BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Bridgewater Township has gotten back some of its most historic land, to preserve it for generations to come.
The D&R Greenway Land Trust non-profit organization bequeathed the township 36 acres of land on Steele Gap Road at the Bridgewater Township Council meeting Feb. 27. The property dates back over 250 years, to the late 1700s and the days of George Washington and the American Revolution.
The site was known in local annals as the Wemple Estate, and was also the location of the Steele Tavern, according to the writings of Washington.
“This important Revolutionary War site was preserved thanks to a collaboration among residents, the D&R Greenway and the Crossroads of the American Revolution, Somerset County and Bridgewater Township,” said D&R Greenway CEO Linda Mead in a release. “As the nation approaches its 250th anniversary, Bridgewater has a new opportunity to tell its own patriotic story.”
Included in the gift was a color painting of the Steele Gap property by artist James Fiorentino, also the vice chairman of D&R Greenway. The painting is bordered by black-and-white drawings of both the Betsy Ross American flag and General Washington himself.
The organization also presented a four-minute video called “Land of Life” that outlined the efforts made to preserve the Wemple property, a video that Mead asked township officials to share.
Mead then thanked the town council for its efforts, along with retired township attorney William Savo.
“It’s your community, your property and you worked closely with us,” she said. “Thank you all for being a part of this.”
Mead also recognized all those who had made a personal commitment, including the township, county, state, other nonprofits and citizens in the community who put up funds and made donations to preserve the property.
Also mentioned was the cooperative partnership involving the Washington-Rochambeau National Trail, a carriage trail that was used during the Revolution.
The partnership was initiated by World War II veteran Bob Vaucher, 101, using actual documents signed by Washington. French general and American ally Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, rested his troops in the area in the late 18th century, prior to the final battles in America’s war for independence.
Steele Gap Road residents David Stempien and Brendan Burns also assisted in the efforts to preserve the Wemple Estate. Both appeared in the video, along with Burns’ daughter, Jillian, who collected a petition of over 400 signatures to save the property back when she was a fourth-grade student at Adamsville Primary School.
Stempien said the initiative to preserve the Wemple property started when Burns approached him about the Washington-Rochambeau National Trail.
“So began our quest,” said Stempien, who added he is proud to have been a part of the effort.
He pointed out that in 1776, Washington commanded 1,000 continental troops in the area, along with 1,000 militia members.
“It was a wonderful learning experience,” said Burns, who also thanked Mead for her guidance. “It will be here in perpetuity.”
Stempien then thanked Bridgewater councilman Allen Kurdyla, as the liaison to the Open Space Advisory Committee. He said that without the efforts of Kurdyla and the committee on the Wemple property, no one would have been celebrating anything before the council that evening.
Mead thanked Somerset County Freeholder Brian Gallagher for his support, along with Susan Kaufmann and Laura Szwak of the Trenton-based group Crossroads of the American Revolution, with Szwak having raised significant financial contributions.
“I would like to thank D&R Greenway Land Trust, Crossroads of the American Revolution, my partners in the township and county governing bodies and our dedicated group of residents who took this project to fruition,” said Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench in a prepared statement. “This land will now be preserved for all future generations of Bridgewater residents to enjoy. We will hang the painting of the property, that was gifted to the township, proudly in the halls of our building.”
Mead also said that D&R Greenway has preserved almost 21,000 acres of land in New Jersey since the firm was founded in 1989, and that the Wemple property marked the 303rd property the organization had closed on.
Mead worked with former property owner Steven Lang, who had originally prepared the site for the construction of 18 homes, but then later agreed to preserve the area instead. Several veterans, led by William Fosina, region president of the Air Force Association, read a citation regarding Fiorentino’s painting, which will hang in honor of Vaucher, who will also be feted at an event in May.
Vaucher, a retired U.S. bomber pilot of more than 100 combat missions, who also flew the lead plane in the American flyover of Japan’s World War II surrender, took the podium to describe how he had gotten involved with the Wemple project years ago.
“I started helping out with the property long before it became public,” he said. “The Wemples wanted to preserve it and offered it to the township, but they wouldn’t buy it.”
The property was formerly owned by the late John Wemple, who willed the property to his nieces and nephews after his death, and maintained to his neighbors that he never wanted to see the land developed. Wemple made that stipulation part of his will, but it was overturned by the Superior Court of New Jersey in 2005.
The family then sold the property to Lang, who brought the application to the planning board regarding the building of homes.
Lang had promised that if the residents could raise $1.9 million, he would turn the land over to the township for open space, instead of it being developed.
“That’s when the local fight started,” Voucher said. “(Mr.) Burns and my friend David got involved, and they did some job.”
He spoke of how several agencies had also gotten involved, to help raise $100,000 of public money, and how Stempien had helped to get it done by also raising funds for the preservation of the property.
The Bridgewater Township Council voted unanimously in August 2018 to allow for the purchase of about 31 acres of land – known as 440 Foothill Road, Twin Oaks Road, and 501 Steele Gap Road – from Bridgewater Estates, LLC, for the price of $1,925,000.
The purchase was primarily facilitated by $1,150,000 from the township’s Open Space Trust Fund. A total of $250,000 was funded by Somerset County, along with $250,000 from the Cross Roads of the American Revolution and $175,000 by the D&R Greenway Land Trust.
There was also a charitable donation of about 1.319 acres, and the township taking title, subject to roll back taxes in the approximate amount of $100,000.
“We were able to consummate a deal with the township, and we all own it now,” said Vaucher. “We own it.”