The last time I was in Frenchtown was almost ten years ago on a snow day in January of 2011. Earlier in the week, I mentioned to Bhavna that the local businesses and residents decorate the downtown area for the holidays and the feeling is quite festive. Bhavna woke up early and drove with me to Frenchtown.
We parked in the lot on Race Street. A biting cold wind blew on my face as we walked toward Bridge Street. Some of the colourful storefronts looked familiar, and some appeared brand new. We meandered down Race Street and stopped at the Uhlerstown-Frenchtown Bridge for a few quick snaps before heading inside the Bridge Street Cafe. The cold was too much. We were ahead of the schedule I set, but I was hungry. Bhavna agreed that we should order lunch and then drive to Readington Brewery and Hop Farm to eat and try the beer.
I ordered a grilled cheese with onions and bacon and Bermuda seafood chowder, and Bhavna ordered a hummus wrap. While we waited for food, I chatted with a resident who mentioned that some of the businesses, like the barbershop, had closed and some new ones, like the record store, were more recent additions.
I stopped at the record store on the walk back to the car. Compared to the quantity of the selection at the Princeton Record Exchange, it’s disappointing, but I enjoy the layout and the ambience here.
Perhaps it's the season, but I thought about Hogmanay and the annual bonfire at the Brearley House in Lawrenceville for some reason. Because of the pandemic, the in-person Hogmanay celebrations and bonfires were cancelled in 2020 and 2021. But I wanted to see Brearley House, so I planned a weekend visit last week. I tried to walk from Port Mercer Canal House along the D&R Canal Trail to the Brearley House.
More inspiration hit, and soon I was ordering black pudding and rashers of bacon online. They arrived earlier this week, just in time for the weekend.
I read about some of Princeton University's Scottish origins and was not surprised to discover that John Witherspoon, for whom Witherspoon Street is named, was a Scot. Princeton University was initially called the College of New Jersey, which should not be confused with the current university of the same name.
I’m not sure that all Princetonians recognize that Witherspoon was a Scottish Presbyterian minister persuaded to leave his parish in Paisley, Scotland, to take up the presidency of the College of New Jersey in 1768. After the early deaths of the previous five presidents, it was Witherspoon alone who over the following 26 years transformed the struggling college into a major institution of American higher education. Even fewer of us, I suspect, realize that Nassau Hall itself was largely built with Scottish money.
In 1753–54, the Presbyterian Synod of New York, desperate for funds to establish its new college, dispatched Gilbert Tennant and Samuel Davies (the College’s fourth president) to the U.K. in search of financial help. In Scotland they found success.
On May 31, 1754, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland resolved that “a general collection” should be made “at all the church-doors in Scotland” on behalf of the College of New Jersey. As a result, the very substantial sum of £3200 was raised, and that money largely paid for the building of Nassau Hall.
Interesting trivia, John Witherspoon is related to the actor Reece Witherspoon.
Until 1697, every Governor of East Jersey was Scottish, and Scots maintained great influence in politics and business even after 1702, when East Jersey and West Jersey were merged to become a Royal Colony.
I found this quite interesting considering that information passed down from my mother and grandmother indicates that I am the descendant of [Scots] who became landowners and whalers in Bequia.
One young Bequian, William “Old Bill” Wallace Jr., son of the late, Scottish-born owner of the large, but by now defunct sugar plantation in Friendship, determined that whaling would be the key to the future of his island and its struggling population. He left home in 1855 at the age of 15 to work as an apprentice on a New England whaleship. He returned to his native island in the late 1860s with two New England whaleboats, the Iron Duke and the Nancy Dawson, ready to commence his whaling operation in Friendship Bay. A second station - set up by landowner Joseph "Pa" Ollivierre, son of a Bequia-based French cotton planter - swiftly followed, and whaling went on to become the premier economic activity on the island for many years to follow.
Brearley House and a walk along the D&R Canal
The universe was cooperating to make my Scottish-inspired day. The air was cold and damp, and the sky was 100% overcast. Grey skies. Check. Cold and damp. Check. I might as well be in Scotland.
