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by Barbara J. Mitnick

Fig. 1(left): The Ford Mansion, 1774, George Washington’s headquarters, 1779–1780. Courtesy of National Park Service.
Fig. 2 (right): The Headquarters Museum, 1938. Designed by John Russell Pope (1874–1937). Courtesy of National Park Service.

As Henry A. Ford (1793–1872), a Morristown, New Jersey, lawyer approached the end of his life, he faced a dilemma. What was to become of his ancestral home (Fig. 1), the place that had served as George Washington's military headquarters during the Continental army's 1779–1780 encampment at Morristown? Built in 1774 by his grandfather, Jacob Ford, Jr. (1738–1777), owner of a local forge, iron mine, and powder mill, the venerable old Georgian-style house held little interest for Henry's surviving children.1 As a result, he was compelled to direct that the property be sold at public auction after his death.

Historic preservationists might expect to discover reports of public outrage at a plan to dispose of Washington's headquarters—with the 100th anniversary of the house approaching and the attendant risk of damage to its historic character—but public response was muted. When Henry A. Ford died in 1872, America's 1876 centennial celebration, which was to inspire the patriotism and nationalism that would support a movement to preserve the nation's historic sites, was still four years away. On the other hand, contemporary reporters did find the story newsworthy, one going so far as to declare that selling the house at auction was "a desecration, almost a sacrilege." Nevertheless, the auction firm in charge, Betts, Burnett and Co., was not concerned with preservation issues and simply proceeded to capitalize on the history of the "magnificent site…known as the headquarters of the late General Washington," to achieve the highest possible sale price.2

Fig. 3: Chamber used by General and Mrs. Washington, with the original furnishings owned by Jacob Ford, Jr. (1738–1777). Ford Mansion, Morristown National Historical Park. Courtesy of the National Park Service, photography by Bryan Allen.

Auction day, June 25, 1873, arrived. Those in attendance were treated to a display of patriotism provided by festooned flags, a portrait of Washington, and other historic artifacts. After the sale of individual building lots on the property, the house, together with the 253 by 535-foot lot on which it stood, was opened for bids. The successful purchasers were four men of political and military backgrounds (subsequently referred to as the “Founding Four”), who recognized the importance of the site and were united in their resolve to save the house for posterity. Ex-New Jersey Governor Theodore Randolph, William Van Vleck Lidgerwood, General Nathaniel Norris Halsted, and Hon. George A. Halsey purchased the estate for a total of $69,310.50, hoping (in vain), that the state of New Jersey would take it over "at cost."3

With the sale consummated, it was soon determined that an organization would be required to oversee the preservation and maintenance of the building and site. On March 20, 1874, The Washington Association of New Jersey was incorporated and on May 5, a board of trustees and slate of officers, which included the founding four, was elected. The following July, the association's newly created charter and by-laws established that the house be opened to the public free of charge. It also stated that "the object of this Association is to carry into effect the aim and intention of the purchasers of the property known as the ‘Washington headquarters,’…to memorialize George Washington; to commemorate the heroism and fortitude of the Continental Army; and to collect and preserve Revolutionary War documents, relics and other objects of interest connected to the Revolutionary War." To finance these activities, it was decided that stock would be issued for purchase by shareholders. The state legislature provided an annual appropriation and freed it from taxation.4

Membership in the association soon began to grow, and by 1887, after the roster had reached 241, a tradition of major addresses at stockholder’s gatherings began. The first annual Washington’s Birthday meeting was held in 1888. From that date until the present, scholars, authors, jurists, clergymen, and several nationally known public figures have been among the speakers, including, in 1903, Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University.

Fig. 4: Front parlor, detail, set for a formal function, with the original furnishings owned by Jacob Ford, Jr. (1738–1777). Ford Mansion, Morristown National Historical Park. Courtesy of the National Park Service, photography by Bryan Allen.

By 1931, when the Washington Association had privately maintained the headquarters for almost a half century, the federal government resolved to establish the Morristown National Historical Park. It was to be the nation's first national historical park. In addition to Washington’s first headquarters, the property included Jockey Hollow (the soldier encampment) and Fort Nonsense (the battlement foundation and upper redoubt). With the wholehearted approval of the association's trustees, President Hoover signed the legislation into law on March 3, 1933.5

After the establishment of the historical park, a new museum was designed by the famous architect John Russell Pope (1874– 1937) and completed in 1938 (Fig. 2), providing additional space to the already existing separate structure, Lafayette Hall, built in 1894. Known as the Headquarters Museum, Pope’s building contains an auditorium and a major library of Revolutionary war interest, that has attracted scholars from around the nation. It also provides a venue for an ever-growing collection and display of artifacts, including paintings, prints, and other historical materials numbering in the hundreds of thousands, which fall outside of the 1779–1780 time period of the headquarters itself.

Today, the Washington Association sponsors an array of public programs including scholarly conferences, receptions, and educational activities. The headquarters and adjoining properties are open for tours (Figs. 3, 4), and a permanent exhibition, War Comes to Morristown, is on view at the Headquarters Museum. In addition to an annual luncheon, an event devoted to the memory of Martha Washington is held each autumn. This year, a major fund-raising campaign to greatly expand the size and exhibition space of the Headquarters Museum building is underway. The future is bright and the mission of the Washington Association remains clear: to assist Morristown National Historical Park and to preserve the memory of George Washington, our nation's first and greatest president.

For information, call 973.539.2016, or visit www.wanj.org. The Morristown National Historic Park is open from 10:00am to 5:00pm, and is located at 30 Washington Place, Morristown, NJ 07960.

Barbara J. Mitnick, PhD., is Secretary of The Washington Association, and Adjunct Professor of American History Painting at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey.

1 Jacob Ford, Jr. died at the age of 39, just four days after George Washington established his first encampment at Morristown on January 6, 1777. Ford’s son Gabriel (1765–1849) continued to reside in the house until his death. Gabriel’s son, Henry A. Ford (no relation to Henry Ford of the motor company), had seven children. See James Elliot Lindsley, A Certain Splendid House (Morristown: The Washington Association of New Jersey, 2000), pp. 33–39, 41.

2 For a discussion of the sale and examples of various newspaper reports, see Lindsley, 38–46.

3 See Edmund D. Halsey, History of the Washington Association of New Jersey (Morristown: The Washington Association of New Jersey, 1891), the firstpublished history of the Association.

4 See By-Laws and Charter of the Washington Association of New Jersey (Morristown: The Morris Republican Book and Job Office, 1875).

5 Since 1933, the headquarters, Fort Nonsense, and Jockey Hollow have been administered by the National Park Service, along with the site of the New Jersey Brigade, which was identified by Isabel & Fred Bartenstien, who donated it to MHNP in 1969. The Association continues to act as an advisor and guardian to the MHNP in all aspects relating to this property, operations, exhibits, and finances.

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