Summer weekends in New Jersey. If you live along or near any road that could be even remotely used for driving down to the shore, those weekends mean traffic. Lots and lots of traffic, as visitors from states near and far descend upon our 130 miles of seafront beaches. Add in a long holiday weekend, and we should honestly change our motto from “The Garden State” to “The Gridlock State.” What, then, are a couple of intrepid road-trippers to do?
Well, if the beach isn’t an option, fortunately there are still plenty of other fascinating sites to visit throughout the summer months. We mapped out three cool spots, each of which would avoid any of the major highways that head toward the shore, allowing us to enjoy cool experiences while avoiding the stop-and-go-and-stop-again traffic heading to the coast.
Come along with us, then, as we visit a farmers market in a former pottery factory, explore a 50-room mansion that was built four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, and visit a little-known cultural heritage center that deserves to be listed as a “must see” destination.
Three Historic Destinations in One Weekend
Over the long holiday weekend, we would be tackling three destinations: the Stangl Factory in Flemington, Liberty Hall Museum in Union, and the Danish Home of Edison. The Stangl Factory
On Saturday morning, we set off for the town of Flemington, heading west, away from the shore.
The Stangl Factory was once a pottery factory that dates back to 1814. Producing pottery from the red clay found nearby, the factor operated in this location until 1935 (via Stangl Factory).
In the early 20th century, Stangl began manufacturing dinnerware, and this location, no longer a factory, became a showroom, where customers could buy directly from the Stangl Company. It was one of the first “factory outlets” in America.
Although the factory is no longer in operation, the large brick kilns remain.
The factory is now home to an art gallery, a pottery studio, a restaurant, and a weekly farmers market! Open every Saturday from 9:00 am- 3:00 pm, the market sells products from local farmers and artisans.
I made a stop at Factory Fuel Co. Coffee House, located next to the Farmers Market. The shop serves coffee, espresso-based drinks, teas, and chais. I went with a delicious cup of brewed coffee. Add it to the list of places I’ll definitely return! As we were walking back to the Jeep, we heard the sound of a steam engine train. Grabbing my wife’s hand, I pulled her toward the noise, dashing through the parking lot, scurrying down a hill, before coming across this…
A coal-fired steam engine! The train is operated by the Black River & Western Railroad, a historic railroad association that operates steam engine trains in central New Jersey (via Black River & Western Railroad).
I have never seen a steam engine in operation, aside from on television or in movies. To try to capture some of the awe I felt watching this magnificent machine, I created a short video of the locomotive maneuvering the train station in preparation for carrying passengers on a trip:
#60 is a coal-fired steam locomotive, built in 1937, and spent its career serving the Great Western Railway in Colorado. The train has been operated by Black River since 1965, introducing new generations to the spectacle of steam-powered trains. Tickets for rides on this train are available throughout the summer – it is definitely on my “must do” list (via Black River & Western Railroad)! Once my inner child was satisfied, we set off for our next destination. Liberty Hall Museum
Our route to our next destination required us to merge onto the Garden State Parkway, one of the primary routes to the New Jersey shore. This is why I try my best to avoid heading to the beach on a weekend in the summer! Mercifully, we were only on the highway for one mile.
Our next stop was Liberty Hall Museum in Union, NJ, on the campus of Kean University (pronounced “Cane”). Keen-eyed readers should recognize The Blue House, a historic home (built in 1790) that was most famously the home of Mildred Barry Hughes, the first woman elected to the NJ State Senate. We stopped by in the winter, when Liberty Hall was closed to guests. This was our return attempt. The Blue House now operates as the museum’s office and gift shop. It was also where we checked in for our 1:00 pm guided tour.
The main attraction: Liberty Hall. Built in 1772 as a 14-room house, the house has expanded to its current state as a 50-room mansion.
Our tour began with a walk through the gardens. William Livingston, who would go on to become New Jersey’s first governor, planted the gardens and orchards before he ordered the construction of the house (via Liberty Hall Museum).
Our tour guide was patient as I kept walking away from the tour whenever something caught my eye to photograph.
