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Historic Houses
The Ford Mansion
Which stands next to Mt. Vernon in historic interest
The Ford Mansion, Morristown, In 1900

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

THE house best known in Morristown, and to all students of history throughout the State and country at large, is the carefully preserved Ford Mansion, now owned by the Washington Association of New Jersey. There Washington and his military family lived from December, 1779, to June, 1780, as the guests of Mrs. Theodesia Ford, a daughter of the Rev. Timothy Johns, and widow of the gallant Colonel Jacob Ford, Junior. During that period of time-six months – a greater number of famous characters in the history of the Revolution stopped under its roof than in any other dwelling in America.

The Fords were among the wealthiest and most prominent families of early Morristown, and their home, erected in 1774, was one of the finest dwellings in the country. At the beginning of 1776 Colonel Jacob Ford, Junior, made a compact with the Provincial Congress of New Jersey " to erect a powder-mill for the making of gunpowder, an article so essentially necessary at the present time." The Congress agreed to "lend him two thousand pounds of the public money for one year without interest, on his giving satisfactory security for the same, to be repaid within the time of one year in good merchantable powder." The Ford gunpowder-mill did good service all through the war, although its owner died in January of 1777.

Visiting this historic spot to-day one finds no discordant modern improvements to destroy its old-time charm. The thick planked walls of the house are structurally the same as when first erected, and the aged ivy, which Washington himself planted, clings to them tenderly. Even Mrs. Washington's garden, with its glorious view of fine ranges of hills, where the prim little lady watched for the first daffodils and early flowers in the spring of 1780, is preserved with somewhat of its former Georgean quaintness. Inside the house, with the priceless treasures of hundreds of prominent New Jersey families, we can easily forget for a few minutes our modem life and environment and imagine it as the headquarters of the army.

During the early part of the first winter of Washington's stay, his family, as the childless commander loved to call his wife and his young officers, endured many hardships. In January we find him writing to Quartermaster-General Green, whose duty it was to provide for him, that there was no kitchen to cook a dinner in, almost no room for servants, and that eighteen belonging to his family and all Mrs. Ford's were crowded together in her kitchen, " and scarce one of them able to speak for the colds they have." When the weather grew milder these conditions changed, and the whole household revelled in the country, –: as much, at least, as they dared, for Morristown was in constant alarm over the enemy which never appeared. The head-quarters was guarded by a life-corps of two hundred and fifty men, under the command of the hand- some Lieutenant William Colfax, who, like his friend Alexander Hamilton, then courting Betsey Schuyler, married into the Schuyler family,* so prominent in New York and New Jersey.
Lieutenant William Colfax married Miss Hester Schuyler, the daughter of Casparus Schuyler, of Pompton, New Jersey. During General Washington's stay at Towowa, a few miles away, he was on several occasions a guest at the Schuyler homestead. An amusing story is related of her having made it a boast through life that she had never combed her own hair or put on her own shoes and stockings. Her eccentricities were many and varied ; she led her handsome husband anything but a peaceful existence. She had a violent aversion for the color black, and would not allow a black beast or bird near her home. There is a tradition that she kept to her chamber for a space of ten years owing to some small offence of her husband's, and when the time was up she came forth richly gowned, and drove to church in her great coach, as if nothing had happened, to the wonderment of the neighborhood.

From the old letters and tales which have come down to us we know that the ladies of the little army circle entered into the full zest of camp life. No doubt Mrs. Washington as the wife of the commander-in-chief of the army, in her draughty room and high up in her four-poster, exposed to the gaze of the guards by the windows, was happier than she was as the first President's wife in New York writing to a friend of her loneliness and the forms which bound her an angry prisoner of state.

In the middle of April the household was made joyful by the arrival of the French minister, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, and a distinguished Spanish gentleman, Don Juan de Miralles, representing his court, bearing tidings of aid for the colonies. The countryside was breaking away from winter's bondage, and a white world filled with suffering seemed to be only a memory, so great was the influence of the cheerful news. On the night of April 24 a ball was given for the foreign guests at the Arnold Tavern, then kept by a son of Erin named O'Hara.
The Arnold Tavern is still standing somewhat modernized on the west side of the Morristown "Green." General Washington occupied it as his head-quarters during his first stay in Morristown in 1777. It wa then owned by Colonel Jacob Arnold, the commander of a company of light horse, a detachment of which was on duty as body-guard of General Livingston.
Hundreds of candles shone on one of the largest companies that had assembled for amusement since the beginning of the war. The occasion was somewhat saddened by the illness of the Spanish envoy, who lay tossing with fever in one of the upper chambers of the Ford Mansion. He grew rapidly worse, and four days later he died. In the diary of Dr. Thacher there is a description of his funeral, which was attended with much pomp and ceremony. It reads:

