't really discovered to exist in modern times until the house surrounding it was demolished in 1967. I guess that wasn't entirely unusual back in the day -- we heard a similar story about the Perth Amboy City Hall when we visited last year. In any case, the Curtis family lived there for nearly 150 years, starting in 1802. (You can see a photo of its mid-20th century pre-demolition condition here.)

There's a lot more to our Mount Holly visit, which we'll cover in future posts. Suffice to say, we uncovered a lot!

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