The guide pointed out this horse chestnut tree in front of the house – it was planted by William Livingston with seeds he received from England over 240 years ago! As you can see from the supports that hold up the branches, much work has gone into keeping this old tree alive.
Livingston’s 14-room home was expanded by the Kean family, who purchased the property in 1811. Over the years, it was transformed into a 50-room mansion, and several rooms changed their role within the house. For instance, this room, which was once the library, became the dining room.
How the other half lives… does your house have a parlor where you can take your afternoon tea?
One of the numerous bedrooms in the home. Opulent is as good of a word as I can think to describe it. That said, a bedroom had a significantly different role before the 20th century. When trips to hospitals were rare, and doctors were more likely to come to your home than see you in their office, the bedroom is where children would be born, the ill would fight sickness, and where someone would be laid after they died. This bed saw the births of no fewer than nine children.
Our guide did not shy away from sharing with us one of the less positive aspects of Liberty Hall… the Livingston family were slaveholders. Slavery was legal in New Jersey until 1865, when it was abolished by the 13th Amendment. The room has a very low ceiling, no fireplace, and only a small window for ventilation. This would later become a child’s room, but was initially designed as lodging for people who were owned by the Livingston family to work in the estate (via nj.com).
We made our way to the basement, where the kitchen was located. Working in front of an open hearth would have been a hot, dangerous job.
The room I found the most fascinating – this small room, complete with an open hearth, pre-dates the house. It is the only surviving structure of a farmhouse that once stood on this site. Unfortunately, information about the previous building has been lost to history.
Also in the basement is the laundry room, and one of the strangest inventions I’ve come across in my travels – an antique steam dryer. Used for drying large linens like tablecloths, this steam dryer from the early 20th century would save the mansion’s servants valuable time preparing for one of the numerous parties the Kean family held on the property.
The basement also had this exhibit on the suffrage movement. Numerous women in the Kean family were connected to the push to secure voting rights for women. Interestingly, though, other women in the Kean family were ardently against giving women the right to vote.
Another exhibit was on the toys the family’s children owned. The Kean family were fantastic hoarders, keeping most of their possessions for posterity. As far as I can tell, this set of Lionel trains is from the late 1930s.
Ah, the 1950s! Want to train your children how to bomb their enemy into submission? Bombs Away has you covered.
The centerpiece of the toy exhibit is an enormous dollhouse that occupies quite a bit of floor space in the room. Check out the dining room of the dollhouse – such detail!
I’d bet these toy cars are worth a pretty penny. A quick search showed a similar Bell Telephone truck, produced by a company called Hubley, listing for around $150 on eBay.
In 2015, as the house was undergoing major renovation, a wall was broken through in the basement to reveal this wine cellar. Our guide theorized that the room was sealed up during Prohibition, to protect the contents of the room… and then forgotten. Some of the collection dates back to the earliest days of the United States, and provides physical evidence to the history of alcohol in this country.
Check out these bottles of Lenox Madeira wine – imported in 1796, bottled in 1798, and re-bottled in 1888. Owing to its high levels of sugar and high acidity, Madeira wine is legendary for its long life. According to our guide, another bottle of Madeira of a similar age was tested at the museum… and it was still drinkable! Alexander Hamilton was an aficionado of Madeira wine, and as I was preparing this post I came across this copy of a receipt sent to him by a Philadelphia wine merchant (via National Archives).
After ending our tour and saying our goodbyes to the guide, we decided to roam the gardens on our own, including a walk through the Serpentine Path.
With over 100 different species of trees and wooded plants, Liberty Hall was recently classified as a Level II Arboretum. The care that goes into maintaining these trees, many of them hundreds of years old, is astounding. This pear tree has been stabilized with concrete in its trunk!
We greatly enjoyed our time at Liberty Hall. It was an excellent way to dive into the history of New Jersey and the United States, seen through the home of some of the leading families of their day. Two thumbs up! The Danish Home of Edison
Our final weekend destination was to the Danish Home of Edison, where we would learn about the importance of Danish immigrants in this section of New Jersey. (and a note to my eagle-eyed readers… see if you can find my Accord hiding in the photo). Friends had invited my wife and I to join them on a tour of this unique historical spot.
