When the British marched through, she said 'no bread for you': Fight to save historic Revolutionary War farmhouse

Reporter
Yahoo News

SCOTCH PLAINS, N.J. — Less than 25 miles from the golf course in Bedminster, N.J., where historians will record that President Trump liked to spend his weekends when not in Florida, is another site of historic significance, a rundown farmhouse where, by local legend, a New Jersey woman defied British soldiers who came in search of food during the Revolutionary War.

The 18th century home in suburban New Jersey, which became a symbol of defiance against tyranny for its association with the brave woman, is in desperate need of repairs.

A fundraiser is underway in Scotch Plains, N.J., about 30 miles southwest of Manhattan, to renovate the farmhouse where patriot and baker Elizabeth Frazee, locally known as “Aunt Betty,” is said to have taken a stand against British troops when they appeared at her door.

You already know about Betsy Ross, Abigail Adams and Molly Pitcher, but these history buffs want to make sure people remember Frazee. She fed American militia during the Revolution, but, according to legend, refused to show deference to the British troops.

After the Battle of Short Hills in 1777, according to F.W. Ricord’s 19th century “History of Union County,” British Gen. Charles Cornwallis demanded that she hand over bread for his tired and hungry troops. To this she replied, “Sir, I give you this bread through fear, not in love.” Cornwallis plundered the home but told his soldiers to not “touch a single loaf,” and they marched on.

Elizabeth Frazee baked bread in the main room of the home. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)
Elizabeth Frazee baked bread in the main room of the home. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)

The farmstead became known among historians for this story. It has been standing for more than 270 years, and has been celebrated as an example of vernacular architecture from the 1700s. The local legend’s husband, Gershom Frazee, was a carpenter and very likely built the home himself between 1720 and 1740, influenced by the area’s early Dutch homes.

But the building is now rundown, and the surrounding land is overgrown and shabby.

Throughout the 20th century, the 6-acre property had a series of owners and was even the site of a zoo from the 1970s to 1996. It has been vacant since, landing on a list of New Jersey’s top 10 most endangered sites. The township took over the land through eminent domain in 1998 and removed all remnants of the zoo. The Rotary Club of Fanwood-Scotch Plains acquired the building and 1 acre surrounding it in 2005, when Rotary International asked its clubs to conduct a brick-and-mortar project to honor the organization’s centennial.

“It is rare to find a tiny farmhouse with a rare architectural style that has been preserved with 6 acres of property, and dates back to before the Revolutionary War,” Andy Calamaras, who is spearheading the effort for the Rotary Club, told Yahoo News. “It’s a historical gem. Most houses that have been restored were of the elite. This was a house that belonged to the common man.”

Based on primary documents, historians know that Frazee baked bread in that home and fed American troops in February 1777. Damage claims filed by Gershom Frazee and neighbors after the battle also show that British soldiers availed themselves to whatever they wanted in the home other than food.

A sign promoting the restoration of the historic Frazee House in Scotch Plains, N.J. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)
A sign promoting the restoration of the historic Frazee House in Scotch Plains, N.J. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)

But there are no surviving Revolution-era documents of her exchange with Cornwallis. It appears to have been preserved through word of mouth — possibly romanticized by proud Union County residents — before appearing in F.W. Ricord’s authoritative text from 1897, which led to the house’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

David Biermann, the president of the Historical Society of Scotch Plains and Fanwood, said he has spoken to the township’s former and current mayor, as well as the town’s administrator, about how important it is to preserve a colonial building that’s still standing in its original location. He thinks it could even be a tourist draw once the house is fully restored.

When asked why it’s important to preserve the home, Scotch Plains resident Bill McClintock, who is also involved in the Rotary’s Frazee project, said he’s most affected by the history of the house and the Frazee family.

“The story of Betty Frazee standing up to Lord Cornwallis is a great story. However, most people are totally unaware that British Gens. Cornwallis and Howe were in Scotch Plains during the Revolutionary War and that George Washington was watching the events from the Watchung Mountains nearby,” McClintock told Yahoo News.

He added that restoring one of the oldest structures in the area would enable a range of educational opportunities.

Stairs from the main room lead to a cellar that once had a stream running through it. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)
Stairs from the main room lead to a cellar that once had a stream running through it. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)

“Reconstructing the house in a historically correct way will allow us to educate many people not only about the Revolutionary War history, but also about farm life, home construction and carpentry in the 18th century,” McClintock said.

The Rotary Club’s plan is to turn the house and surrounding acre into an educational resource for the local community and a testament to New Jersey’s importance in the Revolutionary War. Calamaras said it needs $900,000 and has raised nearly $700,000. It has received $257,000 from the township’s current administration, $257,000 from the New Jersey Historic Trust and various donations from private citizens, Union County and other funds, he said.

The fenced-off, diamond-shaped property is bordered by roads on each side. The Frazee House has mostly been mothballed. It’s been largely gutted and is supported by a steel structure, but it’s safe for no more than one or two people to enter at a time. The building is not heated, and water is leaking in its basement. The initial fundraising will go toward exterior restoration.

“We’ve actually gone out to bid already. The bids are in place. If I can come up with the cash, we would actually start this spring,” Calamaras said.

The 5 acres that the township owns has been transformed into a passive, natural park and an active community garden.

You can learn more about contributing to the Frazee House restoration project by clicking here.

The local Rotary club is leasing 1 acre surrounding the Frazee House from Scotch Plains Township, which currently controls the other 5 acres. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)
The local Rotary club is leasing 1 acre surrounding the Frazee House from Scotch Plains Township, which currently controls the other 5 acres. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)
Interior scaffolding is currently supporting the structural integrity of the Frazee House. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)
Interior scaffolding is currently supporting the structural integrity of the Frazee House. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)
A rear view of the Frazee House in Scotch Plains, N.J. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)
A rear view of the Frazee House in Scotch Plains, N.J. (Photo: Michael Walsh/Yahoo News)

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