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Washington led July 4 celebration in this N.J. town. Work underway to save a piece of history.

NJ.com logo NJ.com 7/13/2022 Linda O’Brien, nj.com
The Metlar -Bodine House Museum in Piscataway on June 12, 2022. Alexandra Pais | For NJ Advance Media © Alexandra Pais | For/nj.com/TNS The Metlar -Bodine House Museum in Piscataway on June 12, 2022. Alexandra Pais | For NJ Advance Media

Independence Day will be celebrated this weekend from coast to coast with picnics, parties, parades, games, and fireworks.

The Fourth of July is celebrated in Piscataway Township much the way it is in other communities across the country. But there is one thing that separates this New Jersey town from all other towns across America on this holiday: t was here, in Piscataway, where Gen. George Washington gave the order for an official Fourth of July celebration to be held on July 4, 1778, affirming the date’s significance and setting the stage for what some consider to be the first national observance of the day.

The first gathering since Covid-19 at the Metlar -Bodine House Museum in Piscataway on June 12, 2022. Alexandra Pais | For NJ Advance Media © Alexandra Pais | For/nj.com/TNS The first gathering since Covid-19 at the Metlar -Bodine House Museum in Piscataway on June 12, 2022. Alexandra Pais | For NJ Advance Media

According to Metlar-Bodine House Museum executive director Junelynn Sadlowski, prior to 1778, there had been events commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, but they weren’t held specifically on July 4.

“In 1777 unofficial celebrations occurred on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th. This was the first official celebration of the 4th of July as declared in an order by General Washington,” she said. Commemorations held prior to 1778 were referred to by names such as Freedom Day, she said.

Now, township officials and historical advocates are working, with the help of a congressman, to preserve a piece of that history — the wall of the house where the celebration was held.

“The historic tale of the American Revolution has a pivotal chapter in Piscataway,” Mayor Brian C. Wahler said. “A holiday for all Americans was created by General Washington in our township and I am thrilled that this story will be told and retold for generations to come with the Ross Hall Wall.”

According to information provided by the Township of Piscataway and the Metlar-Bodine House Museum, here’s how it unfolded:

After the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, some 11,000 Continental Army soldiers rested along the banks of the Raritan River in Piscataway. Washington made his headquarters at a nearby mansion, Ross Hall. And, it was at Ross Hall where on July 3 Washington wrote:

“Tomorrow the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence will be celebrated by the firing of 13 pieces of cannon and a feu de joie (fire of joy) of the whole line … soldiers are to make the best appearance possible. A double allowance of rum will be served out.”

The township’s role in the historic event is explained in a Metlar-Bodine House Museum video: “From the portico of Ross Hall, Washington and his officers watched the troops parade over Landing Lane Bridge and form two lines almost one mile along Brunswick River Bank. At 5 p.m. a single cannon fired. They were amazed as one by one the 11,000 soldiers executed the running fire.

“The celebration was heard by the retreating British forces miles away at Sandy Hook. The feu de joie was followed by a rousing salute by the troops and Washington and his officers with glasses raised, toasted to ‘perpetual and undisturbed independence to the United States of America.’”

Afterward, Washington hosted a ball at Ross Hall. Approximately 100 guests attended, including the Marquis de Lafayette, Friedrich von Steuben and Alexander Hamilton.

The epicenter of the event

In 1740 Edward Antill built a “grand home” on the Raritan River, according to the Metlar-Bodine House Museum

Antill’s wife, Anna, was the daughter of Lewis Morris, who served as governor of New Jersey from 1738 until his death in 1746.

The Antills lived at the home until 1763, when it was sold to Dr. Alexander Ross and his wife, Sarah.

Alexander Ross died in 1775. And, in 1778, Patriot sympathizer Sarah Ross offered her home, Ross Hall, as command headquarters.

Ross Hall was damaged by fire in the late 1950s but Rutgers University professor and historian Richard McCormick urged that the one section of the house that remained intact — the fully paneled wall from the parlor where Washington wrote the order for the first national Fourth of July celebration — be saved.

McCormick’s advice was heeded. And, for good reason.

“A representative from the New Jersey Historic Trust said the Ross Hall Wall is on par with the Liberty Bell in terms of historic importance,” noted Sadlowski.

The wall was housed and exhibited at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark until the late 1990s, when it was offered to Piscataway and the Fellowship for Metlar House, the Metlar-Bodine House Museum’s nonprofit foundation.

According to information provided by Sadlowski, in 1999, the wall was considered expendable by the society, was deaccessioned and unless “adopted” was going to be discarded. “Of course, we came to its rescue,” she said. The wall was moved to Piscataway and put in storage while the museum campaigned for funds to build an addition to house the relic; the wall is too large to fit within Metlar-Bodine House Museum’s current structure.

In July 2003, the museum suffered a serious fire, temporarily shelving expansion plans. In the meantime, a consultant researched the 1778 event the wall represents. Analysis led to the wall’s designation as an “American Treasure” by the National Park Service and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

In 2019, ELY Inc. International Shipping and Installation Specialists transported the wall to conservators Heller Conservation Studios in Tennessee for safe keeping until the Metlar-Bodine House Museum expansion — designed by Connolly and Hickey of Cranford — is complete. ELY Inc. and Heller will manage the wall’s return and installation in the new “Forever the 4th” gallery at the Metlar-Bodine House Museum. It is hoped that construction on the expansion will start this year with dedication ceremonies tentatively slated for July 4, 2023.

Metlar-Bodine Museum celebrates Piscataway ‘From Indian Trail to Interstate’

The Metlar-Bodine House Museum serves as the historical and cultural museum for the 355-year-old Piscataway, one of the 50 oldest American communities.

The house was constructed in 1728 with several additions in the 19th century. The mission of the collecting museum is to “interpret the Raritan River Valley from prehistoric time to the present, utilizing transportation as the connecting theme.” Strategically, the area that offered a connection between New York and Philadelphia was significant for Gen. Washington. “From Indian Trail to Interstate” exhibits — presently consisting of more than 2,000 artifacts — are arranged in a timeline fashion throughout its first floor.

Last month, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. secured $500,000 for the Metlar-Bodine House Museum Historic Site Project in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment spending bill for Fiscal Year 2023.

The House is expected to vote on the underlying legislation in the coming months.

The funding will be used to complete the final phase of the extensive restoration project for the museum, including construction of the Forever the 4th gallery, which will feature not only the Ross Hall Wall, but other historic treasures as well.

“I’m looking forward to seeing this project move through the legislative process, and I can’t wait to visit the museum after the renovation is complete,” Pallone said.

The mayor, Wahler, said the township is grateful for the financial help. “All of our residents take pride in Piscataway being home to the First Fourth and will be looking forward to even more festive celebrations when this project is completed,” he said.

Sadlowski said the township and the fellowship for Metlar House have been waiting 22 years to give the Revolutionary War relic a home.

“With America’s 250th birthday in 2026, it is important for this incredible artifact to finally be on exhibit. These funds will make this happen.”

For more on the Metlar-Bodine House Museum and the Forever the 4th gallery, go to https://www.metlarbodinehousemuseum.org/. To donate, click here.

This article is part of “Unknown New Jersey,” an ongoing series that highlights interesting and little-known stories about our past, present, and future — all the unusual things that make our great state what it is. Got a story to pitch? Email it to local@njadvancemedia.com.

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