We began our tour of the Danish Home when we met Paul, the museum director. Originally, the house was built as a retirement home for elderly immigrants from Denmark. The Danish Home has now transformed into a cultural center and museum, chronicling the lives and impact of the Danish immigrant community in both New Jersey, and the United States at large.
The last resident left in the late 1990s, and the museum kept one room as it would have appeared when occupied. Note the simplicity of the room – residents only used their rooms for sleep and prayer. Communal gathering places were where residents would have spent most of their days.
There are several exhibits on famous Danes who have made an impact on United States history and culture. Gutzon Borglum, a Danish sculptor, most famously designed Mt. Rushmore, the South Dakota monument to Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
This exhibit is dedicated to Danish folk dancing. Did you know that these dances were intended to be easy enough for anyone to learn (via Wikipedia)? As someone who was born with two left feet, that sounds like some dancing I could try!
Danish immigrants have long been involved with our nation’s wars, serving in every conflict since the Revolution. Christian Febiger served directly under General George Washington. For his actions aboard the USS Marblehead as his ship was taking direct fire during the Civil War, James Miller won the Medal of Honor. And William Knudsen, an executive at Ford, was directly tasked by President Roosevelt with overseeing the US military’s equipment procurement during WWII (via Wikipedia).
Perth Amboy, a city near Edison, was once home to a large, vibrant Danish community. Companies founded by Danish immigrants formed a significant portion of the city’s industrial base, including the Federal Seaboard Terra Cotta Corporation, which made objects from clay, including these World War I practice bombs, which were unearthed at an archeological dig. I was a bit alarmed at being so close to these munitions, until our guide reassured me that these were dummies, used only to train the earliest combat pilots how to drop bombs on a target from the air.
A small exhibit on the many goods created by manufacturers in Perth Amboy founded by Danish immigrants.
The museum was absolutely fascinating. It was some of the smallest items in the collection that caught my eye – such as these Danish postal stamps from the 1960s.
Leaving the museum, Paul next took us down a tree-lined path to a Danish tradition that is thousands of years old.
Members of the Danish community can be interred within this burial mound. A tradition that dates back to the Bronze Age (almost 5,000 years ago), over 86,000 burial mounds can be found in Denmark today (via Wild About Denmark).
I have driven past the Danish Home numerous times over the past few years, and had no idea what it was, or what kinds of treasures were hidden within its walls. For a small museum, it does a wonderful job of presenting a comprehensive view of Danish life in New Jersey, and the United States!
And what The Open Road Ahead post is complete without food? We joined our friends for lunch at The Cafe Paris, a small French-themed eatery in nearby Metuchen. The restaurant was established in the early 2000s by a French family who emigrated to the United States.
While my wife ordered a tasty salad topped with grilled shrimp, I went with a galette – a thin pancake made from buckwheat, wrapped around a savory filling. I had the Galette Exotique, filled with sausage, egg, cheese, and spicy peppers. It was delicious!
As good as the galette was, the high point of the meal was definitely my beverage choice! Cappuccino Liegios contains espresso with steamed milk, caramel, and chocolate. It was like dessert in a cup! Our meal over, we said our goodbyes to our friends and headed home. Wrapping Up, and Looking Ahead
In preparation for our next road trip, I gave the Accord an early summer cleanup. Despite being nine years old and having over 175,000 miles, it still shines up nicely.
All cleaned up… and somewhere to go! I’ll have a post sometime next week about our upcoming long drive to a familiar spot!
New Jersey has plenty of fun summertime options, even if you do not want to fight traffic to go down the shore! The Farmers Market at Stangl Factory is open every Saturday from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm, and is free to enter (although bring your wallet for any good shopping opportunities). Liberty Hall Museum is open to visit, and costs $14 for adults and $10 for children, seniors, and college students. Tours of the mansion run every hour from 10:00 am – 3:00 pm Wednesday through Sunday. The Danish House of Edison is open for tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or by appointment if you call in advance. Any of these spots can make a fun diversion during a summer afternoon!
Thanks, as always, for coming along on this journey down the open road ahead.
‘Til next time.