Due to the rains, the bridge at Port Mercer was closed. I chose to reverse the order of my walk. I drove to the Brearley House, captured a few images, and started walking the Brearley Meadow Trail toward the D&R Canal.
The Brearley House was erected in 1761 on the Great Meadow on the farming and grazing land of the Leni-Lanapi People who lived in the area thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.
In fact, students of Lawrence Middle School in archaeological digs beginning in 1998 uncovered projectile points and other artifacts from the fields around the house.
Typical of many 181h century colonial houses, the Brearley House is built in the Georgian style English manor houses, albeit smaller.
The house changed ownership many times, undergoing alterations that damaged the home. In 1998 the Lawrence Historical Society, the Township of Lawrence, and the New Jersey Historic Trust funded an effort to restore the Brearley House to its 18th-century charm.
Restored by the noted Philadelphia firm of Theodore H. Nickels, the exterior and interior of the house look much as they did in 1761, or as much as modern research and technology and present day needs make feasible. An addition on the southeast corner houses modern kitchen and restroom facilities as well as handicap accessibility. The addition is similar in size and shape to other such features in 181h century houses in New Jersey, but no attempt has been made to suggest that it is anything but modern. The basement and attic house state of the art heating and air-conditioning, but ducts and electric wiring have been concealed as much as possible. Two rooms on the second floor have been fitted with a small efficiency kitchen and a bathroom to convert them into an apartment for a resident caretaker, who is deemed necessary on such a secluded site. The house is once more a one family home with a concerned, permanent owner - the citizenry of Lawrence Township. Tom Fawcett, who was so distressed that his boyhood home had not been maintained after his family sold it, would indeed be proud.
D&R Canal Trail
Over the next 150 years, the lack of natural drainage from the D & R Canal construction and the building of many primary and secondary roads caused the Great Meadow to become wooded wetlands. I met a man and a woman walking two dogs along the trail. After I snapped their photo, the man asked what I was up to, and I explained how the cancellation of the Hogmanay celebrations had inspired my Scottish breakfast, and the weather for the photo walk agreed with the theme. Guess what? The man is from Scotland.
Port Mercer Canal House
After about thirty minutes of brisk walking, I arrived at the The Port Mercer Canal House. As I mentioned earlier, the bridge over the canal was closed. The D&R Canal, the Port Mercer Canal House and the Port Mercer area are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are part of a New Jersey State Park.
The Port Mercer Canal House was built in the 1830's next to a swing bridge over the Delaware and Raritan Canal to house the bridgetender and his family. The D&R Canal provided a safe and short waterway from Philadelphia to New York City from its opening in 1834 until 1932.
Subconsciously I had also planned to attend the soft opening of Belle Mara Spirits, right next door to Flounder Brewing. The head distiller and co-founder, Camden Winkelstein, was the head distiller at Sourland Mountain Spirits during the first few months of 2015. I attended that opening and the tour at Sourland Mountain Spirits back then and was impressed when I learned that Camden had recently married and then went off to Scotland to earn a Masters in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
We are a different kind of distillery with a unique approach to making spirits that blends traditional production techniques from Scotland with distinctly American innovations.
The word bellemara roughly translates to “beauty of the sea”, which is an odd name to assign to something about an hour from the ocean, but Camden has his reasons.
Our Founder and Head Distiller, Camden, had first-hand experience with the sea during his years in the Navy. He dreamed of how he wanted to create something that captured the calm and peaceful feeling that we all get when staring out over the ocean and the seed for Bellemara was planted.
Currently, Belle Mara is distilling a single malt spirit only while hoping to bring a gin and Scotch to market.
I walked around Frenchtown, New Jersey today with a group of photogs from photographer Michael Downey’s meet-up. After about an hour outside my hands were cold so I stopped in at the nearest café. I counted about five on my walk around. I stopped in at the Bridge Café which just happens to serve Small World coffee.
Random fact: Elizabeth Gilbert author of Eat, Pray, Love was born in Frenchtown.