The older of only two remaining homes from the Colonial era New Jersey community, Raritan Landing
Peter Bodine was a leading merchant at Raritan Landing, one of the nation's earliest river-ports, located in the large 1666 land grant called "Piscataway." His small one room home, with sleeping loft and root cellar, was built in 1728 on a bluff along "The Great Road Up the Raritan" (today's River Road), about 1/4 mile from his warehouse. The busy commercial center survived numerous British incursions and several battles during the Revolutionary War, thriving until the early 19th century when it was overshadowed by New Brunswick, a boom town and county seat, boasting an interstate canal and railroad connection on the southwest side of the river. The Bodine House passed through a number of owners before it was expanded in the 1850s and named "Sunnyside" by George Knapp, a New Brunswick businessman. This Greek Revival addition, with its lovely front porch and circular attic window, and a Victorian style rehabilitation twenty years later, significantly improved the property. The entrepreneur George Metlar was a Central New Jersey real estate magnate who, by the late 1800s, owned thousands of acres in Piscataway. In 1890 he purchased Sunnyside allowing his farm manager, John Mason, to reside there. In 1914, George's son, John, inherited the house and one-third of his father's real estate holdings. John and his family moved in, his wife re-christening the home "Metlar House" when it became a trolley-stop for the light rail running along the River Road corridor. In the 1950s John sold Metlar House to John Newton, a Rutgers University professor. Dr. Newton appreciated the home's history and wrote the nomination that placed the site on the State and National Registers. In the mid-1970s The New Jersey Department of Transportation purchased the property, intending to use it for a Route 18 interchange. A hard-fought 1979 preservation effort spearheaded by the Fellowship for Metlar House and Piscataway Township saved the building, and it now serves as the community's Historical and Cultural Museum. During the next two and a half decades, as the Route 18 expansion proceeded, archaeological investigations in the River Road area confirmed the historical significance of Raritan Landing and documented Peter Bodine's contributions to the area's 18th century commercial vitality. It was decided that the site's name should reflect its 18th century owner as well as its 20th century nickname, and today it is called The Metlar-Bodine House.
In 2003, after nearly a quarter century in operation, the museum suffered a fire that destroyed one third of the building and more than a quarter of its collection of area artifacts. A $2.5 million restoration has saved one of the state's best examples of a New Jersey Vernacular style farmhouse; today, it is one of only two surviving structures from a vital 17th and 18th century port.
One of the nation's 50 oldest communities
Founded in 1666, Piscataway, New Jersey, is one of the nation's 50 oldest communities: in 2016 it will celebrate its 350th birthday. The original land grant was nearly 300 square miles, and included parts of Somerset County and more than half of Middlesex County. Piscataway stretched from the Woodbridge/Perth Amboy area as far south as Princeton's border and north and west to the Sourland Mountains. The Hulls, Dunhams and Suydams, pioneers from New Hampshire, first settled in Piscataway Town, near what is now Washington Avenue in Edison; but soon they chose larger pieces of property within the confines of the original purchase, to create plantations. Roads carved out of the wilderness, along what were once Native American trails, presented opportunities to build larger settlements, and within a few years the towns of New Brunswick, Plainfield, and Somerville were formed. They established their own governments and by the beginning of the 18th century were no longer part of Piscataway. What remained of the township was on the eastern side of the Raritan River. Before the American Revolution, Raritan Landing and New Market were important commercial centers serving the agricultural community. Crops from Central New Jersey's abundant farmlands were shipped from the Landing to the Caribbean and Europe, and New Market's grist mill provided an important service to area wheat farmers. The Raritan River Valley suffered greatly during the War for Independence as its inhabitants' sentiments were overwhelmingly anti-British. It endured troop movements, battles, British invasions and occupations. But it also was inspired by the visits of General George Washington and other important patriots: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Baron von Stuben and the Marquis de Lafayette. On July 4, 1778, Piscataway was the scene of the first official celebration of America's Independence (in 1777 the first anniversary was sporadically observed in the 13 colonies) when eleven thousand patriots were ordered by General Washington to line the banks of the Raritan and fire their rifles in an organized salute and were awarded with an extra ration of rum! The new nation soon embarked on building projects to improve its road system, connected important rivers and cities with canals and, in the industrial age, constructed railroads. All of this progress quickly came to Central New Jersey, a transportation "hub" between New York City and Philadelphia. Piscataway, including Raritan Landing, was eclipsed by New Brunswick when the Delaware and Raritan Canal linked the city to Philadelphia, and the railroads and major highways were routed along the north and south edges of the township.
