Dig reveals Revoluntionary War era mansion's history
Aug 05, 2013 07:38AM, Published by Community News Service, Categories: Community
White Hill Mansion was in use until 1992, when it was left unoccupied and eventually fell into disrepair. Despite a number of necessary upgrades, the house was determined to still be structurally sound. (Staff photo by Lexie Yearly.)
Archeologist discovers hidden tunnel at historic mansion.
By Lexie Yearly
Nestled behind the thick foliage of summer trees and distanced from the road by a sprawling field, the historic White Hill Mansion sits on a bluff overlooking the Delaware River.
The Fieldsboro estate has been the site of significant U.S. and New Jersey history, a Hessian encampment, the home of a famed inventor, a restaurant, a brothel and a Lenni Lenape settlement.
Since 2004, Loretta Kelly has made it her mission to restore the now vacant building and share its storied past with the community.
“This is just so quaint and so charming, and it’s amazing that this little tiny town with 500 people has this major part of the Revolutionary War smack in the middle of it, and nobody even knew it,” Kelly said.
On July 6, a six-week archeological dig was completed on the mansion’s property, led by Monmouth University professor Richard Veit and adjunct professor Michael Gall as part of a field school for graduate and undergraduate students. It was the second dig performed on the property, and it revealed nearly 5,000 artifacts, a building foundation, and a hidden tunnel.
The mansion’s history dates back to before the Revolutionary War, when Robert Field and his wife, Mary, bought 300 acres of land on White Hill and built a one-room house with a loft upstairs in 1722.
The landscape’s name referenced the apple orchard that covered the area, which when in bloom was an easily seen “white hill” from the river.
Field’s son, also Robert, inherited the land after his father’s death and built a larger house next to his father’s in 1760. He married Mary Peel in 1765.
Robert was a wealthy lawyer, and ran a number of businesses on the property, including a farm, apple orchard, fishery and distillery. However, he drowned in the river in 1776, leaving Mary to run the estate with her three young children.
During the Revolutionary War, Mary remained neutral. She hosted Captain Tom Houston of the American Navy and his officers for dinner, and during the Hessian occupation of Bordentown, Mary allowed her property to be made into the Hessians’ headquarters.
Mary’s son Robert connected the buildings on the property to create a single mansion in 1800. But he lost the property just four years later due to mismanagement, after he spent much of the family’s money on entertainment and expensive possessions.
In the 1800s, the mansion was home to a number of significant tenants, such as David Bruce, who invented several typeface styles, including an early version of Times Roman; Senator Isaac Field; and Joseph Mayor, who with his brother, James, developed many advances in pottery and secured seven patents.
Archibald Crossley, born in 1897, was likely the last person born at the mansion; he would go on to become a famous pollster and develop many techniques used in modern polling.
In 1922, Heinrick and Katrina Glenk bought the mansion and opened it as an upscale restaurant. The Glenks sold the restaurant in 1972, and until 1992, the restaurant operated under several different owners.
White Hill Mansion was sold to Stepan Chemical Company in 1992, and the house was left untouched, quickly falling into disrepair. Stepan had considered converting the building into offices, but decided against it after realizing how expensive the project would be.
In 1999, the borough bought the mansion.
Preserving the history
Kelly discovered the house in 2004 after she enrolled in a certificate program for historic preservation at Burlington County College. The course required each student to research a property eligible to be placed on a historic registry and create a proposal for qualification.
Kelly initially chose White Hill Mansion because of its close proximity to her Cinnaminson home. But it wasn’t long before she fell in love with the house and its history. Even after she completed the BCC program, Kelly was still researching.
She then formed the Friends of White Hill Mansion committee, a group dedicated to preserving the mansion.
In 2009, the Historic Trust of New Jersey awarded a $23,345 grant for an archaeological study and preservation plan at White Hill, and the first archeological dig was held in 2011. The dig yielded more than 2,000 artifacts and several possible foundations of other buildings on the property. Only after the dig and preservation plan were complete could Kelly petition for recognition as a historical property.
In 2012, Kelly’s hard work paid off at the state level. White Hill Mansion was placed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. Part of the Friends’ efforts have included documenting and sharing the history of the property.
While many of the older borough residents remember when the mansion was open as a restaurant, newcomers to town often don’t even know the building exists.
A self-proclaimed “history freak,” Corrine Alvord moved to Fieldsboro, just a few blocks down the road from the mansion, in 2006. She stumbled upon the house on a stroll through the neighborhood, when she decided to venture down the driveway next to the black mailbox, hoping she wasn’t trespassing.
“I just wandered around the town, walking,” Alvord said. “Unless you’ve lived here for a long time, you just don’t know about it. I never lived here when it was a restaurant.”
Eager to find out more about the property, Alvord looked to her neighbors to find out what was going on with the house. When she finally learned about Kelly’s efforts, Alvord said, she immediately joined the Friends committee. Besides the mayor, David Hansell, Alvord is the only local member.
Now, she spends many of her evenings searching for information to fill in the missing gaps in Kelly’s research; she’s currently trying to find the burial locations of some of the home’s former tenants.
The Friends still have many more goals to meet. The final plan is to restore the house for use as an event location and historical attraction. Kelly hopes to restore each room to display a different time period of the house, with display cases showing some of the most interesting pieces recovered from the archeological digs.
So far, Kelly said, the restoration of the house doesn’t have a completion date. Though most of the house was deemed structurally sound, the extensive repairs needed—including upgrades to the plumbing and electric systems, and sorely needed cosmetic work inside and out—could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“If walls could talk”
Much of the mansion’s appeal as a restaurant was its location as much as its elegance. Tucked away in its private riverfront setting, the mansion frequently was used as a meeting place for local politicians and wealthy officials—and their dates. Mary Field’s former bedroom on the second floor was converted into a private dining room, complete with a buzzer beside the door (guests could ring when they required service) and, at one time, a bed.
