There is nothing quite like a three day weekend stretching before a family with no sporting commitments, holiday festivities, or major home projects to be addressed. This past weekend afforded an opportunity to add a little something extra to the docket. We settled on an outing to a not-too-distant historic site that would serve the dual purpose of getting us outside and slipping in an American history lesson that had roots right here in New Jersey.
We selected Jockey Hollow and Washington Headquarters Museum at the Morristown National Historical Park for our outing, having heard that it offered some decent light hiking for kids, and that it featured a bit of American Revolutionary history. The destination highlights Morristown's critical strategic role in providing a place of respite and regrouping for Gen. George Washington during two devastating winters of the American Revolutionary War, the winters of 1777 and 1179-1780.
The kids who have, in the last year, become obsessed with "olden days" as well as "ancient times" (a trip to Egypt and Rome, however, is not in the 2010 travel budget) were immediately intrigued with the notion of visiting a spot where Gen. Washington had set up military encampments. The kids would have an opportunity to learn more about their beloved "olden days" as well as some military history, and I was going to brush up on New Jersey's role in the Revolutionary War, not one of my foremost areas of expertise. Our journey began with a visit to the thoroughly charming Washington Headquarters Museum, which provided just enough information to pique the kids' interest in the upcoming walking portion of our expedition.
The museum featured a room on the main floor full of artifacts and bits of history relevant to the time as well as select personal effects said to belong to Washington. The kids were amazed to see representation of some of the games we have in our own home on display, e.g. marbles, dominoes and backgammon. The room was filled with articles of daily life such as furnishings, delicate clothes, an array of beautiful utensils, various musical instruments, and a spinning wheel, to name a few. A chilling item described simply as the "Breast Exhauster" caught my eye and provided some amusement. This 18th century mini-torture device, a cruel precursor to today's nursing pump made me grateful my reproductive years were firmly planted in the 21st century.
Moving into the lower level of the museum we found a boon for bibliophiles and history aficionados: a lovely rare book room. Among the items featured in this trove were relevant transcripts of the day and some of Washington's writings including what appeared to be a last will. Every article is so well preserved and the handwriting so beautiful, one is really taken back in time. The boys were intrigued by the items even if they did not quite grasp what they were seeing. It was a room which provided a substantial case against the advent of the Kindle. Can you just see kids of the future on a museum trip looking at a little piece of plastic in a glass case that contains the whole of 20th century literature?
Heading back up to the museum's main level, we caught about 15 minutes of an historical video that runs on a loop and details some of the relevant Revolutionary War events that transpired in the Morristown area. My husband, incredulous at our sons' rapt attention, leaned over and asked, "Can you believe they're watching this?" When I glanced over at my Nickelodeon-loving sons and saw their absorbed faces, I briefly indulged myself that I had future David McCulloughs under my charge. I soon realized that they thought that they were watching actual footage of wartime preparations. The kids happily ensconced in the War "footage," it was up to us to get things moving. After a brief visit to the gift shop, stocked with educational and decorative items for any little history buff, we learned that we had a short 5 mile drive to get over to Jockey Hollow for the second leg of our tour.
The soldier huts, which provided shelter for many in those two critical wartime winters, were our next destination. This series of log huts, all recreations except for the original hearths around which they were built, offered another glimpse into the lives of the brave soldiers who served under Washington. We scaled a modest sized hill to approach the huts, and our sons were delighted to find one component of the accommodations that looked familiar: bunk beds. The huts offered further evidence why we as a society are doomed to a life of indulgence and dissipation. I have eschewed some of the more luxurious creature comforts that have become common place in our times, but central heating, draft-free living and soft bedding have become a bit of an addiction. It would be hard to imagine a winter in New Jersey spent sleeping in a drafty log cabin atop a wooden board with a bit of hay for a mattress and a light cotton blanket to get you through the evenings. May I never complain about my ever increasing PSE&G bill again.
After conquering the log huts, a tribute to the remarkable fortitude of some of history's heartiest and most courageous soldiers, we undertook the walking portion of our tour. We set out on foot to imagine the planning, the preparation and bustling activity that must have taken place on that tract of land while Washington's men prepared to survive the area's worst winter on record. We traveled lightly that day, with just a small back pack containing a bit of water and a few rations. The kids also brought along magnifying glasses, binoculars, a compass and walkie talkies which would come in very handy as the trail exploration grew wearying for them. Decent footwear for the excursion is recommended as well.
The Jockey Hollow trails of Morristown National Historical Park are vast and impressive featuring 27 miles of foot and horse paths. It's a beautiful spot for quiet reflection, and it was a welcome respite from disputes over Lego's and the light saber battles that I would have been enduring at home. While my husband initially questioned the wisdom of tossing the walkie talkies into the bag, they justified their presence about a half hour into the walk when our six year old queried if we were "near the end yet?" We encouraged the kids to imagine that they were soldiers of the era on an important mission, and also told them to keep an eye out for military artifacts that may have gotten left behind. Utilizing their compass for direction, binoculars to scout potential enemies approaching, and magnifying glasses to examine clues on the trail, they lost themselves in another time and place.
We rounded out the expedition with a visit to the 18th century Wick House at Jockey Hollow, a still standing homestead previously occupied by Henry and Mary Wick that provided essential shelter and an outpost for officers who were serving under Gen. Washington. The house is incredible and so well preserved. Once again, the kids were amused by some of the items that would have been relevant to children of that day, such as the yolk that would have gone over their necks to carry buckets of water from the well outside to the house. Perhaps my six year old would not be requesting six refills on his water at every meal if this practice were still employed. The little porcelain chamber pots placed at the foot of each bed elicited gales of laughter from my five year old. Our bespectacled host, in period regalia, kindly lit a fire in the front "keeping" room where most of the action would have taken place and all meals would have been prepared. She was happy to answer questions from the adults and children, and was incredibly well informed on her subject matter, clearly possessing a passion for what she was doing.
We thought we'd wrap up the day with the family's maiden trip to a veritable culinary institution: Friendly's restaurant. In a parallel universe, I should probably be caned for waiting this long to take my kids to such a happy place, and it's certainly a lot less expensive than a trip to Disneyworld. But part of our parental strategy has been to ever-so-slowly increase the kids' exposure to things that will produce instant euphoria. By raising the stakes incrementally we avoid the jaded effect of making the children think that these are regular things that regular people do all the time. The kids thought they had found utopia. Any restaurant that features full color pictures depicting the meal you will be receiving with an additional picture chart of the dessert options included as part of your meal becomes instantly immortalized in the mind of a five or six year old. Everyone tucked into their well deserved meals, and both boys declared Friendly's their favorite restaurant. "I want to live here!" my five-year-old cheerfully added, as he devoured every last bite of macaroni and cheese, a dish he has consistently spurned in his own home.
By the end of the day, the kids rather than being strung out and cranky as has happened so many times when we have spent a lot more money for a lot more "entertainment," were cheerful, chatty, and happy to recount their favorite parts of the trip. A narrow call with a hawk that literally swooped in front of our windshield with an early dinner clenched in its talons amazed us all, and provided a dramatic bookend to a day marked by a little bit of history a little bit of adventure, and a lot of memories for all of us.
To learn more or plan your trip, go here.
Fanwood mom Deirdre Coolidge is a regular contributor to Patch. Look for her columns here each week.