These transportation improvements made the area a manufacturing mecca during the Civil War, bringing great prosperity to the region. Middlesex, Dunellen, South Plainfield, Edison, Metuchen and Highland Park formed along Piscataway's borders, but the heart of the township, land mostly owned by descendents of the original pioneers, remained primarily farmland well into the 20th century. Some parts of the township saw population growth during the early 1900s as a light rail system connected residents to larger cities and the jobs they offered. Eastern European and southern Black families and a group of Jewish "back to the land" devotees from Brooklyn, New York purchased plots of land. Mothers and children tended subsistence gardens and raised chickens, while the fathers took trolleys to work. Central New Jersey's excellent rail and road connections and Piscataway's large tracts of open space were critical during the Second World War when a part of the township became Camp Kilmer. The camp was the largest embarkation center in the United States for Europe bound troops. Area transportation links continued to expand and in the late 1950s an interstate road project linking upstate New York and northern New Jersey to Staten Island was designed. Route 287 ran through Piscataway, dissecting the township and providing the impetus for major industrial development. The rural nature of the town was changed dramatically as farms were sold to make way for housing projects and corporate offices. By the millennium, Piscataway, now a little less than 19 square miles, had a diverse population of 45,000 and is considered a suburb of New York City.
The Metlar-Bodine House has been collecting Central New Jersey memorabilia since Edith Mae Gullick Callard, a descendent of one of Piscataway's founders, donated a family treasure to the museum in 1980. Her heirloom clock, circa 1860s, had sat on the great room fireplace mantle of her 19th century farmhouse in Piscataway Township's historic Randolphville Road section for as long as Edith could remember. Soon after the gift was accepted, a collection policy was approved by the Fellowship which states; "offered objects must have a link to Piscataway Township or areas that were once part of the original 1666 land grant". Since then the collection has grown to over 1000 artifacts, one quarter of which are on permanent exhibit, the remainder stored with limited access for research purposes.
Historical study clearly shows that transportation has played a significant role in Central New Jersey's growth pattern. In the 1990's this fact helped establish the museum's mission: to interpret the development of the Raritan River Valley from prehistoric time to the present, utilizing transportation as the connecting theme. The historic site typifies the socioeconomic mores of the American experience and the collection provides a microcosm of impacts attributed to modes of travel on American history.
Artifacts on exhibit include: Native American tools - Central New Jersey was crisscrossed by trails through the wilderness and the Minisink followed the Raritan River along what is now River Road in Piscataway; A rare 18th century deed for land owned by Everet and Elizabeth Duyckinck - two of the areas earliest settlers; Revolutionary War era coins, needlework, and ammunition - the Raritan Valley is considered part of the "Crossroads of the American Revolution"; 17th through 20th century tools and farm equipment; Delaware and Raritan Canal memorabilia; a circa 1868 velocipede - the forerunner of the bicycle; a piece of the first Transatlantic cable - Cyrus Field, a descendant of one of Piscataway's original families was instrumental in the cables development; 18th through 20th century furniture and household items including a 1920s ice box - most locally produced or with area provenance; and ephemera like maps, photos, deeds, letters, and artwork, representing four centuries of the area's past.
In 2000 the museum received a significant artifact, the Ross Hall Wall - a piece of America's past that had witnessed one of the nation's most memorable occasions. In July 1778, George Washington and 11,000 patriots were camped along the Raritan River in Piscataway. General Washington's headquarters was at Ross Hall and it was there that he wrote the first order for the United States Army to celebrate the 4th of July - a tradition that continues to this day. The troops were ordered to march across the river on Landing Lane Bridge, line the banks of the Raritan in New Brunswick, and shoot their rifles down and up the line in the first organized salute to the nation's independence. They were then given an extra ration of rum and that evening the General had a party for officers (including Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Von Stuben) and their ladies at Ross Hall. The building was destroyed in the 1960s but because of its significance a parlor wall was saved and was exhibited at the New Jersey Historical Society until it was given to the Township and the Metlar-Bodine House. It is the intention to have the artifact recognized as an "American Treasure" and interpret it, and the incredible historical moment it represents, in a dedicated wing of the museum.
History of the Fellowship for Metlar House
In the summer of 1978 the Piscataway Historical and Heritage Society (PHHS) became aware that the Metlar House, located at 1281 River Road, in Piscataway and owned by the State of New Jersey, was being made "available" for lease to the town. The PHHS believed that they and the Township of Piscataway should be named the property's steward and the PHHS immediately began to lobby the Township to take control of the State and National Registered Historic Site, restore it, and create a historical and cultural museum.