The Glenks also turned the shallow basement into a full-fledged bar, digging the floor almost two feet deeper.
John Glenk, who has lived in the former carriage house next to the mansion his entire life, is the grandson of Heinrick and Katrina Glenk. He has many memories from when his family ran the restaurant.
He recalled meeting governors William Cahill and Richard Hughes at the mansion, and said the basement was a frequent meeting place for many other local politicians, too.
“My grandmother was a Republican and a Democrat, depending on who was in the restaurant,” Glenk said.
Supposedly one of the deals negotiated by politicians in that room was the construction of the NJ Turnpike and Interstate 295.
“The rest of the politicians, they would go downstairs, and there were a lot of deals,” Glenk said. “If those walls could talk.”
One of the most hushed scandals at the restaurant was one Glenk wishes his family would have spoken about. In the era of Prohibition, Heinrick not only continued to sell alcohol at the mansion, but most likely was a bootlegger, selling alcohol to buyers along the river.
At some point, his activities caught up with him. He was arrested and may have spent time in jail, but the trail of information died when Heinrick and Katrina did.
“They would never ever discuss it,” said Glenk, who noted how his father and cousins tried to pry out the secret, to no avail.
“They didn’t talk about things like that. Everything was hush-hush…it was bad to do that, it was against the law, and basically you’re a common criminal. And you’re supposed to be reputable people.”
Digging up the past
The 2013 archeological dig revealed a much more detailed picture of the property and how it might have been used over time, Veit said.
In 2011, archeologists had unearthed a stone wall they at first surmised might be a deep well next to the mansion. Upon further investigation this year, the archeologists determined they had actually found a cellar of a structure called an earthfast house.
An earthfast house, Veit explained, was a building without a stone foundation; wooden timbers were fastened directly into the earth, allowing for faster, though less sturdy, construction.
The house possibly could have been the first structure built on the White Hill property, Gall added, as documentation shows that another building was on the property before the mansion.
Veit said he also hopes to learn more about the Fields’ lifestyle from the artifacts found in the same area. First, though, the students must wash, analyze and catalogue the items, a task that will likely be complete in May 2014.
The cellar had been filled in around 1800, Veit said, so many of the artifacts dated back to the time when the third Robert Field owned the property. Wine bottles, high-end artifacts and food trays that were discovered in the cellar seem to support the belief that the Fields were hosting many lavish parties and seemingly living beyond their means.
The artifacts will also help determine what kind of food people were eating at that time, where they were buying goods, and show the status of their wealth.
Despite the wealth of discoveries the second dig yielded, Gall said there is still more to discover on the property.
“With sites like this,” Gall said, “there’s potential to do a new excavation every year and use those excavations to answer different questions about the property and its occupants.”
A future archeological dig remains a possibility, but hinges mostly on funding, Kelly said. The most recent dig was funded by Princeton resident Helen Crossley, whose father Archibald Crossley had been a resident at White Hill until 1911.
The archeological dig on the White Hill property ended similarly to the way the first dig had ended two years ago: with the discovery of a tantalizing piece of history just begging for further investigation.
In the final hours of the last day, July 6, Veit concluded that the team had unearthed a collapsed underground tunnel leading from the back of the house to the river.
The team broke through a porch floor addition behind the house to uncover an oddly shaped section of stones, in a pattern that didn’t fit the layout of a foundation. The small square of earth—which the team left unfilled after the dig in hopes of coming back for further excavation—was determined to be the side wall of the tunnel.
Veit had approached the idea of hidden tunnels at White Hill with much skepticism, he said, despite the fact that several tunnels have been documented in other properties along the river in the Delaware Valley region. In fact, similar tunnels were found at the former residence of Joseph Bonaparte in Bordentown City, now the site of Divine Word Missionary, where Veit had also done an archeological dig.
Digging out an underground tunnel would have been difficult, dangerous work, Veit said, but would have also provided an easy route to bring in supplies from the river, the main source of transportation at the time.
Bits of evidence hinted at a tunnel’s existence at White Hill—stone steps were wedged into the land halfway down the bluff, and a depression in the bluff falls in line with where the collapsed tunnel would have continued—but it was Glenk’s faint memory of his father filling in a sinkhole that led the team to the final dig site on the southwest side of the property.
The possibility of a second tunnel remains, too. The ferry and tavern house that once stood on the river’s edge was located northwest of the house, which would not be in line with the found tunnel on the southwest side.
An 1885 document from Joseph Mayor, which his descendants now have, describes Mayor’s use of a tunnel to easily access the ferry; Mayor explains walking down to the basement into the tunnel, which dropped him off at the ferry. Kelly believes, if there’s truth to the document, that a second tunnel entrance would be located directly behind the bar in the basement.
The discovery of a tunnel also hints at White Hill Mansion’s possible use as part of the Underground Railroad, which has been documented as running through Burlington City, Bordentown and Crosswicks. Kelly hoped to use resources from the Crosswicks Library, which includes documentation of locations along the Underground Railroad. Using descriptions of the locations paired with the knowledge of the mansion’s tenants and their political beliefs at that time, Kelly hopes to identify whether White Hill is one of the locations described in the documentation.
Efforts to restore the mansion are ongoing. One fundraising endeavor includes paranormal investigations held at the mansion, which are open to the public.
For more information, go online to sites.google.com/site/whitehillmansion, or search White Hill Mansion on Facebook.