For what are you willing to sacrifice your life, and more thought provoking, the lives of your family?
We have considered, in horror, “Sophie’s Choice,” as well those who carried out the instructions of Hitler, and the decisions made by travelers on board the earliest ships headed for the new world, but what about the choices faced by the early residents of Hunterdon County?
It’s the underlying question the Rev. Andrew Paton, pastor at the Clinton Church of the Nazarene on Beaver Avenue in Annandale, asks himself and members of the guided tours he organizes to historically relevant places in Hunterdon.
Paton, who moved to New Jersey from South Africa in January 1997, has educated himself about Hunterdon’s historical activity during the years immediately preceding the Revolutionary War, and the roles played by the residents throughout. It was not just for love of history that he became so ensconced, he said, but “out of ignorance. What are they talking about?” he would wonder when a person would make reference to something that everyone else understood, but Paton had no clue about it.
Armed with curiosity, Paton began what became a two-year study to learn Hunterdon’s history in order to understand the current conversation, which became a labor of love. Now he’s the one who makes reference to instances unknown by many who live in Hunterdon. His response to their questions was to set up free guided tours to share his information, and to get a little insight into what the population of today believes still matters enough to die for.
The tour begins at the woods behind Paton’s church that give one an inkling of how Hunterdon looked in the 1700s.
“A squirrel could travel from here to Philly without ever touching the ground,” Paton said. As Beaver Avenue was the main road between New York and Easton, the Annandale area was part of the main thoroughfare, and with imagination, one can get a picture of what Hunterdon’s early settlers found —s ettlers who were farmers from Germany (Oldwick used to be “Germantown”), the Irish who were escaping deep poverty, British city people who were happy to feel the freedom of space, and the Scots who were deported to the U.S. as punishment, and who hated the king.
“Probably not wise for the king to have allowed the Scots to settle so closely to each other,” Paton said.
Not only was Beaver Avenue the main road; there was a gathering place at the time, which still stands today, where local people and travelers would share news and conversation. Jones Tavern was a hotbed of feeling against King George, and pamphlets written by Scottish Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon (who was president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University), a Founding Father from Princeton, found their way into the county and were distributed there. When the Declaration of Independence was first read in Hunterdon, it was from a balcony on the second floor of the tavern.
Jones Tavern is the first stop on the tour, and is followed by houses and/or businesses of local supporters of the American Revolution. Paton is quite knowledgeable and passionate about the era and the staggering effort made by the people of the county.
It is astonishing just how many edifices still stand, and are still a part of our daily lives so many years later. Even more astonishing is that many of us pass these sites on a daily basis without being aware of what passed within their walls. We know about Taylor-Wharton and the Clinton House, and there are many rumors that George Washington once slept at Reynolds Tavern, renamed Van Syckle Tavern in 1795, (“George Washington had to sleep at a lot of places,” Paton said with some amusement, noting that there is no support for the truth of that rumor). However, there are myriad other pieces of history to be shared, equally as exciting.
Out of his study of Hunterdon’s place in the Revolutionary War, there is one extraordinary question that Paton is still asking, both of himself and the tourists. As one considers the Robert Taylor home or the home of quarter-master Charles Stewart, or indeed the 600-acre Vought farm, “If you lived in this house with your family, and someone asked you to give it up, would you take the risk?”
These were decisions made by real people to support a war that no one thought could be won. Washington’s success rate was not high.
“This risk isn’t just losing your house, but being hung perhaps in a tree in sight of your front door, your children being taken as slaves, and your wife perhaps jailed or otherwise punished,” Paton said. He makes the point that men get the credit, but that the women, who did, for the most part, make decisions concerning the home, well could have been the final yay or nay. “What courage, what brave women they must have been,” he said.
The tours take about three hours and are held on Saturday mornings. Paton has two tours planned: one, at the end of May, is full, but a second one is planned for June 11. There is no cost for the tour. The group sometimes stops for lunch, not included. For more information, call Rev. Paton at 908-735-4887.