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Morristown’s National Historical Park Contradicts the Usual Neglect of Our Heritage

By Walker Joyce

This column was born out of frustration over New Jersey’s notorious treatment of its rich history. Since its days as a colony, NJ has been home to inventors and innovators, seismic events, great achievements and towering leaders.

Its role in the American Revolution is as rich as anything that happened in New England, Virginia or Pennsylvania, but unlike those places which have preserved and promoted their legacies, NJ has routinely ignored and even destroyed fabled sites, while ceding tourists and their dollars to our neighbors.

An exception is the wonderful collection of locales in Morristown, which were preserved in the last century and amalgamated into one corporate entity managed by the National Park Service. I refer to Jockey Hollow, The Ford Mansion and Ft. Nonsense, known since the 1930s as America’s first Historic Park.

Most fitting, as it’s arguable that these hallowed grounds are where the fledgling nation survived the fight for Independence. Everyone knows about Valley Forge, but hardly anyone—even here—can describe what went on in our most historic city in the winter of 1779-80, the worst of the century.

What Washington and his army endured in Morristown made Valley Forge seem like a church picnic.

The troops huddled in primitive huts in the hills of the Hollow, while their General enjoyed relative comfort in the stately home. To prepare against a British invasion that would’ve ended the war, he had them construct a redoubt on the tallest hill. Many thought this was mere busy work to distract the men, hence the derogatory name.

But anyone who has gazed across the landscape from that lofty perch can instantly grasp its strategic value. Had the redcoats attacked, Henry Knox’s artillery would’ve rained hell on them.

There were more than twenty major storms that winter, burying the roads in huge drifts. Supplies couldn’t get through, which almost starved the soldiers to death. Many were nearly naked and barefoot. They hadn’t been paid in months, and disease and dissention spread through the camp. A mutiny was put down, and there was even a court-martial of Benedict Arnold, which would lead directly to his treason.

Yet through Washington’s cunning and leadership, the army—and the Cause—endured.

We have a handful of visionary patriots to thank for preserving this history.

In 1873 the Ford Mansion was put up for auction. It was a dilapidated shell of Washington’s fabled headquarters, and odds were that a new owner would’ve razed it and built a new home.

Blessedly, former Governor Theodore Randolph, William Van Vleck Lidgerwood, Nathaniel Norris Halsted and George Halsey stepped forward and bought it. This “Founding Four” wanted to keep the mansion as a tribute to Washington and his intrepid troops.

(Today, of course, they would’ve been out-bid by a greedy developer who would’ve erected a hundred ugly condominiums.)

A year later, The Washington Association was chartered to oversee the restoration and preservation. It continues its mission today.

The Ford family donated some of the furniture Washington used, and later Lloyd Waddell Smith, a former president of the Association, purchased the Hollow and willed it and his personal collection of over 42,000 artifacts to the caretakers.

The acquisition was completed when Clyde Potts, a Morristown mayor, bought the Ft. Nonsense real estate.

In 1933, Congress formally created the Park, the nation’s first such historic reservation. A museum was constructed behind the mansion.

If only we had many other examples of such thoughtful preservation.