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The Van Veghten House, both a NJ State and National Historic Site, is a survivor. And a perfect example of how dedicated individuals can preserve and protect incredible national assets. We are one of five colonial era homes where Washington and his generals stayed during the second Middlebrook Encampment during the winter of 1778-1779. These homes are known as the Five Generals Houses.
Now a stately two story brick home, the Van Veghten House has stood on the north bank of the Raritan River for 300 years, since it's builder and first owner, Michael Van Veghten, bought acreage that had been part of the East Jersey Proprietorship and built a home., ca. 1720. The lower section on the left in the photo is this portion of this home. It still contains the original open hearth kitchen. His son, Derrick expanded the home for his growing family. Tradition says he used bricks used as ballast on the trading vessels that came to New Brunswick.
The house currently serves as the headquarters of the Somerset County Historical Society. It is situated at the back of an industrial park off county road 533, also known as Finderne Avenue. So it can't be seen from the road past the complex. Finding us is part of the adventure!
Michael Van Veghten settled in Somerset County in 1685. In 1694, he acquired 836 acres of land on the north side of the river. A prosperous Dutch farmer, he built a Dutch Reformed Church near the bridge over the Raritan that was known as Van Veghten Bridge. Michael's son, Derrick, inherited the property after his father's death and expanded it to meet the needs of his family. The glass in the windows of his addition, 12 over 12 panes, reflects his prosperity. The brickwork clearly shows the additions. In photos you can see the line created when the second story was added.
Revolutionary War Involvement
Derrick was kidnapped and held by the British for several days in 1776. The incident is recorded in exciting detail in the diary of the Hessian Captain, who managed it practically single-handed. He was serving under General Howe, who was stationed in New Brunswick .
The next year Derrick offered his property for the use of the Continental Army! It served as headquarters for Quartermaster Nathanael Greene during the Middlebrook Encampment in 1778-1779, when 10,000 Continental officers, troops, followers and their animals descended on the county. Portions of the Pennsylvania Continental troops under "Mad" Anthony Wayne encamped on Derrick's fields, because they were late getting to the site and there was no room for them in the Watchung hills with the other units. Their encampment encompassed the present town of Manville, during the winter layover. (There is an historic marker at the Manville library recording this event. And the town's current Camplain Street, is said to be a corruption of its original designation as Camp Lane.)
Much socialization occurred among the officers, their wives and their staff during this winter between Valley Forge and Morristown encampments. While in residence here, General Greene wrote a letter to his friend, Jeremiah Wadsworth, describing "a pretty little frisk" held in the house on March 17, 1779. Throughout the course of the evening, General Washington danced with Mrs. Greene "upwards of three hours without seting [sic] down". When the spring engagements began and the troops moved out, the Greene's presented Mrs. Van Veghten with a mahogany tea table, in appreciation of the Van Veghten hospitality. Sadly, the Society only has a picture of it.
But Revolutionary events didn't end at the house. In ensuing years British Lt. John Simcoe, during his notorious second raid, burned the Reformed Church Michael had built, and still later, French General Rochambeau and his troops marched past the back door on their journey to Yorktown, Va. As a result, the house is part of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail, which is under the National Park Service (NPS). This is a more than 700 mile route through 9 states. Look for the marker just before our driveway.
After Derrick Van Veghten's death in 1781, the land was divided between his 3 children. His son Michael received the portion with the house but didn't keep it long. So the good farm land and lovely home passed through several families in ensuing years. From the 1850's through the early 20th century, the house was renovated several times. Although evidence of alterations can be seen throughout the house ( for example the mantles in the fireplaces), the original wide pine planks still cover the floors of the second story. In 1897, a German family, the Meyers, acquired the house and property, which they farmed (for three generations!)
During World War I, the French government tried an experiment. Horses and mules being shipped to the front in Europe, would lay over at the farm and put to pasture before being sent overseas. Unfortunately, the first shipments were all sunk by u-boats and the project was dropped.
The property was purchased from the Bernhard Meyer family in 1934 by the Singer Company. For a time, the property was used as an employee recreation park. Good times at Singer's pavilion near the river are still spoken of by older Manville residents. Later, the land was sold for industrial development. Where once horses and sheep quietly grazed, roaring diesel trailer trucks now deliver to self-storage, manufacturing and county offices to the North and East of the house.
In the 1970's, the county considered making the former pastures to the south a sanitary landfill. But In 1971, the house, with one acre of land, was deeded to the Somerset County Historical Society by Singer Company and Mr. Stanley Rustic. The house was placed on the National Historic Register in 1979.
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd and its ensuing flooding engulfed the property causing serious damage. A marker on a tree near our parking lot shows the water was at least a foot above the ground level.
The story continues. The house was stabilized and restored to colonial era status in several steps between 2000 and 2012. Preservation funds came from the State administered by the Somerset County Historical and Cultural Commission.
Around this time, The Army Corp of Engineers worked on former pasture land to the south between the house and the river to create the Finderne Wetland Mitigation Project. Native grasses, trees, and flowers were planted. It now contains hiking trails and several fields for sports, and is considered a great site for birdwatching. The Historical Society sponsors walking tours through the area periodically.
In 2016, the grandson of one of the Society's trustees, created two museum rooms in the oldest section of the house for his Eagle Scout project. One room currently displays hand tools; the other Indian stone artifacts. In 2020, his brother conducted another Eagle Scout Project to restore the shed on the east end of the house. The 20th century "shed" was deconstructed, a slate floor was laid over the concrete patio, and cedar shakes replaced the asphalt shingles, among other things.
The site, along with the other Five General Houses, has an official geocache.
With help from the Native Plant Society of NJ, we removed 70 year old bushes and put in a garden of native plants on the west end of the house.
In September 2022, tropical storm Ida again flooded the area . Another marker shows the water level was even higher than Floyd! But the house still stands proud and we welcome visitors for tours and talks every Tuesday and the second Saturday of each month.
Visit and Be a Part of History!
Come and visit this amazing treasure. Walk the trails that once were pasture for those WWI horses and mules. Get a close up view of the colonial features of the house. Walk the same floors colonial heroes and heroines and plain ol' ordinary folk have. Imagine walking where the Lenape camped, or dancing with
Martha and George Washington
General Knox and his wife, Lucy
General Van Steuben
Alexander Hamilton and his future wife, Becky
General Nathanael Greene and his wife Caty
Light Horse Harry Lee (grandfather of Robert E Lee)
Lord Stirling and his wife
General Anthony Wayne
And it's all right here in Somerset County close to local restaurants in Manville and Somerville. Come and Visit!