Corrections or additions?

This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the February 14,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Rockingham — On The Move

If George Washington were to seek shelter at Rockingham

right now, he would be turned away. Partly hidden by trees along Route

518 in Franklin Township, Somerset County, the place our


called home for a few months in 1783 is going on the road again —

for the third time. This spring Rockingham will be moved yet again,

traveling just over two miles to a 35-acre site that is expected to

become its permanent home.

Meanwhile, reflecting years of preparation and countless hours of

work, the house’s contents — mostly furniture, along with


artifacts, and fine art — have been carefully cleaned, wrapped,

and placed in climate-controlled storage. Rockingham’s grounds are

in disarray, due as much to the season as to the movers’ incursions

and the purposeful uprooting of some gardens. Although Rockingham’s

re-opening time is uncertain right now, rest assured: it will happen,

and it will be a "grand re-opening." Too much has been done

over the last nine years to consider anything less.

After Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, but before the peace treaty

that would officially end the war between Great Britain and the United

States, the Continental Congress moved from Philadelphia — where

restive troops demanded payment — to Princeton, then a town of

300 people. Meeting in Nassau Hall at the first College of

New Jersey (now Princeton University), the Congress summoned General

George Washington from Newburgh, New York, where he and his wife


uncomfortably, chafing to return to Mount Vernon, which the


Washington had seen only twice in the last eight years.

Housing had become scarce once the Congressional retinue was settled

in Princeton, so the Washingtons, their servants, and aides were put

up about four miles away, at Rockingham, the home of the late John

Berrien, former justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, whose

widow had hoped to sell the house, but agreed to rent it by the month.

From August 23, 1783, until November 9 of that year, Washington lived

at Rockingham, often attending meetings of Congress nearby;


sitting for portraits, and working on his farewell orders to the


of the United States. Not until October 31 did news of the Treaty

of Paris arrive. Early the following month, General Washington left

for West Point and New York City before heading south to Annapolis,

where Congress was meeting, to resign as commander-in-chief. He


Mount Vernon on Christmas eve.

Believed to be the second oldest building in the Millstone River


the house was probably built between 1702 and 1710 on a rocky hillside

overlooking the river. John Berrien bought it in 1735, giving it the

name of "Rockingham," possibly for the Marquis of Rockingham,

and with his enlargements, it became a substantial farmstead,


for someone in his station in life. In 1803, Mrs. Berrien sold the

house to the Cruser family, who lived there until 1830. It then passed

through a succession of owners and occupants, serving at one time

as the home of the quarry manager, then as a crowded rooming house

for its Italian workers. By 1896, the Rocky Hill Quarry Company, which

remains an ongoing industry today, had so expanded that the historic

building was severely shaken by blasting.

Saved by local residents and patriotic organizations, the house was

purchased from the quarry company and, in 1897, moved for the first

time, away from advancing quarry operations. Only partly furnished

with donated period pieces — reports differ on what might have

been in the house during Washington’s stay — Rockingham opened

to the public in the same year. In 1935, it was transferred to the

State of New Jersey. By 1956, when a second move became necessary,

the house was transferred about a half-mile away — reportedly

with its furnishings left inside during the trip — to a site


Route 518.

For reasons unknown, the back of the house was placed facing the road,

so visitors now enter by the back door. However, this spring’s third

relocation will an about-face for the house, and not only will the

front (marked by a second floor porch with railing) face out, but

the building will once more be situated on a bluff overlooking water

— by now, it’s the Delaware & Raritan Canal, built between the

site and the Millstone River since Rockingham’s first incarnation.

Benefits of the coming move promise not only relief from the effects

of quarry-blasting and the promise of permanency, but also a return

to a setting like its original one.

The best-case scenario calls for the Rockingham


house" and two out-buildings to be repositioned by sometime this

spring. Once in place, the building will be restored, the grounds

landscaped with 18th-century gardens, and the furnishings moved back

from storage. A new kitchen wing, more historically accurate than

the 19th-century add-on that will be left at the current site, will

also be built. Even though two more phases of the project will remain

— calling for walkways, parking lot, visitors’ center and


— Rockingham will reopen, and its variety of programs will start

again. From Peggi Carlsen, curator for nearly a decade, through the

ranks of the Rockingham Association, the Stony Brook Garden Club,

the Montgomery High School Live Historians Club, and volunteers —

sometimes one and the same — a wild, un-decorous, non-18th-century

cheer of joy will undoubtedly go up. And rightly so.

