It is a humid hot summer Sunday afternoon, and a family of five — a mother from Baltimore, a father from Lisbon, Portugal, and their three New Jersey-born children — stand next to a large early-19th century hearth. The day trippers are listening to Don Davidson — a white-haired man dressed in a white flowing shirt, green britches, shin-high white stockings, and black buckled shoes — talk about baking methods.
Davidson is explaining how the beehive oven in the hearth works, and picks up a long baker’s peel and dramatically leans into the imaginary fire to remove an imaginary baked good.
The family’s reaction is a simple nod of approval, as in “cool.” And while the topic of cooking during a heat wave is anything but cool, the space is, both figuratively and literally.
The place is the Cranbury Museum at 4 Park Place East, at the center of town. The coolness comes from the fact that the place is both a fun step into history and air conditioned, the perfect combo for a dog day escape.
And those looking for a nearby summer diversion will find it here in this antique building that keeps the history of the town and region on display. Additionally, over the next two months, visitors will have the opportunity to view two focused exhibitions: the current, “The Look of Love: Bridal Fashions of the 20th Century,” continuing until Sunday, July 28, and then New Jersey fossils in mid-August.
The museum is housed in a building that dates back to 1834 and served as the home of several Cranbury families, starting as a two-room street-level structure occupied by Dr. Garret P. Voorhees.
By mid-century the house became the property of the Snedeker family. They added the second floor and increased the living space so that it then included a downstairs parlor and kitchen and the two bedrooms and a sewing room on the second floor. Members of the family continued to live in the house until 1913 when it was rented and then sold in 1923. The last private owner was a member of Dey family (a familiar local name) who sold it 1972 to the Cranbury Historical and Preservation Society, which operates the facility.
In an obvious labor of love, volunteers converted the building into a museum. Efforts included finding and restoring some of building’s original elements such as the hearth, forgotten when one owner decided to modernize and bury the past.
Three years later, in 1975, an extension was added to the rear of the original structure: the Arthur E. Perrine Memorial Wing. It provides a first-floor exhibition and meeting area as well as a below-ground area, providing the small building with a surprising sense of space.
The first-floor parlor is appropriately where the visit starts. Appointed with period furniture, a fireplace and Franklin stove, a squat piano, and painted portraits (of both former town residents and the more recent founders of the museum), the room gives one the sense of formality of the era and the feeling of stepping back to the day.
Docents — such as today’s colonial-garbed Davidson — meet visitors, begin discussions, and then move to the next room — with the soft gray walls, the colonial rug, and the hearth. Here the mantel top provides additional attractions: a series of plates and pewter ware and a ready gun, a Belgium percussion rifle. A spinning wheel stands prominently by a door that leads to the garden.
The tour then moves to the Perrine wing. Here “The Look of Love” lets visitors inspect the artifacts of American wedding, showing a social variation on a consistent theme. Using gowns and memorabilia loaned by Cranbury area residents, the eras range from the very proper Edwardian era — as in Leila Morang Peatross’ gown from 1901 — to the less severe late-20th century — represented by the gown worn by Megan Scott Daily in 1997. In the exhibition serious layers of white silk and satin mix with their sunny colored reinterpretations, sleeves and hemlines run high and low, and headpieces range from fragile garlands to wide-brimmed sun hats.
Likewise displays of photographs illustrate shifting attitudes and technologies. On view are studio posed images where — in black and white photos with tinted colors — the bride is artfully posed to create the idyllic, even saint-like, presence as is the case of Anne Wikoff Morrison’s 1943 portrait. Elsewhere a more flesh-and-blood bride poses for a crisp color memory image with her husband in the bright sun.
Other “Love” exhibition items include trousseau objects, artificial flower arrangements, and traditional wedding gifts. While the kid of the visiting quintet breezed through “Love,” a half dozen women who had obviously come to see the exhibition happily took his place.
Love, however, is not the only feature in the wing. The room also boasts a number of objects from the museum’s permanent collection. One particularly fascinating object is the museum’s turn-of-the-century-era music box from the Regina Box Company in Rahway. Its hand-cranked spring-release motor plays interchangeable metal disks that rotate over a metal comb of thin tonal filaments that when activated by disk perforations respond with bell-like musical notes. Its record disk shape suggests that later phonograph records were designed to continue the practice. The presence of such a machine, like the museum, provokes interest and —through signage and docents — just enough explanation to stimulate the imagination.
