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History

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The History of Bernards Township

Bernards Township has a rich and robust history. Here are some of the events that have occurred in our town:

  • The Rev. George Whitefield, English evangelist, preached to 3,000 people under the white oak tree of the Presbyterian Church, during the Great Awakening of 1740.

  • Lord Stirling (William Alexander) built his palatial estate, Stirling Manor, here.  Local people called it The Buildings, because of its size, the road called Building Lane.

  • Washington and Lafayette picnicked and colonial troops rested under the old oak tree in Basking Ridge Presbyterian Churchyard.

  • Young men attended a small private academy, entered the College of New Jersey and became prominent in State and National history.

  • Uniforms were sewn for the Northern soldiers during the Civil War and four years after the war, the Chief Surgeon of the Union Army built a home two blocks away.  Also, axles for the mess wagons onto the battlefields were made in a hub and spoke factory here.

  • Liberty Corner was a popular summer resort, with vacationers staying at local homesteads and dairy farms.  A carriage would meet guests at the Lyons depot.

  • Governor Woodrow Wilson made a speech on the village green in Basking Ridge prior to World War II.

  • Colonel John Jacob Astor IV donated stones to build the Methodist Church, 14 years before he perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

  • Samuel Owen of Newark, a pharmaceutical magnate, built his English Tudor mansion in 1912, now Township Hall.

The Lenni-Lenape Indians, a branch of the Delawares (part of the Algonquin Nation) were the first known inhabitants of the Bernards Township area.  Scattered throughout are traces of these people:  arrowheads, tomahawks, hearthstones, hammerheads and camp rubble, which indicate long occupation.  One of the most widely used Indian areas was near Madisonville Road--a major campsite was the present AT&T location on North Maple Avenue.  A burial ground is known to have existed on the east side of Childs Road on the hillside across from the Indian Graves Brook.

The area was purchased by John Harrison, agent of King James III of England in 1717, from Chief Nowenoik of the Lenapes, a real estate package of 3,000 acres for $50.  The remainder of the Township's land was bought later that year by William Penn.  Early settlers were Scotch, Irish and English.  Harrison's Purchase or Harrison's Neck was the property's designation.  In 1733 the name Basking Ridge first appeared in ecclesiastic records of the Presbyterian Church and is recorded as being derived from the fact that "the wild animals of the adjacent lowlands were accustomed to bask in the warm sun of this beautiful ridge."   Baskeridge and Baskenridge were commonly used.

By 1740 a list of settlers included names as Alward, Annin, Conkling, Cross, Dayton, and Lewis.  At the time of the American Revolution, as many as 100 men from Bernards answered the call to arms.  Revolutionary troops came from Bound Brook through Annin's Corner and Basking Ridge en route to Morristown.  During this time, a liberty pole was placed on the village green, with Annin's Corner renamed Liberty Corner.  Basking Ridge was thought to be a secure place from the British Army as it was only seven miles away from the center of Washington's army at Jockey Hollow. General Charles Lee, second in command, was captured by British forces at the Widow White's Tavern in December, 1776.  (This is at the corner of Colonial Drive and South Finley Avenue.)  A local street, Old Army Road, was so named because it was the path trod through the country from Jockey Hollow to the Vealtown Tavern in Bernardsville by American troops.

In 1750 a classical school, designed to prepare young men for college, was established in Basking Ridge by Dr. Samuel Kennedy, fourth pastor of the Presbyterian Church, and later run by his successor, Dr. Robert Finley.  The school, known as the Basking Ridge Classical School for almost 50 years, was conducted in the ministers' homes.  Through contributions and partly at Dr. Finley's expense, the Brick Academy was built in 1809.  Pupils came from many other states, as well as New Jersey; residents provided lodgings.  The Academy was known as having contributed more men "to the bench, the bar and the pulpit".  Students entered their junior year at the College of New Jersey (Princeton University).  Among the Academy students were Samuel Southard, governor of New Jersey, U.S. Senate president and acting vice-president under President Tyler; William Lewis Dayton, vice-presidential candidate with John C. Fremont in 1856, and President Lincoln's Minister to France during the Civil War; Robert Field Stockton, hero of the Mexican War; Theodore Frelinghuysen, U.S. Senator, vice-presidential candidate with Henry Clay in 1844 and  president of Rutgers College.

There are twelve Houses of Worship of nine denominations.  The Township has two historic districts:  Franklin Corners and Liberty Corner.  There are eight listings on the State and National Registers:  The Brick Academy, Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church, Van Dorn Mill, Coffee House Corners (Turner Homestead), Chimney Ash Farm (Alward Homestead), Lord Stirling Estate out-buildings, and the two historic districts.

Two transportation-related events changed Bernards Township.  In 1872 the railroad completed, opening the area to those who wished to live in the country and work in the metropolitan environment.  Almost 100 years later, construction of Route 287 and later Route 78, two Interstate Highways, made commuting much easier for those seeking to live in residential climate.

Liberty Corner, settled since 1722, still maintains its gentle rural atmosphere.  In the later part of the 19th Century it was famous for its summer resorts.