Thursday, June 25, 2015

Firing up a celebration of joy in New Brunswick

John Adams famously predicted that the anniversary of America's independence would "be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty." In a letter to his wife Abigail just after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the states, he said, "It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

That brings up the question -- when did celebrations actually begin? Who declared the day an official event for commemorating the act of separation from Great Britain and the official birth of the United States? I'm sure if you go to Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, you'll find people who say their forebears were the first to make July 4 a major holiday, but they'd be wrong. Like so much of what occurred during the Revolution, the first celebration was held in New Jersey, ordered by General George Washington himself. You can't get much more official than that.

The story brings us to 1778, just after the Continental Army fought the British at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28. Having demonstrated to the enemy in a daylong conflict that the Americans were a force to be reckoned with, Washington led his 11,000 Continentals to New Brunswick to rest. The Raritan River would provide refreshment to the parched and exhausted troops, who camped on both banks during the first week of July while the General made his headquarters at Ross Hall on River Road in Piscataway.

Marking the route of the 1778 Independence Day celebration
on River Road in Piscataway.
Washington capitalized on the massive gathering of soldiers to make a LOT of noise on the Fourth. He ordered them to line the Raritan's edge in a single file that ran two miles from White's Farm -- the present-day Buccleuch Park -- to Sonman's Hill, where Douglass College of Rutgers University now stands. Bolstered by an artillery force of more than a dozen cannons, the men then fired their muskets one by one in sequence in a feu de joie, or fire of joy.

That was just the start of the celebration. Every soldier was issued an extra ration of rum, and the officers gathered at Ross Hall for an evening party. Notables including Baron von Steuben, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were among the 100 people in attendance at Ross Hall.

Imagining the celebration as it occurred is a little difficult these days -- subsequent development and Route 18 have obliterated the 18th century landscape in New Brunswick, though the terrain remains a little more natural once the Raritan flows into Piscataway. Ross Hall was torn down in the 1960s after a destructive fire, though a single wall was saved for eventual restoration; plans are to have it displayed at the nearby Metlar-Bodine House. However, anyone driving the length of the highway along the river can appreciate the sheer mass of humanity it took to create a two-mile long shooting range, along with the duration of the gunfire they created, firing one after the other in sequence.

We can still get a little taste of the 1778 celebration every year on Independence Day. On the afternoon of July 4, reenactors gather at New Brunswick's Buccleuch Park for a smaller though no less enthusiastic feu de joie, a reminder not only of our fight for independence, but of New Jersey's significant sacrifice toward the goal.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No pita with this Gyro: Earle Eckel's hidden airport

State Route 57 in Warren County seems like some sort of supernatural entity. No matter how well I think I get to know it, no matter how many times Ivan and I travel its length, subsequent trips always seem to reveal something new.

Or, more accurately, something old.

Just the other day, we were driving the road west of downtown Washington when I looked to the left and saw this:

How could we have missed Eckel's Autogiro Port near the corner of Route 57 and Mill Pond Road? Look a little closer at this seemingly freshly-painted sign, and you can see a claim that this is the first exclusive autogiro airport in America. THAT I would have remembered; we're always happy to find new airfields.

As I discovered with a little research, we'd stumbled upon one of Washington's more accomplished citizens, Earle S. Eckel. Born in 1891, he showed a remarkable combination of entrepreneurship and ingenuity from a very young age. By the time he turned 20, he'd already fulfilled a contract to string telephone wires from Philipsburg to Washington, built a steam engine that both powered his mom's washing machine and heated the wash water, and operated his own mobile movie theater enterprise, among other ventures.

Detailing all of Eckel's enterprises will make for a good future Hidden New Jersey entry, but for now we'll stick with the autogiro port. Long story short, an interest in motorcycles eventually got Eckel into automobile sales and repairs in Washington, and then to gasoline and fuel oil. Petroleum was good to him: in partnership with his brother, he opened a chain of nine service stations, which they sold to the Tidewater Oil Company in 1930. The windfall was substantial, and he used a portion of it to buy his own airplane. Predictably, that led to another business: Eckel Air Service, which offered flying lessons and charter flights from Easton Airport.

Eckel eventually left the airline business when it proved to be less than profitable, but the venture whetted his interest in aviation, particularly when it came to a craft that he could keep on his Mill Pond Road property. He didn't have enough room for an airplane, so he selected the recently-developed Pitcairn autogiro. Sporting both a nose-mounted propeller and a helicopter-type rotor above, it offered the joy of flying at slow speeds with the convenience of shorter takeoffs.