The property had been purchased a few years earlier by the Department of Transportation when plans for NJ Route 18 to cross the Raritan River and continue up River Road in Piscataway to eventually meet Interstate 287, were tentatively approved. The home was in the middle of the designed Route 18/River Road interchange. By 1977 the project had hit some snags - funding issues and protests by local, state and national environmentalists and historic preservationists. The road's intended path up River Road - in prehistoric times a native American corridor, the Minisink Trail; in Colonial Times, The Great Road up the Raritan - seemed unreasonable since wetlands and historic sites would be severely impacted.
The NJ Department of Transportation (NJDOT) really wanted the Metlar House problem to go away. They suggested to Township officials that the oldest section of the Metlar House, built by Peter Bodine in 1728, be moved to East Jersey Olde Towne - a collection of Central NJ historic sites located about a mile up river - and the rest of the home be destroyed. East Jersey Old Towne had a well-established non-profit group and the NJDOT insisted the Piscataway Historical and Heritage Society - a relatively new organization with no track record - would be unable to care for the building. The PHHS set to work convincing township officials that they could build a consensus of constituents who felt the home should remain in place and intact and that this group, consisting of community based organizations and local residents, would be willing to take on the challenge to raise the necessary funds to save the building on its original property. The PHHS formed The Fellowship for Metlar House and by January 1979 the group boasted over 200 individual supporters and 15 member organizations. The Fellowship developed a long-range plan to make the home a historical and cultural museum and persuaded town leaders that there was enough community support to sustain use of the building as a museum. They became the driving force behind the preservation of one of the best examples of a New Jersey vernacular style building and the eldest of two remaining sites from the river port community of Raritan Landing. The Fellowship soon attracted the attention of the NJ State Historic Preservation Office and with help from its director and other people of influence Governor Brendon Byrne soon championed the cause. By April 1979 the keys to the Metlar House were given to the Fellowship. The charter signing ceremony was held in September of that year and the museum opened to the public for the first time.
The Township of Piscataway signed a 25-year lease with the State Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). The NJDOT still owned the property, but the NJDEP chose to administer the lease and keep the deed under its protection. During the 1980s the bridge across the Raritan finally was opened; but it took until 2004 to complete the connection - the highway now heading up what was once Metlars Lane and connecting to Route 287 via Hoes Lane.
The Fellowship for Metlar House incorporated as the foundation responsible for helping Piscataway Township care for the site and to run it as a museum. This group of volunteers now numbers over 350. The Township, by lease agreement with the state, takes care of all major restoration projects including insuring the museum's contents and the Fellowship raises the money for general operations. During the years when decisions were being made concerning the direction of Route 18 the Fellowship and Piscataway continued caring for the historic site and with a strong collection policy in place acquired, through gift or purchase, a large number of artifacts, all linked to the areas past. Part time professional staff designed exhibits, worked with architects and historians developing a mission, preservation and interpretation direction for the site, wrote grants that resulted in federal and state awards in 1993, 1995 and 2000 - 2003; encouraged the use of the Rutgers University Public History Internship Program; developed a popular poetry reading series and Brown Bag Supper Lecture Series; worked with local Scouting groups to establish the "Four Centuries of Kitchen Gardens"; and with the help of a wonderful young archaeologist operated, for three summers, an archaeology camp for teens. The Fellowship continued to raise funds ($50,000 per year) in a variety of creative ways including managing an antique and collectible shop in the museum's ground floor basement; holding an annual auction and dinner; celebrating Halloween with ghost tours through the historic home; instituting "Afternoon Teas" and Friday evening "Acoustic Cafes", and maintaining a volunteer on site each weekend to give tours. The goal was to become Central New Jersey's leading history museum.
In the early 1990s the Fellowship and museum staff appropriately decided to change the name of the collecting institution to better reflect its ownership history. The site is known today as the Metlar-Bodine House Museum, recognizing both Peter Bodine, 1728 builder of the seminal section of the home and the Metlars, late 19th early 20th century residents of the house, from whom the building took its locally popular moniker.
On July 17, 2003 the museum suffered a devastating fire that destroyed 1/3 of the building and a great deal of its collection - the remaining site and artifacts were harmed by smoke, heat and water. View this video that shows some of the damage from the fire
A year later the state dedicated the funds to begin the site's restoration. To date more then $2,500,000.00 has been appropriated by the state and township or raised by the Fellowship. This includes a $225,000 gift given by the Jeanette Development Corporation and Dennis and Dan Sweet.