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Digging Up History at the Tavern

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 14, 2019

Surf City — As you stand on a dirt road just off Route 72 in Barnegat surrounded by what is called the Pine Barrens and look at the fully restored Cedar Bridge Tavern, most people ask how and why. The Press of Atlantic City in June 2012 explained.

“The Ocean County Parks Department wants to preserve Cedar Bridge Tavern, which historians believe could have been the backdrop for a noted Revolutionary War skirmish in 1782. Cedar Bridge Tavern sits on wooded acreage in the Pine Barrens about a mile south of Route 72. To get a glimpse of the building, you must travel down a bumpy dirt road, deep into the woods. For about the past 50 years, bachelor Rudolph Koenig called the tavern with the long front porch home. Tim Hart, division director of the Ocean County Cultural & Heritage Commission, said Koenig lived at the property alone and had accumulated a lot of stuff. Ocean County Freeholder John Bartlett said the county purchased the building and land for $120,000. … Bartlett said the county is working to have the tavern included on the state and national historical registers.

“‘It’s part of the history of the county and the Revolutionary War, and it ought to be in public hands,’ Bartlett said. He said the county does not plan on spending a lot of money to preserve the property. ‘Given the economic conditions, we have had to cut back substantially in the parks department. We’ll see what we can do to bring the building up to code and better condition,’ he said. Bartlett said previous historical analysis determined that the bar inside the tavern dates to about 1815.”

The Ocean County publication Out and About explained part of the process required to have a building placed on the National Register of Historic sites.

“Contemporary historic preservation is a combination of the most sophisticated scientific research techniques with traditional historic investigation and is very much like the popular cable franchise, Crime Scene Investigation.

“Under the leadership of Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner, a team of highly trained experts from Historic Buildings Architects, LLC of Trenton, New Jersey have descended upon the historic Cedar Bridge Tavern to gather the technical information to prepare the official nomination for the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places and to create a historic preservation plan to preserve and adaptively reuse this historic structure.”

How do they make a determination?

“The array of scientific studies includes detailed analysis of the types of wood used to construct the building, paint chip samples, underground radar search of the site around and under the building, resistance drilling to measure wood conditions and moisture, structural and mechanical analysis, infrared survey of the framing and a  relatively new technique called Dendrochronology to study the age of the wood used in constructing the building. Dendrochronology involves taking a sample of a timber of wood and comparing the growth rings to a control piece of wood of known age.

“Preservation analysis also includes the examination of things as simple as the nails used to hold the building together. Knowing the age of the nails helps know the age of the building. The logic is that a building with nails only from the 1820’s could not have been built in the 1740’s.”

The nomination was completed and sent to the National Park Service. Part of the document pointed out, “Cedar Bridge Tavern in Ocean County, New Jersey, was built about 1816 at what was then the crossroads of two stage routes connecting Mt. Holly in (Burlington) County with the southern part of Ocean County. Significantly, the original section of Cedar Bridge Tavern retains its early 19th century bar, a character defining feature not known to survive in any extant Early American New Jersey tavern. It also retains most of its original interior floor plan, including bar room, dining room, and bedroom, along with most of its original doors, trim, windows, and fireplaces. … Cedar Bridge Tavern is also significant for its ability to provide information on 19th century farmsteads, taverns, consumerism, entertainment, Native American lifeways, and foodways in the New Jersey Pinelands region. Further archaeology study might also determine if the last land skirmish of the Revolutionary War was fought here.”

Finally, “A very limited test pit dug in the fall of 2012 discovered musket balls on the site, but it is not known if they date to the Revolutionary War. … Based on the intact nature of historic and pre-historic deposits and the identification of a crawlspace and other structural features associated with a possible pre-1840s out kitchen, the Cedar Bridge Tavern Site represents a significant archaeological resource.”

The official decision was made on Aug. 27, 2013.

“This property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places in accordance with the attached nomination documentation subject to the following exceptions exclusions, or amendments.”

The park service left the door open for further research, saying, “The precontact Native American resources discussed in the nomination may be significant and eligible. … Further, while future investigations may determine if a Revolutionary War skirmish was fought here investigations into such were inconclusive, and no contest was provided for these themes. If more information is provided in the future, the nomination may be amended to change the period of significance and add the context for an earlier occupation and association with a Revolutionary War skirmish.”

Victoria Ford was able to write for the county while still waiting official word.

“The Cedar Bridge Tavern in Barnegat Township, now believed to have been built in 1816 with a kitchen added on around 1830, may be about to secure its rightful and prestigious place on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the concerted work of a group of invested and dedicated people from several different cooperating agencies. The official nomination was submitted to the National Park Service in the spring, and a response is pending.

“The property is currently patrolled by Barnegat Police and Ocean County Security and monitored by several surveillance cameras. The site is currently off limits to the public without a County Parks & Recreation Guide.”

As the nomination was being prepared, the county had been busy.

“So far, about 10 dumpsters full of non-historic trash have been removed from the site, and a number of small items donated to thrift stores. The Park’s crew has ripped out Koenig’s stands of bamboo, taken out his satellite dish and antennae and taken down the trees that were growing on the roof. A lot of foliage and trees have been cleared to provide a fire buffer. … The building and surrounding property looks increasingly more like the 1938 Historic American Buildings Survey photos and report conducted by the New Deal Era program employing otherwise unemployed architects by the National Park Service. The report on the Cedar Bridge Tavern is online at the Library of Congress.”

The cleanup work had opened more of the property to the archaeologist, and in May 2014 Dr. Richard Veit and his Monmouth University students returned. He told the Star-Ledger, “In some ways, it’s a gateway to the Pines … kind of an early Jersey rest stop. … It’s rather miraculously survived.

“So far, the students have found thousands of artifacts, Native American tools, Colonial-era nails, buttons, jewelry and ceramics. Because their dig site is next to the tavern, they have also found the remains of food – including fish and snake bones – that may have once been served to travelers.

“It is a sort of little glimpse of what was going on at the tavern,” Veit said. “You wonder what was on the menu.”

The Asbury Park Press reported, “‘Our long-term goal is to (determine) whether a ‘Gateway to the Pines of Ocean County’ cultural center should be located there,’ said Veit of MU’s partners in Ocean County. … ‘I do think it is a significant site,’ said Veit of the tavern, which also may be near the area where the last battle of the American Revolution in New Jersey was waged, known alternatively as the battle at Cedar Bridge.”

What was it like to be on the dig?

“I had no idea what to expect except I was told we would be doing a lot of digging,” said Monmouth University anthropology major Emily Gill, 20, of Fanwood, of her first field methods of course. “And who knew where?” she said, laughing about the remote location. She also said she was not prepared for the physical demands. … “I tried digging a hole and I couldn’t. … I had to stand on the shovel to make a dent.”

Veit summed up what was being done, saying, “It is like an archaeological treasure trove. … It allows us to get into the lives of folks who might not make it into Garden State history books, who may have been overlooked by history. … This gives us part of a picture of everyday life … and the everyday artifacts they left behind.”

It would now be the responsibility of the Ocean County Parks Department to take all of the experts’ reports and artifacts and prepare the Cedar Bridge Tavern for the public.

Next Week: Today on a dirt road.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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