Home sweet home
Aug 13, 2012 05:52AM ● Published by Community News Service
To look at the red brick structure at 63 Park St. in Bordentown City, one might not think about the history behind it.
Passersby might not even notice at a glance that the lower right section of the house isn’t even made of the red brick like the rest of the walls, or that just to the right of the front door, a vertical line depicts what was once the end of the house.
But what some might call imperfections actually tell the story of the nearly 300-year-old building, now the home of retired husband and wife John and Ellen Wehrman.
They’ve lived in the home for almost 40 years, and have renovated it to be a self-described cozy and comfortable living space.
The couple purchased the home in 1973, when the former Bordentown Military Institute properties were auctioned off after the school went bankrupt.
At the time of the purchase, there was no heating, plumbing or wiring.
“It was a mess,” John said. “My wife thought, ‘a little wallpaper and a little paint, and it will be fine.’ But we completely rebuilt the house on the inside.”
Even as the Wehrmans renovated the home, they wanted to make sure they kept the home’s charm. During the process, John uncovered where the original front staircase was and reinstalled it. But the home has a back staircase, too, which Ellen is partial to.
The structure had most recently been used as a boys’ dormitory for the BMI, which Ellen said is why the home has so many doors — each room’s entrance has a hinged door. At its height, the property had been the home of more than 12 boys.
But the history of the house stretches back much further than BMI’s use of it.
Built just before 1700, the building has had numerous noteworthy tenants. One of its most noteworthy owners was Joseph Hopkinson, the son of Francis Hopkinson.
Joseph Hopkinson was also known for writing the lyrics to the song, “Hail Columbia,” the unofficial national anthem of the U.S. before the “Star-Spangled Banner” was named the national anthem.
It was Hopkinson who expanded the size of the original home, which was first built by Thomas Farnsworth and left to his son, Amariah Farnsworth.
Over the years, the property was used as a school, a blacksmith shop, tavern and gun shop — the Wehrmans have even found small, round bullets in their home unlike the modern bullets used now.
The Wehrmans can go into great detail about not just their own house, but about the town itself. But the Hopkinson house wasn’t the first Bordentown City property the Wehrmans owned. The couple had originally moved to the city when they first got married in 1957.
In fact, their involvement in the community was what allowed the Wehrmans to get to know the 63 Park St. property well enough that they’d want to buy it.
While Ellen was involved with the historical society, she became a docent of the property and a tour guide of the neighboring Divine Word Seminary, once the site of Bonaparte’s estate.
John’s work in the Air Force eventually led the family to Washington D.C. in 1970, where he worked with the presidential squadron — even escorting the Apollo 15 crew on its goodwill tour through Europe — until 1973, when he retired from the Air Force. It was while the family was living in Washington that they drove up for the auction.
“We threw the kids in the car, came up for the auction,” John said. “And we already had an idea we were interested in buying, and the only house that we really wanted or thought we would want would be this house.”
Ellen said the historic nature of the house was what drew her to the property.
“It’s just got bags of character. Bags and bags of character,” Ellen said. “There’s a real sense of history in it, and it’s made for a very comfortable living.”
Ellen, a native of Scotland, spent many years teaching, including almost 40 years teaching in Bordentown.
Her passion for sharing knowledge seems not to have dwindled. In a drawer in the dining room is an abundance of documents: letters, photos, articles and documentations of Bordentown history.
It’s not uncommon for people to contact her about historical findings, which she’s quick to organize and include in the historical society’s records. Just recently, she was contacted by two women who had found numerous handwritten letters in the attic, some of which dated back to the Bonaparte era.
“I think there’s a sense that I won’t destroy it and I’ll make sure that my students will get it,” Ellen said. “Whether they like it or not, they get a big dose of Bordentown history.
“I’ve always been surrounded and always enjoyed history. The storied part of it just amazes me.”