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|
|Heath hen was once a common|
food source for the working class
in New Jersey and elsewhere.
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
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!