Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A variety store of history: the King Homestead in Ledgewood

Our visit to Ledgewood's historic King Store opened our eyes to the retail world of a small community along the Morris Canal in the 19th-early 20th century timeframe. A walk next door to Theodore King's Queen Anne/vernacular style homestead led us to an experience which, if it were a shopping destination, would be a mall with surprisingly varied stores. I expected it would give us a view into the merchant class, much as the store had represented the community and transient customers, but the mix of exhibits led me to think about a lot more than that.

This view of the King family home shows the front porch
to the right, side porch to the left, with Mr. King's office at center,
probably added on after the house was built.
One of the things I love about local house museums is the stories they tell through the hodgepodge of artifacts they display, and the King homestead is no exception. The buildings themselves are sometimes the only place where small historical societies can show their diverse collections or share what's remarkable about the community. From their perspective, I'd gather the arrangement is often a blessing because they don't have the resources or sufficient artifacts to interpret an entire house for one given era. In my eyes, museums like these are one-stop wonders where I can learn what local residents find most remarkable about their own communities.

The King homestead is kind of like that. Built in the mid 1880s with the proceeds of the entrepreneur's many businesses, it now serves two purposes. Walk up across the broad, inviting porch and into the house, and you can turn to the left to learn about the King family and their life there, or check out the rooms on the right for a view into the history of the Roxbury area. Or both.

Heading to the left, we were greeted by Roxbury Historic Trust President Miriam Morris, who led us through the house, narrating its history and the Trust's efforts to bring it back to its former glory. The Roxbury Rotary stabilized the home after they finished work on the King Store, upgrading utilities and fixing the chimney before turning the property over to the Trust. As you walk around, you see places where more work needs to be done, but the overall impression is of visiting a very much lived-in older relative's home, complete with vintage and antique furniture.

Theodore King's small office stands just off a corner of the parlor, ready to receive business, but the home feels more like the dominion of his daughter Emma Louise, the last of the family to live there. There's even a collection of Depression glass laid out on the dining room table, a temporary exhibit that underscores another facet of life in the community over the years.

The dining room offers a pleasant surprise: a wrap-around mural of a pastoral scene, with lovely trees and some grazing cattle. Painted by British artist James W. Marland in 1935, it may include elements of the scenery that once surrounded the house, though it's more reminiscent of English countryside. Not much is known about the artist, who first arrived in the United States in the early 1900s and seems to have settled in Morristown and Budd Lake several years later, returning to England just before his death in 1972. As part of its research on Marland, the Trust is looking for additional surviving examples of his work in the area. Miriam mentioned that he'd done some additional work in the bathroom and had stencilled the upper walls of one of the upstairs bedrooms.

Heading to the other side of the house, we got another surprise. A full room contains an exhibit inspired by the Minisink Trail, the Lenape thoroughfare that predates Main Street, the road on which the house and store now stand. As one of the signatories of the 2010 Treaty of Renewed Friendship with the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, the Trust is committed to sharing the tribe's history and relationship with the region. In particular, the room's exhibit covers the forced departure of much of the Lenape population from New Jersey and the re-emergence of the community despite the common belief that no natives live here.

Closer to the front of the house, the rest of the Ledgewood/Roxbury area gets its due through the "Heels, Wheels and Keels" room. Drawn on the walls is a representation of the transportation routes through the area: the Minisink Trail, early 19th century turnpikes, the Morris Canal and current-day highways. Reflecting the "innovation" portion of the theme for New Jersey's 350th anniversary, a temporary exhibit highlights the inventions and technology developed in the area and by local residents, a good part of it from AT&T and Bell Labs.

Like the King Store, the homestead is open only once a month, on the second Sunday afternoon of the month from April through December. It's well worth a visit, not just as a symbol of how New Jerseyans lived and worked, but as a great example of the classic community museum. Stop by and tell them Hidden New Jersey sent you!

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