The oldest standing house in Mercer County today would have been demolished in the early 20th century if a plan proposed by the Pennsylvania Railroad had succeeded. The company was ready to lay track on the spot where the Watson House stood at 151 Westcott Avenue in Hamilton.
But the homestead built in 1708 was spared in 1915, thanks to successful protests of present and former owners — including Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), whose members renovated and continue to maintain the building.
And thanks to people — including DAR member Rita Kline — you can tour the house this month when the organization opens its doors for the 2014 season on Sunday, April 13, from 1 to 4 p.m.
The house tour is part of a history weekend sponsored by Friends for the Abbott Marshlands, April 12 and 13 (see sidebar).
The Watson House and its property have withstood several changes and a major restoration since it was first built, and more recently, since Kline joined the organization’s founders committee 10 years ago.
A sundial that was once the center of the herb garden is no longer standing, but Kline remembers its apt inscription: “Tyme Doth Ever Fleet Awaye.”
Though time may have fled since the 1700s, the founders group aims to keep that period’s events relevant today. At a recent pre-season session, Kline and caretaker John Brady share accounts from old newspapers and literature written by DAR members and from the diary of Isaac Watson’s father, William.
The documents recount the property’s history from the year it was built, to 1815 when the last Watson descendants lived there, to its acquisition by Mercer County and its renovation beginning in the mid-1960s.
For the record, Isaac Watson came to America with his father and two siblings from Farnsfield, Nottinghamshire, England, in 1684. As a member of the Society of Friends, William wanted to live in a country that would give him greater religious freedom. After a brief stay in Philadelphia he purchased 700 acres of land in what he called the “province of West Jersey” and built a log house. He farmed the land and sold its harvests to markets in Philadelphia. Because there were no roads, researchers conclude that he chose the property for its proximity to water routes leading to the city.
After his father’s death, Isaac built a stone house on the family’s land (which had grown to 800 acres) where he lived with his wife, Johanna Foulke, and their nine children. The house was described as plain but substantial as befit a Quaker household. The foundations and walls were made of stones from the falls of the Delaware brought to the property by flat boats. A small wooden addition was later added to the house.
When Isaac Watson died in 1727 one of his sons inherited the property and later divided it with his son. The last descendant to live in the house was Isaac’s grandson, Joseph. He and his wife took charge of the house in 1795 and raised a large family, living there for 20 years. Eventually, the estate was broken up among several deed holders.
The Watson House is now owned by Mercer County and has been leased to New Jersey DAR since 1964, when the organization took on the building’s restoration as part of the New Jersey Tercentenary celebration. Mary Roebling, the first woman to head a major U.S. bank, was a key player in launching and supporting the restoration. The house now serves as NJDAR’s state headquarters and is listed in the New Jersey Register of Historic Sites and National Register of Historic Sites.
The land where the house sits and the surrounding area are as well known as the house itself. The area was once home for the Lenni Lenape Indians and has been a site of well documented archaeological digs. Signage on the property informs visitors: “Archaeology records show a woodland Indian population dating from 6,000 BC making this area one of the most significant Native American sites in Eastern U.S. Dr. Charles Abbott (1843-1919) archaeologist and naturalist brought worldwide recognition to the site.” The marshlands surrounding the Watson House support at least 245 species of birds and 62 species of fish.
To this day, the founders committee maintains the interior and exterior of the house while Mercer County maintains the grounds. Caretaker Brady lives on the Hamilton site and oversees the property. Hamilton-based housekeeper Thelma Cucinotta, at age 90, keeps the interior orderly and ready for visitors.
Attendees at the pre-opening session learned that the restored fireplace, the windows, the ceiling beams, and the furniture all have stories to tell.
In the 1700s window sashes were often made of lead as were the sashes at the Watson House. During the Revolutionary War the lead was taken from the windows and melted into bullets for American troops. The sashes were replaced with ones made of wood.
The tall, ornate chair (not originally from the house) by the parlor fireplace was made from timbers of the British Frigate “Augusta,” which lay underwater 132 years after it was sunk by the American forces in 1777 on the Delaware River near Red Bank. The construction of the beams and rafters in the attic suggest that they came from a ship or were made by ship carpenters.
The huge kitchen fireplace, which served to heat the room and cook the family’s food in the early days, had been plastered long after the house was built. Working with Trenton-based architect Samuel Mountford, restoration builder Harry Bentley removed the plastered section of the wall and found a shallow fireplace. DAR’s account reads that he decided it was not the original and persevered until he found a much larger fireplace behind the small one. This has now become the central attraction of the room.
