Historic sites offer glimpse of the past


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Staff Writer

In 1775, Colonial patriots opened the American War of Independence by firing the famous “shot heard ’round the world” at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and that shot can still be heard today at dozens of historic sites in New Jersey.

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Battlefields where revolutionaries squared off with royal forces, lighthouses that guided settlers and soldiers along the coast and Colonial-era farmhouses are just a few examples of New Jersey’s rich historic heritage, and many sites are open to the public as museums or parks that invite visitors to learn about American life before, during and after the War of Independence.

Perhaps the most famous local landmark with revolutionary roots is Monmouth Battlefield State Park in Manalapan.

The Battle of Monmouth took place under a scorching summer sun in June 1778 as British troops fled Philadelphia for New York City, while General George Washington was in hot pursuit in chasing them down.

Fighting broke out in and around Manalapan and Freehold, and although the battle ended in a draw, the Americans claimed victory, which was an important boost of morale.

Today, Monmouth Battlefield State Park is open daily and gives visitors the opportunity to walk the fields and trails where the Continental Army drove back the Brits, and every June, hundreds of spectators converge on the park to watch a re-enactment of the battle and to speak with the re-enactors in their army encampments.

Monmouth’s revolutionary history is alive and well beyond the battlefield at locations such as the Covenhoven House in Freehold.

“The Covenhoven House was, in its day, one of the most ambitiously designed and built houses in the Freehold area, and it remains a preeminent example of the English Georgian style,” said Joseph W. Hammond, curator of Museum Collections for the Monmouth County Historical Association.

The house was built in the 1750s by William A. Covenhoven and his wife, Elizabeth, who were prosperous local farmers and whose fields included what is now the Freehold Raceway almost all the way to Throckmorton Street downtown. The British Army seized the house and used it as a field headquarters for a day and a half during the Battle of Monmouth.

The Monmouth County Historical Association operates the house as a museum and offers tours of the property, which includes attractions like historically accurate furnishings and a room that serves as a gallery on the Battle of Monmouth that features a dispatch box with the insignia of King George III, a cannonball and other artifacts from and about the battle.

According to Hammond, the open-hearth cooking program is also popular, especially with visiting school groups.

“The open-hearth cooking program demonstrates recipes and techniques for using a fireplace instead of a stove, and we have authentic recipes that we use and prepare a variety of things for people to try as part of that program,” he said.

The Covenhoven House is open weekends, but closes for extreme heat and other conditions, so Hammond advises checking online before visiting.

For those heading to the shore, Sandy Hook Lighthouse offers access to both the beach and a historic landmark.

According to Daphne Yun, a spokesperson with the National Park Service, Sandy Hook Light is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the United States — it was first constructed in 1764. During the Revolutionary War, American forces attempted to capture and destroy the lighthouse to prevent British troops from sailing into nearby New York Harbor.

Guests can enjoy a trip to Sandy Hook’s Visitor Center, which is open seven days a week, as well as guided tours of the lighthouse or stop by the beach for swimming, biking, hiking and more seaside fun. Sandy Hook also has expanded offerings during the summer, such as its Junior Ranger Program, and is currently in the process of celebrating an important birthday.

“We are celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service at Sandy Hook with cake and various activities,” Yun said. “We will also be holding a bioblitz — counting all of the species at Sandy Hook — in September.”

Along with Sandy Hook, parks and landmarks around the state are ringing in the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

At Morristown National Historic Park — the first area to be designated as a national park based upon its historical significance — will serve as the host to a birthday celebration with cake on Aug. 25 as well as an event on Aug. 27 when park rangers will discuss the history of the National Park Service.

These birthday bashes are in addition to Morristown’s existing programs and available activities. According to Park Guide Kim Watts, the park consists of two main areas: Washington’s Headquarters Museum, which features documents, galleries, a film and hourly guided tours of Washington’s residence from December 1779 to June 1780, and Jockey Hollow.

“It’s more of an outdoor area where the actual troops were camped,” she said.

The Continental Army spent the winter of 1779 to 1780 in Jockey Hollow, and today, the site features reproduction soldier huts and farmhouses where troops would have passed the cold months. Visitors can tour the encampment or hike along nature trails.

Washington’s Crossing State Park in Titusville was the host to an event on Aug. 21 that demonstrated Revolutionary War-era camp cooking to celebrate another important anniversary.

“We do different themes, and the reason we’re doing camp cooking this year is because it’s the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,” Historian Nancy Ceperly said, pointing out that camp cooking would offer a taste of life during the Revolutionary War.

Washington’s Crossing State Park commemorates where Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night 1777 before defeating the Hessians — mercenaries fighting for the British — at the Battle of Trenton. After beating back a British counterattack, Washington marched to Princeton and scored another victory.

“They refer to it as part of the Ten Crucial Days,” Princeton Battlefield State Park Historian John Mills said.

Nearly 80 acres in size, the park is home to the Thomas Clark Museum, a stone patio marking the graves of 21 British and 15 American soldiers, the Ionic Colonnade and other landmarks. Visitors can walk the battlefield or hike trails that pass through an area known as Institute Woods on the property of the neighboring Institute for Advanced Study.

The park also holds an annual re-enactment of the battle as close to the actual date — Jan. 3  — as possible. Next year, according to Mills, the event is set for Jan. 8 and will feature a “real-time tour” beginning at 7 a.m. where visitors can walk the battlefield and watch the battle as it happened minute by minute.

Eventually, Washington left the state to fight the British elsewhere, and when the war ended, New Jerseyans’ focus shifted from fighting for independence to fighting for their living. The history of hardworking citizens of a new nation is on display at Allaire Village in Farmingdale, which recreates life in the Howell Iron Works community.

“It was an iron-producing community back in the early 1800s, particularly the 1830s,” Allaire Village’s Coordinator of Educational Programming Angela Larcara said.

At its peak, the Howell Iron Works was a self-contained community of 400 people; today, the village features a blacksmith and carpenter’s shop, a general store, visitors’ center and more with volunteers who re-enact scenes of daily life in 19th-century America.

“We’ll try to make it interactive,” Larcara said.

Allaire Village serves as the host to school groups — this year alone, over 7,000 students and staff have visited since March — and, from Wednesday through Sunday, is open to the public at no charge. Special events, such as the Harvest Festival and visits from the “Bog Iron Boys,” who play games of baseball according to 19th-century rules, do have an admission fee, however.

For more information on historic sites and events around New Jersey, visit the website of the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area at www.revolutionarynj.org.


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