The Jacobus Vanderveer House & Museum:
Making History Fun!
By C.G. Wolfe
Photos by Debbie Weisman, Courtesy of The Friends of the Jacobus Vanderveer House & Museum
From the onset of the American Revolution, the crossroads village of Pluckemin, in Bedminster Township, New Jersey, witnessed the war firsthand as British raiders skirmished with local militia, burned mills along the North Branch of the Raritan, vandalized and desecrated the church, and captured local patriots. In January 1777, Washington and the Continental Army, including its venerable chief of artillery, Henry Knox, spent the night in Pluckemin, during their march to winter quarters after the American victories at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Before they departed, they held a funeral for a captured British officer at St. Paul’s Church (now the site of the Pluckemin Presbyterian Church), who died of his wounds and was buried in the churchyard.
In the winter of 1778-1779, General Henry Knox returned to Bedminster to oversee a vast artillery cantonment being erected in the foothills of the Second Watchung Mountains. Knox chose the home of Jacobus Vanderveer, Jr. as his headquarters and winter residence. Located just outside the village of Pluckemin, the handsome Dutch frame house offered a sweeping view of the cantonment from the parlor and was likely one of the finer homes in the area. The house was built in the early 1770s for Jacobus Vanderveer, Jr., one of six children of Jacobus and Femmetje (Phoebe) Vanderveer, prosperous Dutch immigrants, whose families originally settled in Long Island before they relocated to the rolling hills of Bedminster, New Jersey. By 1776, Jacobus, Sr. had died, and divided his estate among his three surviving sons, Jacobus, Jr., Elias, and Lawrence.
All three brothers supported the cause for independence. Jacobus, Jr., was an active member of the local militia. His brother, Elias, paid the ultimate price for his patriotism, dying in captivity after being taken prisoner at his mill along the north branch of the Raritan during a British raid. His brother, Lawrence, a surgeon in the Continental Army, was also captured by the British, but survived the war and went on to help found the New Jersey Medical Society.
Knox was 28-years old when he moved into winter quarters at the Jacobus Vanderveer house with his wife Lucy, and their two-year old daughter “Little” Lucy. A stout figure who dressed out at around 280 pounds, Knox was a former Boston bookseller who proved an adept artillery chief, earning praise for his epic 300-mile winter trek to Boston with the captured guns from Fort Ticonderoga and his recent service at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Knox had originally outlined plans for an artillery training academy in 1776, and in 1778 was finally given his chance.
Secure from British attack behind the main line of the Continental army encamped at Middlebrook, the cantonment included a headquarters building, a guard house, two sprawling parade grounds, and barracks for 22 companies of artillery and their officers, as well as barracks and facilities for two companies of craftsmen, which included wheelwrights artificers, and gunsmiths. The most outstanding feature was the “Academy,” a 30 by 50-foot building, with a plaster-walled interior and glass windows. The Academy was used for the training of officers in mathematics, physics, and other aspects of gunnery.
The establishment of the cantonment was unparalleled during the war and is now recognized as America’s First Military Academy, the precursor to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Some historians consider the history of the Pluckemin Artillery Cantonment and Academy to be the “greatest untold story” of the Revolution, but in fact, the story is being told to hundreds of visitors, and school groups all year long at the Jacobus Vanderveer House & Museum, the only surviving building associated with the academy and cantonment.
It’s been almost twenty years since we were first given a tour of the Jacobus Vanderveer House for a feature article in the very first issue of The Black River Journal. Abandoned and showing its age, the 18th century Dutch farmstead was unrecognizable behind two centuries of ill-fitting alterations and a coat of crumbling stucco. With the help of Green Acres funding, the structure was purchased by Bedminster as part of the 218-acre River Road Park. A unique partnership was formed with the township and the newly founded Friends of the Jacobus Vanderveer House. Over the past two decades they have worked together to painstakingly uncover, restore, and reconstruct its original features.
“Next year is our 20th Anniversary, it is so fitting that you are here,” said Renae Tesauro, Communications Director for the Friends of the Jacobus Vanderveer House. “The message today is look how far we’ve come.”
From paint analysis to wood dating using the latest methods in dendrochronology, no detail has been overlooked to restore the house as closely as possible back to its original character, and the results are nothing short of stunning. Stepping across the threshold of the main entrance, you pass through a portal to New Jersey’s historical past, but the house has a warm and inviting essence that makes you feel more like a guest in someone’s home than a visitor to a museum.
