Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Washington, Damn the Torpedoes and Hitting an Elephant: Plainfield's Drake House

Over a dozen significant historic attractions in close proximity to each other: it's a New Jersey booster's dream and challenge. Union County's Four Centuries event makes it easy to step back in time to get a broader understanding of the region's contributions to the country's development and growth.

Thing is, when you visit five Colonial-era houses in less than four hours, you tend to be exposed to a lot of the same types of artifacts. I've seen my share of chamber pots both decorative and functional, reading lamps that affixed conveniently to ladder-backed chairs, bed warmers, foot warmers, cast-iron plates, you name it. Don't get me wrong: museum docents should point them out, as it might be the first time a visitor has ever seen them, but me, I've seen so many it's as if I grew up with them (which I didn't, incidentally). I'm proud of my state's history and heritage, but at this point, I'm looking for something a bit more distinctive.

I found it at the Drake House in Plainfield.

House museums take one of two curatorial approaches. Some focus on a single era, so you can better understand the lives and times of a particular family, or perhaps what a notable visitor or resident might have experienced there. Others present a much wider scope or time frame. The Drake House does a mix of both, reminding visitors of Plainfield's rural beginnings and its later status as a mid-19th century resort for wealthy New Yorkers.

The story begins in 1746, when Isaac Drake built the house for his son Nathaniel, who married and had several children. Supporting the family's patriotic bent, three of his sons served in local militias, and their freed slave Caesar was a wagoner for the Continental Army. The home gains added significance for having briefly hosted George Washington during the Battle of the Short Hills in 1777. The original lean-to kitchen still includes a broad hearth and a column which would have been knocked out of place to collapse the roof and separate the room from the rest of the house if there were an out-of-control fire. Additionally, the dining room and a back bedroom are furnished to reflect 18th century decor.

The Farragut signal cannon
Early Victorian times are reflected in the parlor, with a trove of furnishings and some fascinating knick-knacks. Manhattan Banking Company President John Harberger bought the home from the Drakes in 1864 and then added more rooms with contemporary touches. One can't help but notice the shiny brass signal cannon in the corner, formerly owned by his neighbor, Central Railroad of New Jersey employee Loyall Farragut. You may have heard of Loyall's father, Admiral David Farragut, who served in the US Navy during the Civil War and is best remembered for shouting, "Damn the torpedoes... full steam ahead!"

Heath hen was once a common
food source for the working class
in New Jersey and elsewhere.
Victorian decor sought to bring the outdoors into the house, and the Drake is no exception. A taxidermied heath hen is displayed under a glass cloche, representing a once common but now extinct species. According to our guide, the Smithsonian has often asked the Plainfield Historical Society to part with it, to no avail. I was happy enough to be able to appreciate this long-gone bird skillfully preserved. You don't see much wild fowl of any kind -- but for turkeys -- wandering through the woods or fields of New Jersey anymore.

The real treat of the day is sequestered in the Harberger Library in the back of the house. While Victorian furnishings and period wallpaper make for an impressive sight, they pale in comparison to the seven-by-nine-foot oil painting that essentially takes up one wall of the room. The Death of General Sedgwick portrays the final moments of the highest-ranking Union casualty in the Civil War. As the story goes, he was repeatedly warned to duck for cover during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, as Confederate sharpshooters were just a thousand feet away and already firing. Sedgwick rebuffed all warnings, saying, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!" Those turned out to be his final words, as he was struck just below the left eye and perished shortly after.

Julian Scott provided this key to assist viewers
in identifying the people in his portrayal
of the death of General Sedgwick 
Beyond its size, the painting is striking for the authenticity of its portrayal of the scene, which isn't surprising because it's the work of a noted Civil War veteran. Julian Scott was just 15 years old and a fifer with the 3rd Vermont Infantry when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving several of his combat brethren. Injured in the war, he studied painting at the National Academy of Design and under the tutelage of Emmanuel Leutze, painter of the famed Washington Crossing the Delaware. Scott eventually opened a studio in Plainfield and became well known for his stirring and realistic portrayals of combat and its aftermath. He died in Plainfield in 1901 and is buried in Hillside Cemetery, Scotch Plains.

All told, I got a lot more from my visit to the Drake House than I expected to, and I barely scratched the surface of the museum's representation of Plainfield as a summer resort. I'll be delving into that in a future installment, so stay posted!

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