“The Watson House is a hidden gem. There are even chapters of DAR that don’t know it exists,” says Kline, a member of DAR for 45 years. She has served as the state regent and as a recording secretary, and is currently chair of the founders committee.
Becoming a DAR member can require a lot of research, Kline says. You have to trace your genealogy back to your ancestor who fought in the revolution or contributed to it in some way. “I was lucky. The research had been done by my great aunts and grandparents,” she says. Kline’s ancestor Major Benjamin Ogle fought in the revolution in the Frederick Militia, and records show that his brother James also fought in the war.
For candidates who need to do the research, DAR offers help. “We have genealogical workshops throughout the state. There are hobbyists and professional genealogists in the DAR. At the headquarters in Washington, D.C., we have a renowned genealogical library and a beautiful museum,” Kline says. The DAR website lists 177,000 members among 3,000 chapters nationwide with 47 in New Jersey, including three in Trenton and one in Princeton.
Kline grew up in Washington, D.C., in a socially and politically active family. Her grandfather, Ambrose Durkin, was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and was Woodrow Wilson’s bodyguard and chief of detectives for the Washington Police Department. Her father, John Cahill, was vice president of the Office and Professional Employees Union and president of the union Local 2 in Washington. Her mother was a full-time homemaker who was active in DAR.
Living in D.C., Kline experienced current events and history first-hand. “I went to one of President Kennedy’s inaugural balls. I met the president of the AFL-CIO and several senators and congressman,” she says.
Rita married Len Kline in 1961. They moved to North Andover, Massachusetts, and eventually moved to Red Bank, New Jersey, where they live now. They have two daughters and four grandchildren.
As the inscription on the Watson House sundial implied, time fleets away. But as Kline and the founders members would tell you, the value of times past cannot be measured by moving shadows — it’s the people, their causes, and their actions that shape history, which in turn shapes the present. And it’s a place like the Watson House that keeps connections between the past and the present alive. It has been more than 300 years since the house was built and 50 years since the DAR began giving tours. “We want to keep it going for a long time to come,” says Kline.
Watson House, 151 Westcott Avenue at the entrance of John Roebling Park, Hamilton. Sunday, April 13, 1 to 4 p.m. Free (donations are welcome). Visitors are asked to wear sneakers or rubber-soled shoes. High heels are not permitted. Additional spring tours are available on the second Sunday of May and June. Fall tours take place September through November. njdar.org/historic_properties/watson.html, 732-821-8310, or 732-261-4474.
Take a Tour of History
Abbott Marshlands April History Weekend — sponsored by Friends for the Abbott Marshlands — offers a train tour of the marshlands, an archaeology site tour of Point Breeze (home of Joseph Bonaparte, former king of Spain and brother to Napoleon), and visits to historic 1708 Isaac Watson House and the 1798 Bow Hill Mansion, once home to Annette Savage, Bonaparte’s mistress.
The schedule is as follows:
Saturday, April 12, 9:15 to 11 a.m. Light rail tour into the 19th century with Barbara Ross. Meet at the Bordentown River Line light rail station. (Turn left into parking lot at 100 West Park Street at Prince Street, above the boat landing), River Line tickets are $1.50 (70 cents for seniors). Please bring exact change. Pre-registration is strongly advised. 609-924-2683.
Participants may opt for a brief post-trip walk or ride to Bordentown Beach for a better view of Crosswicks Creek and the canal’s Lock One. Co-sponsors: Bordentown City Environmental Commission, and D&R Greenway Land Trust.
Saturday, April 12, 1 to 3 p.m. Walk at Point Breeze, home of Joseph Bonaparte, with Michael Gall, archaeologist. 101 Park Street, Divine Word Missionaries, Bordentown. Co-sponsors: Bordentown City Environmental Commission, D&R Greenway Land Trust. Free. Donations welcome. 732-821-8310.
Sunday, April 13, 1 to 4 p.m. Watson House Tour. 151 Westcott Avenue, Hamilton. Built in 1708, it is recognized as the oldest house in Mercer County. It serves as the headquarters for the New Jersey State Society of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Free. Donations welcome. 732-821-8310 or 732-261-4474.
Sunday, April 13, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Bow Hill Mansion Tour and Novella Reading. End of Jeremiah Avenue, Hamilton. Reading of an original novella, “The Rooms” by writer, playwright, and U.S. 1 arts editor Dan Aubrey. The work is based on the life of Annette Savage, Joseph Bonaparte’s mistress, and her time in the rooms of Bow Hill Mansion. Tour to follow. Free. Donations welcome. 732-821-8310.