Thursday, February 6, 2014

Here's to you, Dr. Robinson: finding the 17th century in Clark

One of the fascinating aspects of Northern New Jersey is how history is sometimes obscured within the community that's developed around it. You can walk or drive past a centuries-old building and not realize it, given how it's seemingly shoehorned between a gas station and a Dunkin Donuts. I'm struck by this every time I drive through an intersection where the Merchants and Drovers Tavern stands in Rahway. Several buildings nearby look distinctly Colonial and old enough to be authentic, but there's no signage to confirm it.

Not far from the Merchants and Drovers is a house that had already been standing a century when the tavern and those other structures were built. In fact, the house in question was built in the days of East and West Jersey, 85 years before the start of the American Revolution.

The Robinson House, 21st century...
Now that's OLD. It's so old that when it was built as a farmhouse for physician and surgeon William Robinson and his family, the surrounding land wasn't known as a farm but as a plantation. Today, it's still got a nice piece of land around it -- by Union County standards, at least -- but much of the plantation has been replaced by a much newer housing development. And for a period of time, it was seemingly just another house, maybe appearing not so remarkable in context with its neighbors.

Dr. Robinson came to East Jersey in June 1684, as part of a movement of Scots encouraged to settle in the English colonies of the New World. Finding the area suitable, he returned to Scotland to retrieve his family to settle here in 1686. He'd bought a parcel of land on the Rahway River and built the a house in 1690, eventually expanding his holdings to nearly 750 acres.

... and a century ago.
Viewing the house from the street, it's difficult to believe that people lived there until 1965, a feeling that's perpetuated when you go inside to discover a rustic interior with authentic wooden beams and floors. However, it changed with the times, and archival photos show the exterior with additional windows and a dormer on the roof, suggesting that the interior was likely remodeled extensively over the years.

After gaining possession of the house in 1973, the Township of Clark restored the building to its original rustic, New England style look, eliminating extra windows and other features that had been added since Dr. Robinson's day. It's been lauded by historians as a superior example of early American architecture, one of the few still existing in the country that incorporates aspects of medieval architecture.

Likewise, the Clark Historical Society has assembled a fun collection of artifacts from Dr. Robinson's era and beyond. Regular visitors to Colonial house museums will recognize some of the staples -- spinning wheel, candle molds, butter churn, bedwarmer -- but the Medicine Room is a special treat. Besides a representative sample of herbs used by physicians of Robinson's day, artifacts include a blood-letting knife that would have been used to draw the "bad blood" from an ailing patient.

When you visit, be sure to check out the cellar and the attic, too. Upstairs, the Historical Society maintains a wall-mounted, poster-sized scrap book that includes photos of the restoration process, along with maps, an inventory of Robinson's property at death, and documentation on the house's provenance. The cellar, once the probable shelter protecting livestock from bad weather and predators, now holds an assortment of items that range into the 20th century. Depending on your age, you might remember some of them from your grandparents' garage or basement, or possibly from the Smithsonian.

Step outside and you're back in the 21st century, wondering about the mysteries other houses might hold. Could there be a home in your own neighborhood, older than it appears to be?



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