The kitchen wing, which was lost to a fire and left only its foundation, has been seamlessly raised from the ashes. Slaves were an integral feature in Dutch households of the day, and while women worked in the kitchen wings or garrets, these rooms were also often their sleeping quarters. Jacobus Vanderveer, Jr., was known to have been bequeathed a black slave girl named June, by his father, and the figure of an African-American woman clad in gingham stands vigil in the kitchen wing as a reminder that not everyone in New Jersey would gain their freedom after the war.
The house is furnished throughout with period furniture and antiques, including a 1795 Windsor chair owned by Henry Knox and used in his home in Maine. Other furnishings are known to have been in the style of what the Knox’s brought with them or purchased in the area based on documented inventories.
“We hired a furniture historian and she was actually able to tell us how each room should have been decorated and what type of furniture needed to inhabit each room,” explained Renae Tesauro.
Other than the detached kitchen wing, the two parlors and the two chamber rooms on the second floor would have been the only parts of the house that existed during the Knox’s stay. Characterized by its original wide-plank pine flooring, exposed beams, and barrel-back cabinetry, the cozy front parlor would have been the heart of the home. Painted in the soft glow of candle and lantern light and the flicker of a roaring fire, it’s not hard to imagine the Knox family sitting at the table, Henry poring over his papers, while Lucy points out biblical figures and images to their toddler in the blue delft tile that surrounds the fireplace.
“These textiles (around the fireplace) were created by a woman in Colonial Williamsburg,” said Friends assistant treasurer, Robin Ray. “We painstakingly went through the process of what it (the parlor) would have looked like. This was the room that was dressed to impress,” she added, pointing out an elaborate “turkey” carpet, a fine oriental rug which often decorated the table tops of Colonial American homes rather than the floor, as they was considered too precious to walk on.
Awash in sunlight from a large frame window, with its own ample fireplace, and a four-poster trundle bed tucked into the corner, the back parlor served as a snug (or perhaps too snug) bedroom for the Knox’s.
“The bed is so short and the Knox’s were huge people. He was around 275 pounds and she was a big woman too. So how did two of them sleep in that bed?” mused Renae Tesauro.
While the chambers on the second floor are consistent with the original 18th century section of the house, the transition to the Federal-style Main Gallery and Pritch Matthews History Center, named for the Bedminster historian who was instrumental in shedding light on the Pluckemin Cantonment and the role of the Jacobus Vanderveer House, is immediately perceptible as the ceilings get higher and the rooms become more spacious. According to Renae Tesauro, this section of the home was added in 1813, by Jacobus Vanderveer’s son, who died before its completion and was never occupied by the Vanderveer family.
Taking time to appreciate the details that have gone into the restoration of the Jacobus Vanderveer House is a worthwhile experience on its own, but the home really comes alive during the amazing array of spirited events sponsored by the Friends of the Jacobus Vanderveer House. The scene of Continental soldiers drilling on the lawn, musicians in period costume playing in the parlor, or Henry Knox and Lucy greeting visitors as they did over two centuries before, stirs the imagination as you get a palpable sense of what life may have been like back then. From their popular Colonial Christmas, to militia musters, political debates between Adams and Jefferson, period food, games, colonial libations, and a summer camp for kids that includes real archaeological digs, the Jacobus Vanderveer House and Museum is pulling our Revolutionary heritage out of the history books and placing it in our hands and right before our eyes.
“375 school children were here on the Friday of Colonial Christmas last year,” said Friend’s President, Craig Sutherland. “This year we’re having Betsy Ross. You can actually sew the flag and hear about her role in the Revolution. We’ve had Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox and Lucy.”
“We’re almost victims of our own success because we’ve created these wonderful educational programs. 82% increase in the past 3 years of visitors. The number of school children coming has increased 3-fold in the last 3 years,” added Renae Tesauro. “When kids come back year after year for our archaeology camp, when they tell their parents they want to have their birthday parties here, we know we’re doing something right. We’re making history fun!”
The Jacobus Vanderveer House & Museum is located at 3055 River Road, in Bedminster, NJ., and can be accessed via River Road Park. For more information and a schedule of upcoming events, visit jvanderveerhouse.org.