To make that long-planned, long-awaited day possible will have been

the work of years, with innumerable people and hours of labor


If before we could move, you or I had to do what has been done at

Rockingham, even if our present location were threatened and we were

offered a virtual Eden instead, we wouldn’t hesitate: we would sit

tight forever.

Since Rockingham is a state historic site owned and operated by the

State of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection, Division

of Parks and Forestry, it was necessary to work through the system.

First, just imagine having to go through the state’s bidding process

for moving, storage, and architectural services, and only after that,

having to pack all your possessions something like this:

"*"Take a household inventory, assigning a coded number to

every single object in the museum collection of 1200 pieces;

"*"Obtain a photograph of every object in the collection;

"*"Complete a 5 x 8-inch card for each piece of furniture,

each cup and saucer, each picture on the wall, and to it, affix a

copy of its photo;

"*"Attach its inventory number to each object; and be sure

the same number is entered into a computer software program, along

with a digitized photograph.

These procedures assure that Rockingham’s valuable contents are


in three ways: card, photo, and software. With the contents of the

house codified, everything can be prepared for months in storage.

Since all the furnishings are historically valuable, they must be

protected from the moving process itself, as well as from one another.


"*"Use specially-recommended furniture polish to clean and

moisturize every piece of old wooden furniture.

"*"Thoroughly wrap each piece of furniture separately, first

in acid-free tissue, then in "Kim-pak," a cellulose padding

material, covering even the feet of chairs and tables.

"*"Seal the padding with masking tape, which in turn holds

that object’s inventory bar code sticker.

"*"Wrap any silver objects in sulphur-free material after the

acid-free base layer, to prevent tarnishing.

"*"To hold each object safely, without touching or stacking,

construct 16 customized crates to hold individually-wrapped pieces

on two to four levels. As each crate is filled, make a manual list

matching the crate number with the bar coded items in it.

"*"Drill eight two-inch holes in every crate so the


atmosphere of both the truck and the storage facility can pass in

and out — but cover those holes with screening so winged and


creatures can’t enter.

"*"Finally, occupying two tractor trailers, Rockingham’s


are ready for the trip to storage in Poughkeepsie, New York.

One special feat of this operation was moving an old wooden

"kas," Dutch for a wardrobe or armoire, from the second floor

to the ground (see accompanying photo). The stairs wouldn’t work,

the windows were too small. The plan was to jockey the kas through

the second floor door onto the porch there and use a forklift to bring

it down. That was plan A. But the ground was too soft to support the

equipment. So, says Ted Peiffer, a residential consultant with


Transportation Systems and the Burlington-based firm’s project manager

for Rockingham, it was time for plan B. The moving crew secured long,

strong straps ("like seat belt material") around the


and it was lowered to the ground. Done.

Agreed? If you had to do all that, you would never move. But "the

history buffs are different from you and I." When Peggi Carlsen

began with the Rockingham site some nine years ago, she knew all this

was coming. It was part of her job — for all we know, a desirable

part. And so, along with the site’s array of programmatic activities

open to the public; and besides being ready to talk knowledgeably

about Rockingham and its furnishings and its period at the drop of

a national holiday; and on top of maintaining and managing the


while generally watching over the place, she was expected to use her

history and museum expertise to assure the safety of the collection

and facilitate its move.

Among the specialists Carlsen has worked with is Eric Holterman, of

Holt, Morgan and Russell Architects, Princeton, the firm contracted

by the state to design the whole new site and, in a three-phase


make it happen. Although he’s comfortable about how the 220,000-pound

mansion house will be lifted onto a flatbed — the modern beams

left under the house from previous moves will be supplemented with

new beams when the structure is jacked up — Holterman admits he’s

eager to see the actual move take place, necessitating as it will

moving some overhead wires along the route.

During my visit late last month, Carlsen was awaiting a visit from

an art conservator, contractually required to be involved with packing

the house’s art works — a couple large oil portraits and six


on glass. The latter, all looking seriously dilapidated, show heroic

and military figures, such as General James Wolfe. One of the


or curiosities, at Rockingham is a framed letter from Grover


in which he presents 13 hairs from George Washington’s head, equating

them with the 13 original states.

