HomeNorth Brunswick SentinelNB NewsHistory of South Brunswick lies in a name

History of South Brunswick lies in a name

By JENNIFER AMATO
Staff Writer

SOUTH BRUNSWICK — In the times of George Washington, South Brunswick was more popular than Princeton. That is why a subsection was known as Kingston (Kings Town) compared to Princeton (Prince Town) and why Route 27 between Kingston and Princeton is part of the King’s Highway Historic District.

Local historians recounted the travels of Washington, as well as the history of South Brunswick Township from colonial times, during a special presentation by former Mayor Carolyn McCallum at the South Brunswick Senior Center on Nov. 17.

According to McCallum, who served as mayor in 1978 and 1983, the Dutch and Swedes were already in the area when settlers from New England moved south, and through a royal grant, the property between the Hudson River and the Delaware River along the Atlantic Ocean came to be known as New Jersey.

In 1682, the colonial General Assembly of New Jersey established Bergen, Essex, Middlesex and Monmouth counties.

“I’m impressed in what I found out. We were sophisticated in the times in the settlements. Middlesex County was one of four counties named by the British when they moved in,” she said.

In 1693, the colonial government divided the counties into townships. Middlesex County became the corporate town of Woodbridge, the township of Perth Amboy (known as Perth) and Piscataway. North Brunswick, South Amboy and South Brunswick were then designated as townships.

“They were developing everything because they were organized, so that made it much easier,” McCallum said of the settlers.

With Perth Amboy established as the initial capital, the county seat moved to New Brunswick in 1793, she said. In 1978, the State of New Jersey General Assembly passed legislation creating 104 townships; under the colonial government, South Brunswick had been considered the South Ward of the City of New Brunswick. At the time, Cranbury and Plainsboro separated from South Brunswick.

“Location was everything. I think that’s what made people want to be here and committed and knowledgeable,” McCallum said, noting that roads started along Native American Leni Lenape trails in Kingston, Dayton and Deans.

On the east side of South Brunswick there were settlers in Deans and Cross Roads (now Dayton) who were served by an Indian trail (now Georges Road) and Rhode Hall (now served by Cranbury/South River Road), according to McCallum.

There were routes for stagecoaches including hotels, repair areas, places for grain and taverns.

“I think one of the most important parts was Kingston. They couldn’t decide where to keep the stagecoaches. You are 50 miles from Philadelphia and 50 miles from New York,” local tour guide Anne Ogonowsky said of the eight stagecoach inns located in the area — and of the record 44 stagecoaches that traveled to town in one day.

Ogonowsky also noted that three of the oldest homes in the area are at Maple Tree Farms in Kingston; Dr. Henry Greenland, by the Kingston Mill, which is now considered Princeton in Mercer County; and the Higgins House on Raymond Road, which is now considered part of Franklin Township in Somerset County.

John Wetherill — a freeholder, assemblyman for 25 years and colonel in the Revolutionary War — lived in Dayton, and his house has been restored as a museum.

Ogonowsky said that a church in the middle of a cemetery burned down twice, and all the hotels in the area burned down at one time or another. She said a building in the Heathcote section had buttons from uniforms and broken ceramics found buried.

“That’s why they felt South Brunswick needed a lot of attention,” McCallum said of the town’s rich history.

Ogonowsky said that George Washington crossed into Kingston twice, once to flee the British and Hessians and once to go back toward the Delaware River.

“Route 27 is the only road that is considered historic … and almost has the same configuration as it did in the 1600s,” she said, mentioning that there was no room for Washington to stay in Kingston, so he had to stay in Rockingham.

She also said he came up from Trenton and burned the bridge, so the three-arch bridge near the mill was the only way to cross the Millstone River at the time; the current bridge was not rebuilt until 1942.

She also noted that a deli on Main Street was Washington’s favorite restaurant and grocery store and still has the exact foundation as when the future first president of the United States visited.

“It was very hard to preserve his footsteps,” she said.

She suggested residents walk along Route 27, close their eyes and think about Washington, riding on horseback to his inauguration in 1789.

Aggie Schwartz, who moved to South Brunswick in 1940 at age 4, painted a picture of a more contemporary township compared to colonial days, though still distant from the 21st century.

She said her grandchildren now live in her childhood home on Blackhorse Lane, which was a dirt road with backhouses and no electricity.

She said her family lived in their house for one year without electricity or running water, and only bathed once per week.

She recalled going to NBTel (New Brunswick Telephone) to get a phone, but with only four houses in her vicinity, the company did not know where they could put any wires.

There were only five or six cars traveling on the road each day, compared to five or six each minute nowadays, she said. She recalled stores only being located in New Brunswick and only being open on weekdays, and that pizza was only found in New Brunswick or Jamesburg.

She said that her mother would take two cotton bags used to carry animal feed and instead use them to make clothing.

Schwartz also mentioned a gentleman who operated a grocery store out of his living room and kept a piece of cardboard with a list of names as the first form of “credit.” He would write prices on brown bags and by the end of the month, bills would be paid.

At the time, she said Deans School was for first to eighth graders, and she walked the entire distance of Blackhorse Lane to school for eight years. She had teachers for two years in a row. She graduated grammar school in 1948, eventually becoming a first grade teacher for the East Brunswick school district.

She said the area was full of chicken farms and potato farms until “city folks” moved into the Kendall Park area.

“Some of the changes I like, some I don’t, but you grow to adjust,” she said.

From 4,000 people in 1940 to almost 49,000 residents in 2016, the township has grown in size, population, number of schools, development of businesses, etc., from plantation country that employed slave labor at times.

“I understand why it was one of the first townships to do well: the quality of the people,” McCallum said. “It’s a wonderful community supporting each other and really appreciating each other.”

Arlyne DeSena, a resident for 59 years, said she wants to preserve that quality, and as a former affordable housing administrator, warned of the potential development of seven housing complexes that would add 15,000 homes to the area, plus 2,900 affordable housing units.

“History is wonderful. It shapes where we are,” she said, “but we must slow down this growth.”

The next history lesson about the Monmouth Junction section of town is planned for January. For more information, visit www.sbtnj.net.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@gmnews.com.

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