"It’s small town U.S.A. Just one mile square, so you can’t get into too much trouble,” says Beverly Weidl.
A curator with the Hopewell Museum since 1969, Weidl is one of the living memories of the town that has often been called a New England town in New Jersey. And the town’s church steeples, the sloped lawn of the old main street cemetery, and the facades of 19th and early 20th-century buildings back up the claim.
Weidl — a compact woman with white mane and ready wit — takes her place at the desk in the former study of the house built in 1877 by Randolph Stout — a surname connected to the town since Jonathan Stout arrived with his family in 1706.
With high ceilings, geometry-inspired molding, rows of books, and a dark Italian marble fireplace, the room speaks of learning and sharing. No wonder Weidl — who has spent decades in the building and readily dispenses details — seems comfortable.
And with the images of the three muses of the museum — Sarah Stout, whose collection inspired the enterprise, and Eleanor and Susan Weart, the museum’s first coordinators — Weidl is in good company.
“The museum covers three floors and a kitchen area,” she says of the Victorian-era home where the museum — founded in 1922 — has been housed since 1965. Talk then moves to the “period rooms” that visitors encounter upon entering the imposing formal hallway.
The first room, the one on the right, is called the Colonial-era room — though Victorian architecture dominates. But here female mannequins in period gowns interact and greet the modern world. That face watching from the portrait over the ornate mantel is John Hart, the Hopewell representative who signed the Declaration of Independence and, like Richard Stockton, suffered hardships for it. Hart is buried a short distance away in the Old School Baptist Churchyard, Weidl says, pointing through the wall to a monument down the street.
Across the hallway the room jumps a hundred years to the more fitting Victorian sitting room display. It too has mannequins and a stop organ, “made in Washington, New Jersey,” Weidl says proudly.
Down the hallway and across from the study is the Stout dining room, a tight room converted into an exhibition room. Around the walls are paintings and vintage images of the town, toys from the once prospering Hoproco Toys, and clippings from Hopewell’s most infamous event, the Lindbergh kidnapping.
Weidl says the upstairs rooms have displays from wars — and with town folk participating in conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the present day it sounds like a microcosm of America’s conflict. The reality is brought home when she adds, “Most of our items come from local families.” But viewing the rooms and materials will have to wait for another time. “The electricians just finished up, and we have to put everything back. When we’re up and running full time, the tour will take 45 minutes and visitors should know that there are stairs that are taken,” she says.
But there’s more downstairs, and a door leads to an attached section, built in 1967, to display Native American artifacts from both New Jersey and the South West. “Someone connected to the museum had started a collection of their own,” says Weidl. “They didn’t have the space (at home). We thought it would be nice to expand. And we added our New Jersey — Delaware Indians — pieces to it. There was a man outside of town who collected those artifacts. He became friends with the curator and thought it would be nice for the children to come. We did hands-on and have the children enjoy being with the artifacts.”
The appearance of a visitor and a brief discussion is the introduction to another topic. “Research is limited,” says Weidl. “We don’t have the time. Many traveled to be here to come here. So we have to help them. But showing the house and its treasures is number one.”
That at one time the Hopewell Museum and Beverly Weidl may have been looking for one another becomes apparent the more she talks. “I always liked history, from the third grade. And my husband and I both had a love of early history. He was a carpenter. We would look at fireplaces and furniture and like it.”
Weidl grew up in Zion, outside Skillman, where her aunt had a farm. “My father moved from Canada and worked for the Royal Bank of Canada in New York. That was in 1939. I decided as a senior in high school that I wanted to go into nursing, but there were all these regulations. And I didn’t take the chemistry classes needed in school. But the state was instituting a new psychiatric hospital and was willing to provide the training.”
She adds in her matter-of-fact manner that she met her future husband early because he grew up nearby and “everyone knew everyone. So I got married in 1950. After I had a couple of kids, I stayed home and took care of the home front.”
It was the connection between the Skillman-area Methodist Church she attended and the Hopewell congregation that brought the family to the borough and a life that combines past and present. Weidl says it was when her children were finishing up high school that her thoughts turned to restarting a career. “And I saw an ad in the paper for a job here,” she says, gesturing to the room, “So I answered the ad and never thought I would be hired. When I got called…” She stops and lets her smiling face end the sentence.
Weidl’s obvious enjoyment continues when she talks about the collection. “My favorite things are probably the kitchenware, which I collect. I like the ingenuity of the cooking pots. I also like reading old wills. It is interesting to see what people have accumulated in their lifetimes. It’s all in their wills and tells you the quality of life they had. Some were very simple and plain.”
Other joys, she says, was a docent training program at the New Jersey State Museum, leading hearth cooking classes at Washington Crossing State Park, and giving tours at Morven in the 1980s, when the former governor’s mansion was being turned into a museum.
But Hopewell history is plenty for her. In addition to her work at the museum, Weidl is also the head of the trustees of the nearby Old School Baptist Church — where John Hart is buried. “It happened by default. We started keeping a small collection for the church, and I was asked to be liaison between the museum and church. I was asked to give some talks with the church.”
Then there are the open houses for holidays and the special events. “We’re doing a special exhibit this year on the encampment of 1778, when the generals met at the Hunt House (in nearby Rosedale Park) to plan the Battle of Monmouth. Lafayette was here. The old church was turned into a hospital. They were sick from camp fever, and those who died are buried there. We have a special marker for them.”
Thinking about her life at the museum, Weidl leans comfortably on the study desk, looks to the ceiling, and with a sense of satisfaction says, “It lets me be a part of something so great. It’s a great learning experience.”
Sounds like a small-town type of invitation.
Hopewell Museum, 28 East Broad Street, Hopewell. Open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, 2 to 5 p.m. Free. 609-466-0103 or www.hopewellmuseumnj.org.