Prints, including some maps, had already been crated, and waited in

the one-time dining room. In spite of its windows, the room was far

from bright even at midday, prompting Carlsen’s comments about the

likelihood of Washington and his guests having their main meal about

now, rather than later, to allow for preparation, consumption, and

clean-up during daylight hours.

Carlsen’s readiness, not to say eagerness, to answer any question

fulsomely is the best proof of her dedication to her curator’s role.

She knows a lot, and she’s used to sharing it, sometimes giving the

impression of mentally living during Washington’s time at Rockingham,

and only visiting 2001. Given that perspective, her acceptance of

the ever-burgeoning quarry nearby is surprising. "It’s progress.

It’s part of the American story. They sell quarry stone, and for all

we know, we may have some of their material in the walkway right here

at Rockingham."

During a walk-around with Anne Wooley, the site’s volunteer publicist

who first visited the place 12 years ago and kept coming back, she

and Carlsen fell into conversation about what nighttime was like at

Rockingham two centuries ago. It would have been pitch black: no night

lights or street lights or any light except candles, and once they

were extinguished, that was usually it. Medicine bottles came in


shapes so anyone needing a dose during the night could distinguish

by bottle, and since most furniture was placed against the walls,

that facilitated walking about.

There was no indoor plumbing, of course; just chamber pots. And in

the short beds — did everyone sleep in fetal position? — ropes

supported the lumpy feather mattresses instead of wooden slats.


such reminders, it’s easy to look at Rockingham through our 2001 eyes

and assume that General Washington, the big mahof, would live in


there. Luxury, maybe, but not by our standards.

All by itself, the presence of a bootjack symbolizes the vast


between then and now, giving pause to those of us who might be caught

up in the historical romance of it all and impulsively exclaim,


I’d love to live here!" or words to that effect. Think about


muddy roads — where there were roads — and high, tight boots.

And a world before either Velcro or zippers. Hmmm. How to get those

boots off without muddy hands and clothes. Why, with the household

bootjack, of course. (Here, Peggi Carlsen demonstrates how she removes

the low boots she wears by left-toeing the heel of her right boot

and pulling her foot out. The boot jack works on the same principle,

without making permanent heel-and-toe scuff marks.)

When the Rockingham site re-opens, it will be easy to find: From


take Route 206 to 518, then through Rocky Hill to the intersection

at New Laurel Avenue (Route 603). Turn right, pass the trap rock


entrance on the left, and then on the right: General Washington’s

digs. Restored in many senses of the word — to a setting like

its original locale; to its front-facing-front once again —


a lot to be said for this move: It’s almost like going home.

And, hey, until that grand re-opening, General, you might try the

Route 1 corridor for comfortable accommodations in all price ranges.

The Rockingham Association, 108 County Road 518,


08540, 609-921-8835. Members’ group supports restoration and upkeep

of the historic site with donations and volunteers. Dues are $25 per

year and include a subscription to the newsletter, "The



General Washington’s Birthday Breakfast, Washington

Crossing Historic Park , Visitors Center, Route 32 and 532,


Crossing, 215-493-4076. General Washington, portrayed by James B.

Stinson Jr., will greet guests for a hearty birthday breakfast of

Virginia ham, eggs, Washinton Potatoes, cakes, breads, cherry tarts,

and birthday cake. Traditional music performed on Irish harp by Robert

Mouland. Reservations required, $16 adults; $7 children. Saturday,

February 17, 10 a.m.

George’s Birthday Party, Old Barracks Museum ,


Street, Trenton, 609-396-1776. A day-long celebration of George


on his 269th birthday. Dave Emerson gives a talk on "George


the Man" at 1 p.m., Richard Patterson speaks on "George


the General" at 2 p.m., and at 3 p.m. Jeff Masechak gives a talk

of "George Washington, the Myth." Colonial crafts for


President Washington will pose for pictures with visitors, who are

invited to stay for cake at 3 p.m. $6 adults; $3 students. Sunday,

February 18, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Washington’s Birthday Celebration, Johnson Ferry

House ,

Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, 609-737-2515. Celebration

features characters and activities of the late 18th century, with

craft and cooking demonstrations, colonial games and schooling, punch

and gingerbread. Donation goes toward construction of a reproduction

Colonial ferry boat, $5. Sunday, February 18, 1 to 4 p.m.

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