I accompanied Dr. Schuyler to head-quarters to attend the funeral of M. de Miralles. The deceased was a gentleman of high rank in Spain, and had been about one year a resident with our Congress from the Spanish court. The corpse was dressed in rich state and exposed to public view, as is customary in Europe. The coffin was most splendid and stately, lined throughout with fine cambric, and covered on the outside with rich black velvet, and ornamented in a superb manner. The top of the coffin was removed to display the pomp and grandeur with which the body was decorated. It was in a splendid full dress, consisting of a scarlet suit, embroidered with rich gold lace, a three-cornered gold-laced hat, a genteel-cued wig, white silk stockings, large diamond shoe and knee buckles, a profusion of diamond rings decorated the fingers, and from a superb gold watch set with diamonds several rich seals were suspended. His Excellency, General Washington, with several other general officers, and members of Congress, attended the funeral solemnities and walked as chief mourners. The other officers of the army, and numerous respectable citizens formed a splendid procession extending about one mile. The pall-bearers were six field-officers, and the coffin was borne on the shoulders of four officers of the artillery in full uniform. Minute-guns were fired during the procession, which greatly increased the solemnity of the occasion. A Spanish priest performed service at the grave in the Roman Catholic form. The coffin was enclosed in a box of plank, and in all the profusion of pomp and grandeur was deposited in the silent grave, in the common burying-ground near the church at Morristown – a guard is placed at the grave lest our soldiers should be tempted to dig for hidden treasure."
From an old diagram of the Ford Mansion we learn that the rooms on the east of the main hall were retained by the Widow Ford. For many weary months her young son Timothy suffered in one of them from a gunshot wound. We are told that every morning as Washington left his bedroom he knocked at Timothy's door to ask how the young soldier had passed the night. And those who saw the kind attentions thought how beautiful they were in so great a man. The room on the west side was used as a dining-room, and there young Alexander Hamilton often presided at the head of the chief's table and convulsed the company with his ready wit. The east room on the second floor was used by General and Mrs. Washington as a bed-chamber, and the other rooms in the house served the members of the staff in like capacity. After Washing- ton's almost pitiful letter to General Green, a log building was erected on the east side of the house to serve as a kitchen, adding greatly to the comfort of the inmates.

All these quaint apartments are filled with the lares et penates of many long-dead Jerseyites. The great punch-bowl given to Colonel Richard Varick by Washington; rare Lowestoft plates and heavy cut glass once forming a part of Mt. Vernon's china-closet; the silver urn purchased by Hamilton when he had grown rich from his legal practice; a little tea-caddy given by Lafayette to some fair maid of the long ago, seem to beckon the passing antiquarian. In one of the rooms is a large collection of old English pottery, including many examples of Staffordshire and Wedgewood, and only excelled by a few collections in America. The many beautiful examples of the furniture of our forefathers, the rare antique chintzes printed from copper plates, and the collection of old prints would take almost a volume in themselves if adequately described.

From the walls of the wide hall and some of the rooms many brave and patriotic men and women of colonial days gaze peacefully down on the time-worn floor. There are redcoats, too, among them. Notably the handsome Colonel Tarleton, who is said to have caused a score of Tory hearts to bleed in America when he gave his affections to the noted Mrs. Robinson in England. (Mrs. Robinson, the actress and mistress of George IV., then Prince of Wales, is familiar to this generation in prints of her many beautiful portraits by Lawrence, Reynolds, and others.) All the delightful traditions we have heard of His Excellency General Washington tripping minuets with Mrs. Knox, of Kitty Livingston's witty squabbles with President Witherspoon of the College of New Jersey on his visit to Morristown, and of Mrs. Washington presenting her favorite officers with hair cushions and other articles of her handiwork would be verified, and other interesting occurrences we have no knowledge of told in addition, if the boards had the gift of speech.

Two oft-repeated anecdotes are related of the Washingtons when occupying the Ford Mansion. The first is of Lady Washington. Not many weeks after she had passed through Trenton, surrounded by her Virginians, on her way to Morristown, the most prominent of the ladies in Morris County resolved to visit her at the Ford Mansion in a body. Dressed in silks and brocades, they called in state, and found her ladyship" knitting," attired in a simple gown covered by "a speckled apron." She received them very graciously, but after an exchange of courtesies resumed her knitting. As they idly sat about her she delivered her famous rebuke, which is worthy of a place in history and has kept alive the story,-–:

American ladies should be patterns of industry to their country-women, because the separation from the mother-country will dry up the sources whence many of our comforts have been derived. We must become independent by our determination to do without what we cannot make ourselves. While our husbands and brothers are examples of patriotism, we must be examples of thrift and economy.
The other is of General Washington's enjoyment of the ludicrous. It was reported by General John Doughty, a revered name in Morristown history. He often told his friends that he heard of Washington laughing aloud but once during his stay in Morristown in the years 1779 and 1780. The exception took place in the spring of the latter year. Washington had purchased a young mettlesome horse of great strength, but unbroken to the saddle. A townsman and boaster, who made loud proclamation of his horsemanship, solicited and received permission from the general to break the horse for him. Washington and many men of the army assembled to see the horse receive its first lesson. The horse, capering and rearing, was taken to a field and there the man, after many preliminary flourishes, essayed to mount him. He finally succeeded by a leap, but was no sooner seated than the horse made a "stiff leap," threw down his head and up his heels, casting his rider over his head in a sort of elliptical curve. Washington, gazing at the man sprawling in the dirt, but unhurt, entirely lost his gravity, and laughed aloud so heartily that the tears rolled down his cheeks.

No one visits the Ford Mansion to-day without feeling a profound reverence for its early associations. Next Mt. Vernon it should occupy a shrine in the heart of every American, for there Washington hoped and suffered, and laid the plans which ultimately brought the war to a close.

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