On the floor below, wall shelves, tables, and display boxes contain hundreds of objects connected to the history of the community founded in the late 17th century: tin containers from the J.S. Silver Spice Company (formerly located on Main Street), agriculture fair winning cups, old fire hats, and signs from old town banks and presses, and even an Emblem Brand Potatoes bag. Other objects remind some and introduce others to the daily remnants of the past, and visitors can get up close and personal with a wringer washing machine, washboards, ice cream makers, an egg washing machine, and several ancient manual typewriters.
Davidson pauses on the island case in the center of the room, points to an old photograph of a train, and tells the family about the John Bull, the locomotive engine that ran on the Camden and Amboy Rail Road (New Jersey’s first) and its nearby stop in Applegarth.
If Davidson is quick to start talking about a blown up newspaper article and an artifact connected to the White Cap Society, a Cranbury secret-society vigilante group, it comes from both his recent interest in local history and his professional background.
“I was a trial lawyer and partner for the New Brunswick law firm Hoagland Longo,” he says. In 2005 he retired and moved with his wife to a 55 plus community in West Windsor. However, the couple found themselves preferring to take walks around Cranbury. When they spotted an 1840 house for sale, they purchased it. In the process of selling their former house, they found the buyer was president of the Cranbury Historic Society. While the rest may not be history, it certainly deals with it.
While Davidson says, “I am now the chair of the education committee and docent coordinator,” he adds that he never studied history, just English and, after serving overseas in the army and qualifying for the G.I. Bill, law. But for the museum, he makes sure that history education is available by scheduling three docents to be on hand for the Sunday open hours. He also conducts Sunday and arranged tours.
“In order to give visitors a slice of history, I wear a costume,” he says about his garments, adding that others do not. He says that it was specially made for him by Smiling Fox Forge, an Ohio company that specializes in recreating 18th-century clothing, goods, and weapons. And while his costume’s era is out of sync with the museum’s collection of mainly mid and late-19th and early-20th century objects, he says that it helps him communicate the reality that George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and others stopped in town on their way to what would become the Battle of Monmouth. “I like to take a ten and a one dollar bill and show them to students and then tell them that the people on them were in this town,” he says.
The visit to the two rooms on the second floor is an opportunity to get a feel for how adults and children lived in the past, with the children’s room — with more windows, cabinets displaying dolls with large China heads, and an antique tricycle parked before the bed — more playful and engaging.
That spirit may be the best way to sum up the Cranbury Museum. With American eras blending, this museum’s lesson seems to say that it is better to be engaging than to be too correct, a point that the family seemed to get on this one Sunday and enjoyed.
Davidson’s mentioning of the upcoming New Jersey fossil exhibition — with bones replacing brides — reinforces that sense.
It’s also one that active museum and society volunteer and the exhibition’s curator, Jerry Pevahouse, echoed later: “I contacted several New Jersey collectors last fall hoping they will contribute to the display. I had a few positive replies including one of the collectors who collected insect inclusions in amber at the Sayreville clay pit. David Parris of the New Jersey State Museum offered two fossil fish and dinosaur tracks from North Jersey. He also offered a display from an Eagle Scout project featuring Cretaceous marine fossils from Big Brook in Monmouth County.
“Ernest Bower, a well know New Jersey collector, also offered Triassic dinosaur tracks and a fossil fish from the Ramapo mountains area. Plenty of sharks teeth and cretaceous marine fossils have been offered by other collectors. I have three mastodon teeth and two walrus tusks dredged from offshore South Jersey. I want as much variety as possible representing all the geological eras.”
Sounds cool and a good plan for a hot summer Sunday.
The Cranbury Museum, 4 Park Place East, Cranbury, Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m. or by appointment. Free. 609-655-2611 or www.cranburyhistory.org/museum.
The museum will also be part of the 2013 Historic Cranbury House Tour set for Saturday, September 28, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Organized by the Cranbury Historical and Preservation Society, this year’s theme is “A New Generation” and includes both historic and contemporary buildings.