Reflecting his usual enthusiasm for new ventures, Eckel built a well-equipped airfield on his property in 1931, clearing a runway, installing floodlights and erecting a hangar. Two years later he bought a second craft, building another hangar to store it.

Eckel with Tidewater's autogiro Miss Vedol.
According to some accounts, Eckel held the nation's first transport autogiro pilot's license and flew the first airmail from Washington NJ to Newark during National Air Week in 1938. Locally, the autogiro made Eckel a few bucks in towing advertising banners and offering flying lessons, while he often traveled to out-of-state air shows to fly stunts competitively. He found his real success as a pilot for the Tidewater Oil Company, which hired him to fly two multi-state promotional tours for their Veedol motor oil. Estimating that he flew a total of more than 4000 passengers in the autogiro, he told the Schenectady Gazette that "safety is the keynote of the autogiro, these ships being able to land in small patches of level ground far too small for conventional type planes."

Eckel continued to keep his autogiros at the port even after selling the property in 1942, but as his interests turned to other pursuits, the field reverted to its former use as farm fields. Meanwhile, improvements in helicopter technology and the relative costliness of autogiros pretty much sealed their fate in the commercial market. Improved versions of the technology are still available today and are occasionally used for surveillance

As for Eckel, he died in 1978, having lived an interesting and varied life. Today, his former home and gyro port are the basis of the Pleasant Valley Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Only a small wooden sign and the bright side of the one remaining hangar indicate anything remarkable about the placid little area where once an adventurous mind took flight.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Visiting the Governor's house in Perth Amboy

A few years ago, we were absolutely blown away by the history we found nestled among the old industrial grittiness of Perth Amboy. Once the capital of East Jersey, the city is home to the oldest public building still in use, the state's oldest Episcopal parish, what was arguably once the oldest corporation in America, and the vestiges of a once-busy port. We barely scratched the surface on our visit and vowed to return sometime to see more.

The opportunity came with the arrest of a governor. Well, the reenactment of an arrest -- of William Franklin, the last Royal Governor of New Jersey. As befits his title, Franklin was a Loyalist allied with the government of Great Britain during the time of the American Revolution. His home, known as the Proprietary House, survives, representing the only royal governor's home still standing on its original grounds.

I'd seen photos of the house's exterior, but I was still taken aback when we pulled up. This was a massive pile of bricks in a residential neighborhood, a real survivor. How could it have been there all these years without being more widely known?

The inside, what we could see of it, was just as impressive. We walked in to find a spacious center hall flanked by two parlors, one of which was decorated as a stately dining room. One of the basement rooms was interpreted as the kitchen, complete with massive hearth, while a barrel-vaulted storage room was set for a future event. Upper floors were off limits, but a view up the center of the staircase sent the imagination reeling. How many rooms are up there, and how many stories could be told in them?

No doubt, the awe we felt was exactly what its architect intended for the home of a provincial leader. Construction on the first portion of the house began in 1761, funded by the Proprietors of East Jersey as the official residence for the Royal Governor. The design, while somewhat severe on the outside, was grand: constructed of brick imported from England, its two stories, plus an attic and full basement made it one of the largest houses in the 13 colonies. Four chimneys served its many fireplaces.

Franklin was appointed governor in 1763 but didn't move into the Perth Amboy mansion until 1774; he'd lived at his Burlington estate until funding issues for the home could be worked out. While he sometimes gets a bad rap due to his loyalist leanings, Franklin enjoyed moderate popularity in the early years of his tenure, developing a welfare program of sorts to help farmers during lean years, and running lotteries to fund bridges and roads. After the start of the Revolutionary War, he supported a reconciliation with Great Britain, a stand that eventually led to his arrest on June 17, 1776. While his wife Elizabeth remained at the Proprietary House until escaping to New York in 1777, Franklin was imprisoned in Connecticut. Neither ever returned to the Perth Amboy house.

Wow, that's a lot of stairs!
Reportedly the house was used by both the American and British forces at various points during the Revolution; what's known for sure is that it suffered a near-devastating fire. A merchant and real estate investor named John Rattoon bought the property in the 1790s, repaired the damage and sold it to New York hotelier Richard Woodhull in 1808. Renaming it Brighton House, Woodhull envisioned two new wings for the house, which, with its location on a bluff above Raritan Bay, became what was arguably one of New Jersey's first seaside resorts. However, he only managed to get one wing built before the War of 1812 prompted an economic downturn. By 1817, he'd sold the property to Matthias Bruen, one of the wealthiest men in America, who made it his family estate.

Following his death in 1846, Bruen's heirs made the property a hotel once again, later donating it to the Presbyterian Church as a retirement home after another financial downturn in the 1880s. Ultimately, the Proprietary House became a rooming house known as the Westminster, the spacious land surrounding it sold as separate lots, and Kearny Avenue run through what had been its front yard. Conditions deteriorated in the early 20th century, but local historians raised hopes that the building would eventually be restored to tell the story of Franklin and the turbulent Revolutionary years.

Today, the Proprietary House is owned by the State of New Jersey and managed by the local Proprietary House Association, which is responsible for raising the funds to restore and interpret the ground floor and first floor of the building. A separate organization is managing the restoration of the 1809 wing and the upper floors of the main structure as offices, reflecting the realities of historic preservation today. While the dream of any historian would be to restore a building to its original condition, the economic realities of managing such a large structure usually point to finding tenants. And buildings nearly always fare better when they're occupied.

Walking around the house, I could understand why the Proprietary House Association folks are proud of the building and eager to tell the story of Franklin and his arrest. The Revolution was more complicated in New Jersey than most people realize, and Franklin seemed to be doing the best he could in what quickly became a no-win situation for him and his family. While he supported reconciliation with Great Britain, his own Assembly pushed for independence, a force too powerful for him to deny. It's a story not often told, and fortunately the Proprietary House still stands to help tell it.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Summer with the merchant class at the Strauss Mansion

When summer finally gets its grip on New Jersey, the idea of whiling away a warm afternoon on the expansive porch of a rambling shoreside Victorian home starts to sound pretty good.

That was the thought that came to mind a few weeks ago, during the Weekend in Old Monmouth when I found my way up a steep hill to the Strauss Mansion, home of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. I'm a sucker for Queen Anne-style Victorian homes, and this one is the only mansion of its kind in Monmouth County that's open to the public. The closer I got, the more I could see the wear and tear on the house, but its pleasantly jumbled arrangement of turrets and gables drew me up onto the broad wrap-around porch and inside. The prospect of walking into one of these homes brings out the little kid in me: how awesome would it be to play hide and seek there?

I was just as awed when I got inside as I was when I saw the house on the drive up. Welcoming me into the expansive entry hall, a Historical Society member shared a brief history of the home, which was just one of several "cottages" built in the neighborhood by prominent New Yorkers seeking a respite from steamy Manhattan summers. Built in 1893 for the family of importer and merchant Adolph Strauss, the 21-room mansion was designed by Solomon Cohen and built by Adolph Hutera. Strauss himself would stay in the home only on the weekends, returning to the city by ferry during the week for work while his wife Jeannette and seven children would remain in Atlantic Highlands. They were part of a Monmouth County summer enclave known to some as the Jewish Newport on the Jersey Shore, with their specific group known as the "49ers" after their 49th Street neighborhood in New York. Other homes in the neighborhood of similar vintage are still well maintained, and a nice drive around Prospect Circle will give you a good idea of the community where the Strausses relaxed during the warmer months.

Following Mr. Strauss' death in 1905, the house was sold, eventually becoming a rooming house in the 1960s. By 1980 conditions in the building had become so dire that the town condemned it for code violations, leading the Historical Society to wage a campaign to raise funds to purchase and save it. The house by that point was a shadow of its former self: asbestos shingles covered the original cedar shakes on the exterior, the roof was in serious need of repair, wall-to-wall carpet covered its floors.

Some of the original flooring. Wow!
The house's current stewards are candid about the limitations of their preservation work to date, and as you walk through the rooms on the first and second floor the need for new plaster work and paint are evident. That said, the potential is enormous. You can't help but be impressed by the craftsmanship of the Victorian-era builders, hidden for many years. The hardwood floors are laid in intricate patterns not seen in homes built these days, and the original stained glass has been returned to its rightful place after having been sold by a previous owner.

Much of the house is curated to reflect the Strauss era of ownership, with beautiful furnishings and clothes representing the 1890s and early 1900s, but a good portion of the second floor is dedicated to local history. Everything from Sandy Hook's lifesaving history to 19th century tools and hardware to the old 20th century White Crystal diner is represented in the Historical Society's varied collection. They've also assembled an impressive reference library and archive that's open for those interested in researching aspects of the town's history (yearbooks and maps are always fun to peruse!).

And for those like me who'd love to while away a summer evening on the porch, the Historical Society hosts a series of concerts, suppers and other gatherings. With such an amazing asset to help them raise restoration funds, they're taking a creative - and fun - approach to bring people to the house.